But as the enemy’s reluctance to face destruction in set-piece battles turned the war into a hard-to-measure grind, with its attendant effect on morale and military discipline. Reporters vied to get the latest disarray-among-the-troops scoop. By 1968, stories were focusing on drugs, racial friction among the troops, and “fragging” of officers, and Americans watched a succession of young soldiers, embittered by watching their friends die with little apparent success to show for it, stare with haunted eyes into the camera and confess they just didn’t know why they were there.
The sluggish pace of insurgency pacification and the military’s baffled cupidity, including the ghoulish daily “body count” that formed its only concrete measure of success, eventually compressed into one bloody-stage Marx’s dictum (Karl, not Groucho) that history rolls by first as tragedy then as farce. Associated Press Saigon Bureau Chief Richard Pyle eventually described the daily military briefings as “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd.”
What if reporters were as openly dismissive in probing Great Society programs? Of course, the Vietnam War piled up a very real body count, so perhaps it’s not quite fair to expect the press to respond as aggressively in the case of the War on Poverty, which was never a real shooting war. But that only goes so far in explaining the disparity in coverage. It seems fair to suggest they were also just more disposed to accept the government’s definition and examples of success for ideological reasons. There is rarely a shortage of support in the media for activist government, at least domestically.