The role of military analysts on television came into its own 12 years ago during the Gulf War of 1991. In those days Americans had a choice among four commercial news networks: NBC, CBS, ABC and CNN. Each of these networks put under contract various officers to provide commentary based on their extensive military backgrounds. The individuals chosen for these positions ranged from the rank of major to the rank of general. Most had recently retired and most had combat experience in the Vietnam War. The networks had on average two analysts under contract. Even the one 24-hour network, CNN, had only two military analysts Major James Blackwell, U.S. Army, ret., and me) to cover the war 24 hours a day, seven days a week for six consecutive weeks.
Much has changed in the past 12 years, including the introduction of a major element of controversy which was not present 12 years ago. There are three more news networks (Fox, MSNBC, CNBC). In addition, the networks have learned from the experience of covering the Gulf War, the Somalia debacle of t1993, the Haiti incursion of 1994, the Bosnian War of 1995, the Kosovo/Serbia War of 1999 and the war in Afghanistan. Importantly, there are many more military analysts on contract to each of these networks. For instance, CBS has three generals and a colonel. Two of these generals are very recently retired: Joe Ralston, who just stepped down as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe; and Buck Kernan, whose last job was commander of Joint Forces Command in Norfolk.
What do these analysts do? As the war approached, they warmed up their contacts, studied the literature, visited the various studios to coordinate the journalists who are working at the "war desks," and conducted workshops for the network executives, reporters, producers and anchors. They also helped the network graphics and animation specialists so that aircraft, bombs and missiles as well as doctrines, tactics and strategies can be easily explained on camera.
Now that combat is underway, military analysts have to be quite careful not to give out any information which might endanger the troops of the American-led coalition or might assist Saddam in any way. This is especially important for military analysts who have recently retired and who still have lots of sensitive information in their heads.
Although the relationship between these military analysts and the journalists at the various networks is generally a warm one, this is not always the case. Let me cite two examples. Gen. Bernard Trainor, having had differences in view with a senior official at ABC during the Gulf War, was most pleased to accept an offer from NBC in 1994. A more dramatic example is my experience with CNN in the summer of 1998.
After working for CNN for seven years, I resigned as CNN's military analyst on June 14, 1998 in protest over the Valley of Death special. This special, which was aired on June 7, 1998, accused the U.S. military of using lethal nerve gas during the Vietnam War to kill American troops on the ground. The special also accused our military of massacring a large number of women and children. None of these allegations were true. A month after the special aired, CNN did a major retraction and fired both producers. Although all of the people who were involved in the production, marketing and airing of this egregious special have been unloaded by CNN, two recently returned to television news: Peter Arnett to MSNBC and Rick Kaplan to ABC.
A note of major controversy arose when one of NBC's military analysts, a retired Army general, criticized the war plan in articles he wrote for various journals and in his on-air commentary. He felt that there were not enough ground forces to do the job quickly and with a minimum of casualties.
His criticisms were picked up by many media organizations. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers publicly reacted quite sharply to this criticism on two occasions, as did many others including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Bob Dole, and Alexander Haig. By the third week of the war, much of this criticism had faded away as the plan was carried out with much success without major reinforcement.
Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, USAF (ret.) is the author of Assignment Pentagon, Rules and Tools for Leaders, The Air Force Plans for Peace and A Hero Among Heroes. He serves as a military analyst for CBS News.