BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The article first appeared in Time Magazine in March of this year, and it broke the story of an incident in November of 2005, allegations that Marines in the Sunni stronghold of Haditha, Iraq, murdered Iraqi civilians to avenge the death of one of their own in an I.E.D. explosion. The original article placed the number of civilian deaths at 15, a figure that has since been upped to 24. The article spurred two military investigations. One will determine what happened and whether the incident was covered up, and the second will weigh whether criminal changes should be brought. For the military and the U.S. government, Haditha is still an open case. But for the press, it wasn't too soon to compare it to an earlier atrocity. Here's Fox News Channel's John Gibson.
JOHN GIBSON: My Lai, the name of the place in South Vietnam where a massacre occurred, a massacre carried out by American troops. For many people, the entire war in Vietnam came down to those two words, My Lai, and one more – massacre. The same thing is about to happen in Iraq, and this time, the name is Haditha.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The specter of My Lai has been raised many times this week, and it came up three years ago when we first spoke to then-Major Robert Bateman about the process of embedding journalists, then new. Bateman, who is a military historian, is now a lieutenant colonel in the Army, recently returned from a year in Iraq. He joins us now in his role as an historian, and not as an official spokesperson. Bob, welcome back to the show.
ROBERT BATEMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was the impact of My Lai in 1970, and what can we learn from that experience?
ROBERT BATEMAN: Today, we all look at My Lai as, okay, this is a horrible thing, and it was universally condemned. And definitely it was universally condemned by everybody who was opposed to the war. But even as late as 1970, there was a significant percentage of the population which was not opposed to the war, and saw the "trumpeting," as they called it, of My Lai as something that was being done as a political stunt. And there were pro-Lieutenant Calley songs and movements and counter-protests, disturbing as that is in hindsight. My Lai polarized the United States. A lot of people took what was a massacre, a failure of the military, and turned it into a political litmus test.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, when we first spoke with you back in 2003 at the beginning of the Iraq war, this is what you told me.
ROBERT BATEMAN (archival): There were only about 70 accredited reporters in all of South Vietnam. That was more than enough to change the course of American history and American public opinion. But it wasn't enough to stop things like My Lai.
BROOKE GLADSTONE (archival): So are you suggesting that embedding journalists with troops would somehow diminish the possibility for atrocities?
ROBERT BATEMAN (archival): I think it can't be helped but they would be greatly diminished.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Three years later, after Abu Ghraib and now Haditha, would you reconsider what you said then?
ROBERT BATEMAN: I would not reconsider it. I still think the embedding program was and is a large success. My only caveat would be that when we first talked, there were a whole lot more reporters, hundreds upon hundreds of reporters. But we're back to sort of the way it was in Vietnam, where you've got 70 or 100 or 150 reporters trying to cover the war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that having reporters at Haditha might have changed things?
ROBERT BATEMAN: Yes. Let me illustrate it with an example from the Second World War. Winter of 1944. The Germans launched a massive surprise attack that has become popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge. During that attack, a German column of S.S. troops committed a massacre of American prisoners near a small Belgian town called Malmedy. A couple of the men managed to escape, and several days later made it back to U.S. lines, and the word started spreading like wildfire. Not long after that, when U.S. troops went on the offensive all along the line, you would have expected the number of German prisoners taken to skyrocket. The numbers don't support that. I've had several veterans who've come into my class when I was teaching at West Point. When I said, well, what was your reaction when you heard about Malmedy, the veterans standing there, not batting an eye, said, oh, we just really didn't take prisoners after that -- well, we'd take prisoners, but they wouldn't make it back to battalion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No reporters reported that.
ROBERT BATEMAN: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what would you like to see the media do in cases like Haditha?
ROBERT BATEMAN: We won't know for some time what happened at Haditha. But I think that the media has already provided an invaluable service. It appears that Haditha was not being investigated until Time Magazine brought forward to officers at the Multinational Forces Iraq headquarters. And when they saw that report, they said, you know what, there's something here to be looked into. In other words, Time Magazine and journalism provided exactly the service that it is always saying that it does, but which many people dispute [CHUCKLES]. I think it's a classic case. This goes in the win column for American journalism as far as being a watchdog.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, as far as you're concerned, the more media, the better.
ROBERT BATEMAN: Yeah, that's my position, but then I tend to take a long-term view.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let me throw one more question at you. Do you think the media lost us the Vietnam War?
ROBERT BATEMAN: No. We lost the Vietnam War, the United States Army and the Marine Corps, particularly, with help from the Navy and the Air Force.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it is still widely believed in the military that it's the media that lost the war.
ROBERT BATEMAN: It is something that I continually fight against with, you know, my discussions with peers, with the things that I write in our professional journals. My profession is, and has been since at least Vietnam, afraid of yours.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bob Bateman, thank you very much.
ROBERT BATEMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bateman is in the U.S. Army, and he's author of No Gun Ri: A Military History of the Korean War Incident.