Television War, Live from the Pit of Hell

ELLEN GOODMAN

January 18, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

This is how the war began. Live on television with voices from Baghdad: ''Something is happening outside.''

There wasn't so much as a split-second lapse in time between the moment the bombs began to drop and the moment that the whole world knew. The words that will be remembered are not those of the president -- unblessed by eloquence -- but those of the reporters with their unscripted eyewitness accounts from a hotel window.

''Ladies and gentlemen,'' said Bernard Shaw looking over the city of Baghdad, ''I've never been there, but it feels like we're in the pit of hell.''

For once, all the sports metaphors that have so offensively colored the talk of war took on a TV reality. We watched and heard the outbreak of war, play by play. We knew when the planes had taken off in Saudi Arabia and when they attacked Baghdad. We even had the first instant interview with the first pilot who had downed an enemy aircraft. He was questioned as he stepped out of his plane -- dare I say, off the playing field? What next, instant replays? How will we cope with the injured players?

This instant war, this ''you are there'' sense, is not entirely new. We have crept up to it slowly, by technological increments. From Edward R. Murrow's radio broadcasts of bombs falling on Britain to the videotapes from Vietnam and Tiananmen Square. If there are fewer elegiac poems about war and more sober documentaries, it is because of what we have literally seen and heard.

This time, however, we have witnessed in the early hours the next leap, the full array of communication technology that now unites the world with shared information. We are able to know the same things at the same time. And this impressive unifying technology is used to show just how disastrously splintered, fractured, literally warring that world can be.

The contrast is astonishing. We have now the most remarkable high-tech methods of war and communication with which we can accomplish, and then record, our most primitive aims.

There is a cliche about space uttered by every cosmonaut and astronaut: The earth as viewed from a shuttle or capsule shows no borders between countries. The satellites, telephones, fax machines of modern life that link us to sons and daughters in Saudi Arabia or an air strike in Baghdad tell us the same thing.

It has become commonplace as well to talk about how technology has outstripped our human capacity to cope with it. We think about this duality mostly in medicine where machinery can keep us ''alive.'' We are able to do much more than we may want to do -- than we can even contemplate with the same tools of mind and feeling.

But in wartime especially, the rich array of technological advances stands in ever-starker contrast to human limits. We seem in many ways as overarmed by science as a child with an AK-47.

Information races ahead. Understanding creeps at its same pace. We are one world, courtesy of television, able to see what's happening anywhere. But the one world we see is wracked by tribalism. And what is happening is another round of murderous rivalries.

Like army ants seen under those astronauts' space microscope, we fight over turf. It seems that the end result of all of our technology is the faster expression of hate and the universal, instant, simultaneous transmission of conflict.

There are more than the usual dose of wartime ironies in this age of high-tech communications. For all the minicams and satellites, we are no more sophisticated at resolving conflict than in the age of the Marathon courier. What we have is a front-row seat, a minute-by-minute ticket to events at the edge of Bernie Shaw's ''pit of hell.''

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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