Command central in America sits behind a remote-control TV


January 20, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

I don't know how many hours I have been up now, but I can't go to sleep because I cannot leave the TV set.

My arm is weary from holding the channel clicker and my eyes are bloodshot. My forehead feels feverish and as I watch the anchormen's five o'clock shadows grow darker, I rub my own stubble and feel solidarity.

Each morning I rush down to High's and buy all the newspapers. The headlines are bold and black and huge, and my blood races as I read them. I save each edition. I hear if you put them in plastic wrap and stick them in your freezer, they will last a century. I think I will do this.

I am way past sensory overload. I have heard so much about rocketry and bomb loads, command and control, sorties and missions, that I feel I could talk comfortably with the joint chiefs.

The president has promised us this will not be another Vietnam, but a terrifying flashback comes to me.

There was this saying they had in Vietnam: "The night belongs to Charley." It meant the night belonged to the Viet Cong. We could control the skies and the roads and the villages during the day, but at night, Charley always crept back to strike at us.

Now, in the Arabian Gulf, we have to wonder whether the night will belong to the Scuds. These are the Soviet-built missiles that Iraq is using.

Iraq has already hit Israel with them and has tried to hit one of our major air bases in Saudi Arabia.

Our planes seek out the Scuds by day and by night. But, according to estimates, the Iraqis have 600 to 700 of them and maybe 75 launchers from which to fire them.

If we get all the launchers, they can't fire the missiles, but can we get them all? Can we get them all in time? It is "use them or lose them" for Saddam Hussein. He knows he either must use his missiles or see them destroyed.

So as each night falls, we wait. And we watch. I watch on the commercial channels, and when they go to regular programming, I watch on cable.

During the Vietnam War, protesters in America struggled to "bring the war home," to bring the horror of Vietnam into the American consciousness.

Now, TV brings the war home to us each night. When CBS puts its special graphic -- a lighted gun sight that makes the cities explode into close-ups -- it makes war look like a Nintendo game.

Amid all the TV chatter (there is too much chatter) George Will said something relevant the other night: "Today there is no difference between the war front and the home front."

Exactly. We are on the war front. TV brings us there. We are safe, of course. The troops and the civilians and the reporters in the Persian Gulf face the danger. But we at home have more information than they do.

TV puts it together for us. It dresses it up with logos and paint-box graphics and musical themes. TV gives us the videotape, the skies lighted up by ack-ack, the missiles being intercepted live.

Newspapers give us the context, the analysis, the depth, the color and something to keep with us, to hold in our hands, to read when we want and then save.

But TV gives us the pictures. War up close and personal.

The phone next to me keeps ringing. This makes me angry. Every time I have to talk on the phone I must hit the mute button on the clicker.

What? What? What? I shout into the telephone.

It is People magazine. They are doing a story on the three CNN newsmen -- Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman -- who stayed in their hotel room in Baghdad and reported live during the first night of the American attack.

"You wrote a chapter on Bernie Shaw in your book, and we would like a comment from you for our story," the People reporter says. "Take two hours to think of something and we'll call you back."

I ask the reporter if she is also interested in comment on Peter Arnett.

"Do you know anything about him?" she asks.

Do I know anything about Peter Arnett? He was a distinguished (( reporter for the Associated Press for 20 years, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a famous war correspondent.

In fact, Peter Arnett is one of the most famous print reporters of our time. Which means, of course, he is not famous at all.

I remember being a college journalist and ripping the AP wire off the machine and seeing Peter Arnett's dispatches from Vietnam. But was any magazine interested in profiling Peter Arnett then?

Of course not. Back then, he wasn't on TV.

I go back to the TV set, comforted now that they are showing commercials and soap operas again. I know no great disaster can befall this nation as long as they are selling us Ty-D-Bol and showing us "The Young and the Restless."

This war is like a miniseries. We know the plot. We know the major characters. And we are waiting now to see how it will end.

Actually, I know how it will end.

It will end as it began. On TV.

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