Viewing the TV version of war

Dan Rodricks

January 21, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"I can't believe it," a woman said incredulously. "I mean, we're seeing a war on TV."

Well, yes. And no.

Yes, there is a war. And yes, the networks are reporting it. And yes, we've seen the frightening specter of innocent people donning gas masks. And we've seen pictures of communities in Tel Aviv that have been hit by Saddam Hussein's missiles. We've seen pictures of jets taking off and landing. We've seen Pentagon videotape of buildings and runways being hit by bombs and missiles. We've heard sirens wailing. To that extent, we're seeing a war on television.

Some of us are reading about it in the newspaper as well as watching it on television. The stories quote generals and colonels, who recite figures about sorties and missile attacks, and who give generalities about missions to destroy the "communication and command" arteries of Saddam's armed forces. We've read quotes from fighter pilots crowing about their exploits over Iraq. We've seen pictures of ground crews painting messages on bombs. If you compare wire-service dispatches from Saudi Arabia with stories filed by newspaper correspondents, they all sound very much the same. At least at this stage of the war they do. It is rare that a wire service or newspaper -- or television network, for that matter -- comes up with an angle or twist that no one else has.

There are several reasons for this.

The Pentagon's rules for reporting this war insist on "pool" coverage, so that all the reporting and picture-taking is done by a small group of photographers and reporters who feed their notes and photographs to the hundreds of other correspondents and television producers with the allied forces in Saudi Arabia. All of this reporting is reviewed by military censors. Under this formula, there is little wonder that all the dispatches from "the front" sound the same. It is officially imposed pack journalism, the worst kind.

But a lot of this is necessary in wartime. It is absolutely ludicrous to expect military officials to release information about strategy and troop deployments and other sensitive matters. What we're getting so far is: War, As Told To Journalists By The Men Running It. Take away the first descriptions of the bombardment of Baghdad by the few reporters brave enough to have stayed in that city after Jan. 15, and the live broadcasts from Tel Aviv on the nights of the missile attacks, and there is virtually nothing coming out of the Persian Gulf that the U.S. doesn't want to come out of the Persian Gulf.

So I go back to the woman who said she was amazed that she was seeing -- and, therefore, one presumes, experiencing -- a war on TV. It just isn't so. We're seeing the filtered, filleted and fragrant version of war. Part of this is due to the new rules of reporting, but part is also due to the new rules of warfare.

The stunning air strikes the allied forces have unleashed on Iraq, combined with the use of cruise missiles, raise the hope that the Persian Gulf war will be relatively short. The air strikes, largely unanswered by Iraqi defenses, already might have cut off Saddam's occupying army in Kuwait. According to the military command, the air strikes have destroyed missile bunkers, communications centers, air bases, roads, bridges -- apparently, they are quick to tell us, with great precision and little threat to civilians. This is New Wave War, the methodical dismantling of a foe's military machine by computer and high-tech weaponry. Satellites scout and locate targets. Missiles are launched from a ship in the Gulf, travel hundreds of miles through the Arabian night and destroy these targets. Bombs fall from planes that fly so high they can be neither seen nor heard. The war of the future is here. In this one, you never have to see the whites of the enemy's eye -- at least not so far.

The comparison to video games has become tired in five days of war. But, having seen the videotapes of laser-guided bombs destroying buildings -- having seen how these multimillion-dollar jets lock onto their targets and deliver massive blows -- who wasn't reminded of the games kids play in mall arcades? How many of us wanted to slip another quarter in the television set to see those successful bombing missions a second time?

The nature of this computer-guided air war, combined with the military's manipulation of the media, almost guarantee that we don't see the consequences of this modern war -- the devastation caused by more than 7,000 sorties, more than 200 cruise missiles, carpet bombings of troops in the sand -- until perhaps all the shooting is over.

So, yes, there is a war, and yes, it is being reported. But don't tell me we're seeing war.

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