IF ANYONE had looked inside the meeting room, they would have seen a peculiar sight. More than a hundred people had paid to hear a lecture, but the speaker had stepped aside because of circumstances and instead the audience was staring at a kind of Frankenstein monster, a figure with a brown podium for a body and a small television for a head. Suddenly the head had a face, theface of George Bush, telling the nation it had gone to war.
We had always expected it to be the television war, and that is what it has been. Tom and Dan and Peter and the pleasant generic news readers of Cable News Network stared into our eyes day after day, night after night. No one could bear to turn them off.
But it is not the television war we expected. There has been precious little war to see in these first few days: magnificent planes, the occasional soldier, a few minutes of footage of what looked like a fireworks display shot in bad light.
And the talking heads: this has been a great windfall for retired generals. Once we learned that war had actually begun and Israel had been hit, there was little to discover except that Peter Jennings looks fresh as a daisy on a few hours' sleep.
It was not because of the press of news that we seemed incapable of turning the TV off. The television had become a kind of modern communal meeting place from which to absorb history aborning. It was America's back fence, the one place in this time of dislocation where we were all connected, all having the same sensation at the same time, even if the sensation was shame at thinking that a correspondent in a gas mask looked like a mutant bug.
The television war, they called Vietnam, and it was because it taught us what it really looked like, what happens before the clutch of soldiers hoists the flag to the top of the hill. It made all the ugly stuff real, the brutality and the blood. Red is the color of war. Jennings recalled the other day that General Westmoreland once complained in those days that the television camera saw such a narrow view. But it was wide enough.
The television hasn't had a view for these last few days; in truth, television has acted like radio, with still photographs of faces superimposed on maps. But action was not all we were looking for. Sitting in front of the television was the closest we could come to compartmentalizing the sea change.
The most enduring memory of my childhood is of a time much like this one, those long November days of watching the Kennedy murder, mourning and burial, in the blackest blacks and the whitest whites I have ever known. Before this, that was the most continuous television I had ever watched. Like this, it did not provide much news. It gave you a feeling of America sitting in a circle.
What Americans have seen these last few days is what they had hoped and prayed for: war without tears. The explanations of how this missile was picking off that one sounded like a grand video game of the sky. Fighting raged for three days, and the closest we came to seeing casualties was a crumpled van on a Tel Aviv street.
Everyone hoped that was because things were going well, whatever that means. Or perhaps it is because no one really knows exactly how things are going. Reporters are far away from the front, reporting from hotel rooms with sealed windows or basements where they crouch for safety's sake. The Department of Defense is taking pool reporters where it wants them to go, which is nowhere much.
So for now, we are eased into the unspeakable, confronting the concept of combat well before we confront its realities, an incremental process that can only benefit those who believe this is a noble endeavor. We see map war, diagram war, computer war.
The closest anyone got to something else was CNN, which has given new meaning to the term "intelligence network." For half a day it had three reporters in a Baghdad hotel room describing bombs bursting in air. But the Iraqis cut off their communications, perhaps because Dick Cheney said at a televised briefing that he was getting information from CNN. A television war, indeed. The Iraqis watch the secretary of defense on television reporting that he is monitoring the front by watching television.
A new age has begun. Our children will date themselves by the grade they were in when the United States fought Iraq. And as soon as we get accustomed to that, we will need more than retired generals. What we have seen in these first few days is a kind of primitive ritual made modern. When things are very scary, are afraid to be alone in the dark. There have been people and light in our living rooms. Don't confuse that with war, or news. Both are yet to come.