With war, all eyes shift from domestic crises

Sydney H. Schanberg

January 23, 1991|By Sydney H. Schanberg

WAR COMPELS us to be serious, weighty, solemn, grave -- or at least it requires us to don the cloak of those attitudes.

Look at all those noble speeches in Congress against tyranny, some of them undoubtedly sincere, some of them delivered by men who in normal times couldn't locate despotism with a Seeing-Eye dog but who cannot resist the convenient tyrant who affords the cheap soapbox of jingoism.

For some, war is a vacation from responsibility. Immediately upon its declaration, it pushes the myriad unpleasantnesses of peacetime under the rug. Whatever happened to the savings and loan scandal? The recession? The budget deficit?

It's a matter of room. Even in regular times, there's room on the the front pages for only one or two scandals or major events. You can't have a big earthquake and a recession and a visit by Nelson Mandela all at the same time. Something has to be rescheduled. Would George Bush have gone to war on the afternoon of the Super Bowl? Unthinkable.

Manuel Noriega has vanished from view. Donald Trump can't believe the good fortune of sudden media inattention. Michael Milken can take off his toupee now and relax. No one's watching. If we didn't have gossip columns, Madonna would have to consider stripping buck naked just to get a little ink.

As you can see, war is good for some, bad for others.

It looks to be good for President Bush. Grenada and Panama didn't quite erase the wimp factor. Iraq has annihilated it.

Moreover, until the war ends, and maybe then some, no one will dare ask the president about bank failures or his son Neil's ethical lapses or why his thousand points of light don't seem to be blinking. To ask questions about the homeless, about gun laws, about bankruptcies, about the environment at a time when our young men and women in uniform are on the field of battle is to risk being labeled by the administration spin doctors as disloyal or hostile to the flag.

But we know that good Americans can support our soldiers with all their heart and still wonder what our leaders are going to do after the war. We're just not supposed to do our wondering out loud.

It's pretty old stuff for scoundrels to take advantage of a war to divert us from other national problems or from their own knavery or shallowness. We like to pretend this happens only in dictatorships or in small, backward nations. But from time to time, some of it is recognizable in our own democratic back yard. Like now.

There's nothing intrinsically bad about the war dominating our newspapers and television and radio. The domination isn't what distresses; it's the lack of hard information in the reams of words and images. This is because it's being filtered through censors, not least the Pentagon censors.

All of us understand the need for controls on war information, to protect the security of U.S. personnel. Too many of the controls, though, have to do not with security, but rather with that hangover from Vietnam about the press telling the American people at home too much about what war is like. But isn't that what the public deserves to know, even if chiefs of staff find that this sometimes makes their job politically more difficult?

Democracies are always more difficult. Dictatorships are the supremely efficient form.

What's missing from the Pentagon reports becomes more and more obvious. For example, the military spokesmen tell us that 80 percent of the bombing sorties have been successful, but they have so far declined to give us a bomb-damage assessment. And they barely speak at all about the eight-engine B-52 Stratofortresses, which can drop 30 tons of bombs at a time on enemy troop concentrations. The reason: B-52s are an image from Vietnam, and the generals would like to erase all such images.

We've got to learn to make room for more images and more stories, even in wartime, when the temptation is to shove so much of the news under the rug.


Sidney H. Schanberg is a columnist for New York Newsday. Beware approved news and government censored reports

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