WASHINGTON — Washington. MILLIONS OF AMERICANS watch from 9,000 miles away as Patriot defense missiles flare up to meet incoming Scuds in the skies above the Middle East. They track each swerve of the missile as intently as they will follow each pass in the Super Bowl this afternoon -- seeing each contest as it happens, with instant replays, analysis and color commentary.
Being so closely involved in both kinds of faraway combat brings out the competitive juices in red-blooded Americans. They want their team to win. They second-guess the quarterbacks, and itch to send in plays from the sidelines.
There is always an urge to help on the home front. In wars past, those who did not go into uniform donated blood, collected scrap, watched for enemy bombers and worked in munitions plants. Sometimes they made suggestions that helped shorten the fighting.
But even when the papers printed extras with block headlines about Pearl Harbor or D-Day, even when Raymond Gram Swing or H. V. Kaltenborn told about it breathlessly on radio, we never quite felt we were there in the middle of things. Ed Murrow broadcasting from blacked-out London came close to putting us there, but no news medium ever transported audiences the way live television does.
In the past 10 days, Americans have seen the fear in the eyes of TV correspondents as they watched the sky, as they donned gas masks against the threat of chemical attack. They have stayed with Cable News Network as editors in Atlanta talked with reporters in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel, getting instant answers over open satellite links. It has been a vicarious experience shared by the nation and much of the world.
Yet the very immediacy of it has been frustrating, too. If somebody in a studio can carry on a conversation with correspondents and military briefers beyond the ocean, it seems only right that viewers watching so loyally should have some input, too. And they want it now, this minute, the way Jennings and Rather and Brokaw do.
When this war was one week old, I got a call from a citizen in Carroll County who had been following developments with a group of friends, all ex-servicemen, and spotted a way to help our side. They were not focusing on the high-tech glitz of Patriots and F-15s, but on the tribulations of the foot soldier.
The evening before, they saw on television an infantryman in the desert, apparently behind a machine gun. He was unprotected from shrapnel. They thought he should be. They wanted to tell someone at the Pentagon to provide such soldiers "some kind of weatherproof material, like a miracle fiber, to cover him while lying in the sand."
Policemen, presidents and infantrymen have bullet-proof vests, but those don't cover the lower body. The soldier needs something simple, basic, light, no hindrance to his job.
I asked my caller whether what he had in mind was an old-fashioned non-miracle invention called a shield, but by then he was on a more urgent tack. He had tried to call in his suggestion to the government, he said, and found nobody home.
He had tried every number he could find, but all he got were answering machines and switchboard operators who told him to call back during business hours. He didn't want to wait.
His story reminded me of one written by my late friend, Charlie Flowers, when he was working on the Sun city desk late one dull Sunday. This was during the Cold War, when there were billboards by every highway saying, "Sleep Well Tonight, Your National Guard is Awake." Charlie dialed every Guard number in Maryland, dozens of them, and the only person who answered was a sleepy watchman at Glenn L. Martin airport.
But my caller did not stop there. He called TV stations, newspapers, Sally Jessye Raphael, at least 35 different numbers. Nobody wanted to listen, until at last he found me.
"We have all those smart weapons, but we don't have anyone with the human intelligence to hear something. . . . No brain awake to receive ideas except between 9 and 5," he said. "Trying to get an appropriate ear in Washington after 5 is mind-boggling.
"You remember what they say about 'When the Fuhrer sleeps,' " he said.
I didn't, exactly, but I got the idea. I also got the idea that a population used to seeing all crimes solved in 59 minutes minus commercials is understandably angry at being denied instant response. I could have suggested that my caller mail in his suggestion, but no doubt he fears the war will be over before a letter gets to Washington.