The day our war became less than picture-perfect WAR IN THE GULF

ROGER SIMON

February 15, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- In the Pentagon Briefing Room, Wednesday was the day the Nintendo died.

There would be no videotape this day. No pretty pictures. Today was the day America had blown up a bunker in Baghdad, killing scores of civilians.

Earlier in the day, in Riyadh, Brig. Gen. Richard Neal had treated this as a military matter. "From the military point of view, nothing went wrong," he had said. "The target was hit as designated."

Nothing went wrong, except pictures of charred civilian corpses were now flashing around the globe.

It was like the old joke. The doctor comes out of surgery and says: "The operation was a success, but the patient died."

By the afternoon, the military men were no longer treating the bunker attack as a military matter. They were treating it for what it was: a public relations matter.

The Pentagon Briefing Room is a small, crowded place that looks like a TV studio, which is exactly what it is.

There are spotlights hanging from the ceiling, a few rows of chairs and a row of cameras, their black snouts swiveling back and forth like guns on a battleship.

Earlier in the week, the White House had blasted the press for asking questions about civilian casualties, saying such questions represented a propaganda victory for Saddam Hussein.

Today, the White House was not saying this. Today, the White House was willing to answer any and all questions. Just as long as the answer was always the same:

We don't target civilians. The bunker was a military command and control bunker, and we have pictures of military personnel entering and leaving. We didn't know there were civilians inside. And maybe Saddam Hussein put them there just to cause this fuss.

Those were the answers. But they did not stop the questions.

I arrived early at the Pentagon Briefing Room and took a seat in the second row on a hard, plywood chair. The regulars wandered in a few minutes later. The TV reporters sat in reserved seats in the front row.

A reporter squeezed past me, sat down, and flipped his notebook open with a snap of his wrist. "Today is the day we take the gloves off," he said.

Lt. Gen. Tom Kelly strode into the room, stood behind the lectern and began the briefing, as always, with the litany of war: "This is the 28th day of Desert Storm, with 514,000-plus troops in the theater. Sorties remain at 67,000-plus. No casualties in the last 24 hours. Aircraft losses: none."

But this is not what the reporters had come to hear today. Up to now, the air war has been clean and neat and surgical. The pictures released by the Pentagon show bridges blowing up just right and planes blowing up just right and buildings blowing up just right.

There are never any pictures of people blowing up.

When Kelly finished, the questions came rapidly from the reporters: How could we not know civilians were in that bunker? How come we could see the military going in and out but not the civilians going in and out? How come? How come?

"Maybe they didn't go in and out till after dark last night and we didn't have a picture of it," General Kelly replied.

There was a moment of stunned silence in the room. Maybe we didn't see the civilians because it was dark out? A fighting force with night-vision scopes and infrared cameras and missiles that are guided to targets with pinpoint accuracy in total darkness can't see civilians at night?

A note of incredulity entered one reporter's voice as he asked his question. "You don't have the capability?" he began. "Your explanation is you don't have the capability to detect the presence of individuals moving in and out after dark?"

"We can't detect everything," General Kelly said.

And that is what the whole mess boiled down to. Mistakes are made in war. Good people can do bad things with the best of intentions.

Our blowing the bunker was not an accident. We meant to do it and we did it and we blew it up just right.

Unfortunately, and we have expressed regret for it, there were many civilians in that bunker. We didn't want to kill them. But we did.

And maybe Saddam Hussein suckered us into it. "Saddam Hussein is the same individual who used poison gas against the Kurds . . .who pulled the plugs out on the incubators in Kuwait in the hospitals . . . and so while we don't know that he may have done this on purpose," Gen. Kelly said, with real emotion creeping into his voice, "we do suspect he would have been capable of it."

Which only served to raise more questions. How did Saddam Hussein know to have the civilians in there on the night we attacked? And if he had the civilians in there every night, how come we didn't know?

Oh, and one other thing, how about the pictures?

"Do you think it's possible that the Pentagon will be releasing the videotape from the planes that went in and dropped these two bombs?" Wolf Blitzer, the CNN correspondent, asked.

But everyone knew the answer before Kelly gave it. Everyone knows it is highly unlikely that we will ever see the pictures of our strike on that bunker.

In this war, the Pentagon pictures have all been PG so far. The military planners don't want any blood and guts getting on TV if they can help it.

Which is not to say they don't have feelings. They do.

"The fact is that it looks like civilians were hurt there," Kelly said. "We're going to examine our consciences very closely to determine if we can't do something in the future to preclude that."

It was the strangest moment of the day and, I think, the most humane. Our consciences are clear, Kelly was saying, but we will examine them anyway.

Which is, when you get down to it, what makes us different from our enemy.

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