Rumors about gulf war result in captives on the home front WAR IN THE GULF

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 17, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The lady at the bank on Falls Road said the war was endin and wasn't it great? The man in line right behind her rolled his eyes and said it wasn't over, it was just a trick by Saddam Hussein.

It was 9:05 Friday morning.

The man at the drug store on St. Paul Street said he'd been listening to National Public Radio. The peace offer was a phony, he said. No way, said the woman behind the counter. She'd heard a diplomat interviewed on CNN who said it wasn't a final deal but at least it was a starting point. Nothing doing, said a fellow walking in the front door. He said a network reporter just declared that he'd heard from a United Nations source who had a contact in the State Department who knew somebody well-placed at the White House who was already poor-mouthing the peace plan.

It was 9:45 Friday morning.

The woman at the Cross Street Market held up an early edition of an evening newspaper. ''IRAQ SET TO QUIT,'' the headline said. The type was so thick and black that it looked like a smudge across the page. The woman said it seemed like surrender. The man glancing at the paper said to wait for a later edition.

It was 10:25 Friday morning.

The news, and the evaluation of that news, seemed to change by the hour and sometimes by the minute. Now you believe it, now you don't. The early report was that Iraq had agreed to U.N. demands that it relinquish Kuwait. Wonderful. There were a couple of network correspondents who seemed on the verge of enthusiasm.

No, no, came the later reports, it's all linked to the Palestinians and Israeli pullouts and hidden Iraqi agendas. Pay no attention to that man in the bunker. He's playing for time, he's hoping nobody notices his desperation.

For the first time in weeks, we became captives of our television sets again. On Friday, we shaved and dressed and gulped down our morning vitamins to the rhythms of the morning news shows and the telephone calls interrupting them.

''Do you think it's for real?'' asked a friend with two draft-age sons.

''It sounds like Saddam's trying to get his own people ready for the possibility of a surrender,'' I said, mainly because I'd heard the same words spoken moments earlier on my television.

We've learned to think, and to converse, through the filter of what our talking furniture tells us. We are what we echo. The television belches, and we say, ''Excuse me, but here's what I think,'' to people who may not have been listening.

''The timing is perfect,'' said a local radio newsman of my acquaintance. He said this when nobody else was listening.

''The timing?'' I asked.

''For us,'' said the radio man. ''People were losing interest in the war. If they lose interest, they start listening to music again instead of briefings from the Pentagon and the State Department. We're the oneswith the briefings. This will bring them back to us again.''

Once, I might have thought him merely cynical instead of realistic. But now I think otherwise. A week after the war began, I got a letter from a woman who said her husband was a patient at the Veterans Administration Hospital.

''Why is it necessary,'' the woman wrote, ''that the networks have to run the war all day long and interrupt my husband's soap operas?''

Not long after, the networks did bring back the soap operas and the game shows. The war went on, but nobody has recorded any complaints from viewers to drop the entertainment and bring back full-time war coverage.

As the interpretations wore on Friday morning, Brig. Gen. Richard Neal briefed reporters on the status of Iraqi prisoners. To a man, the general said, the prisoners were ''extremely tired of the war.''

So are Americans, but for all the wrong reasons. The war isn't entertaining enough; we get no dramatic pictures. You see one briefing, you've seen 'em all. You see one American casualty . . . well, you can't, actually. The military won't allow it.

The generals and the politicians learned too much the last time around. In Vietnam, they learned how to lie but not how to hide. Public opinion turned bitter. In the Persian Gulf, they've perfected the art of hiding.

Thus, the national attention span dwindles. The war becomes a kind of occasional drama whose ratings droop because they can't fix it into a specific time slot on a specific network, and anyway, there are few compelling characters and no surprising plot twists.

Until Friday, anyway.

For a few hours, people were actually talking about peace. A network anchorman reminded us that the war had been going on for 29 days and 14 hours.

''That's long enough,'' said the lady in the Falls Road bank line. ''Maybe they can bring all those kids home without a land war.''

The man behind her rolled his eyes for a second time that morning. ''And what happens if we leave and Saddam's still in power?'' he asked. ''He goes right back in, doesn't he?''

They turned to me, as if I might have an answer. But I knew no more than they did. So I rushed back to my car, and turned on the news, and listened for the latest update that might hold up for the 15 minutes it took to get to my next stop, and the next bit of rumor.

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