WASHINGTON — Washington. The first news report I saw about the number of Iraqi casualties in Operation Desert Storm was in The Washington Post February 18, the 34th day of the war. The figures it cited, unconfirmed, were 20,000 dead and 60,000 wounded. It added that wounded soldiers were dying ''for lack of treatment amid conditions that recalled the American Civil War.'' The story was on page seven.
As of this writing, the Persian Gulf War still lacks its Mathew Brady to record the scene. And perhaps we will never have to view the acres of bodies incinerated in their bunkers or buried alive in the sand. But 80,000 losses by mid-February hardly seems unrealistic.
Obviously a wartime enemy cannot be allowed to hold his own soldiers as hostages. War means killing soldiers, and concern for our own troops dictates that it be done efficiently. America has clearly decided the cost was worth the benefit. But the way we have shielded ourselves from the cost being imposed on Iraqi soldiers -- human beings, after all, mostly draftees, with families -- is unpleasant.
Like everything else about this war, the spread of callousness on the home front happened at lightning speed. This is partly due to what a Post editorial called the ''Nintendo effect'': those tapes of exploding buildings that made bombing seem like a video game. It is partly because of the remarkably few American casualties. The other week I found myself saying, ''When the war starts . . . ,'' meaning the ground war, at a time when American bombs were undoubtedly killing thousands of Arabs a day. There's a lot we still don't know. But there is also a blinding moral self-righteousness that keeps us from seeing what's right there.
A little example of this process concerns a device known as ''a fuel-air explosive''. The FAE works, in essence, by filling a wide area with combustible gas, then lighting a match. A search through Nexis, the computerized news media data base, reveals that the FAE entered public discussion as something the Iraqis might have. It was described as a terror weapon: ''an exotic explosive'' with a devastating blast similar to a ''small nuclear explosion.'' Unlike Iraq's arsenal of ''chemical and biological weapons,'' reported the Los Angeles Times October 5, there is ''no ready defense against'' the FAE -- which, by the way, ''the U.S. does not have in its arsenal.''
The FAE soon acquired the moniker ''the poor man's nucleaweapon.'' The New York Times reported January 24, ''Hussein might be planning to use a . . . horrific weapon, never before employed in combat, known as the fuel air bomb, which spreads a circle of fire.''
A Boston Globe article February 6 cited a U.S. War College study suggesting that Iraq might have used fuel-air weapons, and not chemical weapons, during the Iran-Iraq war -- the implication being that there was little to choose between them. This article also said, ''Some independent analysts believe that both the U.S. and Iraqi arsenals include'' FAEs -- the first hint that the good guys might have this weapon.
The L.A. Times reported February 7 that the U.S. ''stockpiled exotic fuel-air weapons'' for use against Iraq. Some call them the poor man's nuclear weapon . . . ; others say the bombs ''pack about as much punch as conventional explosives.'' The poor-mouthing continued in the Wall Street Journal February 8, which reported that FAEs are derided by U.S. military technologists, ''despite outside talk they could be a super bomb's response to any Iraqi chemical attack.''
The notion that FAEs are so horrible that they would be used only in response to a chemical attack lasted less than a week. The Washington Post February 16: ''U.S. warplanes have begun dropping . . . fuel-air explosives on Iraqi positions to experiment .. with their effectiveness in clearing minefields or blasting away berms and clusters of trucks and armored vehicles.'' The New York Times ran a diagram the same day entitled, ''How Fuel-Air Explosives Work,'' implying that their only function is to clear minefields.
On February 17 the Post, having repeated that FAEs ''are employed against mines and light equipment such as trucks,'' added: ''Their fireballs also suck away oxygen, which specialists pointed out could lead to asphyxiation of Iraqi troops hiding in bunkers.'' An L.A. The L.A. Times February 17 reported that ''FAEs clear minefields, pack down sand'' and ''terrorize and demoralize'' enemy troops.
On February 23, the day the ground war started, The Washington Post reported about this weapon that at first we didn't have, then would never use except against a chemical attack, then were using to clear minefields and pack down sand: All of the front-line Iraqi troops have been subjected to extensive bombardment, including many detonations of 10,000-pound BLU-82 bombs, ''containing fuel-air explosives.'' But by then, who cared?
The TRB column appears in The New Republic.