In the gulf is the first that was ever covered...

THE WAR

March 06, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

THE WAR in the gulf is the first that was ever covered moment to moment live on television. It has given new meaning (( to the old phrase "theater of war."

It is a very old phrase, by the way. According to the OxforEnglish Dictionary, the word "theater" or "theatre" meaning "a place where some action proceeds" dates at least to the early Seventeenth Century.

"Theatres of valour and heroicall actions" appeared in a travel-adventure book in 1615. The OED cites this definition from a Nineteenth Century military textbook: "The theater of operations of an army embraces all the territory it may desire to invade and all that it may be necessary to defend."

Some people use the phrase "theater of war" today to mean that what was seen on television was a dramatic rendition, but not the true story, or at least not the whole story, and an arena for performers.

The most obvious actors on this war's stage were the televisiojournalists. Some of the network anchors hastened to the theater of war, after a quick outfitting stop at Banana Republic, ostensibly to cover the war better, but really only to make sure they weren't upstaged by the ingenues -- I mean correspondents -- on the scene.

But the stars of the network were not the stars of the theater. As far as TV is concerned, I agree with Alexander Cockburn of The Nation: "Journalism annuls history, never more so than in war, where it promotes a depthless present, most tragicomically in television 'coverage,' the reporters -- actors in fact -- having mostly as little relationship to reality as the Greek chorus in 'Agamemnon' debating among themselves what Clytemnestra is up to ('Is that a noise I hear?') as she hacks the king to death."

If the press was the chorus, the military briefers were the supporting actors. The military men who briefed the press were performing dramatic not martial arts. They came straight out of Central Casting.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly at the Pentagon was the perfect stateside briefer, amiable, deferential, bureaucratic, enjoying the give and take. Brig. Gen. Richard Neal in Saudi Arabia always looked a little uncomfortable, and with his desert camouflage khakis and 1945 haircut he gave the appearance of a man who would rather be facing the Iraqis from behind sandbags than reporters from behind a lectern.

We all know who the star of this theater was. What is especially heartwarming about him is that at last a man of his much-discriminated-against group has achieved widespread fondness and respect.

No, no, no, not Gen. Colin Powell. Blacks reached this point years ago. I mean Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. He is the first fat man to reach such heights since America came down with the health and fitness disease during the Vietnam era. Inside every thin person is a fat person dying to get out. Stormin' Norman says calories don't count! Avoirdupois is back!

Saturday: What to call this war.

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