Washington -- IF THERE was one television celebrity of the gulf war, it wasn't Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf, Wolf Blitzer or Dan Rather.
No, the undisputed TV star was that lovable, reliable, can't-miss Scud-buster, the Patriot missile.
Who can forget those glorious nights, watching on CNN as air raid sirens howled and Patriots streaked across the sky like Nolan Ryan fastballs?
Bingo! There'd be a burst of fireworks. Often troops would cheer. The next day the Pentagon generals would announce the perfect batting average by this U.S. technological marvel. Raytheon stock boomed.
You might have wondered, hey, if these Patriots are that terrific, why are so many Israeli apartments getting blown apart? Why did 28 Americans die in a Scud hit on a barracks?
Now, it turns out, the gulf TV superstar may not have been so super.
Without much public attention, a parade of defense experts has told Congress that the Patriots -- and other hyped U.S. weapons -- didn't work as wonderfully as Pentagon briefers and TV raved.
In many cases, ground damage and casualties increased when Patriots were fired. Lousy Iraqi technology and luck may have saved more lives than the Patriot.
"The shallow, Nintendo view of the war on TV was false," Pierre Sprey, a former Pentagon honcho, testified before a congressional panel this week. "It was created by hand-picked videotapes and shamelessly doctored statistics."
Tough words. There's already a growing disillusion about the gulf war -- a sense the glowing victory is tarnished by pictures of dying Kurdish refugees, U.S. troops in a danger zone, Saddam struttng.
But one unassailable source of pride was high-tech weaponry. Low U.S. casualties and dramatic Pentagon tapes seemed proof -- maybe we couldn't build TV sets or world-class cars, but made-in-USA laser bombs were boffo stuff.
The new, surprising doubts about the celebrated Patriot aren't only "the-emperor-has-no-clothes" stuff. But the Patriot's performance will stir a rumble in two weeks when Congress debates investing in a ground-based Star Wars program.
"People have gotten enthralled with spectacular fireworks," said Theodore Postol, an MIT analyst on the Patriot. "When you strip away the hoopla, there's isn't a lot there."
Israel was a cruel laboratory for the Patriot. After the U.S. deployed Patriot batteries on Jan. 20 -- a psychological gimmick to keep Israel out of the war -- the number of apartments damaged (9,029) tripled and injuries (174) rose 50 percent.
Here's what hot-shot military commentators on TV didn't tell us: Nearly every Scud fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia broke up into tumbling debris on descent.
"The Patriot operators couldn't distinguish between the pieces," Postol said. "When there was an intercept, pieces of both Scud and Patriot missiles inflicted tremendous damage."
Now we know why, as ABC cameras caught the scene over Tel Aviv on Jan. 25, three Patriot missiles were seen diving into the city. They were chasing chunks of falling Scuds.
Granted, the Patriot was designed to hit airplanes, not missiles. But the Army's stats -- 45 of 47 Scuds "intercepted" -- seem questionable.
Obviously, when you win a war with a 1,000-to-11 casualty rate, something worked. But questions about the Patriot missile are important. Those gulf war TV scenes left congressfolk so infatuated with the Patriot, they may jack up the Star Wars budget to $4.6 billion.
"The political reality is that the Patriot has inspired Congress to throw money at (ground-based) theater defense," says House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin, D-Wis.
Ronald Reagan's pet fantasy of an "astrodome" defending the ** country from Soviet nukes has faded -- nobody knows how to do it. But the threat of a future, Third World Saddam lobbing missiles at Capitol Hill may goad Congress into encircling the United States with Patriot-type defenses. Cost: $854 million.
I don't know whether the Patriot was a hit or myth. But before Congress goes bonkers over multibillion-buck Star Wars gimmickry, I hope it considers those Scuds that killed and maimed -- the fallibility of high tech.
What you see of a war on TV isn't always what happened.