Another view of the gulf 'victory'

Sydney H. Schanberg

July 11, 1991|By Sydney H. Schanberg

WE HAVE partied and we have paraded, but as all can see, we have not put an end to the Iraq war and the "vanquished" Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi tyrant, still in power, taunts his so-called conquerors by refusing to turn over his nuclear weapons-making equipment. And thus the nagging feeling begins to spread sourly in Washington that, after all the celebrations and euphoria, the United States and its allies will have to go back in and do something to eliminate this man (whose rise to power had been assisted by the very same United States and its allies).

Put simply, the gulf war is not over. Also put simply, President Bush is having a hard time bringing himself to admit it. To do so would lay bare, embarrassingly, the hype and hypocrisies and stage-managed imagery that were at the heart of the U.S. war policy.

Over the weekend, I watched a videotape of a documentary that exposed all these warts -- Bill Moyers' "After the War." I had missed it when it aired on public television three weeks ago.

Moyers and his gifted team at Public Affairs Television develop two basic themes in this piece. One is the awesome havoc that this war and the forces it has set in motion, seemingly without foresight, continue to visit upon civilians who were caught in its path. The other theme is how the Bush administration controlled and deodorized the information emerging from the war -- and how the major American news organizations, the television networks in particular, cooperated in this prettification policy. And are still cooperating.

For example, "After the War" contains powerful footage that the American television networks have declined to show -- including scenes of the mass destruction from the "turkey shoot" on the road to Basra, where allied air power descended upon the legions of retreating Iraqi soldiers who had pulled out of Kuwait and were heading back into Iraq. Bodies and vehicles lie twisted and charred everywhere along the road in a long and winding ribbon of incineration.

Other strong footage shows Iraqi planes, after the allied "victory," strafing the Kurds who were fleeing north into the mountains after their uprising against Saddam Hussein had failed (an uprising that Bush had encouraged and then turned his back on). You see people running and hear them screaming '' as the bullets tear into the Kurdish throngs, who included not only the lightly armed Kurdish rebels but women, children, the elderly.

But perhaps what is most stunning about the videotape in "After the War" is the fact that all of it was available to the American networks and they have disdained it. For instance, Moyers' team got the footage on the strafing of the Kurds from Frank Smyth, a free-lance reporter who was working for the Village Voice -- and for CBS. The Highway of Death footage came from the BBC. Other videotape came from a documentary made by Britain's Channel 4, a commercial, independent station. And still more was obtained from Jon Alpert, a television journalist who was working for NBC but whose material was rejected by the network.

None of the explanations the American networks has offered for their supine behavior before, during and after the war holds any water. As the war loomed, they -- and the major print media as well -- put up the thinnest of complaints before surrendering and going along with the rigid controls imposed by the White House and Pentagon on press access to the Persian Gulf campaign.

When hostilities began, at least one television network news executive openly expressed satisfaction with the sanitized videotape being spoon fed to the networks by the military. When a Senate committee held hearings on the controversy surrounding the shackling of the press, the networks -- looking more and more like an arm of the government's executive branch -- chose not to testify.

Now, many months later, the country's media establishment would have us believe that it has woke up. About a week ago, top executives of 17 news organizations sent a report and letter to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney asking him to change the Pentagon's press policy. They said the restrictions imposed during the Iraq conflict "made it impossible for reporters and photographers to tell the public the full story . . . There was virtually no coverage of the gulf ground war until it was over." The news executives asked for a meeting with Cheney.

That's exactly what they did after Grenada, after Panama and after they got their first look at the restrictions planned for the gulf campaign: They met with Pentagon officials. The officials pretended to negotiate, while privately snickering up their sleeves. The news executives knew they were being stonewalled, but they had read the public opinion polls about the non-popularity of the press, so they rolled over. Now they say they want their birthright back. But it will take a lot more than a request for tea and biscuits with Dick Cheney to get the Pentagon to stop snickering.

Maybe if they started running the war footage they've been sitting on all these months -- the kind of stuff that Bill Moyers laudably gave us in "After the War" -- maybe then the Pentagon would begin taking the press seriously.

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