Images of suffering turn on the passions

April 20, 1999|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- First, we saw the refugees. Fearful, wrinkled grannies, shivering kids with empty eyes. They huddled in tractor-pulled wagons, the way Americans once went on hayrides. They were a tide of misery.

Three thousand miles away, in a country with jammed shopping malls and a roaring stock market, our comfy prosperity was pierced by pictures of the war-torn Kosovo homeless.

Like a thermostat, the TV images turned up emotional heat for the refugees pouring across the Kosovo border, bringing new stories of atrocities: This must be stopped.

Then came the blunder. The high-tech war went badly wrong.

Now, we saw a little boy, maybe 12. He was crying, staring at a hellish scene. Burned bodies, charred limbs, debris of wagons smashed by a 2,000-pound bomb. One of ours.

A mistake, admitted NATO spokesmen. Collateral damage, you know. We heard the pilot's taped voice: "I saw three dark green vehicles. I roll in on two passes to get a closer look. I go in, put my system on the lead vehicle and execute a laser-guided bomb."

On Serb TV, whose cameraman shot the carnage, a government flunky ranted, "The aggressors are taking revenge on refugees." Anti-NATO Belgrade hatred flamed higher. So did power of Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic.

Each side uses the clout of TV images. Pictures are driving emotions. Maybe this is 21st century-style war, passions shaped by videotape. Before TV, horror rarely intruded suburban dens.

Fiery terror

Sure, newsreels showed London's World War II blitz. But we didn't see close up scenes of burned and blasted figures of Dresden, Germany. We didn't watch the fiery terror of Tokyo in 1945 after U.S. bombers dropped 1,700 incendiaries. Hiroshima? A mushroom cloud.

Vietnam changed everything. Cameras caught the burning villages. Later, CNN showed nightly Baghdad bombing. Iraqis welcomed pictures of a bomb shelter where an errant U.S. attack killed hundreds. Oddly, TV helped stop Desert Storm -- video of the Highway from Hell littered with burned vehicles revolted Colin Powell: Enough.

But there hasn't been anything quite like this war, where innocent civilians are props of TV drama.

On both sides, Serb and NATO, television controls the thermostat. The TV pictures have done something strangely novel. They've turned most Americans more hawkish than generals and politicians.

President Clinton edged into war like a nervous swimmer sticking a toe in surf. He'd bomb Milosevic, but no ground troops. Politicians were in a muddle. Talking-head analysts hemmed and hawed.

Then refugees streamed into our living rooms.

No Western cameramen could portray Kosovo's ethnic massacres. But those lost, terrorized homeless, who looked like suburban neighbors, couldn't all lie. This wasn't a war for oil or geopolitics, but humanity.

Shift in the polls

Suddenly, pictures turned polls upside-down. In the latest CNN-USA Today poll, 61 percent approve airstrikes, up from 50 percent. Asked if they know why we're fighting, 79 percent said yes. A majority of Americans were gung-ho for ground troops.

Compared with the bellicose populace, members of Congress were nervous Nellies. Defense Secretary William Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ran into a buzz saw of gripes.

"Keep our troops out of a war we cannot win," demanded Sen. James Imhofe, an Oklahoma Republican. Others groused about the lack of a ground strategy.

Amid confused bedlam, Mr. Clinton finally spoke with firm clarity. In a San Francisco speech and question-and-answer session, he laid out his vision: Milosevic must go, refugees must return home. Baby boomers would follow the World War II generation "by standing up to hate and aggression."

An editor prodded: Does Mr. Clinton, maligned by talk-show haters as bogus commander in chief, have credibility? "I can't control what's said on talk shows," shrugged Mr. Clinton. "I'll do my job."

"Did we screw up?" asked another, alluding to the U.S. bombings of a Yugoslav passenger train and Kosovo refugees.

"We've had hundreds of sorties," said Mr. Clinton. "You cannot have this kind of conflict, planes at high speed delivering enormous explosives sometimes against human shields, without errors."

Mr. Clinton promised no high-tech, bang-bang success. It would take months. And casualties. At last he found his voice, one in harmony with most Americans.

The TV pictures had jolted apathy. We saw war's dazed, hungry, dispossessed and decided: They're worth a fight.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 4/20/99

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