War vs. hoops: Life imitates sport, until ...


March 22, 2003|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

Bottles of Bud on the bar. The war - live! - on the TV.

Inside an American Legion Post just a grenade's throw from the U.S. Capitol sits a bearded, pot-bellied, ponytailed Harley rider who reputedly was once a heckuva Army Ranger. "What do you think about Iraq?" his drinking buddy asks.

"All I wanna say," he declares in a booming, broken-muffler voice, "is if they do it soon ... maybe it won't affect the NCAA tournament!" He lets out a big-guy laugh.

Well, they're doing it soon.

And it isn't affecting the NCAA basketball tournament.

In fact, so far, the United States-Iraq war has a decidedly Middle Eastern Regional feel to it. Just another first-round mismatch. March Military Madness.

Gulf War I, with its Scud Stud rooftop reporters and grainy aerial footage of smart-bomb drops, was a coming-attraction encounter. Now, the first combat-cam, spectator-sport war is unfolding before our eyes. On television. Right alongside tournament basketball.

Click. Fifty-four seconds on the clock. Wisconsin-Milwaukee on the verge of upsetting heavily favored Notre Dame. (Wisconsin-Milwaukee? What's their nickname: the Fighting Bratwursts?)

Click. An MSNBC reporter under an air-raid alert in Kuwait City, looking like a ridiculous talking fly as he does a standup with his gas mask on.

Click. Duke pulling away from Colorado State. ... Meanwhile, Wisconsin's ball, 15 seconds left, down a point.

Click. CBS reporter John Roberts bouncing through the desert with a Marine convoy, his specially equipped vehicle encrusted with fender-mounted remote cameras. Cut to shot of an abandoned Iraq tank on the right. Cut to confused camels on the left. Dust everywhere.

Click. Wisconsin player blows an easy layup. Game over.

Click. CNN military analyst doing John Madden schtick with a Telestrator. He draws three blue arrows pointing ominously toward Baghdad. U.S. has the ball, and the B52s. Time running out on Saddam.

We have entered bizarre, possibly enemy, territory, where life imitates sport. Retired admirals find gainful employment as battlefield color commentators. Embedded reporters do sideline interviews with ground troops who say hello to Mom back in South Carolina. "What was your mission today?" a reporter asks. Knock out an Iraqi artillery position, a soldier replies. He didn't blow the layup; the artillery position was barbecued.

The other day at the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington, 83-year-old Harris Bircher reflected on what it was like to read his own obituary. He was on the USS West Virginia on Dec. 7, 1941, when the sky exploded over Pearl Harbor.

Bircher's hometown paper in Dubuque, Iowa, reported that he'd been killed. His parents held a funeral service. Three weeks later, they learned that though their son's ship had sunk, he swam to safety. Bircher remembers running for cover and seeing a Japanese pilot bearing down on him, buzzing the ground with guns firing.

"You could see him grinnin'," said Bircher. "They just leaned out of the cockpit as we were running across the open airfield."

Harris Bircher survived Pearl Harbor. And Guadalcanal. And Midway Island. Pilots leaned out of open cockpits back then. It took weeks for dispatches to travel from the front to anxious folks back home. That was more than a half-century ago.

News moves almost at the speed of light now. B52 bombers light up the Baghdad skyline as if it were the Fourth of July, and we see it in real time. Check that: In un-real time. So far, this is video-game mayhem. No blood. No guts. Reality-TV glory. Almost makes you wonder if Vegas oddsmakers will be setting a point spread for the Battle of Baghdad.

If American tanks and ground troops do enter Baghdad, that will all change. The action will become up close and very personal. How much live coverage will the Pentagon tolerate? If the helmet cams keep running, will there come a point where Americans watching at home voluntarily turn away? Would the country have been better or worse off if there'd been a live broadcast from the beaches of Normandy?

A Marine was shot in the stomach yesterday. Real blood flowed from his wounds. His family has already been notified. No editor will be rewriting his obituary.

Thankfully, he died off camera.

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