The living room war

April 03, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - On a famous July morning in 1861, about 500 civilians packed up their spyglasses and their lunches and drove their carriages out from Washington to Bull Run. They went to watch the war begin.

It is said that one woman heard a cannon from the distance and exclaimed, "That is splendid. Oh my! Is that not first-rate? I guess we will be in Richmond this time tomorrow."

I first read that scene with a small, superior shake of my college-student head. What on Earth were they thinking? Hours later, there were 3,000 Union soldiers and 1,750 Confederates dead. Did those naive civilians think that war was literally a picnic? That dying and killing was a spectator sport?

Now I am a spectator. I wake up in the morning and turn on the war. I come home, eat dinner and then watch the war. The hundreds at Bull Run are now hundreds of millions, a worldwide audience with a front-row seat.

Two weeks ago when the combat drama began, there was a belief/hope/assertion that we would shock and awe, and be greeted with defecting Iraqi soldiers and cheering crowds. The news crawl on CNBC stock reports read, without a hint of irony, "Futures up 120 points."

Did we think we would get the war without the hell?

War happens. I don't say this in surprise or with a sense of betrayal. In the Pew Center surveys, the number of Americans who thought the war was going well plunged from 71 percent to 38 percent - in the first week. They charted increased unhappiness, sadness, fear - "TV Combat Fatigue on the Rise" among the spectators.

For once I agree with the hawks and talk-show hosts who disparage the second-guessing. Imagine D-Day being subject to around-the-clock analysts. But many of the people who now condemn others for impatience are the very ones who promised a swift war.

It cannot be said often enough that what makes this war different from all other wars is that we are in it, 24/7, up close and personal. An administration so image-conscious that it brought in a set designer to create the television stage for briefings in Qatar also allowed reporters with cameras or laptops on the battlefield.

The choreographers also created a very specific role for our troops to play before the worldwide and world-wise audience: soldier as good guy, humanitarian, liberator. But we watch a narrative unfold that cannot be neatly controlled.

We learn about soldiers who put their lives in danger to rescue an old Iraqi woman wounded in the crossfire on a bridge. And we learn about a van full of dead women and children because, "You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn't fire a warning shot soon enough!"

We learn about weapons as precise as possible. And about a devastated market in Baghdad. We learn about a suicide bomber in one taxi. And three other taxis destroyed, with or without reason.

While Americans watch one channel, moreover, the Middle East watches another. Our coalition is their invader. The people we call "suicide bombers" they call "martyrs."

And all this happens while American deaths are still in double digits, before any chemical warfare and before any of our soldiers go into urban combat in Baghdad with a camera following the action.

Ernie Pyle, the famed World War II correspondent, wrote of his eagerness to get to the front: "I want to get close enough just a couple of times to get good and scared."

Years later, after he was killed, someone found a draft of a column written for V-E Day. There was not much glory left. It read, in part, "Dead men by mass production - in one country after another - month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer. ... To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn't come back. ... We saw him. ... by the multiple thousands. That's the difference."

Are we erasing the difference? The better to see war?

Remember when Vietnam veterans shared a bumper sticker, "Vietnam was a war, not a movie"? Today Iraq is a war and a TV show. Up in the morning, turn on the war. We are all embedded now.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.