Untold stories leave us with skewed view that war is glory

April 17, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- It isn't every day that a journalist kicks up a furor over the stories that he didn't report.

That's what happened when Eason Jordan, CNN's top news executive, celebrated the fall of Baghdad by telling prewar tales that never made it on the air. There was an Iraqi cameraman who'd been abducted and tortured. There was an aide to Saddam Hussein's son who had his front teeth ripped out with pliers.

These were, Mr. Jordan wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece, "awful things that could not be reported because doing so would have jeopardized the lives of Iraqis, particularly those on our Baghdad staff."

A mini-flap ensued. Had CNN made a deal with the devil in order to keep a bureau in hell? Had Mr. Jordan done it to protect lives or business? Did the stories that they could report justify the ones they couldn't?

Mr. Jordan ended by saying, "At last these stories can be told freely."

I understand Mr. Jordan's conflict. But watching this controversy, I found myself wondering more about the Iraq war stories that are now going unreported, or underreported.

Just a week before Mr. Jordan released "these stories bottled up inside me," someone asked a CNN spokeswoman why the network rarely showed injuries or blood or soldiers killed. She replied, "It's a news judgment where we would of course be mindful of the sensibilities of our viewers."

Isn't this also a deal with the devil, a decision to edit the hell out of war? Aren't we also jeopardizing lives by not telling the essence of war itself?

In the heady, relief-filled days since Mr. Hussein's regime toppled, I've been reading Chris Hedges' unflinching look at war and its correspondents, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Mr. Hedges is a sort of recovering war correspondent whose bylines stretched from El Salvador to the Persian Gulf war. He writes of war as "a drug, one I ingested for many years."

About himself and other war correspondents, he says that "the lie in war is almost always the lie of omission." Included on the list of omissions are the blunders of generals and the murders of civilians. "The horror of wounds are rarely disclosed," he says.

This surely has been the most covered war in history, with 600 reporters embedded with troops and 24/7 coverage filling cable channels. Journalists have taken great risks and suffered losses relatively higher than the troops they've covered.

Yet by and large, the central narrative of this war has come home as heroes and happy endings; the iconic images have been the rescue of Jessica Lynch and the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. Only rarely have we seen blood, like the blood running across a BBC camera lens recording the friendly fire deaths of 18 people. Only rarely do we read about a soldier who failed to save a buddy from drowning under a Humvee. Only occasionally do we see the image of an armless child.

"War," writes Mr. Hedges, "is messy, confusing, sullied by raw brutality and an elephantine fear that grabs us like a massive bouncer who comes up from behind." From time to time, we've seen that fear in the eyes of a captured POW. But the war we witness has been nearly bloodless. On television, especially, the news has been "mindful of the sensibilities of our viewers."

I am not suggesting Al-Jazeera as my journalistic role model, feeding only civilian victims to their viewers. At times during this war, that network had as much credibility as the Iraqi information minister who promised victory the day before he fled.

For that matter, I understand the "sensibility" that keeps the wounded and the dead a respectful distance from the lens. But the difficulty of showing pain and the reluctance to show death inevitably produce their own terrible bias.

As Michael Herr wrote about covering the Vietnam War in Dispatches, he "never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about." Without this, do the newsmakers, whatever their intentions, uphold the myth of war as noble? War, without gore, is glory -- a myth that marches to the next front.

It is possible to both share satisfaction at the end of Mr. Hussein's regime and remain deeply wary of triumphalism. I am not a pacifist. I share Mr. Hedges' view: "The poison that is war does not free us from the ethics of responsibility. There are times when we must take this poison -- just as a person with cancer accepts chemotherapy to live."

But how do we know, really know, that war is a poison rather than a tasty elixir of patriotism and pride and triumph? The question is left behind on all battlefields by the stories that aren't told.

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 ellengoodman@globe.com.

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.