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We’re off to see the war

Mar 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Honey, this war is boring. Let’s see what else is on.”
You could indeed see what else was on, but this was likely to be the only war, or at least the only “live” war: Gulf War II. It was said that one night’s edition of American Idol outrated war coverage, but that can hardly be blamed on the networks. Aided by a cooperative military, they’ve been doing all they can to stay telegenic, visually compelling, maybe even entertaining.
Have you seen ABC News Virtual View? Wow. It takes that infernal weather forecasting gadgetry a step or two further and shows you a war-in-progress such as has never been seen before. Hop on, strap in and off you go on a magic carpet ride over a desert battleground or northern Kuwait or Baghdad, to which all roads, real and virtual, lead.
Could we be watching the Disneyfication of War? After all, the aerial and nighttime photography and the smart-bomb films of Operation Desert Storm seemed pretty damn cool, but in the interim, the technology of televising war appears to have come a long way, the way motion picture special effects have.
We have digital war now just as we have digital everything else.
It’s impressive, kinetic, maybe even shocking and awesome: war as pretty pictures. One night Ted Koppel appeared from inside a green ball that floated magically in the center of the screen. It was more nightscope photography, grainy and green, shot in Kuwait but suggesting the Emerald City, or at least the Emerald Desert. Ted showed us an array of fireworks in the night sky that he said was video of artillery fire into Iraq. Oooh. Nice.
On CBS, Byron Pitts, who knows how to make any story dramatic-and this one, he knew, really needed no help-also materialized as a specter composed of green dots. He started to explain to us the special protective suit he was wearing and on that cue, the cameraman panned away from him, out across a barely visible horizon. Somebody had the sense to scream in the cameraman’s ear and Pitts snapped quickly back into view, continuing the tour of his clothing.
Then sirens went off, and Dan Rather told Pitts to hurry on back to the bunker, and there was frightening talk of something called “VX Gas.” This must be one of the few wars in history where the horror stories preceded the conflict instead of (or in addition to) following it. We have heard innumerable chilling tales of biological and chemical weapons that may or may not exist and may or may not be used against U.S. troops.
There had to be plenty of ironies in the midst of all this craziness, but one of the major ones was that the minute Saddam Hussein used one of the weapons of mass destruction that he had been claiming not to have, then bingo, that moment would mark our victory in the propaganda war. There it is, world, the weaponry Saddam said he did not have.
Ah, but what ghastly damage might the use of that weapon inflict? It could be a strange case for celebration and a painful lamentation at the same time.
Of course, if things didn’t go quite as planned, the administration still had the Fox News Channel to accentuate the positive. One of Fox’s reporters was rewarded with a particularly prominent piece of embedment. “Fox Exclusive,” it said on the screen, as a Fox camera and reporter rode along with U.S. troops moving deeper into Iraq.
“Things are going exactly according to plan,” the Fox reporter exclaimed. Detailing the military’s activities a few moments later, he marveled again at how “all this [has been] exquisitely planned.” Could Fox have perhaps “earned” this exclusive by being the most pro-administration and pro-war of all networks? Maybe the placement of the reporter and camera were exquisitely planned too.
For all the impressive video artillery at their disposal, the network generals still showed surprising and perhaps irresponsible restraint in allocating airtime to the war. On Thursday night, Will & Grace all but morphed into the abysmal Good Morning, Miami on NBC, with the war really just a distant thought-until Brian Williams got one minute, just one minute, for a Target: Iraq briefing.
Any given network will gladly turn over airtime to the war unless, and this is such an important “unless,” that network is dominant in the ratings of the night in question. Then it gets trickier.
CBS couldn’t wait to get back to the insufferably inconsequential NCAA basketball tourney, the NBA playoffs for amateurs. Somehow, though, it seemed the term “March Madness” wasn’t being bandied about quite so incessantly as in years past-perhaps because CBS feared viewers might have their own notions of what “March Madness” really was.
There is an irony, too, in that one may loathe Bush, find him personally as well as ideologically repugnant, laugh when foreign officials call him names, and yet still long for his strategy to be proved sound because of the stakes, and lives, involved.
Very early one morning, some poor cuckoo Iraqi minister held a kind of press conference in which he railed against the alleged aggressors. At least one network just let the ranting go on and on, and the more the man ranted, the more absurd he became, especially when he chose the outdated figure of Al Capone with which to vilify Americans. Apparently this guy never heard of Tony Soprano. Or even Vito Corleone.
For all the rhetoric we’d heard from the Bush forces about Saddam being absolute evil incarnate-genocidal and vicious and everything but cannibalistic-here was “the enemy” looking foolish and feeble and even a bit pathetic. One could almost-repeat almost-feel sorry for them, though not for their supreme imperial potentate.
At this point, there was serious talk of Saddam’s being either dead or badly injured. We’d believe that, however, when we saw it-and this was one time when a Virtual View wouldn’t do.