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[] NYT 23.03.03: Show of Awe: A Thrill Ride, but No Blood,

March 23, 2003
Show of Awe: A Thrill Ride, but No Blood

In the swirl of confusing facts, the first scenes of the invasion of Iraq 
were astonishingly clear. Television did more than bring viewers closer to 
the front lines of battle than ever before, however. It looked at warfare 
through an entirely new prism.

Television cameras' usual route to battle is the trail left by its victims. 
Whether in Kosovo, Israel, Chechnya or Afghanistan, combat is mostly 
conveyed by shots of a crowded refugee tent or a collapsed high-rise, a 
bloodied sidewalk, a full hospital ward or an open grave.

This time, the Pentagon took viewers on a thrilling ride-along with the 
warriors. Videophones, portable satellites and night-sight scopes brought 
the world a riveting display of American power, but it was a sanitized 
look, showing a little sweat, not blood and tears.

"What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq," Secretary of Defense Donald H. 
Rumsfeld warned Pentagon reporters on Friday. "What we're seeing are slices 
of the war in Iraq."

Different slices began to emerge as American and British troops drew closer 
to the capital and met scattered resistance; in Baghdad, camera crews were 
able to pan signs of destruction after a second night of intense bombing. 
But in the opening moments of the war, 24-hour cable news shows and network 
newscasts seemed almost drunk with their access, filling television screens 
with astonishing images. The mushroom clouds rising from bombed government 
buildings in Baghdad were shown over and over, as were the tableaus of a 
marine tearing down a poster of Saddam Hussein surrounded by a handful of 
cheering Iraqi villagers. Columns of advancing coalition tanks were 
counterposed against columns of surrendered Iraqi soldiers marching.
The NBC correspondent David Bloom, in helmet, bulletproof vest and 
sunglasses, delivered reports live on the move from a specially designed 
armored vehicle. Others hollered updates from the flight decks of aircraft 
carriers, and even through gas masks.

A few seemed so caught up in the adrenaline of battle and the thrill of 
access they sounded like sports reporters on the sidelines of the Super Bowl.

"How do you feel about your performance tonight?" Frank Buckley of CNN, 
assigned to the aircraft carrier Constellation, asked a pilot who had just 
returned from a bombing mission over Baghdad. The pilot replied that he was 
just glad everyone had returned unharmed.

In the newsroom studios, anchors and commentators adjusted their tone to 
wartime solemnity, focusing on the worry and grief of family members and 
filming the yellow ribbons tied to trees in small towns. The American flags 
that went up on MSNBC's screen after Sept. 11, 2001, returned (they never 
left Fox News). Antiwar protests in the United States and throughout the 
Arab world were shown far more fleetingly.

Viewers saw many touching portraits of hard-working reporters and dedicated 
young military personnel. They saw and heard the relatives of killed 
servicemen, some expressing anger, others bereft but proud. They heard 
anchors urging their correspondents to stay safe, and correspondents 
wishing soldiers well.

What they generally did not see in the first phase of the invasion of Iraq 
were very many Iraqis.

"When I looked at the news on television, it did not look like anyone had 
been killed or was in danger of being killed," Amelie Hastie, a professor 
of film and digital media at the University of California at Santa Cruz. 
"It didn't look like anybody was even living in Iraq."

There were practical reasons: once the bombing began, camera crews in 
Baghdad had almost no opportunity to roam the nearly deserted streets. 
Troops making their way through the desert on the way to Baghdad saw few 
signs of civilian life.

"This is the biggest, ugliest desert I've seen in my life," Ted Koppel told 
Peter Jennings on a special extended ABC newscast on Friday night. He said 
his convoy had made no contact with the enemy, "only a few Bedouins and 
their sheep."

Refugee camps, a staple of war reporting in other conflicts, paled next to 
the images of high-tech weaponry blazing in real time.
Television also has a way of freeze-framing the deceptive beauty of war ? 
the red and gold of burning government buildings along the Tigris River was 
almost painterly, like a sunset by Sisley.

Some observers seeking to comprehend the tactics of the war argued that the 
proliferation of dramatic war images was more confusing than helpful.

"There is this fetish that only immediate proximity to war allows you to 
understand what is going on," Fredric Smoler, a professor of literature and 
military history at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, said. "What looks 
on television like orderly control could be something else entirely, like 
Fabrizio in the Charterhouse of Parma," referring to Stendhal's 
glory-seeking hero who joined Napoleon's army and stumbled unknowingly 
though what turned out to be the battle of Waterloo.

"If the alternative is still pictures with a correspondent's radio voice, 
then what technology and embedded journalists has given us is a window that 
is authentic and real," said Dorrance Smith, who has worked as a producer 
at ABC and as an adviser in both Bush administrations. "It serves the 
journalists and the military's interests."

Even as reports of American and British casualties grew, death has not been 
very evident on television in these early days. Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, a 
military contributor to Fox News, was in a marine helicopter flying near 
the Ch-46E Sea Knight helicopter that crashed near the Iraqi border, 
killing four American and eight British soldiers. Colonel North told 
viewers he gave a tape to the Pentagon crash investigators, and said he 
would not show what he called "a Fox exclusive" until United States and 
British military authorities had notified all the family members and given 
him the all-clear.

"Even with this degree of access, television cannot ever adequately convey 
the sheer brute force of war, the noise and utter violence," the NBC anchor 
Tom Brokaw said by telephone during a break in his newscast on Friday 
night. "It somehow gets filtered through the TV screen, and that's probably 
just as well."

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