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[infowar.de] 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
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
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
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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