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Good news used as camouflage for U.S. deaths


The generals are getting very good at giving us the good news.

They are getting very good at giving us the splendid statistics and the snappy videotape.

On the day America recorded its first ground combat losses in the Persian Gulf -- 11 Marines killed following an Iraqi offensive -- the American generals in Saudi Arabia gave a very extensive briefing.

They provided more positive data and more attractive pictures than they had ever done before. It seemed almost as if they had learned what the politicians have long known: When there is bad news to present, flood the press with good news.

And there was good news. Plenty of it. Plenty of good pictures and exciting images of our victories.

There were no pictures, however, of our losses. There was no videotape of American dead or wounded.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, standing in his camouflage uniform and combat boots on the plush carpeting of the Hyatt Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is a good picture all by himself. While it may be somewhat counterproductive to be in desert camouflage in a luxury hotel, it does make for good TV. We want our warriors to look like warriors.

Schwarzkopf began his briefing with a flurry of positive statistics and stunning videotape. The tape showed pictures of 2,000-pound bombs hitting Iraqi aircraft bunkers and blowing the hell out of them. "I'd like to now show you a little film of the destruction of the bridges," General Schwarzkopf said.

But wasn't there some bigger news from the war this day? Didn't we have some Marines killed? Some Marines wounded? And didn't we have the curious situation of the allied troops, who have gathered to force Iraq out of Kuwait, now having to force Iraq out of Saudi Arabia?

But, wait, wait, we'll get to that. Plenty of time for that. We still have more good news to deal with. Schwarzkopf wanted to share some "anecdotal information that would also demonstrate that we're being very effective."

Some Iraqi soldiers are not only down to "a bowl of rice or a bowl of beans" per day, the general said, but "have no water in which to bathe and, as a result, many of the enemy prisoners of war that we've taken are infested with body lice, and many of them have open sores on their body."

And how typically American it is to impose our cultural norms on the people we fight. That's why we were surprised at how little food Japanese troops could survive on in World War II. And how poor the conditions were for the Viet Cong in Vietnam, forced to live underground in bunkers -- where they had no showers! -- but who managed to pop up and fight quite well.

So now the Iraqis are dirty. They are hungry. And they are getting pounded by our B-52s. "Yesterday, 21 B-52s dropped 470 tons, excuse me, 315 tons of bombs on them, and today 28 B-52s dropped 470 tons on them," Schwarzkopf said. And "the Navy has done a great job supporting the air campaign. . . . Chart 7, please."

It was only after 23 minutes of this that we got to the bad news: In spite of our smart bombs, in spite of our B-52s, in spite of the fact these guys have lice, Iraqi forces managed to go onto the offensive, invade Saudi territory and kill American troops.

Not that the general wanted to put it quite that bluntly.

"The Marines lost two light armored vehicles -- unfortunately, I'm very sad to report to you that they lost 12 [later changed to 11] KIA in that engagement and two WIA," Schwarzkopf said. "These are the first casualties of any ground conflict -- and the first KIA of any ground conflict."

In case you are not yet up on your military acronyms (and you soon will be), KIA means Killed in Action and WIA means Wounded in Action.

But, hey, let's not dwell on this. Let's get back to the good news. And in the very next breath, Schwarzkopf said, "Now, I want to turn finally to Scuds, another subject that has been prominent in everyone's minds. As I told you before, I think Scuds are militarily insignificant."

Then there was another chart. Then videotape of Iraqi planes being shot down.

There were no pictures of American planes being shot down, though this has happened. And there were no pictures of the combat that resulted in American losses in northern Saudi Arabia.

This was no accident. Different people drew different lessons from Vietnam. The lesson the military drew is that the press turned the public against the Vietnam War by broadcasting pictures of American troops being killed and wounded.

And so the generals do not want the American public getting such pictures this time.

"The guys who are generals today were majors and colonels in Vietnam, and they were the ones who hated the press most," Winant Sidle, a retired Army general who was the last military spokesman in Saigon, told the New York Times.

Everyone understands why the military has to keep certain information from the public because it would endanger our troops. And everyone agrees with that.

But that is only part of what is being kept from the public. The other part of what is being kept from us is the true horror of war when that horror involves the loss of American life or American suffering.

The military wants to keep us happy about and supportive of this war.

And it doesn't want any bad pictures getting in the way.

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