19-inch Theater of War WAR IN THE GULF


One of the most heated theaters of the Persian Gulf War measures 19 inches, diagonally. Or perhaps 26 inches, with stereo sound. It is, of course, your television set which, conventional wisdom tells us, is the locus of the heart and mind of America, perhaps of the world.

There are many combatants in this aspect of the war -- the Pentagon, the Iraqis, the Israelis, and the three networks themselves as well as CNN. Each is striving to have its particular version of events paramount in the viewers' minds.

The situation is analogous to the quadrennial political conventions. These used to be big stories, in print and on TV. But gradually the two parties realized that if they kept the reality of political in-fighting to a minimum, they could put on a big TV show for the public, getting their message across with a glossy slickness. The networks tried to fight that -- they were there looking for news, not slickness -- but couldn't win and eventually cut back their coverage.

Because of the way this war developed, in a clearly delineated area with a deadline announced far in advance, television was as in-place around the Gulf as it is around the arenas that house the conventions. And those that would control and massage the images that emerged were similarly poised for the confrontation.

The hand of the Pentagon is, of course, the most evident. The vision that the military wishes to project through the screen is filled with the so-called "smart" weapons that never miss their target and with gung-ho pilots who strut with a "Right Stuff" style confidence.

The jargon is cool and collected. Soldiers don't fight each other, they have contact with the enemy. Our planes don't drop bombs, they deliver ordnance. The generals all have an in-control aura as they deliver preliminary damage assessments, complete with generic comic-book-like drawings of buildings and runways blown up by bombs, a nod to TV's demand for visuals.

The Iraqis are obviously much less sophisticated in their image-doctoring abilities, but are clearly still engaged in such an activity. The fact that CNN was allowed to install its famous "four wire" satellite telephone link that kept it in contact with its correspondents during the first night's bombing was indicative of this.

The Iraqis most clumsy and cruel attempt at media manipulation, the use of captured pilots' reading anti-war statements, backfired immediately. The coercion involved was evident on their faces and in their voices and the project was quickly abandoned.

Now the Iraqis outlet to the world is through CNN's Peter Arnett but, again, their lack of sophistication has shown through in his reports. Think of how laughable those workers' jackets with "Baby Milk Factory" stitched on the back -- in English -- were to an audience of Americans used to resisting the complicated manipulations of Madison Avenue many times every night?

It was silly, but it was evidence of the importance of American television. Those jackets were made for our TV cameras as surely as the signs of protesting Chinese students that were written in English for a parade through downtown Beijing.

The Iraqis might be getting better at it. Mr. Arnett now has a full crew in Baghdad and can transmit pictures of the destruction of buildings that seemingly have no military importance. The interview with Saddam Hussein was chilling at the least. Reportedly, more Western journalists are on their way to the Iraqi capital.

The Israelis, of course, are veterans of such media wars. The images from their country of Scud missile destruction, of innocent civilians in gas masks, of babies crying in gas-proof cribs, have elicited nothing but genuine and deserved sympathy for their plight.

These images are teamed on TV with the ready access to spokesmen, all of whom chomp at the bit for retaliation but reluctantly agree to the wisdom of restraint -- as if they don't realize that retaliation is exactly what Mr. Hussein wants. And perhaps just as importantly in the battle for hearts and minds game, they have completely displaced the previously dominant images from that country, of rock-throwing Palestinians and rubber-and-real-bullet shooting police.

But consider for a moment the relative importance of those Scud missile attacks. Certainly the political significance of the potential involvement of Israel cannot be overestimated, but realize that all the many Scuds that Iraq has launched have killed something like six people and injured not many more than 100.

This is to take nothing away from the damage the missiles have done, but clearly the military importance of that damage is far outweighed by their dominance of television coverage of the war. There's one simple reason for that -- they have been launched toward the TV cameras fixed in place in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Anything that takes place in camera range will have an exaggerated importance.

But beyond that, the battle between the Scuds and the Patriots provided all the networks with what they most want out of the war -- drama. It's exciting to see those correspondents fumbling with their gas masks, to see the streaks of deadly light across the sky, the sudden burst from the Patriots as they go after their supersonic quarry. It's live, right on your set, brought to you on television with an immediacy lacking from every other medium.

Many, many, many more bombs are falling on Iraq, but we don'have many live pictures of those, so the Scuds dominate our screens, and thus at times threaten to dominate the discourse about the war and its progress.

The other, more important reason that the Scud-Patriot duel is so compelling is that it's almost the only part of the war that arrives uncensored. Virtually every other image is selected and polished and accompanied by approved commentary. But no censor can stop the Scuds, so we sit mesmerized by their unpredictable appearance.

And those who seek to control TV's coverage of the war would do well to recognize that power. Eventually, it was uncensored images of Viet Cong attacking the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive that destroyed the carefully-crafted official American version of the Vietnam war.

Similarly, if this war spreads, control over its images by any of those involved will be lost. We will learn of smart bombs that missed and of cruel Iraqi mines that didn't. We will learn of pain and suffering and death and destruction.

The work of all the censors and filters and image-polishers and spin doctors -- who might be able to stay in control during a short conflict such as Panama, Grenada or the Falklands -- will seem not just irrelevant, but hypocritical and dishonest.

Given time, the battle for control of your television screen will be won by the war itself.

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