Pilots interviewed on the deck of the USS Constellation yesterday as they got out of their planes after bombing Baghdad said they had seen things that they couldn't describe but "would never forget" as they looked into the inferno below.
It was not hard to understand their almost speechless sense of awe. You could feel it even just seeing the cataclysmic midday attack through the cool glass of the television screen in the safety of an American living room light years away from the actual horror.
The start of the air campaign labeled "shock and awe" was the quintessential television moment: live, large and so dramatic that watching it felt almost like an out-of-body experience. Television should have had no trouble finding its story yesterday: Just point the cameras down on Baghdad, and let the correspondents there describe their reactions.
But it took a while for the networks and all-news cable channels to get it. After investing so much time and money in getting their star correspondents "embedded" with U.S. troops, the commitment to coverage from those reporters was not one that was going to be quickly abandoned.
The more the networks went to "live" reports that offered little information from correspondents whose outline could barely be discerned, the worse it seemed. Until, finally, they gave up the mostly useless videophone reports from the field and rode the nightmare images of giant yellow fireballs and orange flames billowing against swirls of gray-black smoke, rising like crazed mushroom clouds in an abstract painting. Title it "The Wreckage of Baghdad."
Accompanying the images were the breathless words from correspondents down below. This is what it sounded like at 1:06 p.m. on NBC as anchorman Tom Brokaw talked on the phone with Peter Arnett, the veteran war correspondent covering the story from Baghdad for National Geographic Explorer and NBC.
Arnett: "There's black smoke across a two-mile area that we can see, Tom. Right in front of us, 10 major buildings have been destroyed, Tom, in the course of, like, two minutes. It's like [something] out of an action movie, but this is real. This is real. Oh, the rest of the palace has just been taken out, Tom. At least 30, 40 cruise missiles have come in at this point. One building after another going down, Tom. Whoow."
Brokaw: "Are you all right, Peter?"
Arnett: "Yes, the worst seems to be over, Tom, and I'm glad of it. So is our crew here glad of it."
Brokaw: "All right, we'll keep the pictures up and let Peter catch his breath and get his crew reorganized."
Later, Arnett would say, "This is bigger than the gulf war."
Arnett should know. It was his reporting for CNN from Baghdad during the bombing in 1991 that became part of our shared memory. That history added even more resonance to the words he used to describe this new tableau of such spectacular devastation. To find a comparison for the spell Arnett can cast with his words one has to go back to Edward R. Murrow's rooftop radio reporting from England during the Nazi blitz of World War II.
There was drama on ABC, too, with Richard Engel breathing so fast and hard as he described the explosions that he had to stop several times to catch his breath.
Anchorman Peter Jennings tried to fill one of those breaks by saying, "What we believe we're seeing is very careful bombing of specific targets ... 90 percent of the time."
"You just start wondering about that other 10 percent when you're here," Engel said, interrupting. "I really don't like the anti-aircraft fire going over this hotel, either."
For all the months of network planning, it was mostly last-minute scrambling that brought the remarkable images and words to American viewers yesterday. The pool camera that offered all networks and cable channels one static shot of Baghdad Wednesday night was largely ignored yesterday in favor of far more dynamic and immediate images from such regional broadcasters as Adu Dhabi TV and Al-Jazeera in Qatar (which carried the Osama bin Laden videotapes).
Meanwhile, neither Arnett nor Engel was working full time for NBC or ABC before the war. They were essentially stringers hired because of their willingness to stay on in Baghdad. They are the opposite of the embedded reporters trained and sanctioned by the U.S. military - the correspondents and anchors the networks had pre-cast as stars of the Iraqi drama.
Shortcomings of the embedded reports were brought into heightened relief when ABC went from Baghdad to correspondent John Berman somewhere in Iraq with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
"The situation [between Baghdad and here] could not be more different," Berman himself acknowledged. "We can see nothing. ... Off in the distance, we can see some flashes of light that might be Baghdad."
The producers mercifully cut away to take viewers back to the incredible drama that was Baghdad.
But within minutes, despite all the action there, they were back with Berman.
"John, go ahead and tell us as much as you can about what's been going on where you are," Jennings said.
"There was a little excitement yesterday. ... We had chemical warnings."
"Interesting, John," the anchorman said. "Well, it's nice to see you. Though, seeing you might be overstating it a bit," Jennings said to the shadowy outline of a person on the television screen.
But the embedded reporter program was not a total TV washout yesterday.
CNN's Frank Buckley interviewed pilots on the USS Constellation after they returned from bombing Baghdad. It was mostly adrenaline-fueled pilots answering his questions about their experience with such answers as: "My first impression initially was, 'Wow.'"
But Buckley did ask a question that needed asking: "Is there any emotion attached to knowing that these bombs are going to potentially kill people?"
It was some comfort to hear one television voice at least trying to bring the mesmerizing video-game spectacle back to human terms.