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The Ultimate Reality Show 

Scenes from the first days of war coverage

Thursday, Mar 27 2003
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Photos by Ted Soqui

Monday, 3/17, 5 p.m. President Bush gives Saddam Hussein 48 hours to get out of his own country: "Events in Iraq have now reached the final days of decision." As he delivers his speech, Bush's body, obscured by the lectern, seems unnaturally still. His arms hang limply by his sides; only his head moves. His eyes appear too small, too strained, too intent on reading correctly from the unseen Teleprompter, to inspire true confidence. He is the servant of the words rather than their master. Nonetheless, the words are clear: "In a free Iraq, there will be no more torture chambers and rape rooms. The tyrant will soon be gone."

6 p.m. During a debate on "Iraq and American Power" broadcast on C-SPAN from the Wiltern Theater in L.A., ex-leftist Christopher Hitchens discovers that it's lonely on the right, at least when you live in a major urban center. "You won't clap that," he mutters after silence greets Michael Ignatieff's claim that not going to war with Iraq "leaves 25 million Iraqis in jail."

9 p.m. ABC News cancels its regular evening programming to preview its upcoming coverage of the war. 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter is out; precision bombing is in. Some say Cutter, and some say Gutter, but Peter Jennings, former Middle East correspondent and the most sophisticated anchor on television, rolls the "r" like an Arab when he pronounces the word "Qatar." Over the course of the evening we learn, from various correspondents, that the upcoming war coverage will be "unprecedented in its combination of access and satellite technology" and that we may "see portions of this war in real time, as it's happening." The ultimate reality show is about to begin.

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Tuesday, 3/18, 12 a.m. Winston Churchill, former M.P. and grandson of that other Winston Churchill, has rosy skin, white hair, and icy blue eyes that are both intelligent and resolute. His forehead looks like the end of a freckled battering ram. In an interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, Churchill calls Bush's speech a "strong and reasoned and very reasonable statement," and says "there is no question" that Bush's policy of pre-emption is the right one.

French President Jacques Chirac "wants to humiliate America," Churchill tells Susteren. "From someone who is supposed to be our ally, that is unacceptable behavior." France has "massive" arms-for-oil contracts with Saddam Hussein and wants to keep them in place. "If you can't actually control and direct Goliath, then, [Chirac's] reasoning is, you tie him up in U.N. resolutions and votes and render him impotent. Fortunately, President Bush wasn't about to buy that."

I feel much better, as does Susteren, who goes all gushy and starstruck at the end of the interview, telling Churchill how much Americans loved his grandfather.

7:30 p.m. Welcome to North Korea, a documentary on Cinemax about the Korean zombie state, proves that when it comes to totalitarian control of a populace, Saddam lags way behind Kim Jong Il, the man Bill Maher refers to as "Li'l Kim." North Korea is so disconnected from the rest of the world it might as well be on the moon. The people are either hypnotized or starving. North Koreans live in hell, but are told over and over again that they live in paradise. Will we be called upon to liberate them next? Or could we hand it off to the EU? France? Germany? Japan? South Korea? Anyone? Hello?

Wednesday, 3/19, 9 p.m. Bush announces that hostilities have begun. There will be sacrifice, but there will be no half-measures, he says. There has also been an attempt to win the war before it has even begun by dropping cruise and tomahawk missiles into one of Saddam's $150-million, German-built bunkers. Good engineers, the Germans.

11 p.m. Saddam appears on television, looking rattled and wearing specs. It seems he has survived; if not, then one of his doubles has. Unlike Bush, he has a warrior's abrasive voice. Uses it to urge Iraqis to fight the evil invaders with their swords and with their souls. I knew the Iraqi army's equipment was outdated, but not that outdated.

Thursday, 3/20, 5 p.m. Fight at an intersection in San Francisco. CNN's Aaron Brown is unclear who is fighting whom and why, and I certainly have no idea. But people are definitely fighting. War is barely hours old and already the pro- and anti-war forces are slugging it out on the streets. Al-Jazeera will enjoy airing this.

Friday, 3/21, 10 a.m. First taste of "shock and awe," minutes after I wake up and walk into my living room. Three explosions in a row in a perfectly straight line. Hours later, they're still showing them.

7 p.m. Demonstrations around the world. ABC shows massed Jordanians demonstrating after Friday prayers, incandescent with rage. (Question: Why are Muslims always so angry after praying? I thought prayers were supposed to make you feel peaceful.) A Jordanian engineer is interviewed in his home, complete with Word for Windows for Mum and Dad and Teletubbies for the kids. The engineer spent four years studying in West Hartford, but after watching bombs fall on Baghdad declares himself an implacable foe of the United States. A sobering interview with former New York Times correspondent Youssef Ibrahim follows. The Arabs are seeing the same images we are, he tells Peter Jennings, but "they are seeing them through different eyes."

11:30 p.m. On Real Time With Bill Maher, comedian Larry Miller says that we made our big mistake with the Arabs years ago, when we told them what oil was. We should have said: "Ooh, what a horrible mess, let me get rid of that for you."

Saturday, 3/22, 1:30 a.m. CNN's Martin Savidge, reporting from outside Basra. My first taste of the marriage of "access and satellite technology" promised by Koppel. I am watching a unit of the 7th Marines fight a war, live in my living room. The satellite picture keeps breaking up and re-forming and never becomes entirely clear. It's like an Impressionist painting done by a robot, all hard angles and pixels rather than expressive daubs. The Marines are blowing up abandoned enemy tanks. Plumes of black smoke rise into the desert sky as they detonate. Parental anchors Anderson Cooper and Carol Costello tell Savidge to be a good boy and put his helmet on.

Sunday, 3/23, 7 p.m. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appears on NBC's Meet the Press with Tim Russert. Russert quotes a recent statement of the pope's to the effect that the man who decides to send a nation to war on the grounds that all diplomatic efforts have been exhausted "assumes a grave responsibility before God, his own conscience, and history."

"That's true," Rumsfeld replies.

"And you accept that?"

"Indeed." Rumsfeld then tells Russert that Iraq's borders are completely open. I have visions of half the Arab world crossing over the frontier to help out the Republican Guard.

9 p.m. Iraqi TV shows victims of the bombing in the hospital, followed by scenes, probably old, of a cigar-smoking Saddam and his war council smiling and laughing and sharing a few disembowlment jokes as they plan another devastating move of unparalleled military genius.

10 p.m. It looks like we're in a real war. American POWs are being paraded on Al-Jazeera, a Muslim G.I. has chucked grenades into a tent occupied by his own officers, and there have been enough "pockets of resistance" for at least 20 pairs of pants. Aaron Brown says that today was "proof that war is a nasty and difficult and heartbreaking business." One has the sense that a major part of the anchorperson's job these days is to re-introduce the American public to the notion that it is not always possible to fight wars without suffering significant casualties. The looming showdown with the Republican Guard in Baghdad — or BugDAHD, as the Arabs pronounce it — is on everyone's mind.

Monday, 3/24, 12 a.m. He's back. Dressed in fatigues, Saddam appears on Iraqi television to deliver a speech of staggering verbosity in which he entreats his countrymen to slit American throats. I wait patiently for a bomb to fall on him during his address, but no such luck.

11 a.m. The Russians are reported to have been supplying the Iraqis with all manner of useful stuff, including night-vision goggles, GPS jamming devices and anti-tank missiles; not to be outdone, the French send white handkerchiefs to help fedayeen pretend to surrender. A White House leak reveals that when Bush peered into Vladimir Putin's soul, the message inscribed there was written in Cyrillic.

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