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The Television War 

Thursday, Apr 3 2003
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If the first 10 days of the war had been a tennis match, the score would have been 6-0, 6-1, 6-0. And yet, listening to much of the commentary about it on television and elsewhere, you’d have thought that every set had ended in a tiebreaker with the plucky Iraqi underdog pushing the pampered infidel overdog to the point of exhausted, red-faced collapse. And that was on American television. Imagine what it was like on Al-Jazeera.

This war, with its multichannel, multinational perspectives, is turning out to be a moral relativist’s wet dream. (CNN is just so March 18; the cool people all get their news from Hezbollah TV now.) Which is a pity, really. On one side you have a country ruled by a bunch of totalitarian thugs in a region in which benign dictatorship is as good as it gets; on the other you have the U.K. and the U.S., where, despite the corporate dictatorship, the President Select, the slippery machinations of Halliburton, blah blah blah, the L.A. Times can quote the Iraqi Ministry of Information approvingly on its front page while Peter Arnett goes on Iraqi television to tell Chemical Ali, Mrs. Anthrax and the rest of the noble Mesopotamian leadership what a bunch of heroes its “resistance” fighters are.

Unfortunately, those fighters are more foolish than heroic. Some of the saddest reports on television have shown Iraqi exiles in Jordan getting on buses to return home and fight for a regime they were once sensible enough to flee. Not only are they likely to get killed (some probably already have been), they’re also voting to perpetuate the policies that have made their lives a misery. The Arab “street,” whether in Cairo or on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, is, as usual, in a foot-stamping, effigy-burning rage; instead of sitting around in cafés watching dubbed reruns of Friends (as they do in the Middle East), it’s now wallowing in the glory of those who fight for Saddam against the people who brought them Friends in the first place. The entire region could do with a Valium, and so could our round-the-clock, motor-mouthed media.

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For some people, the only appropriate response to the pathological hatred emanating from the Middle East is self-flagellation. On BBC America, the anchors almost visibly salivate when word of an errant marketplace bombing flashes across the wires. (Finally! Proof that we’re evil! That we’re just as bad as they are!) On CNN, Aaron Brown strokes his chin and struggles with his conscience while General Wesley Clark looks on, secretly wishing he could court-martial the guy and knock someä sense into the entire lily-livered news corps. And then, at 11 p.m., it’s time for John Burns’ nightly telephone chat from Baghdad on Charlie Rose. In the 20 minutes or so available to him, The New York Times correspondent sends such a sense of foreboding down the line it’s enough to make you want to blow your brains out before you go to bed. I can understand how he feels — in fact, I often feel the same way — but in the media’s ritzier neighborhoods, the “worst-case scenario” seems to be the only game in town. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for America to accomplish any good, is the general idea.

For relief, you have to turn to the military. At home, in front of the TV, slumped comfortably on the couches and armchairs and king-size beds of the world’s only superpower, all is doubt and confusion and fear; but in Umm Qasr and Nasiriyah and Basra it’s a different story. The American and British soldiers may have gone into Iraq thinking it would be a walkover, but, judging from their appearances on television, they don’t seem unduly perturbed by the fact that things have turned out differently. You can see, watching and listening to them in the reports of the “embeds,” how they instinctively understand that Iraq is a deeply screwed-up country full of scared, hungry people and that, whatever happens, its inhabitants will be far better off if they just let the military take over for a while and sort things out.

They don’t worry about the ethics of this; and they certainly don’t think of themselves as racist colonizers making war against Islam, for the simple reason that that isn’t who they are. They don’t have a problem with Muslims; it’s Muslim hotheads who have a problem with Christians, Hindus and, most of all, Jews. (“Kill Jews” read a sign at a demonstration in Pakistan.) In Thomas Friedman’s documentary Searching for the Roots of 9/11, which aired on Discovery Channel recently, there was a clip of Friedman debating a Jordanian professor on The Opposite Direction, apparently the most popular talk show on Al-Jazeera. The professor, quoting a German minister, charged, with malign dishonesty, that the U.S. was “the biggest renegade nation in history” and claimed that “Bush has become the new Hitler.” Friedman didn’t take the bait, but he did gently point out that the professor’s views were surprising given the fact that he’d spent 14 years studying and teaching in the America he so despised. “Know your enemy” was the professor’s response — delivered with a smile, but not a very reassuring one for those of us back home.

There is, of course, plenty of dopey, gung-ho, rah-rah war coverage. “Should we go to war with Syria because they’re giving the Iraqis night-vision goggles?” asked Chris Matthews, surely the dumbest question of the week. (Answer: No. But if they give the Iraqis snorkels and flippers as well, all bets are off.) There was also the nauseating attention given to the “first night in history” that B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers had gone after the same target simultaneously, a subject of interest only to the most ardent military fetishist. (On Fox, they were still licking their lips over this ballistic trinity 48 hours after it had happened.) On MSNBC, there is also the appalling insensitivity of having in-house military experts stand on a floor map of the Middle East, so that they can pontificate with Basra literally under their boot heels.

But insensitivity, rather than malice, is all it is. If I were an American soldier in Iraq, I’d far rather listen to Fox News than the oh-so-sensitive BBC, which is what most of them get on the radio over there. (Fox may be simplistic, but at least it isn’t depressive.) “We’re doing great, and then we hear the BBC report and we can hardly believe they’re talking about the same war,” a U.S. Marine told MSNBC’s Bob Arnot recently. Part of the problem with the media is that the average reporter doesn’t know anyone in the Army, and thus feels deeply alienated from it. In a revealing interview on Fox, a reporter from London’s conservative Daily Telegraph told Bill O’Reilly that a friend of his, who works for the Beeb, was going out with a soldier but had kept the news secret from her co-workers. She was afraid they’d shun her.

War may be hell, but what the Beeb should know is that it can be a lot of other things, too. The Anglo-American soldiers, most of whom have never seen battle before, are learning that they really are up to the job they trained for, and you can sense their growing pride in the realization. I think a lot of them are going to die, and the lucky who survive are going to be haunted by the amount of Iraqis they kill. The war may go on for so long that eventually we’ll tune it out and nudge it toward the periphery of our vision. But one way or another, sanitized or not, an unprecedented amount of it is going to be seen on television, and it’s going to change the way we think about the military as much as the way individual soldiers think about themselves.

My fondest hope is that we will eventually prevail, that the Iraqis will be jubilant, and that the Arab networks will be forced to broadcast images of Americans and Iraqis dancing together in the streets of Baghdad, as they have already danced in some of the smaller towns along the way. Who knows? Perhaps it will inspire the Arabs to do something about their own governments for a change, and to stop whining about everyone else’s. Come to think of it, maybe the Europeans could take the hint, too.

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