National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover Story: At war -- Commentary
Issue Date:  April 4, 2003
Naval aviators brief embedded media members during a news conference aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman March 22 in the Mediterranean Sea.
        -- Photo by Getty Images/Michael W. Pedergrass/U.S. Navy

Calamities of war

TV coverage is all boom-boom-boom, light and smoke -- but no human faces


Within seven days the most media-ized war in history went from illusion to reality, from the long-cherished dream of “decapitating” Saddam Hussein and all his top generals in one swift swipe to a weekend of calamities, only some of which could have been foreseen.

The decision to seize the opportunity to assassinate Saddam, as swift retribution for having snubbed our president’s offer to let him scoot out of Baghdad within 48 hours, was portrayed as a marvel of espionage, communication and quick thinking on our part. Proof that the CIA can track Saddam’s moves, have the president sign the assassination order at 6:30 p.m. and fire the smart missiles from ships off Qatar right to Saddam’s dinner table or toilet seat.

For a week we scrutinize his mug shots on CNN -- one puffy-faced with glasses, the other darker and younger-looking, but maybe … Who knows? Wounded? Why do his glasses match those of Tariq Aziz? Borrowed? Maybe it is Tariq with a rubber Saddam mask? Shell-shocked?

Could we have failed?

As late as Monday night, March 24, responding to that day’s TV appearance, the administration is still wondering whether Saddam is alive. Maybe he taped a series of all-purpose speeches weeks before the war. So much for CIA sources.

If he was not in the targeted house, we have repeated the Afghanistan response. One of our informants tells us that the Taliban are having tea in a village, and we send drones or helicopters or B52s to wipe them out -- only to wipe out an innocent village wedding party and earn the hatred of everyone who remembers our strike.

* * *

The media/Pentagon alliance had promised “Shock and Awe,” an unprecedented bombardment of Baghdad -- though carefully calibrated to avoid “collateral damage” -- that would knock their socks off, wake them up to the advantages of surrender.

In an interview with Poynter Online, New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges compares “Shock and Awe” to the deceptions of Orwellian Newspeak. It tells us that Baghdad will be shocked and awed, while “what they’re going to be is dismembered, eviscerated, and killed.”

“Shock and Awe” weighs in for about a day, with those glorious nighttime pyrotechnics that light up the sky, reminding the basic American TV viewer of a July 4 blowout or the last seconds of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in which bad guys get what they deserve.

At no time is the notion that on-the-spot TV coverage gives us the “truth” more absurd. All boom-boom-boom, light and smoke. Not one glimpse of a human face. Are there people? CNN, FOX, MSNBC and the networks haven’t found them.

* * *

Rumsfeld is indignant Thursday when a reporter compares the bombing to World War II. We match weapons to targets, he says. We have carefully not hit Baghdad’s water or electricity -- because we’re humane. Rumsfeld concludes every interview that week, no matter what the question, with a schoolmasterish command to the Iraqi army to surrender. The regime is “history,” he tells them. You’re done for. Quit. Quit.

He refers to “the coalition” of 45-plus countries who back us. There are Polish troops in the field. Analysts read the list of supporters and laugh. I switch channels and pick up a BBC report: Rumsfeld can’t possibly know what he’s talking about. There’s no way this bombardment is not killing civilians.

Later another BBC reporter seems to back Rumsfeld. Baghdad had reported more than 200 casualties. The wounded she visited in the hospital, she says, were hit by falling shrapnel from antiaircraft fire. In short, it was their fault.

Chris Hedges advises journalists that they won’t ever see civilian casualties. “That’s part of their plan.”

Unless you’re Robert Fisk. Star British correspondent Robert Fisk, of The Independent (March 24) had visited the same hospital. Rumsfeld, he writes, should talk to 5-year-old Doha Suheil. The cruise missile had exploded next to her suburban home and blasted shrapnel into her legs and spine. She cannot move her leg. She was the first of 101 patients that night.

Fisk moves from bed to bed. Whole families wounded in the legs, face and chest. He hears of the British radio reporter who asked the doctor: Couldn’t it be the fault of the antiaircraft guns?

Fisk asks: “Should we laugh or cry at this?”

Rumsfeld brags, says Fisk, that we have not destroyed power plants and water works. Of course not, he replies. Because the Americans will need lights, water and a phone system when they rule Iraq.

* * *

Then the weekend. Helicopters crash or are shot down -- a standard war tragedy for which no one can be blamed. When I was a Fordham ROTC cadet about to go on active duty, our instructor told us that helicopters were, by definition, very dangerous. “Go up in them,” he said, “and you’re going to get cooked.” Nothing has changed in 50 years.

A black Muslim sergeant with an “attitude problem” frags his commander’s tent with three grenades and kills one comrade. In the southern towns where we expected to be welcomed with bouquets and belly dancers, they’re fighting back. Basra has been without power and water for days. Iraqis “surrender” and are allowed to go home, and show up later as fighters. Our Patriot missile shoots down a British plane.

A battle for a bunker televised live convinces audiences that this is a unique -- even a “great” -- moment in TV history. But do we understand the cost of war any better? We do not see the enemy’s faces. They are merely targets in a shooting gallery.

The Sunday New York Times reports that Dick Cheney’s Texas corporation that made him a multimillionaire, Halliburton, is at the head of the line among corporations vying for government contracts to rebuild Iraq and manage their oil fields.

* * *

The images get grim on Sunday when Iraqis display on the Arab TV news network, Al Jazeera, four American corpses and five prisoners from an expedition that got lost in the desert. Confronted on a Sunday morning talk show with the images, Rumsfeld says the Iraqis are violating the Geneva Conventions by photographing and humiliating their captives. Anyone who distributes the pictures, he implies, would be violating international law.

But the pictures serve propaganda goals on both sides. For the Iraqis they demonstrate the success of their resistance. For the administration they prove the brutality of our enemies. Of course they are immediately available on a number of Web sites (Drudge Report) and on the first pages of tabloids like the New York Post, with the headline “SAVAGES: IRAQI FIENDS EXECUTE AMERICAN POWS,” and a caption: “An Iraqi ghoul smiles for the camera yesterday as he displays the bodies …”

There follows a spate of commentary on the Geneva Conventions and how the United States does not abuse its prisoners. No one mentions that we have all seen pictures of Afghan prisoners squatting blindfolded and bound outside their cages in Guantanamo, and of John Walker Lindh stripped naked, hogtied and gagged, and stuffed into what looked like a mini-coffin. But somehow the law doesn’t apply to them.

Monday morning National Public Radio reports that Iraqi civilians from the little towns in the vast desert between Kuwait and Baghdad have come out in carts and pickup trucks to collect their dead from the battlefields. They stacked up the corpses to drive them home. But there are too many, and our troops tell them to line up and come in one by one.

I have yet to see those pictures on TV.

* * *

The good news is that some media outlets speak for human dignity. On Saturday Scott Simon on NPR suggests that the young bedraggled men in southern Iraq surrendering to our troops are as glad to get it over with as our boys are to accept their surrenders, that these boys are human beings like us.

The same day a German-American man on the op-ed page of The New York Times recalls the moment as a child in Germany in the war when he and his friends saw the corpse of a dead boy-soldier in the hospital. He was a fellow human being, innocent of his country’s crimes. The author reprimands those who call today’s Germans cowards. The author has a son in Iraq.

* * *

Last week, when I was in Washington, an old neighbor of my family e-mailed me that he had found the helmet my father, who had won the Distinguished Service Cross, used in World War I. Would I like to have it?

The day after Bush’s speech, desperate for some spiritual support, I visited Woodrow Wilson’s home on S Street, where he lived, as an invalid, for the few years between leaving office and his death. My father met Wilson when he guarded the president’s quarters on a visit to either Fort Dix or Camp Drum in 1917, and my father was close to James Kearny, one of Wilson’s first biographers.

Wilson knew the horrors of war and did all he could to avoid getting in. Then, once in, he drove himself to exhaustion to create a world organization, the League of Nations, to prevent the next war. Our current president, it seemed to me, was doing all the opposite.

My father won his medal by single-handedly wiping out a German machine gun nest that had driven off the whole battery. Then he brought back a German prisoner with an empty pistol. He told me that the two of them had to huddle in a foxhole to escape the night bombardment and they exchanged photographs of their families by the light of the bursting bombs. “Dis ist mein schwester und mein bruder.”

Do I want his helmet? I need it.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is community professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2003

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