Alienation of war hits home

Posted: Mar 24, 2003 12:00 AM

In the hours and days since 8 p.m. Wednesday, the U.S. deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave his country or face American-made Armageddon, I've been like a guy on Super Bowl Sunday with the remote control, flipping channels madly looking for the latest play.

Everything is too much and yet I can't get enough. The urge to know trumps the urge not to know. The compulsion to feel what's happening "out there" conquers the instinct to avert one's eyes. It is an altogether strange experience, even for those who were tethered to the TV during the first Gulf War.

Technology has taken yet another broad leap since those relatively innocent days. Today we not only have smart bombs, we have brilliant bombs. They're so smart we can practically chat with them as they make their way toward a faraway target directed by a distant satellite. I half expect to hear a missile remark just before kaboom: "Make my day!"

Back home the effects are dimmed and blurred by a physical distance that also permits a degree of emotional safety. Even so, just 12 hours after the first missiles were fired on what was believed to be Saddam's hideout, reports were trickling out that some Americans were feeling alienated, anxious.

Little wonder. It is not an easy thing to decide to go to war; it is a torturous thing to decide to go to war and then to wait. And wait. And wait.

Here is alienation. I am in the grocery store shopping for dinner early on the evening of the president's speech announcing his ultimatum to Saddam. At the meat counter, I listen while two ladies cheerfully explain to me how to cook meat in a "brown `n bag," or some such. You put meat in the inflammable plastic sack and your meal cooks in half the time.


Panicked by normalcy, I blurt: "Boy, what a luxury to worry what to fix for supper when mothers in Baghdad are worried about staying alive."

The woman behind the counter smiles never missing a beat and says, "Be sure to add a tablespoon of flour."

At this writing, the promised "Shock and Awe" strategy has not yet begun, but CNN's Bill Hemmer says our troops are poised and ready. We also don't know yet whether the first missile attack got Saddam. There's still some discussion about whether his speech immediately afterward really came from the Iraqi dictator or from one of his doomed doubles. Flash to hospital where the first wounded face their media debut.

(set ital) "We'll be back in just a moment with updates from the desert, but first a quick glance at the market." And so it goes.

Such is the media effect. Cameras distort reality even as they reveal it. You ask a soldier a question and he answers it. You point a camera and, he what? Smiles? Performs?

What was war like before real-time live feeds? How would George Patton have behaved with Wolf Blitzer holding a mike and 200 million Americans listening in? If there's no one there to film it, is there still a war? Without an interviewer, are there heroes?

We watch with a mixture of awe and angst, punching buttons on an electronic device that provides new angles and fresh commentary, all of which leaves me longing for a cleansing tub of soothing oils. The feeling isn't that I shouldn't be watching this, but that I shouldn't be (set ital) doing this.

I remember feeling the same way the night Karla Faye Tucker was executed in Texas. The born-again murderess, who futilely begged for forgiveness and her life, was injected with the killing fluids as I stood in my kitchen stirring pasta and watching TV. By watching, I became a participant. I administered the lethal drugs. Then she was pronounced dead, and I called everyone to dinner.

The extraordinary so neatly juxtaposed against the ordinary robs the breath and weakens the knees. Horror transmutes to banality when perceived through the lens of artifice. How did we come to this, we should not stop asking.

Which is not, by the way, a contradiction for those who would remind me of my support for removing Saddam. His end is necessary and just. That said, did I hope all along that someone would blink and war would become unnecessary? Yes, of course. But to regret war is not to retreat.

Even so, no one -not even the most ardent supporter of this war -can fail to feel the horror of it all. Or to wish that all ends soon and well.