Live from Iraq

Posted: Mar 26, 2003 12:00 AM

Just when reality TV seemed to have exhausted the possibilities for new topics, "Live from Iraq" has taken over, 24/7. It is unclear whether 'round-the-clock coverage of war will strengthen Americans' determination to oust Saddam Hussein or, over time, subtly eat away at our resolve. What is clear is that each casualty, setback and mishap receives far more attention than it would if this war were being reported as previous conflicts have been.

Even the Gulf War coverage, which virtually created the market for 24-hour news, consisted mostly of Pentagon briefings, with charts and videos showing the success of our weapons and troops. Now we have nearly instant images of wounded soldiers, interviews with the families of American POWs and biographical sketches of each soldier killed in action.

The effect is devastating, not just on the families of those fighting but on the nation. When TV images of last Friday's precision bombing of Baghdad were replaced over the weekend by videotapes of dead and captured soldiers, the stock market, which had just experienced eight days of positive trading, lost one third of its gains when it opened again on Monday.

George Orwell, writing about the horrors of the Holocaust, observed that it is almost impossible to comprehend the death of thousands, much less millions. The human mind, he wrote, must focus on the particular -- the single, poignant death that humanizes the experience of loss.

By forcing us to focus on the handful of men -- and one woman -- who have been taken prisoner or killed, the war becomes personal. But television rarely rises to the level of high tragedy, and so we are treated not to the complexity of life, death and war, but to melodrama or worse. Many of the television interviews with family members of POWs have been downright exploitative. It is as if the "Maury Povich Show" had become the industry standard for dealing with sensitive subjects.

Perhaps we can sustain this level of coverage if the war lasts only a few weeks, as the Gulf and Afghanistan wars did. But what if this drags on for months, as it may? This war, after all, is unlike either of our two most recent conflicts. We are attempting to defeat a large military -- estimated at more than 400,000 troops -- in a country the size of California. In the Gulf War our objective was merely to drive back invading Iraqi forces from neighboring Kuwait. While the Iraqi forces have been significantly degraded since the Gulf War, they are now fighting for the preservation of their power and home territory. We shouldn't be surprised that Iraqi forces are not surrendering wholesale, as some naively seemed to think they might.

It is unlikely, even with our vastly superior weapons and technology, that this ground war will be over in a matter of days, as our last confrontation with the Iraqis was. It is also not likely that our casualties will be as low as they were in 1991 or 2001. We have become accustomed to antiseptic fighting -- bombs dropped from planes high above their targets, missiles launched from ships hundreds of miles away. It is what we do best -- and given the miracles of precision targeting this new warfare has saved thousands of innocent lives of non-combatants on the ground.

We would be naive to believe that the war to oust Saddam Hussein and liberate the Iraqi people can be conducted entirely from afar without risks to our own soldiers, however. More Americans will be injured or killed. Some may be captured, mistreated and used for propaganda purposes. But if we allow ourselves to become obsessed with the particulars of this war because we can bring it into our living rooms at will, we may lose sight of the bigger picture.

Every one of our American troops is precious to us, but each of them has voluntarily risked his or her life to protect us here at home and to defeat our enemy. We honor them best by accepting their sacrifice with dignity and determination.