The 'Real World' War

Don't pull the thang out, unless you plan to bang. Bombs over Baghdad! Yeah! Ha ha yeah! Don't even bang unless you plan to hit something. Bombs over Baghdad!
-- OutKast, "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)"

What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq. What we are seeing is slices of the war in Iraq.
-- Donald Rumsfeld, March 21, 2003

There is no toilet paper in Iraq. I ate with my hands. It was disgusting. I knew war sucked before I entered it.
-- Jeff Zaun, POW in Iraq 1991 (AP, March 21, 2003)

Death and information: the realities of war.
-- Peter Jennings (ABC News World News Tonight, March 22, 2003)

Now into its second week, Donald Rumsfeld's unprecedented "effects-based campaign" is increasingly complex. The initial idea premised on selective and spectacular targeting; rather than bomb everything in sight (also known as "overwhelming force" and deployed by Colin Powell in Gulf War I), the sequel is designed to "shock and awe." So far, the United States has yet to deploy the MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) that you know someone is dying to drop on the very man who 12 years ago coined that very same "mother of all" usage.

As days pass, however, Operation Iraqi Freedom is less a dazzling U.S. military experiment and more an arduous ordeal. At least this is what it looks like on TV, where shifts in tone and sensation are measured in minutes, even seconds. How quickly the sand storms turn the TV screen orange, and incredibly the bombs light up Baghdad's night-time skyline.

Indeed, on March 19, the first night of the war, Ari Fleischer made a dramatic entrance and exit in about 20 seconds: "The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime have begun. The President will address the nation at 10:15." Reporters scrambled to have their pictures prepared, their cameras trained on Baghdad. And then, nothing. Imagine the questions in network HQs: Go with Survivor or stick with the snoozy Baghdad skyline?

Then came the "target of opportunity," propitiously introduced into the popular lexicon as the U.S. shot cruise missiles at Baghdad, in a display that Roland Watson and Elaine Monaghan called "a blitzkrieg designed to terrify Iraqi leaders and their Republican Guard into surrender."

This blitzing took as its particular targets the "so-called Peace Palace" and the "so-called Flowers Palace" (the so-calling is actually Wolf Blitzer's), in an effort to "decapitate" the "command and control," namely, Saddam Hussein. Or rather, Saddam Himself, a term frequently used by news anchors asking probing questions of guest experts. For example, "What would Saddam Himself be thinking at this moment?" Or again, "What if the missile killed Saddam Himself?"

Speculating about such events "as they happen" is precisely the imprecise business of TV reporters and consultants. This time around, the studio-anchored shows include the usual elements -- suited anchors (sitting or standing), charts and colorful graphics, and tallies of "casualties" and "accidents" -- as well as an extraordinary innovation, the "embedded correspondent," each assigned to a unit, according to the Pentagon, "living, traveling and going into combat with it. But instead of a weapon, the journalist will wield a pen [or] videotape camera."

As CNN's Aaron Brown has it, these embedded journalists are set to "give us these snapshots, if you will." They aren't yet so rock 'n' roll as Esquire correspondent Michael Herr in Vietnam (who regularly and provocatively spelled out the costs of such attachment: "You were as responsible for everything you saw as for everything you did," Dispatches, 21). But they are surely in for rough rides, if the first live-TV encounter on March 22 is any indication. As embedded Sky News reporter David Bowden narrated, U.S. Marines fought back Iraqi "resistance" at Umm Qasr, granting viewers the first instance of live-war-TV. Staff Sgt. Nick Lerma observed afterwards that it "rapidly escalated from a skirmish into a full-scale battle," with the camera rolling.

Bowden crawled along the ground to put a microphone into a young GI's appropriately distracted face, to ask, essentially, "What are you doing now?" The U.S. team shot off some rounds at Iraqis in a building, then hunkered down while first a couple of tanks and then an air strike were called in to decimate the building. In the distance, caught by the cameraman's long lens, an Iraqi ran from the building, on fire. Embedding is, most obviously, a next step from Cops, when the officer -- here the terse, camouflaged troop -- pauses in his work to explain what he's doing to an inquiring mind. Except, it's live. Really live. This makes the potential for disaster, tragedy and exploitation huge (one imagines the administration's in-house PR genius Karl Rove offered some resistance of his own at the prospect).

At once horrifying and seductive, even, potentially, addictive in the way that The Real World can be, embedded TV stems from that familiar impulse to watch live car races or hockey games. What would have happened if, on live-war-TV, the Harrier air strike on the Iraqi shooters went wrong, or the Iraqi shooters were more accurate, or the cameraman lucked on a shot of the shooters' blown-up corpses? Even an American corpse? The scene might have transformed into snuff in an instant. Or maybe worse, Iraqi-style execution footage. Ideally, as Lexington Institute's Dan Goure told MSNBC's Lester Holt on March 23, embedded reporters will ensure "truth on the battlefield." More cryptically, if not more realistically, Rumsfeld told Wolf Blitzer, "The television image is belied by what's seen on the ground."

Perhaps this practice intends to make the television image and the ground coincide. But this forgets that video is subjective and selective, like any other form of reporting. And embedding makes strange bedfellows of media and military, limiting movements and choices on all sides. And yet, despite (or maybe because of) this obvious tension, the consensus appears to be that this is a grand idea: Journalists are taking serious risks, for which they trained and lobbied, and which can lead to death, as in the case of ITN reporter Terry Lloyd and his two-member team, killed by friendly fire; according to Fox News' tickertape, he was "caught in a barrage of coalition fire."

The Next Logical Step

If embedding is a next logical step for reality TV (with all stakes raised, for consumers as well as performers), it's also a huge leap in political, ethical and commercial terms. Who's selling what to whom? Most obviously, the battle for "hearts and minds" is largely waged with media imagery. And this battle has rules: Showing multiple surrenders at gunpoint and relentless bombs over Baghdad, without even a sign of injuries or corpses, is fair. Al-Jazeera's decision to air video of U.S. POWs, wounded or executed, is not.

Rumsfeld argues that, according to the Geneva Convention, it's "illegal for prisoners of war to be shown and pictured and humiliated." According to this way of thinking, mistreatment of POWs, or torture of "enemy combatants," is OK, as long as you don't tape and air such violence. (Another wrench in this works is Amnesty International's March 26 suggestion that bombing Iraqi TV might have been a violation of the Convention, an attack on a civilian target.)

Such fudging of what's fair leads to the next aspect of embedding. It is, in its way, also a logical step for the Bush Doctrine, a way to take it to mass media outlets -- not as propaganda exactly, but as, well, doctrine. Conceived during the first Bush Administration (by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, et al) and outlined in a September 2002 document known as "The National Security Strategy of the United States," the Bush Doctrine states that the United States "reserves the option" to wage preemptive war and allows for American use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, unilateral and imperial rights assumed because the United States is "exceptional."

Again, this exceptionalism allows the United States to take decisions against world opinion when such opinion opposes perceived U.S. interests and/or official "beliefs." Embedded TV allows a useful display of power, exemplifying just why such "rights" might be "reserved" (that is, no one can say, "No").

That such power can be made so quickly and blatantly visible on TV only makes the still-next steps seem more inevitable. Iran, Syria, Yemen, the Saudi royal family, North Korea: Even the most lay of lay interviewers are finding such Bush Doctrine-inspired wondering within their grasp, and expert commentators are no longer pretending such an expansionist design is unthinkable. Now, it seems obvious: "Iraq," as Shimon Peres and others have repeatedly recently, "is only the beginning."

As such, Iraq is both good and bad for (and as) TV. War stories proliferate, as do the means to tell them. Experts step up -- Henry Kissinger on Fox News (talking with Rita Cosby ["Do you think Saddam Hussein is alive?" she asks; "I have no possible way of knowing it"], and Hannity & Colmes), and Jesse Ventura over on MSNBC (the ex-Navy Seal and Vietnam vet tells Lester Holt, "War is the end result of failed political policy, not the serviceman's fault").

And, of course, the maps are everywhere: digital relief types with CGI-ed "swooping" cameras, large floor maps where ex-generals walk around with pointers, and the table maps that allow ex-strategists to move little blue and red jet fighters, troops, and tanks around as if on a game board. The effect can be so egregious that even anchors notice it. Lester Holt, looking earnest, asks, "Have we made war glamorous?" Jesse Ventura, looking annoyed, answers, "It reminds me a lot of the Super Bowl."

Some stories -- and effects -- are genuinely startling, and foil instant accounting. Consider the March 22 attack on the 101st Airborne Division, reported almost as soon as it happened by embedded Financial Times correspondent Charles Clover, stationed at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait. This incident, at first so hard to read (an act of terrorism, a mistake, an infiltration?) turned out to be a fragging, committed by a member of the 101st. The suddenness of the event inspired some uncareful thinking out loud, such as the usually level-headed Aaron Brown's suggestion that the black American Muslim suspect's "Arab-sounding last name" might have to do with the crime.

As it turns out, the suspect, since identified as Sgt. Asan Akbar (born Mark Fidel Kools) and sent to Germany to await charges, allegedly does resent being ordered to kill fellow Muslims, but at the time of Brown's remark, no one could have known this. So far, two have died from their wounds, and, as Ashley Banfield, no longer Ms. Front Lines, reports from Kentucky, several people remember having conversations with Akbar back on the Stateside base, in which he declared his belief that the war was waged by Christians against Muslims and he vowed violent revenge. Even as this "background" emerges, his family, including his former stepfather, William Bilal, cite racism in the military as a likely motivation.

As these stories of violence and response and violence accumulate, the TV displays have become increasingly layered. To paraphrase Gen. Tommy Franks, this is a TV war "unlike any other in history," involving the following: the careful arranging of high tech, flaggish banners and theme music; daily negotiations with temperamental video-phones; scrutiny of "strike packages"; and lots of time to count down. On March 19, a ticker in the corner of CNN's screen kept track of the hours, minutes and, finally, seconds, until 8 p.m. ET, Hussein's last moment to choose exile over certain doom.

The means to the latter, spectacularly televised air-strikes, now occur nightly in Baghdad, whether or not Saddam Himself is there. These repeated "explosions" do not produce bodies for TV, however, as the U.S. military, in charge of this version of embedded TV, refuses to "keep track of civilian casualties." Not their concern. And so it's not the U.S. media's either.

Rather, the military media focus on the show of force and flexibility that defines the Coalition of the Willing's effort. Tommy Franks underlined this during his first press briefing on March 22, in Doha, Qatar. Here he and Brigadier Gen. Vincent Brooks asserted -- and illustrated -- in a "media show," so described by the Independent's Donald Macintyre, featuring explosions and "gun-cam" shots, and staged in the $1.5 million press center, a "Hollywood set in the Al-Saliyah briefing room with its soft-blue plasma screens."

The Military's New Flexibility

As an example of the military's new flexibility, the demonstration was impressive, making good on the plan set forth by Rumsfeld back when he first set up camp at Defense, a time when old school military types resented his arrogance and efforts to reshape their longstanding apparatus, so it would be "faster" and "lighter," out-thinking and out-maneuvering previous models that had, for years, been turning flabby and inefficient. Rumsfeld vowed his organization would be sleek and much improved, as well as expensive; its war-making would be breathtaking and its operations camera-ready.

Part of this show involves Franks' self-presentation, considerably less flamboyant than that of Gen. Schwarzkopf, who loved working the crowd of reporters, who were, back in his heyday, limited to the information he might grant them. Flanked by officers from England, Australia, the Netherlands and Denmark, Franks stood on the CentCom dais and extolled the virtues of "precision-shock," while warning there may be "tough days to come."

The first "toughest day," March 23, brought bad news and dead bodies on frequent display. For all the military and media's efforts to adhere to plan and control information flow, the televisual frenzy escalated quickly: too much information, too many embedded correspondents, too many scenes and stories to track and source and report. The news gush now comes so quickly that ticker-tapes across the bottoms of screens occasionally conflict with reporters' versions, as when, on March 23, the stand-up asserted that a British Tornado GR4 aircraft was downed by a U.S. Patriot missile, even as the tape below him rehearsed the U.S. military's assertion that "no Coalition planes" were reported missing.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Meyers cites a breakdown in the "elaborate procedures and electronic means to identify friendly and enemy aircraft" as a possible cause. During CentCom's March 23 briefing, the U.S. rep tossed a question about the "reliability" of the Patriot to British Gen. Peter Wall, so he might insist on the Coalition's "confidence" in precision soft- and hardware.

By March 26, it appeared that, according to The New York Times' Alan Cowell, "urban warfare" was looking like "the underdog's first battlefield choice." U.S. POWs were taken (including the "scared" looking Shoshana Johnson). Sandstorms and mud were slowing U.S. movement to Baghdad ("It was biblical," Col. Ricky Gibbs of the 101st Airborne tells The New York Times. "There's a movie, Scorpion King, that shows this same kind of sandstorm").

It appeared that the United States had hit a Baghdad marketplace and killed 15 civilians. And the embedded reporters started doing specific stand-ups when gunfire or explosions might be heard in the distance, but when situations seemed "hairy," they appeared as photos in the TV screen corner, with a map in the center and their wind-battered voices speaking over the phone: no snuff TV, at least for now. The paradox of war -- that it involves killing and taking prisoners, but photographing such results is morally and politically off-limits -- on March 23 became a measure of on-screen outrage for U.S. representatives. Rumsfeld expressed anger that the Iraqis cheated by staging a "fake surrender" in order to ambush U.S. Marines at An Nasiriyah, recounted after the fact by embedded CNN correspondent Alessio Vinci. Some 12 soldiers were called missing or dead, with at least four visibly dead on a videotape released to Iraqi TV. Thus far, all U.S. media outlets have decided not to show the "disturbing" video (though they all tell you repeatedly that it is so "disturbing"), but instead have been flashing a still photo, "with no identifiable features," showing only mangled torsos, faces obscured or out of frame.

What is the interest, for whom, in showing even this single "disturbing" shot? Clearly, it upsets viewers; just as clearly, it rallies sympathy for troops and ire at the perpetrators of such brutality. Compare its function to that of CNN's "Iraqi casualties" (a series of bloody victims photos, none obviously dead). Following this brief series of images, Blitzer introduced a brief comment by Naji Sabri, Iraqi Foreign Minister, on March 23 in Cairo for a meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers: "Those aggressors are war criminals, colonialist war criminals, crazy people led by a crazy, drunken, ignorant President like George Bush." Even if you sympathize with Sari's basic sentiment, his bluster makes the photos suddenly less likely to win CNN viewers' sympathy.

But it's good to remember that, when war happens live on TV, it's not only the self-declared enemy who gets mad for the camera. Imagine, for instance, having to call a press conference when you learn your child or husband has been killed in a war (if the war goes on, such practice must surely be disbanded). When the first U.S. helicopter went down on March 21, stateside reporters sought out relatives, Capt. Ryan Beaupre's sister and the father of Kendall Waters-Bey, Michael Waters-Bey, to get "reactions" to inevitably inane questions: "How would you like your son to be remembered?" "How are you doing?"

Alyse Beaupre said the acceptable and expected thing: "I don't think he was very afraid of anything." Michael, on the other hand, held up a photo of his dead child: "And I want President Bush to get a good look at this, real good look, hear? This is the only son I had. Only son."

It's hardly surprising that Michael Waters-Bey, along with his daughter and Kendall's young son, appeared the following day on the Today Show with Katie Couric and on American Morning with Paul Zahn, looking somewhat more contained, as if he meant to redo his previous "impression." It's also predictable that Couric and Zahn both raised the specter of his rage from the day before, as that rage, unrehearsed and impulsive, is the story that embedded TV is best equipped to exhibit. Whether it wants or needs to show it is another question.

For all the administration's orchestration of shock and awe, and its resolute march to "penetrate" Baghdad, it's clear that the most devastating outrage remains personal, the consequences of such bombing and advancing. And so, the campaign is "effects-based," after all. On the evening of March 23, Peter Jennings interviewed Anecita Hudson, Filipino-born mother of a POW, Specialist Joseph Hudson, who had that day been captured at An Nasiriyah.

"I'm sure you know," Jennings summed up, "The president will do everything he can to get him back. Thank you Mrs. Hudson, and we apologize for disturbing you."

Whatever Jennings thought he meant, disturbing Mrs. Hudson is exactly the point of this show. The camera held on a photo of her missing son as her teary response took up the soundtrack for endless seconds. An important and (somehow) meaningful "get" for ABC News, Mrs. Hudson's all-too-live pain and fear were reprised several times in the next couple of days -- she appeared on TV, with various anchors questioning her from afar (or from the split screen), pleading with someone, anyone, to bring her son home.

Within days, she was part of a series of POW and MIA relatives, all tearful, all prayerful, all wondering what might be done, and all, importantly, working and (lower) middle class. No rich parents had to appear on TV to plead for their children's return, or underline their love of country and choice to take up this most dangerous and most horrific of jobs. No one wants to kill people. And in this context, choice is relative.

Cynthia Fuchs is an associate professor of English, African American studies, and film and media studies at George Mason University. This piece originally appeared on PopPolitics.

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