The War Show

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The War Show, it's clear, is all about winning. "Truth on the battlefield" is overrated.

Cynthia Fuchs

Issue #63, April 2003


What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq. What we are seeing is slices of the war in Iraq.
— Donald Rumsfeld, 21 March 2003
Death and information: the realities of war.
— Peter Jennings, ABC News World News Tonight, 22 March 2003
I said in that interview essentially what we all know about the war. There have been delays in implementing policy, there's been surprises. But clearly by giving that interview to Iraqi television I created a firestorm in the United States. And for that, I am truly sorry, Matt.
— Peter Arnett, Today Show, 31 March 2003

The Bush Administration's unprecedented "effects-based campaign" has become increasingly complex. Effects, it turns out, are not so predictable. Initially, as Donald Rumsfeld and other admin spokespeople described it, the campaign was premised on selective and spectacular targeting, that is, "shock and awe." Ironically, perhaps, this plan depended less on surprise than on intensive military orchestration, aided by predictable patterns of reporting, a War Show devised by US media for US viewers. Indeed, on the first night of the war, 19 March, 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," he said. Quite the news wallop: reporters scrambled to have their pictures prepared, their cameras trained on Baghdad. And then, nothing. Imagine the panic in network HQs: go with Survivor or stick with the snoozy Baghdad skyline?

Then came the "target of opportunity," the concept propitiously introduced into the popular lexicon as the US 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 television reporters and those endlessly proliferating consultants. Since that first night, complete with MSNBC's oft-noted countdown clock, the War Show has only grown more various and sprawling. In an effort to contain it, to make it recognizable and compelling, television's Operation Iraqi Freedom includes grandiose theme music, lively graphics, and colorful banners, with time allotted for commercial breaks, re-airable packages, and great images. Was ever a girl more perfectly made for television than the courageous Jessica Lynch, her file photo posed before a US flag, no less?

Artillery fireThe pattern itself is not a little alarming: each morning, CentCom reports, with grainy bomb-cam video; each day, US troops engage in fierce ground fighting or long treks, their activities noted by videophoning reporters; and each night, as CNN terms it, "explosions rock Baghdad, again," displayed on US television in green-tinted night vision, while "War Recaps" and "Special Editions" dominate cable and network news programming. As Wolf Blitzer, Lester Holt, or Peter Jennings plays anchor, the screen image splits or cuts to the day's events, rendered variously: animation shows how Saddam Hussein might have escaped the first night's bombing, a not so motley crew of retired generals point to maps, go over the day's events, and guess what's coming next.

Such conjectures are definitely not welcome in other section of the war coverage, say, daytime briefings (Donald Rumsfeld has been visibly testy as the war goes on, as has his boss: "However. Long. It takes.") Rather, the official production focuses on the combination of force and flexibility that defines the Coalition of the Willing's effort. Tommy Franks underlined this during his first press briefing on 22 March, in Doha, Qatar. Here he and Brigadier General 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".

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," outthinking and outmaneuvering 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.

This segment of the War Show involves Franks' earnestly straight self-presentation, considerably less flamboyant than that of Norman 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," 23 March, 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 23 March, the stand-up asserted that a British Tornado GR4 aircraft was downed by a US Patriot missile, even as the tape below him rehearsed the US military's assertion that "no Coalition planes" were reported missing. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General 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 23 March briefing, the US rep tossed a question about the "reliability" of the Patriot to British General Peter Wall, so he might insist on the Coalition's "confidence" in precision soft-and hardware.

A similar confidence, just as suspect, attaches to the current wall-to-wall war coverage, as if more hours equals more truth. But the pieces remain disjointed and incoherent. A highlight reel as of 4 April 2003 might include the following: tracers repeatedly lighting up Baghdad's nighttime skyline; Saddam (is he dead or not?) Hussein greeting a crowd of enthusiastic devotees; a proud young Iraqi woman, weapon in hand, declaring on video her intention to become a suicide bomber, for her cause; and CNN's Walt Rodgers declaring, after an interview with a US Army captain, "The score was at least 20 Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles killed, no losses for the 6th Cavalry." (The score?) Or consider the eager young marines firing a missile at a target near the Saddam-now-Baghdad International Airport on 4 April, and cheering when it hits, like they've won big at Grand Theft Auto. Even the camera gibbered a bit, as if made giddy by the moment.

This last scene, like so many that comprise the War Show, comes courtesy the Show's newest and most astounding innovation, the embedded correspondent (also known as the embed or the embedee). Each is 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 notoriously "sensitive" Aaron Brown has it, these embedded journalists are set to "give us these snapshots, if you will." If it's clear to the rest of us that such pictures are selective, the networks tend to promote themselves as all-knowing: "Be the first to know." "We'll take you there." "We report. You decide." Mm-hmmm.

So far, the embedded reporters in Iraq and surrounding areas aren't so willing to risk "negative feedback," so rock 'n' roll as Esquire correspondent Michael Herr was — emphatically — in Vietnam; he 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-television encounter on 22 March is any indication. As embedded Sky News reporter David Bowden narrated, US Marines fought back Iraqi "resistance" at Umm Qasr, granting viewers the first instance of live-war-television. Staff Sergeant 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 US 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 soldier ran from the building, on fire.

Embedding is, most obviously, a next step from Cops, when the uni — 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. At once horrifying and seductive, addictive like The Real World, the War Show invites you to identify with your favorite embedee. Which is not to say that this latest reality program has its kinks worked out. According to a study made of embedded journalism in the war on Iraq conducted by Journalism.org, "Live reports in particular often lacked the things that make reality television such a draw — time and editors". This means that fragments, not storylines, are the rule. Conditioned to think of reality as The Osbournes or even The Bachelor, viewers may feel disoriented and anxious.

This is likely a good thing: war on television doesn't need to be entertaining, much as the networks struggle against that notion. In order to sustain interest, the War Show does tend to create, or at least underline, tension. What would have happened if, on live-war-television, 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 23 March, embedded reporters will ensure "truth on the battlefield." More cryptically, if not more realistically, Rumsfeld told 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 for an entirely strange-bedfellowing 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 what Fox News called "a barrage of coalition fire."

If embedding is a next logical step for reality television, 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: Saddam on television is exhorting his "henchmen" to do their dirty work (and here the limits of television are revealed: no one can quite tell if he is Saddam Himself, or a double, or a previous tape). The US President can call his adversary any name he wants, and, as too many ex-generals have noted, "let loose the dogs of war."

Bombs over Baghdad -indymedia.org

Similarly, the display of 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 US POWs, wounded or executed, is not. Rumsfeld argues that, according to the Geneva Conventions, 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 okay, as long as you don't tape and air such violence.

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 US "reserves the option" to wage preemptive war and allows for American use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states, unilateral and imperial rights assumed because the US is "exceptional." Again, this exceptionalism allows the US to take decisions against world opinion when such opinion opposes perceived US interests and/or official "beliefs."

Embedded television allows a useful display of power, exemplifying just why such "rights" might be "reserved." That such power can be made so quickly and blatantly visible on television 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) television. War stories multiply, as do the means to tell them. MSNBC came up with an "America's Bravest" wall of photos, sent in by viewers missing their relatives, a latest permutation of the instant memorials that crop up at disaster sites. And, of course, experts step up. Henry Kissinger appears on Fox News, talking with the mightily clueless Rita Cosby: "Do you think Saddam Hussein is alive?" she asks; "I have no possible way of knowing it," comes the answer. Over on MSNBC, Jesse Ventura, "America's most respected independent voice," has a new gig: the ex-Navy Seal and Vietnam vet opines to Lester Holt, "War is the end result of failed political policy, not the serviceman's fault."

To shore up all the opinionating, the studio sets are full of maps: digital relief types with CGI-ed "swooping" cameras, large floor maps where white guys walk around with pointers, Fox News' fx-ed "Flyover," 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 the occasional anchor notices it. Holt, looking earnest, asks, "Have we made war glamorous?" Ventura, looking annoyed, answers, "It reminds me a lot of the Super Bowl."

Some effects are genuinely startling, and foil instant accounting. Consider the 22 March 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 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 Sergeant 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 Line, 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 War Show has become increasingly layered. It appeared that a US missile hit a Baghdad marketplace and killed 15 civilians, though the Pentagon suggested it came from Saddam Himself, in an effort to cast aspersion on the US liberators. POWs were taken, including the "scared"-looking Shoshana Johnson and the since rescued Jessica Lynch. Sandstorms and mud slowed US movement to Baghdad: "It was biblical," Colonel Ricky Gibbs of the 101st Airborne tells the New York Times. "There's a movie, Scorpion King, that shows this same kind of sandstorm."

If it's not surprising that the War Show reminds anyone of a movie (even someone who's in it rather than watching it), it is remarkable that the War Show's fundamental paradox can be so often forgotten. War, everyone knows, involves killing and taking prisoners. But while displaying explosions and gunfire is good television, photographing such results is morally and politically off-limits. On 23 March, Rumsfeld denounced the Iraqis' "fake surrender" in order to ambush US Marines at An Nasiriyah, recounted after the fact by embedded CNN correspondent Alessio Vinci (and one can only imagine his terror during the event). Twelve soldiers were called missing or dead, with at least four visibly dead on a videotape released to Iraqi television. US media outlets refused to show the "disturbing" video (though they described it repeatedly as "disturbing"). Instead, they showed 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 23 March 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.

As if to exacerbate the show-ness of the Show, embedded reporters have been doing incredible stand-ups. Sometimes gunfire or explosions can be heard in the distance. Sometimes the reporter cuts the transmission ("Gotta go! Bye!"), and sometimes the studio does, when situations suddenly look too "hairy." At these points the War — usually, a landscape or Baghdad streets — appears as photos in the television screen corner, with a map in the center and the journalist's embedded, wind-battered voice speaking over the video phone. No snuff television, at least for now. (That said, on 4 April, the Washington Post's Michael Kelly, became the first US embedded correspondent to be killed, reportedly in a Humvee accident — the coverage has been reverent and mournful.)

And yet, some other sorts of reporter misfortunes (less dire than death, to be sure) are highly visible. Reporters, it turns out, make great stories, and not just because they have feral hair like NBC's David Bloom. The journalists taken from their Baghdad hotel rooms — reporter Matt McAllester, and photographers Moises Saman, Molly Bingham, and Johan Spanner — were released 2 April after 8 days in prison, listening to torture down the hallway. Their recounting of their experiences made them sensations, the object of much news-ish mayhem, other reporters poking mics at their car.

And then, in the days following, the released journalists found themselves treated like stories. McAllester talked with Larry King and Matt Lauer ("They were very polite, and it was quite disconcerting about how polite they were. They were not aggressive, but the menace was quite clear"); Bingham with NPR's Bob Edwards ("I mean, I was trying to sleep, honestly, because I knew I was going to be asked a lot of questions and I wanted to get some rest because I hadn't slept in several days") and Barbara Walters (who, ever the helpful reality television host, noted, "You must have been scared").

More embedding complications emerged in the case of CNN's medical reporter Dr. Sanjay Gupta's valiant efforts to perform brain surgery on a two-year-old Iraqi boy on 3 April. Stationed with the Devil Docs, he found himself called on to make a difficult "medical and moral decision," in attempting to save the girl, giving up his "reporter's" distance in order to do the right thing. The line he crossed made him look heroic, and he was interviewed repeatedly by CNN and CBS, to underline that point. Crossing another line, perhaps to take up arms against an opponent, or to help load weapons, would be less easily condoned.

If Gupta, like the doctors with whom he is embedded, can work across sides to save lives, the same cannot be said for correspondents who are dealing in stories per se. Peter Arnett's dismissal by NBC, for example, made headlines at first because the company changed its mind, first defending his appearance on Iraqi television (where he said, "The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan"), then condemning it in the most strident terms possible, by firing him (he was subsequently hired by London's Daily Mirror, Belgium's VTM News, and as of 5 April, the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya).

Immediately, the judgments rushed in: for such public doubting, he deserved to be fired, his reporting was "shallow," his interview with Iraqi television "Kafkaesque," "truly unwise," "ethically unresponsible," even treasonous. Arnett himself mea-culpaed the next day, saying he made a "stupid misjudgment," and apologizing for the "firestorm" brought on by his comments. No matter that, as Arnett noted, others, including generals and other reporters, had made similar observations (including his own network-mate, Tim Russert, just before Arnett spoke with Matt Lauer on Today on 31 March). The War Show, it's clear, is all about winning. It appears that "truth on the battlefield" is overrated.

Cynthia Fuchs is associate professor of Film & Media Studies at George Mason University, film-tv-dvd editor for PopMatters.com, and editor of Spike Lee: Interviews (University of Mississippi Press 2002)

Credits: Images courtesy Independent Media Center.

Copyright © 2003 by Cynthia Fuchs. All rights reserved.
 

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