My grandmother, who grew up in Brooklyn, used to talk about getting the news during World War I, how the family would wait for the paper each day and read sketchy stories with no pictures.
Later, my father would talk about World War II, how the family huddled by the radio when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and how the news crackled from that old speaker in the wooden casing.
I, myself, can recall Vietnam, watching a black and white television each night and seeing actual film of the horror in the jungle. Most of it was not live footage — maybe it happened earlier in the day or week. But it was riveting. Snapshots from hell.
And today, we are almost right there, in the heat. Our children sit before giant color screens with 700 lines of resolution and watch play-by-play of the most awesome war in history. They get live pictures. Live sound. They hear missiles as they land, see reporters pulling on gas masks.
The Persian Gulf has become the Super Bowl of wars, a hell of a broadcast, live, in color, every play dissected, every move replayed from a dozen angles. Networks cut to war analysts the way CBS cuts to John Madden; they go back to the studio the way NBC goes back to Bob Costas. Between live reports we see pre-filmed “feature packages” — profiles of ground crews or medics — just as during time-outs in football we see profiles of players or coaches. Graphics are displayed showing the pattern of missiles, much the way a pass play is diagrammed after a touchdown.
And of course, we get the score. Super Bowl-style coverage I’ve met a number of foreign correspondents in this business and they always kid me about war and sports. “It’s the same thing,” they say, “winners and losers. Injuries. Momentum swings.”
I always laugh. But I am not laughing now. The parallels between a football war and the kind with bullets are frightening, they really are; bomber pilots returning with their fists in the air, as if they’d scored a touchdown, generals holding coach-like press conferences, telling camera crews
“We’re here to win.”
But to me, the most frightening parallel is this: that we somehow start thinking of this war as a viewing event, something that, when we get tired or hungry, like a football game, we can shut off.
War is not a football game.
It never will be.
The one thing athletes always tell reporters is that fans can never know how it feels to be out there on the field, in the mud, hearing the crowd.
“It’s impossible to describe,” they say.
So it is with war. The fear, the terror, the anguish, the remorse. This, we cannot capture on a big screen. And this, sadly, is really what war is about. We know more than the victims After the most recent bombing of Tel Aviv, I managed to get a phone call through to a friend of mine who lives there, a girl I grew up with, a girl I used to walk home from school.
“We’re scared,” she told me. “We’re in this sealed room. The baby is in a special plastic tent. We all have gas masks. I mean, it’s really scary, you know?”
I told her of the pictures we were seeing of the destruction. She was surprised. “Really?” she said. “They’re not showing us that. Tell me what it looks like.”
I described the scenery; the look of the buildings, the types of cars. She listened. “I think that’s about a mile from here,” she said.
And suddenly it hit me: Here I am, in Michigan, sitting by the fireplace, telling someone in the Middle East how close bombs are to her house. It was then I realized this is a truly a war like no other.
And it scares the hell out of me.
It also presents a big concern. In my grandmother’s day, they had little news, but they felt the war at home — working at weapons factories, rationing gas and food. Same with my father in World War II.
Today, we have more news but less burdens. You wonder which was more effective. Right now, people are fascinated; the war coverage is almost sickly entertaining. But as the conflict drags on — and I think it will — slowly, like anything else, TV coverage will shrink, from all day to a few hours to special reports. And we, American civilians, will face the biggest test of living in a TV society: caring beyond the programming. War, after all, does not stop for commercials. Will we be there when the pictures are not?
Years ago, a New York Times war correspondent summed up the difference between those who fight and those who watch: “It’s the supreme privilege of being able to say, ‘I’d love to stay, fellas, but I’ve got to get back to the office.’ “
A privilege, indeed. Let’s hope we remember it in the weeks to come, every time we reach for the on/off switch.