[24 March 2003]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
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, 21 March 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, 21 March 2003)
Death and information: the realities of war.
—Peter Jennings (ABC News World News Tonight, 22 March 2003)
According to Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S military’s first ever, most wondrous and unparalleled “effects-based campaign” is now underway. That is, rather than bomb everything in sight (also known as “overwhelming force” and deployed by Colin Powell in Gulf War I), the new war against Iraq is designed to “shock and awe.” Operation Iraqi Freedom—also known as “Strike on Iraq” (CNN) or “Target: Iraq” (MSNBC)—is something of an experiment for the U.S. military, in which various divisions get to try out their latest strategies and gizmos. So far, they have yet to deploy the MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) that someone is dying to drop on the very man who 12 years ago coined that very same “mother of all” usage.
The war on Iraq—or more precisely, the war on Iraq on tv—is all about such coinages, identifying the latest attractions and sensations. 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.” 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 are aided immeasurably by an 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.”
These embedded journalists aren’t yet so rock ‘n’ roll as Esquire correspondent Michael Herr in Vietnam (who 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 22 March is any indication. CNN’s Aaron Brown describes their work as “giv[ing] us these snapshots, if you will.” 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 Sergeant Nick Lerma observed afterwards that it “rapidly escalated from a skirmish into a full-scale battle,” with the camera rolling.
Embedding is the 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 (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’ bodies? The scene might have transformed into snuff footage in an instant.
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 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 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 friendly fire; according to Fox News, he was “caught in a barrage of Coalition fire.”
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. According to Geneva Convention, says Rumsfeld, it’s “illegal for prisoners of war to be shown and pictured and humiliated” (and while, in Rumsfeld’s thinking, this rule does not apply to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, not a POW per se, it’s not a stretch to see that other people might not see it that way).
This 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. 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 U.S. “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 U.S. is “exceptional.” Again, this exceptionalism allows the U.S. 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, ranging from the mundane concern with the Oscars (on which tip, Will Smith is suddenly the most decent man in the entertainment industry, the first to say that attending is disrespectful at a time when the U.S. is dropping bombs on another country) to the appalling. For this last, 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 “his” unit 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 Sergeant Asan Akbar, allegedly does resent being ordered to kill fellow Muslims, but at the time of Brown’s remark, no one could have known this.)
Repeatedly, tv and its representatives make difficult choices: basketball and golf air, as do Fastlane, Wheel of Fortune, Law & Order, and of course, the Oscars (no Renée Zellweger tearing up for Barbara Walters, though). MTV showed respect, postponing scheduled Spring Break programming and (in between wholly annoying but arguably distracting Real World/Road Rules Challenge reruns) instead replayed respectful and educational programs like Gideon Yago’s Diary and MTV News segments on Arab American teens’ feelings about the war and Stateside racism, on kids Yago met in the Middle East and a Marine featured in Shipping Out, an April series briefly previewed over the war’s first weekend.
But, while MTV offers a range of viewpoints and personal stories, the ostensibly adult channels are prone to ponder abstract and broader-brush war scenarios, with elaborate maps (see MSNBC’s General Trainor, with pointer in hand as he bestrides a big floor map of Iraq) and authorities explaining weapons and strategies. As much as this may seem the “safest” way to report a war, it loses track of the fact that people are actually adversely affected by pounding bombs and gunfire, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
But such effects are only important if they can be displayed. To paraphrase General 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; searches for images of “frenzied digging”; negotiations with temperamental video-phones; scrutinizes of “strike packages”; and lots of time to count down. On 19 March, a ticker in the corner of CNN’s screen kept track of the hours, minutes, and finally, seconds, until 8pm ET, Hussein’s last moment to choose exile over certain doom.
The means to the latter, spectacularly televised air-strikes, now occurs 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 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.
Part of this show involves Franks’ self-presentation, considerably less flamboyant than that of General 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 “toughest day” yet, 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 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 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 U.S. 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.
The paradox of war—that it involves killing and taking prisoners, but photographing such results is morally and politically off-limits, on 23 March 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 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.
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 21 March, stateside reporters sought out relatives, Captain 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 effects of such bombing and advancing. On the evening of 23 March, Peter Jennings interviewed Anecita Hudson, Filipino-born mother of 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 thinks he means, disturbing Mrs. Hudson is exactly the point of this show. The camera holds on a photo of her missing son as her teary response takes up the soundtrack for endless seconds. An important and (somehow) meaningful “get” for ABC News, Mrs. Hudson’s all-too-live pain and fear are here turned into the latest dose of embedded tv.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/030324-iraq-fuchs/