Watching the war
A look at how some Chicoans are following every minute of the first 24-hour war
Bev Hessler follows the action of the Iraq War with her laptop computer. While she’s at work in a downtown Chico real-estate office, the laptop sits on her desk showing the latest Gulf news via FoxNews.com. Her son is a U.S. Marine somewhere in Iraq.
Jan Camozzi is a substitute teacher by day and works the swing shift at Lifetouch in the evenings. Most of her free time is split between CNN television and swapping e-mail with other parents on her ancient Apple computer. Her son is also a Marine inside Iraq.
Ali Sarsour is a Palestinian American. A former teacher of Arabic at Chico State, he follows all of the Middle East’s conflicts through Arabic-language Internet sites. The Al Jazeera online television video was his primary source of information on the Iraq conflict until hackers brought it down during the second week of the war. He has family and friends in the Palestinian territories.
Mario Sagastume is retired and has a Marine Corps son somewhere in the Iraqi/Kuwait theater. “Not much of a Web surfer,” he follows the action by watching the Fox Network and reading the local daily newspaper.
Bill Allen, a Chico State University researcher, scans regional newspapers online each morning before work. Allen, the ultimate technology guy, has the capability of viewing news during the day wherever he may be on his PDA or digital cell phone but is content with his daily morning briefing.
Personally, the author has neither cable nor satellite hookups. But every day at midnight, I bring up BBC Television live on my computer to watch the British equivalent of The Today Show at 8 a.m. London time.
Like many around the world, each one of us is drawn every day to technology-driven images of a war 17,000 miles and 11 time zones away. And just as technology has changed the menace and speed of warfare, it has also changed the viewing of war.
During World War II, we went to the movie theater and cheered when the newsreel began. For 15 minutes, we intently watched the latest black-and-white images from the battlefronts of the world. The film might have been 30 days old, but to us it was still news.
With the Korean War, we still relied on the cinema newsreel, but those with that new gadget, the television set, could view similar images in their living rooms. Vietnam was the first war to come to the dinner table with shocking clarity and timeliness. A new phrase became part of daily conversation: body count. Each evening’s news gave us new numbers and images of Vietnamese and American dead.
Today, fighters are killed in real time on live television, and people on both sides of the conflict can watch the action in the palm of their hands.
For those with family or friends in the middle of the conflict, the immediacy of television reporting from Iraq means bad news may travel fast. Bev Kessler carefully watches each story or image that reflects Marine helicopter activity.
Her son, Brandon Kessler, a Marine sergeant and helicopter crew chief, is in a support role supplying the front-line troops. Sometimes she sees clips of helicopter crews and thinks that maybe one of them might be her son.
“I’ll see something, maybe a nose, and think, ‘That’s him,’ but it’s really hard to tell with the goggles and helmets they wear.”
Fox News is Kessler’s first source for news both on television and online. Oliver North, the former Marine colonel from the Iran-Contra days, is embedded with her son’s outfit and frequently posted features during the early days of the coalition invasion. North has flown at least once in Brandon’s helicopter and has interviewed the young Marine.
“I’ve e-mailed Fox to see if I can get a copy of that clip, but I haven’t heard from them yet,” Kessler related. “Whenever Ollie [North] appears on Fox, I stop everything to see if there is any more news about Brandon’s outfit.”
Watching news live from Iraq kicks Bev Kessler’s anxiety level into overdrive.
“I worry all the time. I’m a worrywart. But I’m going to acupuncture and doing some really good things for myself to try to keep from worrying. But I also know that he is extremely well trained, and the one thing that I can say is that if he hadn’t been in the Marine Corps before, he would be now. This way he has the training behind him, which gives me confidence that he’ll come home OK.
“He reassures me all the time: ‘Mom, I know what I’m doing; you’ve got to trust me, I’m going to be OK. Worrying is just a waste of time.’ So, I try to live by that to get through the day.”
Kessler recently received an e-mail from Brandon, a 1998 Chico High School graduate, but she knows better than to expect regular updates until the conflict quiet downs.
With two jobs, Jan Camozzi has a hectic schedule. Because her son, Jeff, is right in the middle of the worst fighting near Baghdad, she finds time any way she can to follow the action.
“Any chance I get, I’m on the computer. I check for messages or news at least once an hour and often every 15 minutes.” At Lifetouch and at home, she also watches cable television news.
Through the Internet, she learned that the Orange County Register newspaper has an embedded reporter and cameraman with her son’s outfit, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines. Although the media crew is with Alpha Company of the 1/5 and her son is with Charlie Company, she believes that their stories and images mirror the action Jeff must be seeing.
“Every day there is new information online about his battalion and where they are located. It’s like a postcard from the front.”
Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Sagastume is assigned to 1st Fleet Antiterrorism Support Team (F.A.S.T.) somewhere in the Persian Gulf. The nature of his assignment means that often his father, Mario, is unsure of Daniel’s exact location and combat role. Tracking him online has not been successful so far.
“He has e-mailed us three times since arriving in the Middle East,” his father says, “but we never know when to expect to hear from him. The anxiety of the whole situation is that I was a Marine in combat in the Vietnam War and would give anything to change places with my son and have him out of harm’s way. It is a helpless feeling being here with my son perhaps in the middle of heavy action.”
Sagastume’s wife, Nanette, coordinates a local support group for wives and mothers of Navy and Marine personnel that meets monthly. Jan Camozzi and Bev Kessler are part of that group. Kessler meets even more frequently with some of the other mothers, while Jan Camozzi keeps in touch with the group by e-mail.
Ali Sarsour watches the war through both Arabic- and English-language sites.
“I read both. They balance each other out, so that you can understand both points of view. The Arabic reporters travel independently, while most of the American news sources have reporters embedded with the soldiers.
“Those [American] reporters don’t see the other [Iraqi] side.”
Sarsour is cynical about any reports he hears from government sources. “They tell you only what they want you to hear, both the Iraqis and the Pentagon.”
Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based Arabic satellite television channel, was Sarsour’s main source of Internet images and news from Iraq until hackers, apparently reacting to the broadcasting of clips of captured and injured American soldiers being interrogated by Iraqis, brought down the network.
As the Americans gained more and more control in Iraq, Al Jazeera was able to resume Internet broadcasting only to be censored—briefly—by Iraqi authorities.
Bill Allen, whose habit of scanning news sources with his morning coffee goes back to the early days of the Internet, admits to Iraq War coverage overload. “You can only read or hear so much and it all sounds the same.”
Certain images seem to become icons of each war. For World War II, it was the flag raising at Iwo Jima. From the Korean War, it was images of weary Marines retreating from the Chosan Reservoir. Few will forget the final clips from Vietnam as helicopters evacuated the U.S. embassy. And the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, live on network television.
As I conclude this article, a new chapter in video war history is being displayed on live television. U.S. Marines topple a statue of Saddam in the heart of Baghdad and momentarily cover his head with an American flag. It is quickly replaced with an Iraqi flag, but that brief image will surely become an icon for those who do not want an American presence in the Middle East.