Television’s war

In the surreal hours following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, SN&R was struck by how Hollywood it all was—big planes flying into tall buildings, all so cinematic and made for the screen. It was impossible not to notice how well the terrorists understood America and our fetish for events that play dramatically on television.

Following that horrific precedent, it seemed almost appropriate for media coverage to play to this fetish during the first surreal days of the war in Iraq. The networks and cable news shows, with their embedded journalists, presented reality TV as a sort of Survivor series in which willing participants were put in harm’s way before watchful cameras, as millions of voyeuristic Americans wondered who would succeed, what team would fold and who would be voted off the island.

Survivor’s ratings soared because of its skullduggery and deceit, commitment and coalition, risk and reward—because it made good television. And so it was in the early days of war, when journalists caught up in the moment couldn’t help feeling awestruck at the dramatic sweep of events. The giddiness expressed, in the early hours especially, was pure reality TV, a multi-billion dollar game with stakes as high as they could be. One could even imagine sequels: If we could vote Iraq off the planet, then why not North Korea? Why not Syria, why not Cuba?


Because somewhere far from television’s war—with its action-figure journalists, diagrammed weaponry, expert “coalition” punditry and ever-present still camera shot of Baghdad—thousands of real bombs are exploding. Soldiers are wounded and dying. So are hundreds of as-yet-unseen Iraqi civilians. Prisoners of war are being taken. And who knows what is yet to come?

By last Saturday, television’s war had worn off; the awful truth had set in. And now, with every atrocious development, our anger grows, our disbelief triples, and our regrets deepen.

Those of us who disagreed with the unilateral decision to pursue this war can have but one view: The tragic deaths of American servicemen and women, predictable and appalling, cannot change the nature of our deep disagreement with the Bush administration on this matter. However it is played on television, the literal truth of war now dredges deeply into our despair, unearthing an awesome sadness, unprecedented in our lifetimes, at the misuse of American might.