Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Caleb Carr at the NY Observer:

On the one hand, stories of battlefield excitement could be illustrated as never before; on the other, televised images more often than not revealed that war was a terrifying, dangerous and often psychologically shattering experience. The power of the camera made most modern military commanders shun war correspondents even more assiduously than had General Sherman, and not simply to conceal their own sins: Three centuries of hard experience taught that a little information carefully distributed could encourage public support for an army, while too much information liberally distributed-remember Vietnam-could help frustrate a nation's (or at least a Presidential administration's) interests. The relationship between television and the military became singularly ambiguous-an unresolved situation seemingly beyond resolution. But for their new war in Iraq, Mr. Bush and his advisers jettisoned all the old qualms about allowing cameras to show too much. Convinced of the absolute moral rectitude of his struggle against Saddam, Mr. Bush apparently believed that embedded correspondents would only add to the campaign's glory by allowing the public to see the two undertakings-military and journalistic-as one great and just national mission. Instead, before the first week was out, the administration's new media policy became the factor most likely to complicate, frustrate and perhaps endanger the success of a military campaign whose brilliance cannot disguise the fact that it is, after all, a military campaign, and as such loaded with death, bloodshed, blunders and acts of betrayal as well as bravery.

Like other nations, we prepare soldiers for weeks, months and sometimes years before they're exposed to the visual and emotional horrors of combat; evidently, we now expect untrained civilians to make instant sense of these sights and sounds, and to continue to support faithfully both their troops and their government, while at the same time tempering their desire for vengeance against a cruel enemy. This is an enormous amount to expect from anyone, let alone concerned families and mystified children-even when our nation's cause is just and our methods among the most ethically admirable ever displayed by any armed force.

Worse, the practice of embedding journalists provides our enemy with images that he can prostitute as he likes. Men such as those who currently control Iraq, along with other enemies elsewhere, are unlikely to let the opportunity pass. Already they have made the most, for example, of the sight of a careless Marine hoisting an American flag over Iraqi territory-an image that cannot be erased from the minds of even friendly Muslims. How much greater, then, will the effect of such an image be on a mind already filled with hate? And when an unbalanced member of the 101st Airborne Division attempts to kill his superior officers, what does it matter how we explain his motives? Whatever we say, the pendulum of psychological advantage swings back in favor of our enemy.