Constant war coverage induces viewer fatigue, judgment

What if you had a war and nobody watched?

The images of war were, at first, almost too wondrous to behold. Exploding missiles from far-away cameras mounted on hotel room balconies in the heart of Baghdad. Our vision was limited to lightning images in the night, fireworks flashing and thundering across the pre-dawn sky of one of the world’s oldest cities. And then came this week.

Suddenly, as passive participants in a truly televised war campaign, we got the close-up shots of the dead and wounded enemy, of injured and displaced civilians – and most horrible of all, of Americans and Brits killed in action, and prisoners of war, scared and wide-eyed – staring into Iraqi TV cameras and paraded before a global audience of willing witnesses, many horrified, many others outside this country, elated.

How odd that as the world often views the same seemingly unreal images from the desert, it prompts very different “images” among viewers from nation to nation. What we see as courageous troops liberating a nation is seen by so many others as the world’s only super power “invading” another country in order to force its will upon it. And despite those unsettling images, or maybe because of them, the planet is tuning into the battle in numbers too large to even gauge.

Most of us probably did not realize, in those first several days of battle, that front-line media coverage would take its toll on American viewers before the first full week of war was over. Now, here in the second week of confrontation, there’s little doubt the worst may be yet to come – the battle for all the marbles. The battle for Baghdad, and for the head of Saddam Hussein.

There also appears little doubt that casualties on our side will be costlier than many had anticipated, that despite those eye-popping first days that now seem like many weeks ago, Iraq will not be a pushover militarily – or in the simultaneous battle of perception manipulation to win over the sympathies of the world at-large. Rumors of Saddam’s demise in the very first, unforeseen, hastily arranged air strike of the war proved too good to be true. Within days, the Iraqi government seems to have rallied itself and suddenly its leader appears to be taking on the persona of the “little engine that could,” at least in the Arab world.

And to no one’s great surprise, Saddam plays dirty. From parading American POW’s before the cameras – to the more disdainful practice of using its own civilians as human shields to protect its civilian-clad soldiers – the so-called rules of war apparently mean little to the butcher of Baghdad. Go figure. At press time, the threat of using chemical and/or biological weapons against coalition forces on the outskirts of the capital city may send a clear and present danger signal to our own military leaders that we can play dirty, too – especially if it means toppling the regime faster, and ultimately reducing casualties on both sides. We got sucker-punched for our “moral approach” to war in Vietnam. Lesson learned, one hopes.

Possible face-to-face combat in the streets and alleys of Baghdad, unless it can mercifully be avoided, may push the envelope on exactly how much of this “Black Hawk Down” type real-time coverage the civilized world can stomach. We here at home always have the option of simply turning off our TV sets or switching to more pleasant fare. But judging from the first week, this world television event will set audience records that would be the envy of the Olympics, the Super Bowl and even World Cup soccer.

Those families most directly affected by the casualty count surely must turns their heads away from their TV screens, as if not watching will somehow help those so far away. But it seems the rest of the world, including us, finds it much more difficult to not watch. For the first time in human history, the people of a nation at war can judge for themselves how history should view it, and its outcome, in the decades to come. There is much we cannot see of the battles, but what is plainly visible day and night in our living rooms is more than enough.

What if you had a war and nobody watched? It continues anyway, in living color, even during the commercial breaks.

John Merli has been a Prince William County resident since 1984, and a Potomac News columnist since 1985. He has worked in the media for more than 30 years. E-mail him at: [email protected]

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