WAR IS STILL HELL. That has been the sobering lesson of the week, and it is a measure of the mental unpreparedness of the United States for war that the brutality of this war is surprising many Americans. The happy talk is not standing us in good stead. The uplift feels hollow. Americans have been killed, and taken prisoner, and probably executed, and we are shocked. We are not even sure that we want to see the pictures of what the enemy did to our soldiers. We are delicate, and queasy, and disappointed that the battlefield brings bad news. In a culture of good news, bad news is bad form. We are also hypocritical: We do not offer objections to the pictures of what our soldiers do to the enemy. We watch the bright explosions in Baghdad undiscomfited. In its targeting, Operation Iraqi Freedom may be the most ethically scrupulous air campaign in history; but there must be no doubt that we are killing civilians, despite our precise intentions and our precise weapons. War is still hell.
The dejection that has settled over many Americans as the war in Iraq begins to look like a war was to be expected. We were set up for this slump by the media, which inanely depicted the early days of the war as an Arabian adventure. The technology of journalism has been as hallowed in this conflict as the technology of warfare. Video cameras, compact satellite dishes, videophones, digital cameras, laptop computers, satellite phones: The abolition of time and place is almost complete. (The president of MSNBC told USA Today that the difference between the coverage of the first Gulf war and the coverage of the second Gulf war is "the difference between Atari and PlayStation.") The diffusion of wartime imagery has never been so swift or so wide. Reality has never before seemed so thoroughly transmitted.
The manner of its transmission has left it seeming a little unreal: With all these screaming graphics and booming soundtracks, one half-expects Vin Diesel to turn up among the embedded. But the problem is not that television has reduced the war to a spectacle; at this late date in the history of electronic spectatorship, most Americans can see past the packaging of the image to the image itself and be in different ways moved. The problem is that television has made the war into a big thrill. There was something grotesque about the exhilaration of the media in the first days of the war. The excitement of the reporters who crossed into Iraq with the American forces already looks ridiculous. No doubt about it, they were enjoying themselves in the race through the desert. Have they ever been more important in their own eyes? Whether or not Americans were titillated by what they saw on television, the media were titillated by what they put on television.
But the race in the desert came to an end, and cruelties were visited on American troops, and the gravity of history reasserted itself, and the battle for Baghdad was begun. The thrill is gone. And the stimulations of the media have left many Americans poorly equipped for exposure to the actuality of the conflict. The debate about Al Jazeera's display of the executed American soldiers is an indication of our unreadiness for what is taking place. Why should Americans be spared this knowledge? What illusion, exactly, is being protected? The feelings of the families of these victims certainly count for something, but the suppression of these pictures is still a suppression of the truth. The atrocious images will anyway be interpreted in many ways: They will make some Americans hate the war, and they will make other Americans hate the enemy. But surely they are essential for a proper understanding of the circumstances of, and the reasons for, this struggle. (Nothing made the culture of Al Qaeda more plain than the tape of the execution of Daniel Pearl, which was similarly suppressed. It was not a snuff film; it was a political commercial.)
Just wars are also ugly wars. Fancy wars are also ugly wars. All the moral assurances and all the technological assurances in the world will not make this war any lovelier to behold, especially if Saddam Hussein orders the use of chemical weapons against American troops. Will those pictures be suppressed, too? Perhaps the secretary of defense should lose a little of his bravado, so that Americans are not confused into believing that the rightness of this war is somehow connected to the ease with which it may be won. It may not be won quite so easily. Perhaps the president should speak a little more of American sacrifice, for American sacrifice is upon us. Perhaps the media should tear their eyes away from themselves and lower their voices, because they are interfering with the lucidity of the American people. "This is early in the game," Aaron Brown knowingly remarked the other night. And then he properly, and culpably, added that "it's no game out there."
This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.