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War in Iraq: And You Are There

As with no other conflict before, the human side of the war in Iraq is being brought home to America and the world, thanks in large part to the electronic media. The Pentagon's decision to embed journalists, combined with instantaneous satellite transmissions and the sheer number of outlets covering the conflict, has made it into a first-person experience for the world. Credit for that unprecedented view is being given to Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Torie Clarke, who knows something about the cable news business, having been public-affairs point person for NCTA in another life. The Pentagon may have gotten more than it bargained for when it allowed so many witnesses to the realities of conflict, but, whatever the reasons, it has, quite literally, changed how we look at war.

In an eerily prescient piece for TV Guide
in 1980, then NBC News producer (now securities analyst) Tom Wolzien saw a not too distant future in which war was covered live, posing the questions: "Is it is ethical to show a war live on television? Is it moral not to? We allow our governments to wage war, so why shouldn't people at home see what they're allowing their armies to do as it happens." Although today's coverage is still edited to exclude the most gruesome, what Wolzein called "sanitized to make war palatable to a viewer eating a TV dinner," it is far closer to Wolzien's scenario than any previous coverage.

Although it is far from the first time that journalists have traveled with the troops, it is the first time that a war has been reported in something approaching real time. While watching the latest air strike on Baghdad by this war's general's, viewers get a running commentary from the last war's generals, with pauses for interviews with the grieving relatives of casualties and the anxious families of POWs and MIAs.

One anecdote that struck us last week involved an embedded AP reporter, who lent his satellite phone to a marine—the driver of an ammunition truck—so she could call home from the battlefield and tell her mother she was OK. "I was really missing home right about now," Lance Cpl. Tatta told AP. "I know that they're worried sick about me. And I could just let them know that I was alright and that we're probably going to be coming home soon."

We get the feeling that some of the journalists, as well as many of the American people, were unprepared for the fierceness of combat, perhaps lulled by the antiseptic-seeming Gulf War (an impression contributed to by the lack of embedded reporters) and some Pentagon PR. Thanks to the electronic media, some of them dangerously close to the fighting themselves, the sacrifice and pain are inescapable.

War in real time has magnified the impact of casualties, or perhaps only now are they able to be put in proper perspective. What might sound like relatively few casualties in a statistic looks, through TV's lens, like human heroism and suffering. Whether that makes it easier or harder to fight the next war, it is a worthy mission by today's combat journalists.