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The Iraq War: Eyeballing the Nintendo Apocalypse

When the revolution is televised, is there as much shock and awe as there should be?

War, Photographer

War Photographer In Soviet Finnish War, December, 1939

Gamma-Keystone/Getty

Amman, Jordan: Of the last to stay, Sebastian Rich and Nigel Baker were among the first to leave. Rich, a British cameraman who had been through many wars and had heard many bombs, heard enough on the first night of the American war on Iraq to make him believe it was time to head for the Jordanian border. Baker, his producer, agreed. They were a curious pair working together. Rich was a wild-haired swashbuckler in a leather jacket with a teddy bear in his pocket, a talisman from his kids. Baker was a teddy bear himself: round, amiable, serious.

The morning after that first night of hovering lights and deafening blasts, Baker drove around Baghdad to look at the damage and discovered the world’s first surgical Armageddon. Missiles had flown in windows and blasted interiors, shaved off communications dishes, imploded the insides of office buildings. But houses were left standing, bus stations were still open. The first night of bombing had been like hell, but the American bombs and cruise missiles had, like Milton’s Satan, found darkness visible. They had hit only what they had wanted. The people in Baghdad discovered with the sunrise that the inferno was not as bad as it sounded. Rich, who was in Beirut when the Israelis laid it waste in 1982, said he looked around and saw “the safest bombing raid I’ve ever been in.” But still, it was time to leave. They had pictures to get out, and they wanted out themselves.

On the road it was dark, and the six-lane highway stretched in front of them, empty, moonless, invisible beyond the taxi’s headlights. Western Iraq, on the way to Jordan, is a wasteland without relief. Sand gives way to sand, and the stars disappear into a flat horizon. Rich put one of his cassettes in the tinny stereo: the Eagles. “Heartache Tonight.” For years, first in one gulf war, now in this one, journalists had found in the song a kind of anthem. “Somebody’s gonna hurt someone/Before the night is through,” it begins. “Somebody’s gonna come undone/There’s nothing we can do.” All you could do as war loomed and broke, after all, was watch or — as some reporters put it — bear witness.

The driver began to nod. Nod off. Drive off the road. The car skidded to a stop in a small cloud of dust. Rich took the wheel. They went on, faster now. There had been a kind of convoy of six cars when they began. Now they were alone. The others had gone on, and Rich was speeding, pushing ninety miles an hour. A tire blew. Again, dust swirled through the headlights as the car ran off the road not far from sites marked clearly on the highway: H2 and H3. Every newspaper map and countless military briefings had identified those landmarks as the sites of Iraq’s Scud-missile bases threatening Israel. Somewhere overhead there were American night eyes watching this place, homing in on it, as they dragged the spare tire from the back, fumbled with the jack, alone on the desert highway with no cover.

The delays put them at the border, at last, at about 10:30 that night. The paperwork was processed. But there was no gas to be found and not enough in the tank to make it across no man’s land to Jordan’s checkpoint. Reluctantly, they turned back into Iraq and were heading again for H2 and H3 when the horizon flamed up like sheet lightning. The Americans were hitting again.

It was midmorning when Rich and Baker finally got to Amman, and I, comfortably ensconced at the Intercontinental Hotel, ran into them. The ABC videotape Rich brought out with him held the first clear images of the war. He’d stuffed it in his crotch like a tight-wound third testicle to evade searches at the border.

Now it was in a machine, airing all over the world: stunning footage shot through a starlight scope that gathered every pixel of luminosity in that terrible night, illuminating the Baghdad skyline in aquamarine, making each tracer, each missile, glow like a close encounter of the third kind. My god, we thought, looking at the scenes unfold on little Sony monitors, it was just as the pilots landing after their missions said it had been. It looked like the Fourth of July. Only better. Because, after all, this meant something.

I was trying to figure out what. Did these awesome images mean we’d won already? Everything we had heard, everything we had seen on the screen, told us Saddam was all but vanquished. The world was enthralled by the wizardry of the air war. Even military experts who had warned days before about the limited effectiveness of bombing now became effusive in its praise. The Kuwaiti front, after all, was a relatively small area, one opined on the Today show. When the B-52s got through with it, it would look like “a waffle.”

There is, on first impression, nothing so authoritative or immediate as a television picture. Add to it the high-tech gloss of a starlight scope or, as we saw later, the cross hairs guiding smart bombs and missiles to impact and the war you see on the screen becomes as pristine and precise as a computer simulation. This was the war being brought into the living rooms of America and the world — a Nintendo apocalypse.

But even on the first day, a cleareyed old Palestinian leaning on his cane in an Amman grocery cautioned me against too much faith in images. He was sixty-four. He’d seen five wars firsthand in this corner of the world. He was waiting to see and to hear more. “The defeat is not complete yet,” he said. “We are still under the spell of the achievement of the first attack.” Saddam had some surprises left, he suggested – and indeed, that night the first Scuds hit Tel Aviv. It was the same night Rich and Baker saw the attack that was supposed to have stopped the Scuds from flying and yet hadn’t. There was, it seemed, a glitch in the video game.

Over the next couple of days, all the rest of the Western TV correspondents in Baghdad — but one — came out. The Iraqis didn’t want them there and left them no choice. The only reporter allowed to stay was Peter Arnett of CNN. His network had special privileges, better access, better connections. It was the only news organization in the world allowed by the tight Iraqi security to have an open four-wire telephone line operating twenty-four hours a day between Baghdad and Atlanta. This had been the key to its triumph reporting impressions and sounds the first few hours of the bombing. All other communications were cut. “What we need,” said an editor from one of the other American networks as he watched in competitive despair, “is a pinpoint, surgical strike on that four-wire.”

But CNN had something no one else could or would have: the Baghdad ratings. Saddam, in his bunker somewhere, was tuning in. And even before Saddam started watching, there was the audience in the White House. The dictator and the president communicated with each other on a worldwide party line — so publicly that there was never any room for quiet diplomacy, so quickly that each nuance of policy was stored on tape before embassies and emissaries working for peace even knew what was happening. CNN was “better than a diplomatic bag,” Bush’s spokesman would proclaim as the war went on. Diplomats, despairing, were left to infer their orders and send their responses through television’s satellite dishes and correspondents. “CNN’s been driving policy since the outset,” said an American well familiar with operations of American diplomacy in the region. Diplomats “could send a cable in saying whatever [they] liked, and nobody would believe it ’til they’d seen it on CNN.”

Oddly, as the conflict and the coverage widened, the focus of the information coming out of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel was narrowing. Arnett began reporting like the hostage of Baghdad. The Americans bombed a factory they said made biological weapons. The Iraqis said it made baby formula. There were the officially sanctioned pictures: cans of baby milk and a sign. The Iraqis occasionally released tapes they had shot, at times and in places that no one could confirm, of Saddam, of soldiers and finally of wounded, dead and dying civilians. The tapes were Saddam’s answer to broadcasts from Tel Aviv showing the damage his rockets had wrought on a civilian neighborhood there. Saddam is always answering Israel, one way or another, and he would have seen the censored Israeli tapes himself on CNN.

Who knew how to get at the truth of this war? It began to strike me, as I talked to Arab friends, that they had an advantage over those of us who grew up in the West. Americans were used to accepting, more or less, what they saw and heard on the screen. The wiser of the Arabs were used to disbelieving everything. A young Palestinian businessman in Amman despaired, at first, each time he heard Radio Baghdad claim scores of planes had been shot down. He wanted Saddam to score an Arab victory, but he remembered the crushing defeat of the Six Day War: “In ’67 my uncle from Ramallah drove up to our house in a Volkswagen as a refugee, and on the radio — I remember I was seven — we were liberating Palestine.” The Yom Kippur War: “In ’73 my father said, ‘We lost,’ when the Israelis surrounded Egypt’s Third Army. And here, people were still celebrating the victory. Up until now people still believe we won the ’73 war.”

Now it was happening again. But all sides were playing the same game. On the first day, allied commanders claimed to have “annihilated” Saddam’s Republican Guard. The second day, they had “decimated” it. The third day they were merely “attacking.”

Some of us rolled up to the Iraqi border to talk to refugees emerging from the action. But they told wild and contradictory stories. The most that could be gleaned with confidence was that the war was growing more brutal, the civilians suffering greater hardships than anyone had seen those first few days in Baghdad. But the battlefield, as it really was, was beyond our field of view. The war the world saw and heard was reduced to flashes of light in the sky, censored videos, dueling communiqués, pool reports and monitored broadcasts delivered by bellboys to the rooms of correspondents in Amman or Dhahran. “It’s another fax war,” said Tim Llewellyn of the BBC. The thunder of battle was limited, as he put it, to “the rustle of filch under the door.”

Indeed, those of us who had spent some time in the Middle East had seen — or rather, not seen — this kind of war before. The fight between Iraq and Iran lasted eight horrid years, and it was allowed to endure endlessly, it seemed, because no one could ever capture the reality of the battle. The most one saw was a carefully guided tour of the aftermath.

Screams and stench, the suffocating dust of crumbled buildings and glutinous slicks of congealed gore were everywhere at the front. Reporters were not. And the fighting, separated from the reality of suffering, was allowed to go on and on. Somewhere, somehow, close to a million people had died. The numbers had just kept rolling over like the score on a pinball machine.

As the American administration tried, in the second week of the war, to reduce expectations of a quick victory, a sense of helplessness set in among reporters trying to tell the story. To explain what was happening, a correspondent could say a lot about politics and context, peace initiatives and diplomacy. But about the war itself there was little to know for sure except that somebody was going to hurt someone before each night was through. Somewhere. Out in the darkness. Invisible.

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