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Television Ambivalence

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War is different: that’s all I can come up with to justify my internal battle between free speech – the public’s right to know – and my extreme discomfort with the 24-hour barrage of images and verbiage about the war, that, cumulatively, I find depressing and dispiriting. (I will not even address here the incredibly selfish, thoughtless, immoral, and just plain stupid revelation of strategic information in which Geraldo Rivera indulged – endangering your own troops can never be justified.)

Why? It isn’t any specific aspect of the coverage that is worse than any other: watch too many targeted explosions of buildings – what should be little “victories” – and it causes me just as much anxiety as shots of civilian casualties and chatter about “quagmire,” critiques of strategy, and grieving on the home front.

The truth of the matter is that war is dirty, nasty, ugly, dehumanizing business – especially in the detail – but that doesn’t make it any less necessary or the ultimate goals any less critical. As Steven Den Beste writes, there’s just an awful lot of information that the public doesn’t need to know while it’s going on:

    Japanese anti-submarine warfare capability was never really very good, and in the early part of the war it was particularly dreadful. One reason for this was that the Japanese had incorrectly calculated the depth to which American boats could dive. They set their depth charges based on that, and the American submariners soon learned that if they dove deep enough (at depths well within the safety limit of the boat hulls) they would be all but immune to Japanese depth charging.

    Obviously this was quite useful and interesting, and it began to be talked about back on shore, in a “Boy, have you heard about how stupid the Japanese are?” kind of way. The story spread, and spread, and it eventually ended up in a newspaper. And then one Congressman included it in a speech before Congress.

    As might be imagined, the Japanese heard about this, and started setting their depth charges to go deeper. This prompted an officer in the Navy to send a letter to the Congressman saying that he was sure the Congressman would be pleased to learn that the Japanese had corrected their mistake.

    ….when the Special Forces are operating in a combat zone, and are in areas nominally under enemy control and outnumbered thousands to one, they only really survive as long as the enemy doesn’t suspect they’re there. If the enemy knows a SF team is in a general area, and decides to get them, that SF team is in pretty big trouble unless it can manage to get extracted pretty rapidly.

    And the Special Forces also have something of a reputation for not really talking about what they do. Certainly it’s important during actual combat operations for their assignments to not be publicized. It’s not just that you don’t want the enemy to know that an SF team is operating in a given area; you also don’t want to let the enemy build up a picture of the kinds of things they do and the general way that they perform, because using that the enemy may gain the ability to start targeting Special Forces teams in general.

    Once the war is over, I think we’re going to get at least some information about what the Special Forces have been up to, just as we did with Afghanistan. But what we’ll learn will be carefully screened so as to not reveal things about them which might be useful to the next opponent against which the Special Forces are used, whoever and whenever that might be.

    ….The fact that something hasn’t been publicized doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The fact that we aren’t seeing pictures of captured missiles on CNN doesn’t mean none have been found. But even if we ultimately learn that there were no such missiles, the proper reaction is to heave a sigh of relief, not to criticize the military planners for wasting a mission on a wild goose chase.

    There’s no hurry in revealing that kind of information publicly. Those whose opinions matter already support the war. Those who don’t support it also don’t matter in the near term, and they wouldn’t be convinced by such revelations anyway.

This was written to defend information that isn’t being revealed: I would argue that too much is already being revealed (not in the Geraldo strategic manner), that the flood of war images is too much for the average person to process without at tempering that person’s will to wage war at all, and this is not good because SOMETIMES WAR IS NECESSARY – LIKE NOW.

Perhaps Al Barger’s stomach is stronger than mine, but I don’t want to see any of the material he defends:

    I fully appreciate that this footage is upsetting, particularly to the families of the American dead and captured. Damn, I don’t know words for what kind of emotions would be coming up if I was looking at footage like this featuring some of my people.

    However, this is a good part of exactly why this footage should be shown not just on al Jazeera, but on American news networks. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that Fox News and CNN and MSNBC are absolutely derelict in their journalistic duty for NOT showing this stuff. You know, “We report. You decide.”

    How can I properly decide when I don’t have all the facts? I do NOT go to the news channels in order to find out what to think. I go looking for facts and information on which to base my own judgment.

    Therefore, I want to see it ALL. I goddam hated watching any of that evil Danny Pearl video, but I’d rather know than not know. Put all of especially the most controversial footage out, and let the chips fall where they may. Oh, and some repeats of the ugliest 9/11 videos while we’re at it.

    Now, considering understandable sensitivities it might be reasonable to segregate the most nasty stuff.

Maybe he’s right, maybe seeing ALL of it would be more balanced than the selective self-censorship that the American media practices, but I can assure I didn’t have to see a moment of the Daniel Pearl video to know I wanted those murderous scum dead.

With communicatons technology so ubiquitous, it would be impossible to return to a time when the public sensibility could be “protected” by the media, but the irony of our current situation is that we get enough horror to depress, but perhaps not enough to generate the balancing emotions of outrage, the will-stiffening adrenaline rush of revenge, the internal howling dogs of bloodlust.

Maybe Al is right that we need it all – certainly the Arab world is getting fired up in the manner just described – but I know I don’t want to go through the emotional battering that kind of exposure would entail. I already support the war, I don’t need the gritty details washing over me – just get us from point A to point B successfully and I’ll be satisfied.

An obvious implication of this thinking is that the news should be manipulated for political ends. Should it be? News – especially emotionally charged news – is always political, there is always an underlying message of some kind. Perhaps rather than aspiring to “neutrality,” ALL news should be declared editorial, biases should be acknowledged and declared, and we should be given absolutely everything, as Al advocates. Perhaps pretending to be “neutral” causes the greatest harm of all. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that “nothing” is far too little, “all” is far too much, and our current hybrid state between the two extremes is unsatisfying as well.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    i’m with al here.

    if we’re going to see briefings every day about this or that iraqi position ‘softened up’, ‘secured’ and the like…then there’s no reason to not see images of what this really means.

    guys with their heads blown open….gray matter and blood spilling onto the sand.

    yes, war is ugly. and sometimes it is necessary. but it has many costs. truth should not be one of them.

    upsetting? too fuckin’ bad.