Warning: Spoilers ahead! The following reveals major plot points of NBC's "Target: Iraq," CBS's "America at War," CNN's "Strike on Iraq," ABC's "War with Iraq" and Fox's "War on Terror."
Seconds after "Bush The Careless" announced that the U.S. military had begun its crusade to bring freedom to the oppressed peoples of Iraq, a nation trained its eyes on the skies above Baghdad like spectators at a macabre Fourth of July celebration, waiting for the flashy fireworks to start.
But wait -- is it morally corrupt to view a war through the jaded postmodern lens of commercial entertainment? Of course it is. But no matter how solemnly serious your mindset as you settle in front of your TV, no matter how chilled you are by the thought of Iraqi and American casualties alike, no matter whether you view the scenes on your screen as the liberation of Iraq or the end to international diplomacy, the spectacle takes over. And experiencing this spectacle without parsing its pop cultural impact or commenting on the absurdly salacious coverage by the major networks means, essentially, powering down your brain.
Instead of shutting off our critical capacities, we'd all like to stay focused on the larger meaning of the events unfolding in front of us. But the war pornography offered up by the networks is more than distracting: Animated 3-D stealth fighters and missiles, rotating while experts coo over their killing power like gearheads salivating over the latest consumer toy; video-game footage of "breaching sand berms" and "dropping bunker busters" and other bizarre maneuvers described in creepy military lingo; satellite photos that allow us to swoop down from space over Baghdad, glide over the Tigris, and hover over the buildings and trees and grass most likely to be blasted to ash and dust over the next 48 hours.
Even before the triple-X hot war action was underway, the networks were fawning over the impending "shock and awe." On MSNBC, Lester Holt announced, "Tonight inside Kuwait, U.S. troops are locked and loaded, ready to go at a moment's notice." Is this an invasion or an ad for Chevy trucks?
Cut to a naval officer, rallying his men, as a booming voice-over introduces the scene. "Aboard the Aircraft Carrier Constellation in the Persian Gulf, a pep talk for war!" The officer squints and sets his jaw, then bellows, "When the president says go, look out, it's Hammer time!" Our military leaders may be armed with up-to-the-minute technology, but it seems that their pop cultural references haven't been updated since the Gulf War.
Each network expresses its own quirky personality in every choice it makes. Dan Rather looks tired under his makeup, but dominates the coverage on CBS, which has added a CNN-style ticker at the bottom of the screen. NBC has also added a ticker, and Tom Brokaw soothes us with his usual calm baritone, apparently unconcerned about the fact that his eyes continue to sink further and further into his head, soon to disappear from view. Fox's coverage is, not surprisingly, busy and alarming, with tickers and logos and moving graphics that alternate between propaganda and hysteria: "Terror Alert: High" and "Operation 'Iraqi Freedom' Officially Underway." Even when nothing is happening, those being interviewed share the screen with shots of explosions in Baghdad with the word "Earlier" underneath them.
ABC's coverage is the most understated by far. No tickers, just occasional news updates interrupting the margin like the latest basketball scores. Peter Jennings looks fresh and pretty, but still comes across as the sharpest, most humble and the least turned-on by war of all the network's face men. Jennings frequently refers to those who oppose the war, and has called on ABC's "resident historian" Michael Beschloss, who tells us that "since the War Powers Act was passed by Congress in the early 1970s, every president, even though he says it's unconstitutional, has planned these operations so that they are likely to be over before that act kicks in and Congress has the possibility of pulling the troops out." ABC gets an A+ for having the audacity to throw a little non-military expertise into the mix.
CNN's Aaron Brown may have acquired a smooth, shiny cap of "anchor hair" since being unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight during the cable channel's Sept. 11, 2001 coverage, but he hasn't developed anchor behavior at all. Instead of being off-putting, his stuttering and blinking is strangely comforting, perhaps because it feels like the most natural response to the chaos unfolding in Iraq -- or at least, to the chaos unfolding in his earpiece, which seems to be connected to four or five war correspondents at once.
Regardless of which easy, breezy, beautiful Cover Girl face you turn to for the latest news, in each lull between action, the anchors and reporters seem anxious for more action. Like a disappointed Broadway theater-goer, CNN's Wolf Blitzer calls the events "totally unscripted," speculates that "they may be improvising" but announces that "this is not the way it was choreographed."
An eerily calm George Bush, aka "Criminal Junior Bush," interrupts Blitzer's comments to remind Americans, somewhat blithely, that "the business of the country continues to go on."
Afterward, though, the correspondents and reporters are still chattering among themselves, wondering when "the full-blown campaign" will start, wondering if the U.S. strategy is to "create tension" or "build suspense." Whether they're talking about the Iraqi military or audiences at home, it's impossible to tell, but the impatience is palpable. You can almost hear them muttering to each other behind the scenes, "Where's the shock and awe? We were promised shock and awe, damn it!"
While the media clamored for a better view, some of those in Baghdad, at least, seemed a little more aware of the grim realities of war. The quivering of ABC correspondent Richard Engel's voice, having witnessed buildings just across the river from him exploding in flames, reflected the kind of shock and awe that make you want to power down your gray matter and skip the spectacle altogether.