"A-Day" (that will live in infamy)

Baghdad's in flames and the "embedded" media troops invade Iraq, anxious to share the thrill of war with couch-bound civilians back home. Meanwhile, one Illinois family gets that awful knock on the door.


Heather Havrilesky
March 23, 2003 2:00AM (UTC)

On Friday afternoon, after over 24 hours of loudly speculating about when they'd get the "shock and awe" that the Pentagon promised them, the networks' anchors savored the latest announcement from the capital: Today is "A" Day! The "A" stands for "air"! The pyrotechnics are on the way!

Minutes later, those cameras trained on the skies above Baghdad captured massive explosions -- bright orange flames and clouds of black smoke, scored with deafening, thunderous booms. Correspondents in Baghdad offered a nerve-racking play-by-play from their vantage points just across the river from the government buildings being demolished by 2,000-pound bombs.

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On ABC, Peter Jennings was talking Richard Engel through the trauma of the doomsday echoing around him.

Jennings: "Richard, take a deep breath, just take a deep breath, just hang on for one second, and we'll reaffirm to the audience, what we believe we're seeing -- and I can totally understand Richard's feeling at the moment -- what the U.S. has told us we were going to see is very calculated, very careful bombing of very specific targets. This is supposed to be a situation, of course, where 90 percent of munitions dropped on an urban setting are supposed to be smart cruise missiles ..." There's a huge blast; the camera shakes as if the cameraman is frightened.

Engel: "You just start to wonder about that other 10 percent. I hope that they're relatively clever as well ..."

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Both men chuckle nervously.

Engel: "Right now, it seems to have gone quiet for a second ... I thought that a few minutes ago, but ... Well, now, I was mistaken ... That was another very large explosion. You can see the orange ball and then you can hear it later, so ... [gasp] I really don't like the anti-aircraft fire going over this motel ... Um ... Like I said, I -- I -- I don't know what is coming down on us, but these are big, very big, uh, explosives that are coming down."

Jennings: "Richard, the moment you feel you want to go downstairs, please go. If you're happy, you sound extremely valuable, but the moment you want to go down ..."

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As massive blasts light up the screen, news that a second U.S. Marine has been killed. No speculation was offered on how many humans might be dying in the explosions in front of our eyes.

On MSNBC, Peter Arnett sounded jittery but a little more jazzed about watching the show.

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Arnett: "This is shock and awe for the population of Baghdad! Shock and awe indeed ... We had a ringside view, right in front of us, at least 10 major buildings were destroyed, Tom, in the course of the last two minutes. An amazing sight, just like out of an action movie, but this is real, this is real, Tom! This is shock and awe, Tom!"

Those who found the words "shock and awe" a shockingly inappropriate way to describe blasting the living daylights out of a city half a world away from us were clearly missing the point. In fact, which words would be more appropriate to describe the administration and the media's tag-team effort to transform our country's military strong-arming into a breathtaking thrill ride?

This is a made-for-TV war. At the Pentagon briefing following the majority of the bombing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bragged that "more people in the world have access to what is taking place" than ever before. "Hundreds of people in the free press have been offered and accepted the opportunity to join and be connected with practically every aspect in this campaign."

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Rumsfeld was referring, of course, to those tireless correspondents in the field, dressed in fatigues, reporting breathlessly from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf, or from the deserts of Southern Iraq. "We're racing toward Baghdad," they tell us, narrating pixilated images of blurry tanks and miles of sand stretching out in every direction. "We should be there in under 24 hours!"

But for all the bravado of the troops of reporters getting psyched up to liberate Iraq, those in Baghdad were a little less enthused. And sure enough, as soon as the Pentagon briefing ended, the action started again. "It almost seems too perfectly timed," remarked ABC's Richard Engel.

Of course, the exciting explosions couldn't go on forever, and when they died down, the networks had to find other ways to occupy their time.

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So we went live to St. Anne, Ill., the hometown of Ryan Beaupre, one of four Marines killed when a military helicopter crashed in Kuwait. Jim Avila of MSNBC announced, "The worst thing that can happen to a military family happened here, at this house behind me. At 3 o'clock this morning, three Marines walked up to the door, knocked on the door, and gave the bad news that, in fact, Ryan Beaupre had died, one of the first casualties of this war." Too bad the cameras couldn't have been there when those Marines actually knocked on the door, huh, Jim?

But forget casualties, here's military analyst Tony Cortisman, who reports, "I think a lot of people in the world's oil markets are going to be reassured today, not necessarily about Iraq's, but that all the other oil in the Gulf is safe."

Next on ABC, Jennings announces that the network has received video from Iraq. "Though it's in Arabic, we'll just let you listen to it, because the bombing goes on at the same time." We see a small room with a few Iraqi officials looking at a map while bombs thunder around them.

On Fox News, an anchor named Jeff couldn't quite rein in his raw enthusiasm as he reviewed stills of the explosions in Baghdad: "This looks like that first big explosion that happened ... This looks like that particular one, of course it could be a building burning, I don't know what it is, but it's nice looking, isn't it? This is another explosion, believed to be another one of those enormous bombs, those 2,000-pound bombs ... It was quite an impressive sight."

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When they finally got tired of repeating the same footage and stills over and over again, the networks went back to the video games: helicopters and tanks advancing across a 3-D desert, bomb's eye views, descending on targets and blowing them to smithereens, "bunker busters" in action, piercing through several underground floors, leaving a blackened interior. We'll have to wait for the Playstation version to get the dramatic details our 14-year-old boys crave -- like cartoon Iraqi leaders fleeing for their lives.

And every hour or so, each channel would carefully review the latest weapons in the U.S. military's arsenal, along with speed, range, and cost: the B-2 Spirit ($2.1 billion price tag), the F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter, the BGM-109 Tomahawk Block III ... Is this stuff for the teenage boys, too?

No matter how you feel about this war, the TV coverage can send you to the brink of insanity. After the third or fourth hour of watching the same explosions, seeing the same excited reporters racing through the desert and watching the same military analysts outlining same mind-numbingly expensive weapons, vertigo sets in and it's impossible to stand another minute of it.

This is an eye for an eye, on a global scale. We finally one-upped Osama bin Laden by providing a spectacle more stunning than the one the world witnessed on Sept. 11, 2001. Now, instead of sympathizing with us, angry masses of disempowered citizens throw stones and set fires in the streets of cities across the globe, while at home arrogant men continue to brag about their deadly toys.

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Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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Iraq Iraq War Middle East National Security Television

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