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Iraq passes its screen test

History cozies up to showbiz, with discomforting results

The pacing wasn’t as tight as the Gulf War. There were no wrenching revelations as in Vietnam, nor third-act theatrics as in Korea.

But viewed as showbiz, the Iraq war was a winner, as expertly executed as it was scripted. Never before have TV viewers felt so embedded as they witnessed the nonstop parade of harried anchors, sandblasted correspondents and ribboned retirees.

“Black Hawk Down” seemed lame compared to Saving Private Lynch.

So if it played so well, why did the whole exercise feel so surreal? Why was it discomfiting to watch history cozy up to showbiz?

To start with, were we really watching war or a sort of sprawling trailer about war?

Sure, the relentless clatter of artillery could be heard over the taut voices of reporters, but the camera angles were cautiously discrete. The dead and dying were always kept at PG-13 distances.

“The coverage of this war is as close to the truth as reality TV is to real life,” observed Joe Klein in Time magazine.

Was the coverage technically superior to that of Vietnam? Sure it was, but it was often steeped in advocacy. As the Boston Globe reminded us, the reporters in Vietnam were on their own, thumbing rides from unit to unit in their efforts to puncture the military hyperbole.

In Iraq, a mini-army of 600 correspondents was assigned to individual units. Vietnam gave us David Halberstam and Gloria Emerson; Iraq gave us Fox News’ Oliver North reminding us of battlefield bravery, as if we needed reminding.

“Embedding was great public relations,” Emerson told the Globe. “They’re not going to have reporters out there doing stories that would make them unhappy.”

The stories that were delivered made viewers happy, however.

The all-news networks have thrived. The TV cameras feasted on the ghostly landscape — the Ruins of Babylon juxtaposed against battered presidential palaces. Who could ask for contrasts more vivid than drones flying over the Euphrates?

But that’s also where the coverage faltered. The real news was that this was history’s first mega high-tech war. This was about laser-guided missiles pitted against swap-meet rifles.

Yet watching hunkered-down reporters interacting with weary soldiers gave no sense of the dizzying agility and panache of the military, nor of those phantom special forces, who always seemed to be adroitly ahead of the game, signaling danger spots.

In superbly orchestrating the illusion of total access, the Pentagon was also cautious about allotting exposure. There was no overriding presence, like that of Norman Schwarzkopf in the Gulf War.

Hence there may be no multimillion-dollar book-and-lecture contracts, as those awarded Stormin’ Norman and Colin Powell after the 1991 conflict. Donald Rumsfeld, one senses, doesn’t need the money nor would he trust a ghostwriter.

Can Act Three be as brilliantly produced as what has taken place these past three weeks? Surely, the journalistic presence will fade, and so will the hourly briefings.

While the war has been good showbiz, the rebuilding of Iraq may be both daunting and deadly dull. Oliver North will not be on hand to greet relief workers.

To the Arab World, the takedown of Saddam has played not like a trailer but like one long horror movie. Unfortunately, they better get steeled to it before the Bushies launch a sequel.

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