Only Some Of Us Are At War -- The Rest Just Watch It On TV

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The Austin Statesman (Texas)

Only Some Of Us Are At War -- The Rest Just Watch It On TV

For a bureaucratic policy, at least paragraph 11(a) of IAW Change 3, DOD Directive 5122.5 reads pretty clearly:

"Names, video, identifiable written/oral descriptions or identifiable photographs of wounded service members will not be released without the service member's prior written consent."

On the other hand, as David Carr of The New York Times recently pointed out, it has a considerable impact on what Americans see about the Iraq war.

Most soldiers, after all, don't prepare to go on missions by signing legal waivers permitting their filming if they get hit, and most journalists in Iraq — courageous as they have to be — wouldn't ask for them.

So the insulation between the small percentage of Americans directly involved in this war, and the huge majority that is the rest of us, gets a little thicker.

Nobody wants any American family to learn of a death by seeing it on the news — which didn't happen before this policy — and there are images, shatteringly common in Iraq, that nobody would ever put on a front page.

But this policy sounds like other rules for covering Iraq, like the one that forbids photographs of coffins coming home.

It's not that anyone's coffin is recognizable; it's just that a picture of 10 flag-draped coffins has a different impact than a simple news release saying that 10 more Americans died in Iraq on one day — Memorial Day.

It's the favorite refrain of the Bush administration that we're at war, but it's worth asking who "we" is. A tiny proportion of American families have a member who's served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the same people keep getting sent over and over again — now for third or even fourth tours of duty.

More literally, some of us are at war.

The rest of us are kept away from it, urged to support the troops but not to do anything in particular. Not to pay war taxes, not to buy war bonds, not to change anything about our lives, not even specifically to enlist to fight in it.

Watching sports over a weekend, Americans can see a lot of armed forces recruitment ads. But they're all about educational benefits and learning leadership skills; none of them mention that there's an actual war going on at the moment.

And, of course, nobody wants to mention that if there were a Vietnam-era draft in place, the history of the last five years would have been very different.

Of all the possible things that the people running this war could have learned from Vietnam — the problems of fighting in a country you don't understand, the difficulties of a land war in Asia, the need for a back-up plan because things will probably go wrong — the one that they absorbed most deeply is the need to control information about the war.

So there were limits on how the return of casualties could be covered, and limits on who could talk to reporters, and now limits on how photos and footage of U.S. casualties can be released.

The military has also declared limits on how soldiers are supposed to use YouTube.com.

There are other constrictions that have nothing to do with official policy.

At the worst moments of Vietnam, American reporters could walk the streets and talk to Vietnamese. In Iraq, that would be suicidal — not only for the reporter but also for the Iraqi talking to him. Last week, two Iraqi staff members of ABC News were murdered on their way home.

Between danger — more than 100 news media people have now died in Iraq — and expense, the number of reporters even trying to convey the reality of the war is dropping.

"This tiny remaining corps of reporters," says James Glantz, a Baghdad correspondent for the Times, "becomes a greater and greater problem for the military brass because we are the only people preventing them from telling the story the way they want it told."

Controlling the information limits our sense not only of the reality of the war, but of the cost paid by the Americans who fight it.

With the vast electronic resources of 2007, it's hard to control information as much as governments would like. But limiting it still raises the walls between the relatively few who fight this war — repeatedly — and the rest of us who see it on television.

Or who see parts of it on television.

© 2007 The Austin Statesman

David Sarasohn

David Sarasohn is a columnist and managing editor for the Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Oregon.

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