When the bombing of Afghanistan resumed Monday night [Oct. 8], retired generals showed no fatigue at their posts under hot lights at network studios. On CNN, former NATO supreme commander Wesley Clark teamed up with Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd to explain military strategies; they were sharing their insights as employees of AOL Time Warner.
Far away, missiles are flying and bombs are exploding -- but in televisionland, a sense of equilibrium prevails. The tones are calm; the correspondents are self-composed. News bulletins crawl across the bottom of the screen, along with invitations to learn more. "Take a 3-D look at U.S. military aircraft at CNN.com."
At Pentagon briefings, carried live, the secretary of defense bears a chilling resemblance to a predecessor named McNamara. But the language of Donald Rumsfeld is thoroughly modern, foreshadowing a war without end: "In this battle against terrorism, there is no silver bullet." But there will be many bullets, missiles and bombs. We hear the customary assurances that air strikes will be surgical, and Rumsfeld echoes the metaphor: "Terrorism is a cancer on the human condition."
The reports about the bombing are laced with references to airborne food drops. Details have been sketchy. But self-congratulation has been profuse on television, now a free-fire zone for war propaganda.
Sunday night [Oct. 7], on "Larry King Live," a bipartisan panel of senators affirmed their loyalty to the president. The ranking GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a former secretary of the navy, illuminated our goodness. Sen. John Warner said: "This, I think, is the first time in contemporary military history where a military operation is being conducted against the government of a country, and simultaneously, with the troops carrying out their mission, other troops are trying to take care of the innocent victims who all too often are caught in harm's way."
Hours after Warner's explanation of American saintliness, the UN's World Food Program halted its convoys of emergency aid to Afghanistan because of the bombing campaign. Meanwhile, private relief workers voiced escalating alarm. A news release, put out by my colleagues at the Institute for Public Accuracy (www.accuracy.org), quoted the president of the humanitarian aid organization Conscience International, Jim Jennings: "Food drops from high altitudes alone absolutely cannot provide sufficient and effective relief that is urgently necessary to prevent mass starvation."
The U.S. government sent two C-17 planes to drop rations. Jennings, who has been involved in humanitarian work around the world for two decades, was not impressed. At a single camp inside Afghanistan, in Herat, "there are 600,000 people on the verge of starvation," he said. "If you provide one pound of food per day, the minimum for bare survival, it would take 500 planeloads a month to supply the one camp in Herat alone, and Afghanistan is the size of Texas. The administration has stated that two aircraft are being used for food relief so far -- for all of Afghanistan."
Avowedly, the main targets of the bombing are the people in the Bin Laden network. But the rhetorical salvoes will be understood, all too appropriately, in wider contexts. "We will root them out and starve them out," Rumsfeld said, just before closing a news conference with a ringing declaration: "We are determined not to be terrorized."
"That last quote says it all," MSNBC anchor Brian Williams interjected a moment later, before going to "NBC military analyst" Bernard Trainor, a former Marine Corps general. Like the other ex-generals on network payrolls, Trainor consistently uses the word "we" to describe U.S. military actions. ("We now have the capability...") High-tech maps and video graphics are profuse during the explications of war-game scenarios.
Former diplomats can play too. On NBC, Richard Holbrooke -- a media favorite who engineered the diplomatic runup to the bombing of Yugoslavia in spring 1999 -- chatted with Tom Brokaw while using a pointer and a bright-lit map to elucidate geopolitical dynamics.
Constantly crawling across TV screens, snippets of quotes blur together... Bin Laden saying that believers will triumph, Bush declaring "may God continue to bless America," the Taliban accusing the U.S. of "terrorist" attacks... As time goes on, the adversaries increasingly seem to be talking each other's language.
The on-screen logos, spangled in red-white-and-blue, exude pride in a nation resurgent. CBS has opted for "America Fights Back." NBC and MSNBC are using "America Strikes Back." At times, MSNBC switches to an alternate buzz phrase: "Homeland Defense."
Supposedly, bombing Afghanistan is going to make us safer back here in the USA. Yet hours after the attacks began on Oct. 7, the FBI called for heightened alerts across the United States -- because the risk of another deadly attack in this country had just increased. If war can be peace, why can't greater danger bring us greater security?
By Monday afternoon, networks were showing bombers taking off from aircraft carriers, en route to Afghanistan. MSNBC's viewers saw footage of warheads with "NYPD" scrawled on them; in the background, an American Flag fluttered on deck.
And so, a bait-and-switch process of patriotic imagery is near completion. For weeks, in the aftermath of the horrendous events of Sept. 11, the public embraced Old Glory as a symbol of grief, human solidarity and love of country. Now the ubiquitous American Flag is being affixed to military means of destruction.
"This will be a long war," George W. Bush promised on Monday. From all indications, the TV networks are ready to do their part for the military operation that has been named Enduring Freedom. But far from the comforts of televisionland, many people will be enduring our freedom to kill.