IF the drama of war and the dreadful havoc being wrought on Iraq are not enough to make a reporter here feel small, United States Armed Forces Radio is all he needs. That was made abundantly clear last Sunday night, as I sat on the floor of the subterranean kitchen in the Dhahran International Hotel, a temporary bomb shelter I had headed for as soon as two explosions over the nearby airfield had signaled a new Iraqi Scud missile attack.
Eager to know more about what was going on above our heads, many of us tuned in on pocket radios to the Armed Forces news bulletin. But the attack merited only the briefest of reports, and then the station returned to its real priority - live coverage of the American Football Conference championship game.
This humbling treatment was perhaps a healthy reminder that though the Scuds have struck fear into many hearts here, they have done no military damage whatsoever. Indeed none of the dozen or so missiles launched at Saudi Arabia by yesterday afternoon had even landed in populated areas: All had been shot down by Patriot missiles, except two that went into the sea and two that went into the desert.
The Patriots are certainly popular here at the moment. The US anti-missile missiles have, however, encouraged reporters here to grow more blas'e about the Scud threat, even though we are working from a hotel right beside civilian and military airfields. Tiring of being trapped in the kitchen for an hour and a half each time the sirens sound, missing deadlines every minute, many reporters are working through the air raids.
If that sounds foolhardy, the fact that none of the Iraqi missiles have so far carried gas or chemical warheads has contributed to a sense of security.
This is perhaps misplaced. Until Tuesday morning, we all felt safe at daybreak, since all of the attacks had occurred at night. But I was awakened at 7:15 by the explosion of a Patriot hitting a Scud in mid-air just down the road.
Certainly no one is taking any chances of being caught by surprise in a gas attack, and gas masks in a variety of styles, shapes, and colors are an essential accessory wherever you go. Protective gear worn in the hotel's shelter ranges from flimsy paper surgeon's masks, handed out by wardens to those without better protection, to full Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) suits donned by journalists whose organizations have provided them with such safety measures.
The Scud attacks are as close as any reporters have got to the war so far. Although some journalists have watched Tomahawk cruise missiles being launched from a US Navy vessel and others have been on bases servicing aircraft engaged in the air war against Iraq, most of the 99 journalists writing pool reports from US military units have been as far from the action as the ground troops they are accompanying.
Although this will clearly change if the anticipated ground war gets under way, it is hard on this side of the border to escape a sense of unreality. Sitting in a town where none of the essential services has been disrupted, it is difficult to grasp the scale of the violence being unleashed from the air on Iraqi soldiers a few hundred miles north of here.
Since most foreign television crews left Baghdad, the only visual evidence we have seen of the damage being done by the heaviest air bombardment any country has ever endured has been film shot by cameras mounted on attacking planes and rockets. Clips of that film released by the military here to illustrate the accuracy of their weapons have only heightened the sensation that this Gulf war is a video game, fought or played more by computers than by men and women.
That sensation is surely not one shared by the Iraqi people as they shelter from the hundreds of thousands of pounds of explosives that have been dropped on their country during the past week. But for those of us in Dhahran, all that is a long, long way away.