Real-Time War

TELEVISION, it's said, brought the Vietnam war into Americans' living rooms. True, but film of the combat was aired hours, even days, after the action occurred. In contrast, much of the TV coverage of the Gulf war is ``real time'' reporting. Viewers often are seeing events even as they occur. Thanks to advances in telecommunications, never has a war been covered so exhaustively by the news media, and never have people outside the war zone witnessed or learned about the conduct of a war so close in time to the actual events. (We don't know, yet, how true this will be of coverage from the front if a ground war is mounted.)

This is a wholly new experience: The home front experiencing war in real time.

Is it desirable for all of us to share in experiencing real-time war? Certainly it is in some respects. In a democracy, the ultimate policymakers are the people, and they must be as informed as possible. Saturation coverage may help alleviate citizens' concerns that the government is misleading or manipulating public opinion, as occurred in Vietnam. It may help morale, both among troops and civilians, to know that they are, in a sense, participating in a common experience.

But real-time war coverage may have less desirable effects, as well. It could foster public impatience. It could put people on an emotional roller coaster, raising euphoria over momentary gains and deepening disappointment over temporary setbacks. It will intensify second-guessing by armchair generals. These effects will probably turn up the heat on military planners to produce quick results. This could increase the risks to troops who are thrown into battle according to a political rather than military timetable.

In the present media glare, would the American people have sustained four long years of fighting to win World War II? Would strategists have dared to plan an operation as costly in lives as the D-Day invasion?

But real-time war coverage is here to stay. So the people, the press, and political and military leaders need to learn - with patience and tolerance - how to cope with this new phenomenon without frustrating each other's rightful interests.

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