Musings on the War, Live and in Color

OBSERVATIONS on the war after long hours of watching from my arm chair: While feeling I was almost a part of that first-night bombing in Iraq, as TV brought me close in on that spectacular and awesome display of firepower, I recalled how civilians were spectators in an early Civil War battle.

In the recent book, ``The Civil War,'' which was tied in with that epic television series a few months ago, Don E. Fehrenbacher writes that ``hundreds of Washington civilians rode out to join the advancing army, hoping to see a real battle. Some brought binoculars, picnic baskets, bottles of champagne.''

Fehrenbacher added: ``Some of the troops rather liked the notion of fighting their first battle in front of illustrious spectators. `We saw carriages and barouches which contained civilians who had driven out from Washington to witness the operations,' a Massachusetts volunteer remembered. A Connecticut boy said, `There's our Senator' and some men recognized ... other members of Congress.... We thought it wasn't a bad idea to have the great men from Washington come out to see us thrash the Rebs.''

Well, thrash the Rebs they didn't at what the North called the battle of Bull Run and the South called the battle of Manassas, and which ended up in a rout of the North.

Then there's the question about CNN reporter Peter Arnett's censored telecasts from Baghdad. Frankly, I'm of two minds on this. I find a letter to the editor in the Washington Post quite persuasive when it asserts: ``These reports do not weaken our resolve to end Saddam Hussein's aggression; they play up the basic strength of our free society.'' Yet another letter provides a different, but also very persuasive, view:

``With a shrewdness characteristic of the Middle East, Saddam Hussein obtained access to a technologically advanced and respected worldwide telecommunications network to disseminate his inflammatory propaganda. Providing the enemy access to instantaneous worldwide communications is of incalculable value in any conflict.''

Arnett doesn't wink. He maintains an unemotional tone. But in little ways he makes it clear again and again that he is operating under restrictions that allow us to see only part of the picture. The CNN anchors warn that Arnett's reports are censored. Arnett has given us a window to the war in Iraq. And though it is a window that the enemy has distorted, I think it better for us to have than none at all.

I have learned a lot from the Arnett broadcasts. For one, to see so many people on the streets after the bombings was good proof that not only was the US aiming at military targets alone - but also the Iraqis knew it and were confident (at least most of the time) that they could move about with some degree of safety. I also learned enough from looking at the bombing when a large number of Iraqi civilians were killed, to strengthen my belief that this was, indeed, a highly reinforced command-center bunke r.

Having said all this I must add: I wouldn't have played the role of Arnett and others reporting from Baghdad. I'm for getting the story, and I think I'm aggressive at going after a story. But I would find it not only uncomfortable but morally unacceptable to be transmitting a story when enemy censorship has so distorted and narrowed the picture in order to provide its point of view.

I could not live with the possibility that such propaganda, communicated by me, might throw off my country's plans or strategy in a way that would end up in casualties to Americans or to the forces who are in league with us in this enterprise.

The cynicism from the Vietnam war really hasn't surfaced. For years it was frequently heard that the American public wouldn't stand behind a president in another war, unless the country was actually being defended against an aggressor. But the American people, according to the polls, are giving overwhelming support to this war effort. Some will say that they are merely backing the troops. Yet the president is receiving sky-high marks for his performance in this.

The protest of the war, at least up to now, has been relatively small and not all that angry. Vietnam with all its frustrations and disappointments may have been put behind us.

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