Embedded in the world: no excuses
CASTINE, MAINE — David Bloom's war coverage, from the vantage point of a US Army armored personnel carrier, made me feel that the electronic media were delivering a new kind of emotional truth in this war. Like an Ernie Pyle in real time, Mr. Bloom, who died on Sunday of natural causes in Iraq, talked to us from beside the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry. He drew us closer, creating a more intimate bond between himself, his viewers, and the view from atop his ride.
Bloom gave us intimacy with the US troops. He helped soldiers phone home, reaching back to their families through his NBC satellite headset. We also know through his eyes what they're experiencing on the dusty, dangerous drive to Baghdad because he experienced it with them - including artillery attacks carried live: no narrative distancing or the filter of editing.
It's only a matter of time, therefore, before, quite by coincidence, we may experience a real-time war death, perhaps of a TV correspondent while giving us such an up-to-the minute report. It's a logical, if horrible, evolution of the lineage of electronic war reporting - from Edward R. Murrow's emotionally real World War II radio reporting, to Walter Cronkite's videotaped Vietnam War coverage on the dinner-hour news, to today's nonstop live broadcast feed from reporters embedded with the troops.
Journalists embedded with coalition forces give more than a military story and contact with the troops. They offer a new intimacy with foreigners and remote, precipitous events. It means that we're becoming a "coalition audience." There is no gap - in time, distance, or intimacy - between events and this audience. Hence the emotional reality of these news cycles. We are there. We are embedded in the action, as are viewers the world over. There is no nationality to this coalition - just membership in the family of humankind.
Together we're experiencing the virtual texture of sand storms, exploding ordnance, or bullets pinging off armor; but I am most struck by pictures of the breakthroughs of humanity in unlikely places. There was the US colonel faced with a threatening Iraqi mob fearful that the soldiers would destroy their mosque. He instructed his troops to "take a knee." They did. Then he commanded that they point their weapons at the ground. The US warriors, in a powerful show of moral force, assumed a nonthreatening posture. It was a balm to a tricky, hostile situation. No collateral damage - just collateral humanity.
Or the pictures of US soldiers giving medical treatment to wounded enemy soldiers, as well as Iraqi civilian men, women, and children.
These may be virtual experiences, but the emotional truth is real: We're embedded in the world, and it's embedded with us - if we can also learn to participate. Will we, too, be our brother's liberator? Can we find a way to join the balming of Iraq? Beyond the fraught discourse on the rationale for waging war, we can't say we aren't involved with the fate of any family experiencing its effects - the family of an Iraqi mother or father or the family of the TV reporter telling their story. Do we not see our own family reflected in their eyes? Nothing is remote anymore unless we keep ourselves at a distance. This is the great promise of the electronic age and the burden of its responsibility. We can't say we didn't know.
Perhaps this redeems TV's "vast wasteland" of faux reality. If the medium gives us a message, in real time, of our fragility and vulnerability, it's also a message about our powerful potential to do good. Then we are well compensated for the media's reveling in the worst proclivities of our world. The camera's lens is also helping us to examine the depth of our own humanity.
• Todd R. Nelson is associate editor of Hope magazine.