Since Day One of the war with Iraq, there has been a second front, the one where the military meets the media. So far, the military is winning. It isn't even close.
That fact was underscored yesterday when Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm, conducted another crackerjack military briefing, televised live from Riyadh.
Network-of-record CNN carried the hour-long briefing, as did ABC, which has been putting many of the briefings on the air. Perhaps surprisingly, CBS and NBC aired it live too. Was this because of anticipated news value, or because Schwarzkopf has proven himself such an able and captivating performer?
"In this case, our decision was based on the fact that we were desperate to get information on what was going on" now that the ground war was beginning to heat up, said Don Browne, executive vice president of NBC News. "We figured he'd have a lot to say, and he did."
He said it well too, emphatically and understandably for the most part, though some viewers may still be having trouble with terms like "multiple secondaries" and that endless list of military acronyms, of which KIA, for killed in action, is the coldest.
Not for nothing do they call the scene of operations in war a "theater." The Pentagon has shown a masterly command of theatrics in producing these televised briefings, and one assumes the generals have been coached in presentation techniques, politeness to reporters and overall congeniality. They learned the lessons well.
"I'm the theater commander," said Schwarzkopf; he has, indeed, proven the most popular and ingratiating of the briefers, although the telegenic Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gives him a run for the money. Both men inspire confidence, partly by talking tough when talking tough seems in order -- as when Schwarzkopf responded to a question yesterday that gave him the chance to say U.S. and allied troops have been treating Iraqi POWs humanely.
"I challenge, I challenge, the Iraqis right now to do the same damn thing in their POW camps," Schwarzkopf thundered, voice rising, "and look at how they're treating our people and the other coalition POWs." Then, smiling, to the reporter: "Thanks for the question."
"He's very good," says NBC's Browne. "He's a guy that comes across as being in charge, very competent, a guy at the top of his game. He's very direct. He doesn't dance around a question. If he doesn't know the answer, he says so."
George Bush and others are constantly comparing this war with Vietnam, especially as in "not another." One way it may differ is that this time the generals appear to know what they're doing, at least when it comes to stating their case to the public and making the war seem winnable.
Wisely, the Pentagon started circulating pictures of combat soon after the war began, a way of keeping the television audience entertained. Schwarzkopf had more footage yesterday. One half-expected him to use Warner Wolf's line, "Let's go to the videotape." Instead he said, "I would like to now show you a little film... ."
The little films were black-and-white silent aerial shots of targets being bombed, including a railroad bridge bursting into a Rorschach ink blot. Billows of smoke from other bomb blasts looked like dark flowers opening to the sun. It was impressive.
You don't think about anybody dying down there. You are being encouraged not to think about anybody dying down there.
"I am now going to show you a picture of the luckiest man in Iraq on this particular day," Schwarzkopf said as his video show continued. One could see a blip in a gunner's cross hairs moving across a bridge. "And now, in his rearview mirror -- " said Schwarzkopf, just prior to a bomb blast that blitzed the bridge but spared the blip.
At moments like this, the "euphoria" that marked the first 24 hours of the war -- until the Scud missiles began hitting Israel -- is recaptured, even though Bush warned us not to get used to it. "General, I wonder if you could speak generally," said one reporter. "Generals always speak generally," Schwarzkopf said, getting the laugh he intended.
The video itself was skillfully and professionally put together, with neat little white-on-black titles introducing the segments as if this were an art movie: "Muftulwadam Highway Bridge," for instance, which then went blooey. Some of the videotape was so lacking in detail that it was less like a Nintendo war than an Atari war. Anything but a real war.
One reporter at the Riyadh briefing complained to Schwarzkopf about the military's so-far successful campaign to "manage" the news. "Is this a question or a statement, okay? I want to know," Schwarzkopf grumped. He then referred the question and the statement to the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, the policy maker.
Asked about a newspaper account of one military operation, Schwarzkopf scoffed, "I would describe that report as bovine scatology ... BS," and called the reporter's source, whoever he might have been, "a liar." Such bluntly pugnacious moments are more likely to endear Schwarzkopf to the viewing audience than to alienate it.
We want our generals to talk like that. This one does. And unlike some generals of the past, he has yet to appear even the least bit buffoonish in his bluster.
Although the press continues to complain about military censorship in the Middle East, the public has made virtually no complaint. "According to every survey I've seen, the public by and large feels they're getting enough information," says Browne. "Obviously we don't. One of our purposes in life is to keep struggling and get as much information as we can."
Like all military briefings so far, Schwarzkopf's was punctuated with non-answer answers like, "I'd rather not say" and "I'd rather not answer that question, thank you." At another briefing the other night, a different general sounded more arrogant when asked about Iraqis captured on a gulf island. "I'm not going to answer that question tonight," he said with a smug smile.
For the most part, though, the military has put its best faces forward, mainly Powell's and Schwarzkopf's. If the war continues to go as well as they insist it is going, severe military censorship will be entrenched as Pentagon policy in all future such conflicts.
If the war starts to go badly and the public learns it has been lied to, however, Stormin' Norman will lose his luster and his charm will quickly fade. For now, the bloom is still on the rose. Recalling Saddam Hussein's claim that Iraq has now seen the best the allies can come up with, Schwarzkopf cracked, "I would only say the best is yet to come."
You have to hope he's right.