The bloodless, euphemized war rages on.
It has been almost three weeks since the war began, and the American news media have not yet produced a single photograph or video image of a dead American soldier. This is partly because the news has been good: Not many Americans have been killed. But even the Iraqi dead are scarcely seen. Instead there are hardware pictures -- bombs being loaded on planes, buildings exploding in silent geysers of smoke, tanks sitting blackened and partially melted where combat has come and gone.
Consider the photos in the latest U.S. News & World Report, hot off the presses: There's a jet. A big howitzer. Another jet. A soldier with a gun. Two soldiers taking cover from an unseen threat. Some jets. Some bombs. Another jet. Another jet. Another jet. Another jet. And then nine consecutive photos of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
One TV crew the other day did show the legs of a dead Iraqi soldier. Not shown was the place where his head had once been.
Meanwhile, a strong candidate for Verb of the Year is "to soften," as in, "The emphasis remains on using bombers to soften up Iraqi ground forces." (This particular quote comes from the Financial Times, but a quick perusal of a newspaper database shows that nearly identical sentences have appeared in The Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Times of London, among other places.)
Do folks back home need to see or comprehend the gruesome, visceral, stomach-turning details of combat? Paul Fussell says yes. Fussell, a veteran of World War II, is the author of the book "Wartime" and the editor of the "Norton Book of Modern Warfare," and perhaps more than any other person has tried to remove the gloss and glory from the public's perception of combat. His writing spares nothing: severed limbs, fouled pants, terror that gives way to madness.
"This will be more sanitized even than the second world war, because the technique of sanitizing has been highly developed and it's more sophisticated than it was before," Fussell said yesterday. "It's just a collection of images which look very much like a Rambo movie. The whole war would change if Iraq would bomb Washington."
Americans, he said, don't appreciate the reality of war because it has been so distant a phenomenon in the past century. "It's fun if you don't have to fight in it. It's like a game, it's like a big adventure. The minute you have to fight in it it changes its character."
Historian Gerald Linderman, author of "Embattled Courage," about combat in the Civil War, agrees with Fussell that this distance from warfare makes Americans much more blithe about committing themselves to overseas conflict. "We have no sense at all of those civilians overseas who we expose to extraordinarily powerful weapons," he said. "I don't think we have any sense of the obliteration of people's homes and lives."
Not until 1943, more than a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, did the U.S. military allow the publication of a photograph of dead American soldiers. It ran in Life magazine and showed corpses on a beach in the Pacific. The press collaborated in the censorship, not wanting to impede the war effort and be seen as unpatriotic. There were few descriptions like the one that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower offered years later in the book "Crusade in Europe": "It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh."
In this war, the reporters might be more eager to write explicitly about the violence of combat. But, as Newsweek's media reporter, Jonathan Alter, pointed out yesterday, "There's a tremendous irony at the center of the coverage of this war. On the one hand we're told that it's the first televised, real-time war, and it's true that you can talk by satellite to anybody in Saudi Arabia, but in truth, it's really the first war that reporters aren't allowed to get close enough to really cover."
That said, there have been a few powerful images. There was the sickening thunder bombing and antiaircraft fire that first night in Baghdad. There were the faces of the captured allied pilots. Then a few days ago a CNN crew managed to see cruise missiles rifling through the air not far above the treetops in Baghdad. The journalists followed one to a building that had been damaged. A woman screamed in English that civilians were dying. "This is not a game," she said.
And then Sunday there was a brief clip on TV of a California woman who had lost her husband, a Marine killed at Khafji last week. She could barely speak. The clip quickly cut away because her grief, the broadcaster explained, was "nearly unwatchable."
The military expert on television says the Iraqi incursion into Saudi Arabia last week was no big deal, because it wasn't a "division-level" invasion force. It was just a "brigade" or "regiment."
The military should probably issue wallet cards to every civilian explaining how combat units are organized. Except it would be too complicated even for the military to figure out. What the Army calls a "brigade" is likely to be called an "infantry regiment" by the Marines. The Air Force refer to such things as "squadrons" and "wings," the Navy has "fleets" and so on. The easiest thing to do is memorize the Army terms, from smallest combat unit to largest:
Squad, platoon, company, battalion, brigade, division, corps, army and army group.
Fussy people might note that there is actually a unit smaller than a squad and something bigger than an army group: a fire team and a theater of operations.
Unit numbers are also a problem. The United States reacted to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by sending in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Why the 82nd? Is there something special about the 82nd that made it the best one to send? Yes -- it's the only active division of paratroopers in the U.S. military. There is also the 101st Airborne, but those troops don't jump from planes, they cruise around in helicopters. Anyone who knows about combat organization in the U.S. military knows that the 82nd and the 101st, together with the 24th Infantry Division, make up the 18th Airborne Corps.
The divisional numbers currently in use go back to 1917, when the United States entered World War I. Divisions 1 through 25 were to be permanent Army divisions, 26 through 75 were set aside for the National Guard, and 76 and higher were "national Army" divisions that were supposed to be specifically used for that war and would be retired after the armistice. Not all these numbers were used -- a division had 28,000 people in those days (compared with about 15,000 now), and there weren't nearly enough soldiers to fill that many divisions.
After the war, some of the national Army divisions, such as the 82nd, were not retired but instead were retained as part of the organized reserves. The 82nd was called into active military service in 1942 for World War II, and in 1948 it became part of the regular Army.
"It takes a lifetime of study to keep track of it," says John Wilson, historian with the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
To add to the confusion, three separate divisions at the moment claim to be No. 1 -- the First Infantry Division (Mechanized), the First Armored Division and the First Cavalry Division. ("Cavalry" is kept for sentimental reasons; the horses have been replaced by iron equivalents.)