During a televised media briefing at the Pentagon on Saturday, I witnessed an exchange that made me wonder if Americans truly understand that war is hell.

"Are we likely to see another show like last evening?" a reporter asked, referring to the intensive bombing of Baghdad known as the "shock and awe" campaign.

You would never have thought that Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke had just finished offering condolences to the families of those who had been killed in the first 72 hours of the war. The moment called for sobriety.

But even the military aide to the Joint Chiefs of Staffs, who was on hand to assist Clarke, was oblivious to the reporter's insensitive reference to war as a show.

"I won't predict the future," he answered without pause, "but I will say that it will happen as much as required."

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that Pentagon briefings would be broadcast live to the Iraqi people as part of a new program to win them over. The Iraqis surely must have been impressed by Saturday's.

When the reporter tried to ask a follow-up question, he said it again. "The show last night . . ." he began. Fortunately, Clarke cut him off. "You know, let me stop you for a second," she said sternly. "It's not a show. It's not a game."

Nevertheless, it seems to me that "game" and "show" are just what this war is being made out to be. One military analyst went so far as to declare that if the pre-shock-and-awe strike against Saddam Hussein had succeeded, "it would have been like scoring a touchdown on the first play."

Now, as "coalition forces" prepare to move into Baghdad, we're starting to hear about the Iraqis "goal-line stand." The unseemly use of sports analogies and TV graphics better suited for an NFL game surely can't be helpful when it comes to preparing us for the reality of what is happening.

(I also don't think it's good when nearly all of what we see on TV is controlled by a handful of corporate moguls.)

I can imagine millions of American couch potatoes in front of their television sets, getting ready for the next episode of the ultimate in reality TV. Anyway, they think it's reality.

Not to sound too paranoid, but have you ever seen a U.S. military manual on psychological operations for the media?

"Television offers many advantages for propaganda operations, and its wide application in other fields contributes to its acceptance and use," says a manual put out by the Army. "Television is immediate; in effect, it places the viewer in two locations simultaneously, creating the illusion of participating in a distant event."

All you need is a message, say, "War is noisy and blurry and bright at night, but otherwise relatively blood-free." Rate it PG-13.

We could try putting ourselves in the shoes of Iraqi civilians, which would require some imagination because we almost never see images of their dead. Our military hasn't been so careful of their feelings. U.S. warplanes have dropped millions of propaganda leaflets on Iraq, some of which have photographs of dead Iraqi children and of Iraqis carrying a coffin.

The Arabic words on those leaflets amount to a request that they not help Hussein use chemical weapons and a warning that chemical weapons could kill them as well as U.S. soldiers. But it would be understandable if some Iraqis, especially those who cannot read, just didn't get it, if they saw the leaflets as a threat.

In the meantime, the show goes on.

When the videotape of U.S. soldiers who apparently had been killed and captured by the Iraqi military was broadcast the other night, America didn't see it -- ostensibly out of respect for the families.

But President Bush could have immediately sent personal messages to those families, including tributes and explanations. Then called for the videotape to be broadcast.

How odd, I thought, that the world's greatest democracy and foremost champion of a free press was one of the few places in the world that had engaged in censorship.

Maybe that Marine played by Jack Nicholson was right. We really can't handle the truth.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com