The impact of televison coverage on reactions to distant wars is being demonstrated again by the differences between Iran's invasion of Iraq, shrouded as it is by a TV blackout, and Israel's invasion of Lebanon, fully exposed by nightly TV coverage (albeit subject to Israeli military censorship).
War without television is an abstract affair, but war on the screen is a vivid experience literally brought home to millions of viewers.
This phenomenon also explains the striking discrepancy today between the self-image of Israel and outside criticism of its actions.
While outside Israel the war in Lebanon is denounced in unprecedented terms -- Israel being accused of a Nazi- like action -- within the country the army is praised even by the opposition for its humane conduct and consideration for life and property.
While Nicolas von Hoffman, in the London Spectator, writes that "incident by incident, atrocity by atrocity, Americans are coming to see the Israeli government as pounding the Star of David into a swastika," Israelis note that this is the first war in which refugees flee into the area occupied by the "enemy."
While the media abound -- at least initially -- with estimates of 10,000 dead and 600,000 refugees, Israelis regard these figures as preposterous and point out that precautions taken by the air force have practically emptied the bombed towns of civilians. Indeed, as any visitor to southern Lebanon can attest, Sidon and Tyre -- allegedly flattened by the Israelis -- have recuperated from the war with amazing speed. The unshuttered shop windows exhibiting expensive wares, as well as the friendly welcoming populace there -- Christians and Moslems alike -- contradict the image created by the mass media, and especially by television, of a World War II-type havoc.
The denunciation of Israel also stands in contrast to the almost total silence that greets other wars and acts of aggression whose barbarity and curelty do not attract international reaction.
What is wrong? Many Israelis react to this discrepancy by falling back on the ever-present suspicion of lurking anti-Semitism and see the comparison with Nazi Germany as obscene proof that indeed the "whole world's against us." That some anti-Semitic elements -- or, to use Conor Cruise O'Brien's phrase, "anti-Jewists" -- have seized upon Israel's action as a respectable vehicle on which to hang their still unrespectable instincts cannot be doubted. But surely there's more to this story than bad old Jew-baiting.
A partial explanation lies in the very nature of the coverage of wars by news media in general and by television in particular. TV and satellite transmission may have reduced the world into a global village, but in this village some streets are inaccessible. Most wars raging at present are not seen on television simply because they cannot be covered. Indeed, because the impact of TV coverage on public consciousness and international opinion is so crucial, one may divide wars into televisable and non-televisable wars.
In the limbo of non-televisable non-events is not only the Iran-Iraq war, which reportedly has flattened whole cities and whose cost in human lives is rarely even estimated. Ethiopia's two wars, with the Eritreans and the Somalians, the Afghan rebels' battle against the Soviets and the Afghan army, the continuing struggle in Cambodia and the Yemen wars have similarly become non- events -- not because shots are not exchanged but because shots are not taken.
There were two major wars in Southeast Asia. One, America's Indochina war, became synonymous with total exposure to TV coverage. The other, which continues to this day between Vietnam and Cambodians opposing Hanoi's invasion of their country, practically ceased to exist as far as Western audiences are concerned with the withdrawal of camera crews from Vietnam and Cambodia. That struggle was brought back into public attention only because of the flow of refugees that could be seen on the small screen.
Indeed, one may say that in our day and age, war is war only if it is on the nightly news.
Non-televisable wars are generally associated with theaters in which nondemocratic states participate. But there are exceptions to the rule: Great Britain excluded regular TV coverage from its Falklands war and thus rendered its proceedings less real and less painful than the grisly scenes showing the bloody confrontations in El Salvador.
Moreover, not all televisable wars are given equal time. Visuals -- to use TV jargon -- are of major importance. The polisario war in the former Spanish Sahara is a non- visual war, consisting as it does of sporadic desert raids carried out at night, lacking the trappings of modern warfare.
Even in the same war, the actual coverage is often determined by visual considerations. Sidon -- where only a small fraction of the city's buildings was hit -- was depicted by TV news as a scene of total devastation, mainly because a number of high-rise buildings that collapsed like card houses under Israel's aerial bombing naturally attracted the focus of camera crews. At the same time, the refugee camps -- some of them actually flattened by fierce house-to-house fighting -- remained largely unnoticed because the damage to the one-story shacks was visually less impressive.
In addition, because of limited time slots, foreign wars make the evening news only if they maintain the public interest. Remote wars lose their interest as they become protracted and repetitive with their daily litany of clashing communiques. The Iran-Iraq war lost its ratings, so to speak, once it became a drawn-out affair, and, being anyway non-televisable, was quickly relegated, until recently, to the inner pages of the quality press.
The civil warrin Lebanon -- a televisable and occasionally televised event -- suffered from a similar fate, although it ravaged the unhappy country since 1976 and has cost an estimated 70,000 lives. The regime of terror, rape and robbery imposed by the PLO on the Lebanese people similarly lacked visual angles.
Lightning wars -- such as Israel's blitz in Lebanon -- are the very stuff of which TV coverage is made. They also enable the networks to make an extra effort to send in a star-studded team to cover the war from start to finish. Because of this, and because Israel's wars concern a nation about which people have strong feelings one way or another, Israel's campaign in Lebanon was bound to fall victim to the arbitrariness of television coverage.
If the war in Cambodia and the Pol Pot regime -- the worst human catastrophe since World War II -- is on one end of the spectrum, being non-televisable and non-everything, Israel's wars are on the other end: televisable, visual, dramatic and highly visible
Israel, which seeks the support of the free world, will have to face these facts of life. It cannot remove TV crews from the front line because of its nature as a democratic society. And even if it were to impose a TV blackout on war coverage, the Arab side would deliver the goods from its point of view. Israel, like other open societies, will have to take into account the adverse impact of TV war reporting when planning its moves or else pay the inevitable price it is now paying in Lebanon.