MUCH OF THE NATION spent Friday riveted by broadcast images of war: tanks rumbling across the sand, explosions lighting the night Baghdad sky, smoke and dust. Watching so much of a war "in real time," especially the infantry's advance, was a new experience, uncomfortable and compelling. For many relatives of soldiers, this was especially true, the intimacy of live broadcasts mesmerizing as well as terrifying. From her living room in Fort Stewart, Ga., Stefanie Lyle watched her husband, a tank commander with the U.S. 7th Cavalry, charge through southern Iraq. She taped it of course, she told the Associated Press. In Fort Campbell, Ky., the families of the 101st Airborne get constant feeds thanks to reporters embedded from all three local stations. ("I love this gun. I love you, Theresa.") At the same time the mother of one of the U.S. Marines killed in a helicopter crash told NBC's Tom Brokaw that the live coverage was torture.
At times the you-are-there reporting has provided a glimpse of the courage and competence of American fighters; at times, of the tedium they face. The devastation of the bombing could not but be horrifying, even as it sparked hopes for the quick victory that everyone would like to see. Early shots of "shock and awe" were borrowed from al-Jazeera Arabic television -- grim close-ups of burning buildings, a river on fire. Reporters immediately began asking Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld if this was Dresden 1945. But cameras from American stations gave the opposite impression, of clean hits on Iraqi government ministries, mushroom clouds that rose straight up and disappeared. The extent of damage will take time to sort out. So will the impact of this expanded broadcast technology: Will it desensitize viewers to the horrors of war or give a new appreciation of those horrors? In the meantime it's worth recalling that this new live coverage gives an amazing picture but far from a complete one -- gives such intimate visual knowledge that we may be deluded into thinking we actually know and feel what's going on.