Now that the heavy fighting in Beirut is over and the PLO has been shipped off to live in assorted nations, I am left with one lingering image of this war. No, for once, it's not an image I saw on television. It's an image I saw of television.
In my lifetime, I've watched a lot of wars in prime time. Usually there are
good guys and bad guys. Usually, those wars are resolved before the commercial.
But in the news, it's different. In the news, wars go on and on. In the news, we see less glory and more gore. In the news, the sides are not divided into good guys and bad guys, but aggressors and victims.
It was true in Vietnam, it was true in Iran and Iraq, Afghanistan and El Salvador, and now in Lebanon. We beam home the pictures of the wounded, the innocent bystanders, the casualties. And the war lovers don't like that.
Ever since Vietnam, we've heard complaints that television news was somehow biased. There were angry accusations that the nightly news fomented the protest movement in the '70s. Now we hear that the camera, simply by filming the uprooted of Beirut, the refuse of war, made a statement against the Israeli artillery.
There were suggestions that it wasn't quite cricket to offer up "features" on the effects of the war on a family, a street, a building, a neighborhood. I even heard that there was something unfair about "human interest" stories on the wounded of the militarized zone, stories giving them names and faces and titles: aunt, son, father.
Well, I agree that television is biased. To the degree that TV does its job well, tells us the facts of life in a conflict, it is intrinsically anti-war.
It's anti-war because the average person sitting in the living room responds to another human being. However immunized by years of war movies, we know, as Eliot said in "E.T.": "This is reality." War may be impersonal. But introduce us to a single person, tell us what she thinks, tell us what he feels, tell us what happened to his or her life -- and we will care. It is our saving grace.
In our war-sophisticated world, we have learned that before we can kill people, we have to dehumanize them. They are no longer human beings but gooks or kikes or animals. The Japanese who experimented on human guinea pigs in World War II called them "maruta": logs of wood.
It is even easier when we lob missiles from an invisible distance or drop bombs from 15,000 feet at "targets." It's more like an Atari game than a murder. Conversely, the more we humanize people, the more we personalize war, the harder it is to commit.
Our ability to make war impersonal is scariest when we think of nuclear war games. Some years ago, Roger Fisher, a Harvard Law School professor, made a radical proposal for bringing nuclear war home to the man who could actually wage it. We would implant the code needed to fire the first missiles in a capsule near the heart of a volunteer. The president would have to kill one human being before he could kill millions.
"I made the suggestion," says Fisher now, "to demonstrate the difference between the abstract question of saying that I am prepared to kill 20 million people in the defense of freedom and the personal human question saying I am prepared to kill somebody I know, in order to do this.
"There's a difference between saying, we'll exercise Plan A, Option 6B and saying, 'Uh, George, I'm afraid I have to kill you in order to exercise the nuclear option. Shall we do it right here on the White House carpet or in the bathroom?' It brings home what it's about."
In conventional warfare, television does the same sort of thing. It brings home what war is all about: killing, wounding, destroying. It doesn't film ideals, but realities. TV isn't in the war room or the computer room, but the hospital room.
This is not unabashed praise of TV. There are enormous risks in slanted war coverage. It's easy to make yesterday's villain into today's victim. It's easy to portray self-defense as aggression, and be manipulated into sympathy for terrorists.
But if we can't solve problems by confrontations that are resolved before the commercial, if war usually produces victims, not answers, then we have to see this in human terms and witness the personal edge of devastation.
There are people who worry that humanizing war will undermine our resolve to wage it. I say, that is our greatest hope.