The Marine Corps has passed a new milestone in military history: the first amphibious landing televised live.
With scores of reporters and camera operators lining the beach in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, the pre-dawn landing unfolded as an almost farcical event, with bright camera lights illuminating what was supposed to have been a stealthy military operation in potentially hostile territory.
CNN broadcast the first pictures of arriving U.S. forces, a Navy special operations team, which a CNN crew spotted about 12:40 a.m. Somali time Wednesday (4:40 p.m. EST yesterday) through the lens of an infrared camera.
The Navy team was followed soon afterward by Marine reconnaissance troops, their faces smeared with camouflage greasepaint as they stepped ashore from rubber dinghies carrying automatic rifles, radios and other combat gear.
The only hostile forces, however, were not gun-toting clan warriors but mobs of English-speaking reporters, who trailed after the Marines clutching notebooks and tape recorders.
Live television pictures broadcast in the United States showed the Marines gamely trying to ignore the press pack as they moved amid the dunes checking for land mines and booby traps.
Pentagon officials last night expressed anger at the news media's intrusiveness, in particular the use of bright television lights that they said could temporarily blind reconnaissance troops, helicopter pilots and others using night-vision goggles.
A senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified, said military public affairs officials in Washington telephoned several television networks to ask them to shut off the lights.
"A lot of people are mad," said Lt. Cmdr. Joe Gradisher, a Pentagon spokesman. "The white lights of the cameras just totally destroy night vision. Our forces are practically blind. . . .Thank God there was no opposition."
Even before the landing, the presence of roughly 300 reporters and camera operators in Mogadishu had become a source of concern for Pentagon officials, who warned news organizations earlier in the day to avoid interference with military operations.
"When you cover a football game, you don't put your crews out there on the middle of the 50-yard line even though that might be the best place to watch," Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said at his regular briefing yesterday. "You stay off the playing field. And there may be some concern on the part of commanders that if the open arms of the fourth estate are standing on the very beach, they may be in the way."
The media spectacle in Mogadishu stemmed from the unique nature of Operation Restore Hope, the U.S.-led military effort to restore a semblance of calm to the famine-ridden country and permit the delivery of food and medicine.
On the one hand, Pentagon officials are eager to advertise -- both to Somalia and the rest of the world -- the precedent-setting humanitarian mission, and they do not expect any organized resistance. As a result, they have generally avoided the tight media restrictions that prevailed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, freely sharing operational details that normally would remain secret.
But Pentagon officials also are concerned that in a country wracked by clan warfare and random violence, reporters could pose a risk both to themselves and to U.S. troops.
"If you get a camera caught up in a rotor wash and throw it into the engine of another helicopter, you stand a good chance of killing someone," said a Pentagon official who asked not to be named.
"What I have been advising people to do," the official added, "is stay close to buildings and structures and to readily identify themselves to Marines. . . .The situation could erupt at a moment's notice into a firefight, with the guys covering the landing being in the middle."
The scene on the beach in Mogadishu recalled the novel "Scoop," British author Evelyn Waugh's sendup of English journalists chasing rumors of war in the fictional African country of Ishmaelia.
"I told you to go away," a Navy SEAL team member yelled to reporters as he ran with several comrades into bush-covered sand dunes, Washington Post reporter William Claiborne reported from Mogadishu.
At the airport, several members of the Pakistani U.N. peace-keeping force politely introduced themselves to the Navy SEAL counter-guerrillas as television camera operators ran to film the meeting.
Some of the SEALs later appeared on the beach in two rubber dinghies with outboard motors and clambered out of others with large backpacks and sealed radios, which they immediately set up on the dune.
In a surrealistic scene about an hour later, three SEALs who had removed their rubber wetsuits were dug in on the far side of one large dune and surrounded by reporters under the glare of television lights. Stone-faced, they refused to answer questions shouted to them as they unpacked their gear.
One magazine photographer took pictures of a CBS correspondent, physician Bob Arnot, as he spoke into a camera describing the SEALs' arrival.
"Bob, can you do the standup one more time? I missed the picture," the photographer said as the visibly embarrassed SEALs averted their glance from the media scene.