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Michael Arlen : When the Pictures Go Live in the 'Living Room War'

February 03, 1991|Edward A. Gargan | Edward A. Gargan, the New York Times Beijing bureau chief from 1986-88, is the author of "China's Fate" (Doubleday)

NEW YORK — As the Vietnam War built to its crescendo, Michael Arlen wrote a series of essays exploring the effects on the American psyche of the conflict intruding itself into homes across the country each evening. He titled the book with the phrase he invented--"Living Room War."

Arlen was the first to see that something profound was occurring to the people of this country. He also saw clearly the fundamental paradox that the television pictures often obscured the reality of the violence and horror that was transpiring in the jungles, paddy fields and villages of Vietnam. For the people who insisted that television was undermining the war effort, this was a revelation.

Vietnam was the first war in which, as Arlen put it, the "Goyaesque images" of war were thrust into the family room, the den, the lives of the average American each and every day. Yet, Arlen was never satisfied with easy explanations of this novelty of news coverage. "I can't say," he wrote, "I completely agree with people who think that when battle scenes are brought into the living room, the hazards of war are necessarily made 'real' to the civilian audience. It seems to me that by the same process they are also made less 'real'--diminished, in part, by the physical size of the television screen, which . . . shows one a picture of men three inches tall shooting at other men three inches tall, and trivialized, or at least tamed, by the enveloping cozy alarums of the household."

With some suddenness, the war in the Persian Gulf has invaded the lives of Americans--most powerfully through vivid TV images, particularly the scenes of Baghdad under attack on the first night of the war. Arlen, a long-time writer at the New Yorker, analyzed some of the consequences of this powerful new kind of television war coverage--"live" pictures--on the American psyche.

Arlen ambles over to greet visitors with a lanky boyishness that belies his 60 years. Cutting an image more typical of a banker at leisure--his gray wool pants perfectly cuffed, his blue, button-down oxford shirt starched ever so subtly, his thick, pewter-gray hair brushed straight back--Arlen speaks with an easy grace, his thoughts flowing in and out of subjects like a river spilling into a broad delta.

Arlen spoke in his spacious Fifth Avenue apartment, a tumble of rooms fixed with Qing lacquer paintings and a golden Buddha, and where he lives with his wife, Alice, a well-known screenwriter. The author of eight books--one of which, "Exiles," is about his father, who wrote the immensely successful novel, "The Green Hat" in the 1920s--and innumerable magazine essays, Arlen joked that the empty typewriter in the study was a "museum piece."

As much as the film from Vietnam created the "living-room war" and its aftermath, now the potential for carnage appearing on television screens as it happens, with an uncertain outcome, may again reshape Americans' notions about war and themselves.

Question: It appears that movie theater receipts are down, restaurants have lower bookings--all because people are watching the Gulf War. What about you?

Answer: Well, there was that first night--that was very strange and over-exciting--which led many people to think there was going to be a war to be watched on television. Many people, including myself, stayed glued to their sets through the night. But then it turned out there wasn't a war to be watched on television. It was a war of briefings and tidal waves of experts. So for myself, I plug into CNN a lot because CNN seems to carry what war news there is. I notice the networks have pretty much cut back on this.

First of all, there was this tremendous apprehension, anticipation, which I think you always have when trying to deal with a future event. Going to college, going to war, getting married, makes everybody nervous and people devote enormous energy trying to control the future by figuring out what will happen. . . .

I think there was an obsession on the part of television--and also on the part of the audience at first. But now that it seems to have settled down into something more conventional--there's both less coverage and less histrionic interest.

Q: What do you think about what CNN has been doing?

A. What I had sense of is that all the news organizations were floundering around in the beginning because there was no hard news.

There was a lot of amateurishness in the opening days, a lot of histrionics. CNN wasn't alone in this--in the histrionics over the supposed gas attacks on Israel. These things are working themselves out now.

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