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The Media Rewrite, Review the Gulf War

March 07, 1991|BOB SIPCHEN

Desert Storm is over and now the magazine reports and analyses are piling up like allied convoys gridlocked on the road to the front.

Overall, the tone is celebratory, with a few embarrassingly stale predictions colliding head-on with blustery hindsight. The first thing readers will notice in scanning the verbiage is that the word war has largely been replaced by new terms such as turkey shoot, rout, cakewalk and nature hike.

Despite the brevity of the fight and stringent press restrictions, publications did get a glimpse of the action.

* U.S. News & World Report's Joseph L. Galloway pulled strings and was granted special permission to break away from the Department of Defense pools. He traveled with the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized) as the 16,530-member force conducted what one officer called "the greatest cavalry charge in history."

* Newsweek's Tony Clifton rode along with the Marine's 2nd Armored Division's "Hounds of Hell" Battalion.

* And the New Republic's Michael Kelly flanked the allies and found himself being surrendered to by deserting Iraqis.

Because the Iraqis were so resolutely defeated, the combat reportage, even from different fronts, has a similar, happily anticlimactic tone.

By all accounts, most of what little back-and-forth fighting occurred took place over a distance. The only story in which human is pitted face to face against human is reported in Newsweek.

In that account, an Iraqi suddenly jumps on the turret of a tank that the forces are bypassing as abandoned. He levels a rocket launcher at a passing Jeep-like Humvee. An American soldier watches, believing he's about to be killed. Then then there are two huge explosions and the Iraqi vaporizes.

Maj. Robert Williams, an ethics professor turned tank officer, had seen the Iraqi and fired. "I killed my first man today, and I'm not sure I feel very good about it," he said. (The American soldier he saved is presumably less ambivalent.)

If there is one area where magazines are unequivocal, it's in their feelings toward Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. Life Weekly even goes so far as to feature a shot of a Stormin' Norman as a chubby 2-year-old, along with a remembrance of the boy and the man by his sister Sally.

The Vietnam war changed her brother, she says.

"He didn't talk much about it, but once in a while he would show how deeply wounded he felt."

That, however, is to simplify and understate the general's feelings. In the March 11 New Republic, Schwarzkopf recalls an evening when that same sister, who was opposed to the Vietnam war, suggested that the anti-war demonstrators had a point.

Schwarzkopf was enraged. "I burst into tears!" he told C.D.B. Bryan, the author of the book "Friendly Fire" and of the New Republic profile. "Here was my own flesh and blood doubting. I was in tears that we could even dare take the other side."

Schwarzkopf threw his sister out of the house. But the next morning he woke up thinking, "You were wrong, Norm Schwarzkopf, you were dead wrong!"

The New Republic piece never explains what Schwarzkopf meant by that.

But it may no longer matter. For editorial writers, television anchors and a battalion of cock-tail-lounge philosophers, Operation Desert Storm has provided a poetic resolution to the open-ended trauma of Vietnam. The voices of dissent, clamoring since before the Tet Offensive, have been drowned out by concussive waves of elation.

While many opponents of Desert Storm can and will stand honorably behind their convictions, most critics--at least those who are honest with themselves--must realize its time to eat at least a little crow.

For instance, in the March 4 issue of The Nation, Alexander Cockburn intimates that "an Iraqi triumph is conceivable, with the U.S. advance halted, the attack on Kuwait stalled, the casualties and reverses mounting at a rate beyond the power of military censors to suppress."

Will Cockburn concede that he misjudged Bush et al?

The New Republic, which never actually opposed the war, does just that in its March 18 issue--although it reserves much harsher lashes for those who were openly critical rather than merely skeptical.

Among the fallacies the New Republic believes have been blown to smithereens: the argument that economic sanctions alone might have liberated Kuwait; "the fashionable idea that no war against an Arab state could marshal Arab support," and the notion that Saddam could turn even a rout into some sort of personal victory and glorious martyrdom.

All that said, it seems likely historians will spend decades looking for shards of truth amid a hastily abandoned minefield of doubts.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, for example, set off a tiny explosion before the ground war began with a package of articles in the March issue titled: "Iraq and the Bomb: Were They Even Close?"

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