Manhattan Project #9 (in which Berman reflects on journalists in time of war)

Chapter Four (Berman’s unpleasant second encounter with the blond haired girl leads to thoughts about war and how journalists cover them)

What stayed with me from that night was Bob’s angry all-American lecture on war. If you think about it, he was saying essentially what I was always taught, just taking it to its logical extreme, where the words and the ideology are replaced by the weapons, the wounds, and the bloodshed. It was that standard, my country-right-or-wrong crap. Okay, maybe I shouldn’t call it crap, since a lot of good people believe it. I’ve heard the same argument tons of times, including from my colleagues in the news business. I just can’t get my head into it; I’m still that little kid who got sick looking at the dead and devastated soldiers in war pictures. I guess I’ve always been looking for the answer to the question: How do you get from “I love this country” to “I’ll kill anyone who tries to take any part of it away from me.” That kind of thinking hasn’t been particularly helpful in the years I’ve been doing the news.
I remember back in the early nineties, when the first President Bush wanted to go to war with Iraq. I was anchoring the news on TV by then, and we had stories for months about why we should launch the full might of the U.S. military against a two-bit dictator in a country most Americans couldn’t locate on a map. What was really fascinating to me was that Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker kept changing their stories, trying to come up with one that would convince Congress and our friends around the world that it was time to kick Saddam Hussein’s ass. One day it was to restore democracy in Kuwait, the next it was just getting Saddam the hell out of there so the Kuwaitis could get on with their lives, and then it was because this joker posed a real threat to the United States. At one point, Baker even told reporters it was because we wanted Kuwait’s oil. We never questioned any of it on the air, just dutifully read the stories night after night, basically helping Bush make his case.
But I had questions about it, questions I could never share with the people I worked with, or even most of the people in the town where I lived. It seemed like another waste of lives, ours and theirs. To get people to think a Iittle more about it, I did some stories with local people who had just been to Iraq and Kuwait, who had a very different take on the thing, which included suggesting that Saddam might actually have some claim to the land he had invaded, because the British, before they gave up their vain effort to subdue the Arab world, drew a map that ignored the borders established through centuries of fighting among the tribes in the region.
My fellow journalists, including my co-anchor, didn’t even debate it. They just automatically agreed with whatever the government told us. My partner at the desk was pretty gung-ho, if you know what I mean, maybe because her father was an ex-Marine, who fought the commies in Korea. She was the only girl in a family of five boys, so she grew up pretty tough. Often, when we read a story about some heinous murder, she’d wait till we went to the commercial break, then mutter under her breath, “They oughta’ fry that guy, and I’ll throw the switch.” She was all for nuking the Iraqi bastards.Ideas like that pretty much filled the newsroom.
Whenever the local anti-war protesters staged a little demonstration downtown, and the assignment desk sent us to cover it, most of the photogs bitched about having to cover the damn peaceniks. Over time I grew increasingly uncomfortable; I worried that if people figured out what I really thought about all of that stuff, I might be in trouble. Good, upstanding Americans are supposed to support their nation in its battles, but I was sickened by the carnage, the apparent lack of concern for human life that war always brings on, the kind of attitude old Bob spelled out so clearly. It wasn’t really any different in the newsroom, a place I had survived in for so long mostly by focusing on objectivity, which let me question even things like this, or at least push to report both sides, rather than just start waving the flag.
I long ago came to the conclusion that, even in the news business, most people believe when push comes to shove we are Americans first, and whatever else, second. If the country decides to mix it up with another nation, our job is to support that, and do stories that support the troops and their families, and support the war effort, wherever it is, not question it.
The tension got pretty bad for me during Desert Storm. Somehow I got assigned to do most of the stories on troops shipping out from our area. That was tough duty, partly because I didn’t think they should go, and partly because it really hurt watching parents and families send their loved ones, knowing they might come home in a body bag.
Most of the towns we covered had ceremonies or parades to honor the troops when they left. I remember walking along Main Street in one small town, the high school band tootling along on their instruments, and the veterans and families of the guys shipping out riding on jerry-rigged floats. Practically everybody along the parade route was waving a flag and cheering for the soldiers. I was concentrating on what my photographer was shooting and jotting down some notes, so I could write my story, when a guy yelled at me from the sidewalk.
“Hey, Jed, where’s your red-white-and-blue tie? You don’t look very patriotic, man.”
I thought maybe I was about to be busted as a left-winger. I tried not to let that show on my face. I looked over at him, then down at my green-and-white, abstract pattern, hand-painted tie from New Mexico, then up at him again, smiled and shrugged my shoulders. He said something to the guy beside him, but I couldn’t hear it. Judging from the expression on his face, I doubt if it was a compliment. But it bothered me that he called me out in front of all the people around him. And it bothered me even more that he, and I suspect most of the people out there that day, thought I should be cheerleading for the troops and the war. I wasn’t even tempted to discuss it with him, though, mostly because I knew the station wouldn’t like it. Hell, if we cut somebody off in traffic in a news car, people would call the G-M and bitch about what bad drivers we were, and threaten to stop watching us. I knew better than to make a scene at the parade. It was just another time I was left wondering why I see things the way I do, and most people don’t.


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