War on the Tube

It was one of the darkest days of World War II. The Japanese were advancing to the Pacific; Hitler seemed to have an iron grip on Europe. Americans, that day, were involved in a particularly bloody battle. Jimmy Roosevelt, then a Marine officer and later congressman, visited his father, Franklin Roosevelt, in his bedroom in the White House. He was looking for reassurance about the war. But to his surprise, he found his father playing solitaire. When he voiced his concern about the war, the president turned to him and said, "Son, I've given all the orders I know how to give. Now it's up to the generals. They're the ones who know how to fight wars; not me." That might be an interesting insight into why Franklin Roosevelt was a great wartime president in World War II. But it also offers wisdom that some of us need to take to heart in America today as Army and Marine divisions press toward Baghdad. Our men fight amidst a rising tide of chattering from talking heads telling us doom is at hand because we haven't been able to dispense with Saddam Hussein in two weeks. Operation Iraqi Freedom is a very strange way to fight a war. Reporters are "embedded" in the military, as they like to say. That makes, I confess, riveting television. I watched my friend David Bloom riding in a tank, showing tanks, dust, and distant smoke through his videophone. This is the ultimate reality TV. We are now able to actually watch a war in real time through cameras planted all over the battlefield. The trouble, however, is that television is above all else an entertainment medium. As Neil Postman wrote in his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, "Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television." After two weeks, the war is not over, and a great restlessness seizes the American people. The initial entertainment value of the war has worn thin. So reporters and columnists have to start speculating on our military's shortcomings to boost the entertainment value and keep viewers watching. And the country does seem to be gripped. When it appeared the war would have a quick end, the stock market rose one thousand points. Then when it appeared the war would be tough-going, the market plunged -- and so forth, as the national mood bounces around, depending on the latest battlefield reports and commentator speculation. This, more than Saddam Hussein's unexpectedly stubborn defenders, may cause us to fail. As Christians, we need to remember that in the eyes of the Reformers one of the highest and noblest vocations was public service. The magistrate, after all, is appointed by God to restrain evildoers and to promote justice. This applies to the military, which has a sober responsibility. I have been greatly encouraged watching our troops exercising their duties as they offer humanitarian aid and engage the enemy on the battlefield. Let's remember that the war is only two weeks old. But that is an eternity in the entertainment business -- very short, however, as wars go. We need to let the military do their job, respect their God-ordained function, and stop treating the war like a mini-series or a football game in overtime. The talking heads and armchair generals ought to cool it, play solitaire like FDR, and let the generals do their job. And most important, let us all remember this is serious stuff. We ought to be praying for righteousness to be exalted, that casualties are minimized, and that order and justice are achieved. For further reading and information: Gene Edward Veith, "Ultimate Reality TV," World, 5 April 2003. Gary Arnold, "Ultimate Reality TV," Washington Times, 29 March 2003. Howard Kurtz, "Embedded in Controversy," Washington Post, 27 March 2003. Mike McDaniel, "TV war coverage enters new territory," Wilmington Star, 3 April 2003. Mackubin Thomas Owens, "A Founding Reunion," National Review Online, 3 April 2003. Mary Ann Lindley, "Now playing: the reality TV of war," Tallahassee Democrat, 30 March 2003. Murray Whyte, "War's a bore: Ultimate reality TV wears thin," Toronto Star, 1 April 2003. "Secretary of State: 'This Isn't a Video Game,'" Special Report with Brit Hume, FOX News, 25 March 2003. Ben Berkowitz, "Iraq War Inspires 'Home-Brew' Video Games," Reuters, 1 April 2003. William Kennedy, The Military and the Media (Praeger Publishers, 1993). Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Viking, 1986). William Bennett, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (Doubleday, 2002).


Chuck Colson



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