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2004-03-03 18:03:05 (UTC)

Television and War

My friend, Carol, lives in Texas and has a son stationed in
Iraq. She's written several times about how she'll have the
TV on and then, with no warning, on comes a news report
about more soldiers being killed.

For some reason the networks think we all have to know this
before the names are released, before the next of kin are
notified, so after that oh-so-brief news report with just a
little information, maybe about which unit they were in
which may or may not be accurate-- who knows?-- countless
mothers and fathers, wives and husbands are praying that
they don't see a military vehicle pulling into their
driveway and at the same time knowing that someone,
somewhere will see just that.

And for those of us who have had someone they love die in a
war, even if it was many, many years ago, it's still
heartrenching when we hear that news and it brings back old
and terrible memories.

I seldom watch television anymore. Sometimes I'll watch the
Antiques Roadshow and even more rarely, I'll watch the
Newshour with Jim Lehrer, both of which are on PBS. It's
not that I'm a snob, although I have to admit there are no
dramas or situation comedies which really tempt me either.
I watch the Roadshow because I like antiques but also
because it's unlikely it'll be interrupted with a "special
news report" to tell me that more soldiers have died. And I
watch the newshour instead of one of the network news shows
mainly because the newshour is primarily talking heads,
debating some fine point; only very seldom is there film
footage and even more unusual is that film footage of
soldiers fighting.

Vietnam was the first TV war. Every night I'd come home
from work and quickly go through the mail to find the letter
from Steven that had been delivered that day. He wrote to
me almost every day, as I did to him, and on those days that
I didn't get a letter because he hadn't been able to write
or if there had been a problem with the mail, I worried.
That letter was my only link to him, proving to me that he'd
been alive at least at the time he'd written. Now there's
e-mail and satellite phones. Vietnam was a lot like other
wars before it; we had to wait for written letters and
grainy photographs delivered through the postal service.

And, of course, there's another side to that. There was
also no CNN reporting the news 24/7, no breaking news
reports on the Internet or on the radio or special reports
breaking into daytime television shows, to tell us of more
soldiers dying or being wounded but without mentioning their
names,leaving wives and mothers all over the country in
fear for hours afterwards, afraid that a sedan with two grim
men in uniform would pull into their driveway to give them
news they didn't want to hear.

I'd read Steven's letter and fix myself a quick dinner and
then I'd watch the war on the news. I watched Uncle Walter
(Cronkite) and the CBS Evening News. I always sat close to
the TV so I could see the faces of the men as the camera
zoomed in for its close-ups, and paid special attention if
Da Nang was mentioned because that's where Steven was. I
was always afraid I'd recognize one of the wounded. I was
terrified that I'd see my husband's face. They did not show
the dead Americans unless they were zipped up in body bags.
But sometimes the camera followed the jagged path of the
litter bearers rushing their burden to a waiting chopper. I
stared hard at the dirty, anguished faces, relieved not to
see anyone I knew. But it hurt to know that someone else
watching TV that night probably would.

I knew what it was that Steven did, you see, or at least I
knew the basics. Officially, he was an observer on a
helicopter. Doesn't that sound innocuous and safe? An
observer. But in reality he was a gunner and a crew chief
and he went out on armed aerial reconnaissance missions
every single day at first and last light. That I will talk
about on another day.

And when the news ended, I'd wash up and change into my
nightgown and write my letter to Steven. I'd get my clothes
ready for work the next day and click off the light and
whisper a prayer to the pure and holy darkness, asking God
to bring Steven home safely to me. He didn't. And it took
me a long time to forgive Him. But that too, I'll save to
talk about on another day.