As bombs rain in Syria, TV journalists fall prey to shock and awe

War is the blood sport of television. Devastation on the ground—someplace the viewer doesn’t live but where other human beings do, and gasp, run, shout, weep, flee, are blown apart, lie bandaged in bed, are nursed and abandoned, and die—is transmuted to spectacle on-screen so that voyeurs may stare, gawk, cringe, deplore, and, come to that, avert our eyes until the moment arrives for changing the channel.

And so the horrendous war in Syria, now into its seventh year, crops up again in a lengthening line of spectacles, displays of brutality in which the smoothness of the shoot, the launch, the flare, the flash, the takeoff, the overhead swoop segues into the predictable but always shocking (or so it would be if you could only see it again for the first time, before you got used to it) wreckage of the outcome. So, once again, we are acceptably, bearably shocked, usually unaware that we’re being spared the most awful images, the ones showing body parts.

Television has plenty of practice cuing up for these dire epiphanies. War is foremost in the emotionally arousing repertory of our culture. It can be counted upon as a reliable source of material, along with press conferences, earthquakes, floods, terror attacks, famines, meetings between chiefs of state, World Series games, Academy Awards. Weapons improve, pictorial devices improve. In 1991, the first Gulf War was a “Nintendo war,” with tracer bullets scorching their brilliant paths across the screen while dissenters, who had been permitted to put in a few appearances, were drowned out for the more important appearances of military analysts. In 2003, George W. Bush’s “shock and awe” over and onto Baghdad seized the collective imagination even as millions of demonstrators around the world were shunted offstage. (One sign in London:  “Shocked, not awed.”)

This is one thing TV knows how to do: convert shock into cheap, disposable awe. “Oh, no” becomes “Oh, wow.” Lethal potential is glamorous. The attention machine has its branding routines, its logos. The president sets his jaw, engines roar, cruise missiles fire, exhausts flare; maps are drawn; diagrams trace the paths of death’s engines slashing across the sky; other diagrams pulsate, indicating explosions. Missiles take off, missiles land, craters appear, rubble accumulates, smoke drifts, fires spread, and the faces of the dead are digitized into oblivion.

So it was with the excruciating pictures of sarin-gassed corpses in Syria; as it has been with the occasional bodies of shell-shocked children and drowned refugees, of triumphal ISIS flag-wavers and mourning families.

And so it was that, once again, in the “coverage,” indignation rose like theme music. The heads talked: The president has done enough. He’s done too much. He’s done it too late. He has a heart after all. No, he’s the tin man who doesn’t know what he’s missing.

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But what could not be denied was the commentators’ excitement, the alacrity with which they trundled out their formulas, the cavalcade of their sound bites of ritual deference to the splendor of the deed. Aptly, in The Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan led thusly:  “The cruise missiles struck, and many in the mainstream media fawned.” Among those specimens singled out by Sullivan:

“I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night,” declared Fareed Zakaria on CNN….“On Syria attack, Trump’s heart came first,” read a New York Times headline.

Oh, and how did we know that? Because the president and his handlers told us so.

Sullivan’s pièce de résistance, however, zoomed to another plane of cluelessness entirely:Brian Williams, on MSNBC, seemed mesmerized by the images of the strikes provided by the Pentagon. He used the word ‘beautiful’ three times and alluded to a Leonard Cohen lyric—‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons’—without apparent irony.”

Already, an earlier Post piece, by Derek Hawkins, had given pride of place to Williams’ citation from Cohen, the world prophet of pain, irony, tribute, submission, drollery and resistance, the minstrel of Montreal and Los Angeles, of Manhattan and Berlin. Hawkins’ piece was headlined: “Brian Williams is ‘guided by the beauty of our weapons’ in Syria strikes.” 

We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean,” Williams said. “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them what is a brief flight over to this airfield,” he added, then asked his guest, “What did they hit?”

What Williams missed was all the irony that Cohen brought to his largeness, his multitudinousness. Reduced to an advertising slogan, Cohen was made to look like a rhapsodist of war.

In the main, the whole of this sort of coverage could be called war porn, except that in pure porn, the foreplay is the main act. In war porn, the foreplay takes place off-screen. What we see is the incident, the moment, the mess, the finger-pointing, not the history, not the invoices, not the thousands dead and displaced, the millions of refugees (now banned from a United States whose president has now used a unaccustomed word, “justice”) . We do not fathom the whole appalling truth of the war. We do not see, or even recognize that we are failing to see the war as an immense catastrophe of human contrivance. We do not see what, in n+1, Richard Beck calls the

total war, one in which the lines between combatants and civilians blur, societies devote all their resources to the war effort, and tactics gain acceptance regardless of their brutality. Total war manifests in many ways, from the aerial bombardment of city centers all the way down to what happens between a couple of guards and a prisoner in a locked cell. 

In 2003, an American soldier named Jessica Lynch became famous when, having been badly wounded in combat, she was held hostage by Saddam Hussein’s soldiers for nine days. She was rescued on video. On ABC News, anchorman Charles Gibson described the night-vision goggles through which the video was shot as “captivating”—an unintentionally gauche way of putting the point.

The spectacle was also captivity of a distinct sort. Jessica Lynch was held captive, but the onlooking cheerleaders were captives, too. They co-produced the war, with the Pentagon, which falsely claimed that Private Lynch had sustained stab and bullet wounds. In truth, she had broken her arm and leg, and dislocated her ankle, when her Humvee flipped. Taken to an Iraqi hospital, she was well cared for. The spectacle of her captivity and rescue belonged to a myth that runs headlong throughout American history since the beginning of the Indian wars in the 17th century. (See Richard Slotkin’s indispensable literary history, Regeneration Through Violence, and John Ford’s “The Searchers.”)

The formula “rescue,” like the formula “retaliation,” is a gloss, a slick overlay, stretched over the many unasked but necessary questions: How did this war happen? What sustains it? How did incidents stretch into a history beyond tragedy? Who sold the arms, and still sells them?

As for Private Lynch, she was at pains, later, to deny the early reports that she had fought back against her captors. She was no hero. “I’m just a survivor,” she said.

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Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.