in the Sand
April 8, 2003
By Sheila Samples
Back in the days of Desert Storm when I was in the business
of "managing" information to make the Army look good, Tommy
Franks was an amiable one-star headed back to Fort Sill, Oklahoma
to take the reins of the US Army Field Artillery School, and
the cold and darkly secretive Dick Cheney was pulling the
strings over at Defense, issuing rules for media coverage
of the Gulf War. The rules, which had worked so well for Cheney
during his recent Panama invasion, were simple - the Pentagon
(read Cheney) was to have total control over the media...there
were to be no unpatriotic questions (read no questions)...and
there was to be no blood in the sand.
There was an initial flurry of indignant letters from editors
and journalists blasting Cheney's restrictions as "unacceptable"
and charging him with censoring the news. However, Cheney
was determined to "manage" the administration's relationship
with the media, "so the press doesn't screw us," and his take-it-or-leave-it
stance forced the media, for whom access is paramount, to
blink first. Reporters scrambled over each other to win coveted
press-pool slots and to snag seats on Defense airplanes taking
media to the Gulf. They meekly allowed themselves to be confined
to Pentagon press pools - went nowhere without a military
escort - and allowed their reports to be scrutinized and vetted
for "security breaches." Battlefield action was videotaped
by Cheney's defense photography teams and released to the
media - one glorious success after another. Clean. Neat. Tidy.
It's little wonder that Poppy's Desert Storm invasion was
such a blast for the home team - it was a Cheney-driven public
relations production from start to finish.
CNN, just beginning to flex its cable muscles back then,
delighted and entertained us with fantasy fireworks over Baghdad
by night and with staged briefings by day wherein General
Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf and his staff awed us with harmless
videos of cruise missiles swooshing playfully down city streets
and precision-guided missiles chasing targets through second-story
windows and down laundry chutes before exploding harmlessly
on our TV screens. Hell of a good show. Few Americans realize
even now how they were misled, duped and blatantly lied to.
It was a PR game - a deadly and shameful game played for
the gullible American people through Cheney-sanitized patriotic
videos where there were no bodies and no blood. No blood from
the thousands of slaughtered innocent Iraqi men, women and
children whose body parts were strewn obscenely amidst the
rubble. No blood from U.S. soldiers felled by either enemy
fire or by ghoulishly antiseptic "friendly" fire. And - in
the sand bulldozed over the dead and alive bodies of thousands
of retreating Iraqi soldiers who were trapped and then slaughtered
by U.S. planes along the infamous coastal Highway of Death
- there was no blood. Not a single drop.
Twelve years later, the Army still manages to look pretty
darn good, even without me. Franks is now an amiable four-star,
gripping the reins of Operation Iraqi Freedom or - as Norman
Mailer recently observed and Jay Leno repeated without giving
Mailer credit - "Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL)." Donald
"shoot from the lip" Rumsfeld has things almost-but-not-quite
under control over at Defense. But the one thing that remains
unchanged is Cheney's vice-like grip on the collective throats
of the media. The idea to send individual reporters to "boot
camp" to indoctrinate them before putting them in bed with
combat units where they could continue their unprofessional,
obscene "bonding" is a brilliant public relations enterprise,
and it has Cheney's fingerprints all over it.
So far, it's been a roaring success. This country's "Fourth
Estate" is now a powerful fourth branch of government, slobbering
with editorial support for the invasion of a nation so weak
it has not put a single plane in the air and the brutal slaughter
of its innocent citizens, most of whom are children. Journalists
breathlessly interrupt each other to describe the wondrous
battlefield feats of US troops and the wildly erotic weapons
systems that spew out Depleted Uranium (DU) shells that miraculously
sharpen themselves as they plunge deeper into targets. Reporters
and anchors interview each other about how "they" feel about
witnessing from the comfort of their combat beds such delightful
and shockingly aweful destruction and horror.
CNN's Walter Rodgers, the energizer bunny of war correspondents,
assures us that he is at the "tip of the spear" with his bed-partner,
to whom he referred for six days as the 7th "Calvary." NBC's
Tom Brokaw quiveringly panted on "A" Day - "This is just the
beginning of Shock and Awe. We've got a lot more that we will
be able to bring you..." CNN's Gary Tuckman, in bed with the
Air Force, stopped some stunned-looking Iraqis on their way
to a mosque, asking, "What are you going to pray for when
you get in there? How does it feel to be liberated?"
But nobody in the business can out-blitz CNN's lone Wolfster.
Blitzer's "in your face" reporting from Kuwait City is literally
that - in our faces for what seems like 20 hours a day, seven
days a week. Urgently - breathlessly - Blitzer brings us continuous
"breaking news," "shocking developments" and "this just in"
moment-by-moment explosive activity. "...And when we come
back," Blitzer promises, "you will also be impressed with
the images of war - the images that show you the horrifying
nature of what's going on..." Yummm. Hurry on back, Wolf...
But we soon learn we just can't get there from here. As crusty
old mongers like to say, "at the end of the day" we realize
that we don't know anything about the horrifying nature of
what's going on. The media is there for the liberation, not
for the killing. When Iraqis begin dancing in the streets,
welcoming invaders who have likely "liberated" members of
their families off the face of the earth just moments before
- both FOX News and CNN will be there. In the meantime, we
don't know about Red Cross workers being met by truckloads
of dismembered women and children body parts. We don't know
about the open-air markets, the maternity hospital, the residential
areas that are cluster-bombed for no good reason. We don't
know about the mother shrieking in agony as the heads of her
two young daughters are severed from their bodies - the father
wailing in grief as he stands over the three bodies of his
children so tiny they are lying in a single coffin. We don't
know about civilians slaughtered on bridges - at check points
- by allied troops. We don't know about such collateral damage.
We don't know about the rivers of blood in the sand.
Later, this tragedy, this slaughter, this senseless carnage
might well have been a sordid tale about the media. A media
which steadfastly refused to ask critical questions and was
willing, even eager, to sell its collective soul for access
to the administration.
Thanks to the U.S. media, the American public is totally
confused about what George Bush and Tony Blair are doing and,
more important, why they are doing it. Is it to disarm Iraq
of weapons of mass destruction? Is it regime change? Or have
we decided at long last to "liberate" those whom we have tortured
and killed with inhumane sanctions and continuous bombing
for more than a decade? This is just one of many questions
to which I want an answer. For example...
Why is it we can't remember that the last time we sent troops
to the Gulf - more than 600,000 of them - one in three came
back ill - many with unexplained disorders of the nervous
system? Do we feel that even though cancer rates have risen
400 percent in Iraq since 1991, it won't affect our
men and women because, well, because they are "Americans"
and don't deserve such a fate? Why do we not question a president
who recently closed by administrative fiat the VA healthcare
system to nearly 200,000 eligible veterans? Why? Why? Why?
What is the matter with us?
I've wiped away too many tears as too many artillerymen mounted
up and moved out to Gulf War I - proud soldiers willing to
protect a country they never in their wildest dreams thought
would fail to protect them...I want to know how safe our soldiers
are who are back on that same infected battlefield. I want
more than war logos and theme music - more than hordes of
retired colonels and generals marching shoulder-to-shoulder,
brown-bagging the invasion on TV with their outdated speculation.
Call me treasonous for having a conscience; call me anti-American
for asking - but I want to know why so many innocent people
must die in my name. I want to know why there must be so much
blood in the sand.
And I want to know now.
Sheila Samples is an Oklahoma freelance writer and a former
U.S. Army Public Information Officer at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.