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Blood 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.

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