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See no evil: while movie wars are raging on screens across the nation, Uncle Sam has managed to keep both media and citizens in the dark about the ugly reality of our real-life war on terror. (culture in context).

WAR AND GORE ARE BACK ON TOP AT THE Roxy. Just a year after Hollywood trashed Americas drug war by giving Steven Soderbergh's Traffic four Oscars, tinsel town has gone stark raving bullish on the war on terror.

Since 9/11 war flicks have been rolling off the movie industry's assembly line faster than anything we've seen since Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth were staffing USO canteens. We've had the release of Apocalyspe Now Redux, HBO's Band of Brothers, Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers, Gene Hackman in Behind Enemy Lines, Bruce Willis in Hart's War, and Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and the upcoming Windtalkers. And unlike Hollywood's batch of black-and-white flag-wavers from the early '40s, this recent rush of cinematic battle cries brings us up close and personal to the carnage and mayhem of war.

Ever since Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, filmmakers have been employing an arsenal of computerized graphics and special effects to bring the slaughter of battle into our laps. Movies like The Thin Red Line, The Patriot, Gladiator, Enemy at the Gates, and Pearl Harbor have given audiences a bullet's-eye view of war's butchery, stripping us of the buffer of our imagination and leaving us no place to run or hide. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, the producers of Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers, and Behind Enemy Lines have finally found the images to match Homer's description of the slaughter on the plains of Troy.

Meanwhile, even our fantasy and science fiction films have taken up the theme of a cosmic battle between good and evil, nicely echoing the president's description of the war on terror as a global conflict between the forces of freedom and tyranny.

In the first installment of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his compatriots have forged an alliance committing them to a pitched battle for the survival of Middle-earth, and in Star Wars: Episode II--The Attack of the Clones the forces of good and evil are preparing for Armageddon. All we need is a couple of Top Gun pilots doing a fly-over to drive home the patriotic message.

How curious then that in the very moment that Hollywood is barraging us with images of war's gore and glory, the evening news has little or nothing to show us of the mayhem unleashed by our real-life war on terror.

From watching television over the past several months, you could get the distinct impression that the war in Afghanistan--like the Gulf War--has been a particularly sanitary affair, a clean, surgical incursion orchestrated with little or no collateral damage.

That is clearly what the White House and Pentagon want us to think, and they have taken significant steps to ensure that a free and critical press does not bring home unflattering or disturbing images of the war in Afghanistan. After all, the president is hoping his global campaign against terror will enjoy a long run at the box office, and he may be concerned that an American public happily entertained by Hollywood images of war will find such pictures considerably less palatable when served up on the evening news.

THAT CERTAINLY SEEMS TO BE THE LESSON THE WHITE House and Pentagon have taken from Vietnam. According to many of the Washington insiders prosecuting the war on terror, we lost America's longest-running and first televised war because the folks at home grew sickened and demoralized by pictures of napalmed villagers and body bags. And so in Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf War, a chastened government and military made a concerted effort to restrict the flow of bad news and gruesome images coming back from the front lines. Reporters and photojournalists were cordoned off into press pools, given little access to troops in battle, and fed a diet of predigested Pentagon reports and film clips. During the Gulf War a ban was placed on photographs of corpses or coffins.

In the war in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took a particularly hostile stance toward the press, ridiculing demands for daily briefings and overseeing the creation of the Pentagon's short-lived Office of Strategic Influence, an Orwellian department of spin control dedicated to ensuring that the foreign press get the correct point of view on the war--even if they need to be manipulated (or deceived?) a bit along the way.

The American media were not allowed to accompany troops in the initial overseas deployment, and when reporters and photographers were finally permitted in-country, they were all sequestered at a single U.S. operating base in Afghanistan. At one point reporters and photojournalists were confined to a warehouse to prevent them from interviewing or photographing U.S. troops wounded by friendly fire, and for several months the military had exclusive control of satellite images showing the effects of U.S. bombing.

A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that the Pentagon has imposed the most stringent restrictions on the press in history. "Reporters are rarely allowed to be with the American troops in the war zones, where they can see for themselves what is happening. We know little firsthand about the risks our soldiers are taking .... We know almost nothing about the standards of conduct being applied in this new kind of warfare."

In December even the military admitted that it had gone too far in creating obstacles to the coverage of the war in Afghanistan, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke told Washington bureau chiefs, "We owe you an apology."

IT MAY WELL BE THAT THE CONFLICT IN Afghanistan is a just war. A number of prominent Catholic moralists, including Fathers John Langan and Bryan Hehir, seem to think it is. Still, trying to keep a free press at arm's length from the war, or attempting to prevent the American public from seeing the devastating effects of the war being prosecuted in their name, is not right and will only undermine our confidence in the people leading this war--and expecting us to follow them on future campaigns in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.

Even a just war is a horrible beast, a monster that kills and maims the innocent and guilty alike, and if--as most Christians since Saint Augustine have thought--it is sometimes necessary to unleash the dogs of war, it is always a mistake to look away from the violence we have set loose on the citizens of other nations.

The images of battle are disturbing and sometimes sickening, and stories about the folly and chaos of war will be demoralizing to any sane person. But the decision to turn a blind eye to the carnage and havoc being wrecked in our name so that we might sleep better at night or offer our untroubled support for future campaigns is even more monstrous.

We abhor terrorists who cannot see the humanity of their innocent victims. What should we say about a government that tries to hide the victims of its violence--no matter how righteous--from its citizens?

A DOZEN YEARS AGO VIETNAM VETERAN and prizewinning novelist Tim O'Brien wrote that "you can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you .... You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil." He added, "If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie."

Hollywood is in the entertainment business, so most of its war stories have been sanitized, stripped of the obscenity of violence. So we come out of them feeling good about ourselves and the wars we have waged.

But a free press is supposed to be in the truth business--maybe even the conscience business--and it is not the job of reporters to make us or our government feel good about ourselves. It is to hold our feet and consciences to the fire, to never let us forget how awful war is, and how quick we must be to make an end of it.

By PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Title Annotation:United States
Author:McCormick, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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