Field Marshall Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army from 1914-1916, was noted for his imperturbability. Day in, day out, through crisis and calm, he rose at the same hour, breakfasted at the same hour, took his exercise at the same hour, and retired at the same hour with orders never to awaken him.
His magisterial calm held through the Battle of the Marne, where it saved him from panic and allowed him to stop the German drive toward Paris. It served him well at the Second Battle of Ypres, when the Germans first used poison gas and came near to breaking the French lines.
Only once, according to legend, was it shattered. Early in the war, Joffre was asked to decorate the wounded at a hospital far behind the lines. Having made his speech, inspected the wounded, and pinned on their medals, he left the hospital visibly shaken.
"I must not be shown such scenes," he said, "or I shall not have the courage to order an attack."
Joffre's war was one of pins on maps and figures on paper: except for that one incident, he seldom or never saw the wounded and the dead. Nor did his counterparts among the Allies or the Central Powers. From World War I, with its fearful slaughter in contests over a half mile of ground, we get the term "chateau generalship"-and with good reason. Never before had commanders been so isolated from the consequences of their orders.
Now we have the television war, War-As-Nintendo-Game, in which our commanders speak glibly of "bomb damage assessments" and "destruction of military assets" as if the bombs destroyed only buildings and the "assets" were tanks without crews. "Our strategy is simple," says the General Colin Powell. "We will cut off the Iraqi Army, isolate it, and kill it."
We will not quite do that. The Iraqi army is not an it. It consists of thousands of young Iraqis who for the most part have no wish to be there. We will kill them, not it. They, in their turn, will do their best to kill our soldiers: young Americans who do not know-cannot know, for the knowledge is bought only by combat and the suffering that goes with it-what it means to be at war.
And we will not be shown scenes like those that left Joffre in such distress . The military censors have already seen to that.
All the fireworks; all the high technology; the graceful arc of the Patriot missile pursuing the incoming Scud; the smart bomb with a television camera in its nose-none of this has changed the essential nature of war. The cruise missile which can fly through a football goal post explodes with a force that can shatter many city blocks. Those unlucky enough to be in one of those blocks risk death or injury even though the missile hit its target and the target itself was non-military. We see no blood on television, but there is no such thing as a bloodless war.
The effect of the early television coverage of the war is well-documented. Viewers, even those who opposed the war, were transfixed by the awful beauty of our technology. They felt excitement as the planes took off and the missiles came in and the anti-missile-missiles intercepted them. For awhile it was good television. Very good television, in the terms by which television measures these things: everybody was watching.
What we saw, of course, was not war but a television show. Each network had its military experts, its military graphics, and its maps. It was the war of Joffre in the situation room. We were not shown the dead and wounded.
Observers of the military have seen this essentially bloodless, high-technology war before-in recruiting advertisements. War in the ads is an adventure; the military, a place of learning and forward-looking technology. Even ground warfare seems clean.
Training for war is a way to progress through the world, to learn leadership. One advertisement shows a unit deploying from a helicopter. Suddenly one of the unit's members metamorphoses into a Leader-in-a-Business-Suit. War is a great school for the business leaders of tomorrow. Q.E.D.
No one dies in recruiting ads, not even in my particular favorite, the tank ad. In this portrayal, a voice-over-presumably that of the tank operator-extols the virtues of the Abrams tank and its laser-sighted gun. You lock in on the target, he says, and you cannot miss. And he does not. The shell infallibly hits its target, but since this is only an exercise, no one is killed, and the tank's occupants are in no danger. High-fives all around. They did it.
All of this makes war seem what it is not and never can be: painless and in some way constructive. One joins the military for benefits, for a sense of achievement, for the sense of being part of a successful group enterprise. One does not join it to watch one's buddies cough out their lives with half their chests blown away. One does not join it to destroy or be destroyed. In the world of the recruiting advertisements, the destruction is never mentioned. We are not shown such scenes.
Recruiters must sell a bloodless version of war because they could not possibly sell the real thing. Even if they warn recruits that they may be called to fight-and such honesty is rare indeed among recruiters-they do so in an abstract way that means little to someone who needs a job or money for an education. They are selling enlistment, and they have quotas to meet and slots to fill. Any sane employer emphasizes the good and not the bad about the job being offered.
What happens in today's recruiting, however, is worse than lack of candor. Military recruitment creates a kind of fantasy war in which there are a lot of beautiful gadgets to try, and no one gets hurt. You can learn computers in the Navy, air traffic control in the Army, and high-end electronics in the Air Force. Your will wear an attractive dress uniform, perhaps with a snappy red beret, or combat fatigues which never seem to get dirty or wrinkled, even when you are struggling up a bare rock face with your buddies.
As it happens, the snappy red beret is part of the dress uniform of Airborne troops, who would be among the first to die in a ground war-possibly before they hit the ground after parachuting into the combat zone. Airborne troops do not learn leadership or personal growth or even high-tech skills. They may join because of the gadgets and the glory, but they learn little of either. They are trained not to fix computers but to fight-to kill and die when they are told to do so.
This is not quite the world of the recruiting ads. They do not show us such scenes.
Reporters covering the mobilization, who usually know little of military affairs, do not understand the fantasy world of the recruiting ads and its attraction for the young, naive, and desperate. That young people could join the military without realizing that its mission is war seems incredible to outside observers, but it is a fact.
The high technology is wonderful to behold, and it has an attraction all its own regardless of the ends for which it is used. Anyone who has upgraded a computer or bought a new videocassette recorder can understand this attraction. New gadgets are fun to use in and of themselves. And the military has a lot of new gadgets.
Recruiting ads create the illusion of bloodless war. Recruiters are less than candid about the evils of combat. Young people, however intelligent-and the U.S. military is by all accounts one of the most intelligent in history-simply do not have the experience to counter the fantasies and outright lies that they see on television and hear from the recruiters.
For Reservists the deception can be both more blatant and more subtle. The U.S. mobilization system, the Total Force, relies heavily on Reservists. Few people knew what this meant until the current mobilization began. The system had never been used before. It was in place, but it was intended for emergencies only. Recruiters commonly told potential Reservists that their units would never be called up-that was the blatant deception. They seldom or never explained the Total Force concept. That was the subtle deception.
Little wonder that recruits do not know what enlistment really means. They have not been shown such scenes.
So the war goes on. More precisely, the two wars go on. There is the war on television, and there is the real war. The danger for the public is that it will confuse the two, thereby learning that war is painless and an easy option when our foreign policy goes wrong.
The danger for military recruits is more immediate and more lethal. It is that, having been attracted by the bloodless war of the recruiting ads, they will find themselves caught up in the real war. They will kill, and having killed, many will suffer the remorse that often follows combat. Or they will die.
Whether they would have chosen to kill and die if they had known the truth, no one knows. They were not shown such scenes.