War is war, so don't compare it to a sport

Saturday, March 22, 2003

A few days ago, after President George W. Bush gave his final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, MSNBC began broadcasting a countdown clock. It was small but it was always there, during every report, during every newscast, a silent reminder to set your VCRs, make sure you didn't miss it, must-see TV, the countdown to war. You could flip on the tube and know it right away: only 4:42:03 until "time's up" for Saddam. It was, to bend a sports term, a true shot clock.

Or, from another sports idiom, a countdown to the Big Dance.

Strange, isn't it? This is the time of year you normally pull up a chair and drop in front of the TV set, watching college basketball from light until dark.

Today, March 2003, we once again pull up the chair and drop in front of the TV set. But we flip on the war. From morning until night. The parallels are scary -- scary enough to require this reminder: in basketball, games are lost.

In war, it's lives.

Sadly, our experience of war these days often barely differs from our experience of sports. Both are done mostly in front of TV sets. Both involve analysts and broadcasters and live reports and sideline reporters. Both involve similar phrases, such as "point of attack" and "knockout blow."

I even heard a cable TV news specialist Thursday talk about an Al-Samoud missile and ask the producer to show the audience "the baseball card we have on this one."

And up, indeed, came a baseball card, with a photo of the missile on it, along with statistics, such as range and power.

The chewing gum was apparently optional.

Winners, losers and worse

Now, in sports, the distance the TV puts between you and the action is paid for in intimacy. You can't smell the hot dogs. You don't feel the shiver when some college kid sinks a 30-footer at the buzzer.

But you get it. You understand what's going on. You see the whole game, you know what you experienced: the winner won, the loser lost. On we go.

The danger in applying that standard to watching war is that the loss of intimacy can lead to something more important: the loss of sensitivity. Danger is not conveyed. Fear is not conveyed. Bleeding and stepping through mud and yanking on a chemical weapons suit is not conveyed. Children screaming is not conveyed.

Death is never conveyed.

But death is what this broadcast is about -- not the "sudden death" of sports, not death to the dream of an NCAA title. Death, as in the end of life, the end of all things that we know and breathe and cherish and love. When you consider that, flipping the channels seems almost callous.

In recent days, there was debate over whether the NCAA should continue with its men's and women's basketball tournaments. This was as silly as the debate over the Oscars. What does it matter? They are another form of non-war life, like going to work or eating in restaurants. Even debating the NCAA tournaments give them an importance they don't deserve.

What concerns me isn't the sport on one cable channel, but the war on the other. Did you not find, in watching Thursday, a distinct feeling of deja vu? A flashback to 1991? The green-black screen, the firefly lights of tracer bullets, the sudden explosions, punctuated by a reporter's voice. It all felt so ... familiar.

But we must be careful. Having watched a war before doesn't mean we understand it any better. Like some of you, I have family in this combat. Here is what I have learned from that family: You don't know war if you are outside it.

It's like this. A Vietnam veteran named Tim O'Brien once wrote about how you tell a true war story from a fake one. It's in the details:

"After a firefight," he wrote, "there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass, the soil -- everything. All around you things are purely living, and you among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and decency and human concord -- things you never knew you wanted.

"You're never more alive than when you're almost dead. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what's best in yourself and in the world. . . . At the hour of dusk you sit in your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red ... and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not."

No sideline reporter will tell you that. No analyst. No anchor. No ticking clock. This feels like a sport, but it is not a sport, it is not our evening entertainment, it is not just graphics and baseball cards of bombs. This issue isn't whether games should go on. The issue is thinking war is one of them.

Mitch Albom is a sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

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