- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003

I just spent a week in the Scottish countryside, which was every bit as restful as I had hoped it would be. Sheep wandered around the meadow a few yards from the front door, chickens darted back and forth under the living room window. There were no illicit whisky stills hidden on the nearby farm, as far as I could make out, but otherwise everything was perfect. There was one problem, though: I have made the melancholy discovery that I can no longer get through the day without cable news or the Internet. Once upon a time I would have been content to rely on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s news output, at least for a few days. But as I have said before it is fast becoming one of my pet obsessions the days when the Corporation was an objective source of information seem to be long gone. Driving north up the M6 motorway, I spent hours listening to the bizarrely negative current affairs discussions on the World Service: Iraq was in such chaos the people were longing for the good old days under Saddam, hawks and doves were engaged in firefights on Pennsylvania Avenue and, all in all, the sky was falling down. By the time I crossed the border into Scotland I half-expected Baghdad Bob to pop up as one of the network’s analysts. The more I listened and the more I watched during that week, the more I began to be bothered bya thought that has been rumbling around my head since the first troops crossed the border into Iraq. Do we really have the patience to cope with the reality of warfare? News technology has never been more potent; laptop computers and satellite phones convey an awesome sense of immediacy. Some of the reporting from the Persian Gulf has been unforgettable; I am humbled by the thought that writers such as Michael Kelly were willing to give their lives to bring us the first draft of history. All the same, I can’t help worrying that the high-tech machinery has run too far ahead of us, offering us the illusion of knowing the truth when we only glimpse fragments. Many years ago someone I think it could have been the British journalist Godfrey Hodgson described TV reporting as the equivalent of writing with a six-ton pencil. Electronics has come a long way since then, but that pencil still weighs a ton or two. Now that we can have instant pictures, we have convinced ourselves that we can have instant opinions and instant conclusions too. Prime-time bulletins run to split-second schedules, so why shouldn’t wars do the same? A British minister recently observed that, if the media coverage had been as intense 60 years ago as it is today, the public would never have summoned up the will to survive Dunkirk or D-Day. Some journalists I know responded with a wry chuckle, as if they were dealing with the ramblings of a country bumpkin. But it is a point worth pondering if the next war turns out to be longer and bloodier than the campaign in Iraq. Free-flowing news is a wonderful thing; context is even better. As I sat in my holiday cottage, I might have been better off tearing myself away from the TV and radio and re-reading John Keegan’s classic “The Face of Battle” or one of Martin Middlebrook’s astonishingly meticulous recreations of World War II operations. Or I could have turned to “Flights of Passage,” Sam Hynes’ memoir of his days as a young Marine pilot in the Pacific. As for the sheer horror of battle and the courage of men at arms I could opt for Alexander Barrie’s “War Underground,” an almost unbearably vivid account of the bizarre but lethal “battle of the tunnels” fought far beneath no-man’s-land in World War I. I came across my dog-eared paperback in a secondhand shop years ago. Sadly, the title now appears to be out of print. If you can track down a copy you will find it is worth a thousand sound-bites. There is more time to read at the moment, for the simple reason that I have decided to give up on the left-of-center press for the next week or so. I don’t suppose they will ever admit it, but I can’t help noticing that their forecasts about the progress of the war turned out to be woefully inaccurate. The general rule, in my experience, was that whenever that conscience of the Left, Robert Fisk predicted something would happen, the opposite turned out to be the case. Perhaps he will start getting things right again in the next few days. But in the meantime it is payback time, and I am indulging myself in the luxury of ignoring him. What a wonderful feeling. It is almost as relaxing as counting sheep. Clive Davis writes for the London Times.

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