Jewish World Review May 3, 2004/ 12 Iyar, 5763
Don't count on Koppel for whole war story
According to Ted Koppel, dragging his gravitas like a ball and chain, ''The most important thing a journalist can do is remind people of the cost of war.''
So on Friday night on ABC he read out the names of the American men and women to die in Iraq.
Is reminding people of the ''cost of war'' really the most important thing a journalist can do? Costs don't exist in a vacuum, but relative to their benefits. For example, the cost of Ted Koppel to ABC is said to be $6 million per year. That sounds a lot when you consider that Skip, the busboy at Denny's, would be happy to do it for $28,000, but cost alone doesn't factor in the benefits of Ted's distinctive portentousness.
Likewise, the cost of war is a tragedy for the families of the American, British and other coalition forces who've died in the last year. But we owe it to the dead, always, every day, to measure their sacrifice against the mission, its aims, its successes, its setbacks. And, if the cause is still just, then you honor the fallen by pressing on to victory and then reading the roll call of the dead.
If that doesn't quite have the sweeps-month ratings appeal ''Nightline'' is looking for, since Ted has now established himself as a $6 million list reader he might like to remind people of the comparative costs of war. At two seconds per name, to read out the combat deaths of the War of 1812 he'd have to persuade ABC to extend the show to an hour and a quarter. To read out the combat deaths of the Korean War, he'd need a 19-hour show. For World War II, he'd have to get ABC to let him read out names of the dead 24/7 for an entire week. If he wants to, I'd be happy to fly him to London so he can go on the BBC and read out the names of the 3,097,392 British combat deaths in World War I, which would take him the best part of three months, without taking bathroom breaks, or indeed pausing for breath.
As Stalin said, one death is a tragedy, 1 million is a statistic. The fact that America's dead in Iraq are not yet statistics, that they're still small enough in number to be individual tragedies Ted can milk for his show tells you the real cost of this war. In Afghanistan, the numbers are even lower, which is why ''Nightline'' hasn't bothered pulling this stunt with America's other war.
Yes, the dead are husbands, wives, fathers, daughters, best friends, and for those who knew them in that capacity the loss is grievous. But Americans know them only as warriors, and they should honor them as such. Those British losses in the Great War reached deep into every family in the land. By contrast, in a nation of 300 million, the vast majority of families are personally untouched by military deaths, and that, paradoxically, makes it easier for the defeatists to exploit the small number of the dead as evidence of the hopelessness of our cause. The historically low rate of combat fatalities amplifies each one.
Here's where it's worth considering the cost of Ted Koppel in the broader sense. Our enemies have made a bet that the West in general and America in particular are soft and decadent and have no attention span; that the ''sleeping giant'' Admiral Yamamoto feared he'd wakened at Pearl Harbor can no longer be roused. If he could, he'd be a problem. But he's paunchy and effete and slumped in his Barcalounger, and he's defining decadence down: In Vietnam, it took 50,000 deaths to drive the giant away; maybe in Iraq, it will only take 500; and maybe in the next war the giant will give up after 50, or not bother at all. He has the advantage of the most powerful army on the face of the planet, but he doesn't have the stomach for war, so it's no advantage at all. He's like the fellow with the beautifully waxed Ferrari in the garage that he doesn't dare take on the potholed roads. If you're predisposed, like many Islamists and many Continentals, to this stereotype of the soft American, then the lazy, ersatz pacifist mawkishness of ''Nightline'''s gimmick pretty much confirms it: That's the cost of Koppel reminding us of ''the cost of war.''
Last week, watching John Kerry explain that he threw away his medals/his ribbons/some other guys' medals because ribbons are the same as medals/he didn't have his medals with him/his medals are personal to him/and anyway what about Bush's National Guard service, I began to resent the senator for miring this election campaign in a three-decade old quagmire. It's like an oldies station with only one record:
''Throw Some Feller's Ribbons O'er The Old Stone Wall
It's been 30 years
But I still can stall''
I don't care about his medals or about Vietnam. But I care about him trapping this new war in the prism of an old war America lost. Koppel's ''Nightline,'' after all, is in direct descent from the old Life magazine pictorials intended to demoralize. Kerry's spent so much time filtering his candidate persona through his Vietnam experience that he's given no serious thought to the war we're in the middle of. His current position is that we need to put the U.N. in charge presumably so they can get the oil-for-fraud program up and running again. It's barely credible even as boilerplate. In a testimony to Kerry's own peculiar psychology, he's not only the first Vietnam combat veteran but also the first prominent anti-Vietnam campaigner to run for president. And, even though the media don't care much for the senator, he's somehow seduced them into his weird preoccupation.
It's unbecoming to a great power, and very perilous. The cost of war is the cost of losing it measured against the cost of winning it. We can reach our own conclusions about which the coalition's dead would opt for.
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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.
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© 2004, Mark Steyn