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MISSING IN ACTION

Editor's note: On February 23, New Times sent staff writer Darrin Hostetler to Saudi Arabia to cover the Gulf War. Shortly after his arrival, Hostetler gained access to Kuwait City and witnessed the final days of Operation Desert Storm.

Hostetler is the only Arizona reporter covering the liberation of Kuwait. This is the last in a series of stories by Hostetler from the Middle East.

When it was over, nobody cheered.
George Bush's announcement of a cease-fire barely stirred the reporters lounging around media headquarters on February 27 at the International Hotel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. A few journalists shook hands and smiled weakly before slouching downstairs to the Sand Coffee Shop--the unofficial Gulf War press hangout--to sip a celebratory nonalcoholic beer, the only kind available in the Islamic kingdom.

The drink matched the feelings of many reporters about the war--it looked like beer and tasted like beer, but the giddy rush was somehow missing.

Even in newly liberated Kuwait City, where jubilant Kuwaitis danced in the streets, the mood of the press corps fell just south of somber and a little to the north of cynical. The war was over, and the United States had won. But the press was feeling defeated.

For many reporters, the war had proved frustrating. They had come thousands of miles expecting to find the mysterious, alluring Middle East, and had instead bumped heads with a repressive Saudi Arabian society that required them to alter their daily habits, speech and demeanor.

They came to live out their Hemingway fantasies--all war reporters have them--only to find harsh censorship and virtually no access to the front lines. Most were relegated to watching the war on CNN from the press center, just as they would have done at home. A few had come to earnestly seek out the truth and report it, but their movements, and sometimes it seemed even their thoughts, were restricted by what everyone called "the Jib," the military bureaucracy's Joint Information Bureau.

As the foreign correspondents sat in the coffee shop, they joked that the real winner of the war was CNN, their video lifeline to a war still raging only a few miles away. It seemed as though everyone in the Middle East believed that CNN was the only news source in the universe. A common lament was that "the goddam Arabs think everyone works for CNN."

"Tell an Arab over here that you are a journalist," one reporter said, "and they immediately ask, with this big, admiring look--like you are a god or something--if you are with CNN. And after a while, it just gets easier to nod, smile and say yes.

"Pretending is far easier than explaining that there are other networks and newspapers out there."

Pretending. That's what the war was about for many journalists. Pretending to have seen things they never saw--and writing about them. Pretending they were fighting the elaborate network of military censorship and disinformation when, in reality, they had become accomplices to it. Most of all, pretending that the blame for the shortage of journalism emanating from the war zone fell solely on the military, which simply didn't allow reporters to do their jobs.

It's not that there weren't stories; newspapers and TV networks flooded the American public with them. But very few journalists were with the troops, actually witnessing the sweaty nightmares of American kids fighting on foreign soil. In practically every other war, reporters had been on the scene to chronicle the carnage, heroism and inevitable snafus. In this war, most reporters rewrote press releases.

Perhaps the most telling critique of the American press took place in Saudi Arabia during the war, when an informal cluster of reporters (mostly Canadians and other foreigners) and military types lumped most of the American journalists into four cruel categories: "head cases," "toy soldiers," "trouble tourists" and "climbers."

Many of the hundreds of journalists in the Gulf would object to such a rundown. Among themselves, reporters swapped story after story of how military officials deceived them--ranging from outright lies to delaying tactics that wasted precious time. Certainly "the Jib" did its part to prevent journalists from covering the war completely and accurately. If questions linger about weapons performance and enemy casualties, it is largely because of the Jib. Newsday correspondent John Howell, one of the reporters who proved it was possible to circumvent the censors and travel to the front, was so angry that in a fit of hyperbole one night in Kuwait City he described the Jib to a fellow reporter as "the closest re-creation of pure, total fascism to appear on this planet since the Third Reich."

But when the American press surveys its lackluster performance in the Gulf, it should note that it was also beaten by itself. WHEN THE AIR-RAID SIRENS started wailing on the night of February 25, the staff at the Ramada Inn of Bahrain locked themselves in their rooms and jammed wet towels under the doors (the better to keep the feared gas from seeping in).

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Darrin Hostetler