During last week’s filming of “Hardball” with Chris atthews here at Georgetown University, something seemingly incongruous took place during the commercial breaks. Two army generals, Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey, were featured among the panel of speakers on the show. These men had been selected because of their experience with battle, both having led U.S. troops abroad in recent years. I therefore found it interesting when, during the show’s first commercial break, an assistant from off-stage came up to the men and re-touched their make-up. The generals accepted this a bit sheepishly. After all, it’s not every day that a professional warrior must sit still and succumb to the whims of a make-up artist.

What was so intriguing about the whole spectacle was what appeared to me to be its metaphorical implications. These men, called upon for their real-world experience, had suddenly become actors on a stage, being made up so that they would better look the part. The entire evening was, to quite a large degree, theater. atthews made jokes at the beginning to a delighted audience, and kept the program moving so that those in attendance would not get bored. The applause was carefully choreographed by his stage manager, who signaled when to clap and when to stop, controlling the students in Gaston Hall like a skilled puppeteer. During the program, very few significant questions were asked of the guests, and very few issues explored in any depth. “Hardball,” an extremely popular show among viewers across America, is, in truth, little more than an entertainment program masked as political commentary.

This, in and of itself, is not necessarily troubling. But what is worrisome is what was being discussed that night: war. Beginning a war is one of the most brutal and significant acts that a nation can undertake. The consequences of any war are potentially drastic. An invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces, the focus of the evening, would kill many, many people, both soldiers and civilians. This is a serious subject requiring the deepest contemplation. The power of war must never be taken lightly.

And yet, you would not have known this from the discussion that evening. In a calm, untroubled way, the generals discussed how a U.S. invasion of Iraq would unfold, what bombs would be dropped, what special forces utilized, and how many lives would be ended along the way. In a light-hearted manner, General McCaffrey recounted a time when he had accidentally been the recipient of friendly fire while fighting in Vietnam. “Did you fire back?” Matthews nudged. “Believe me, we wanted to,” MacCaffrey replied. The audience giggled.

Shouldn’t talk of war be conducted in a more somber manner? Obviously policy makers and members of the armed forces take their jobs seriously. But I also believe that there is a general and growing perception among many Americans that war is in some way a game, in some way a giant theatrical production carried out on a stage far away. And there are various cultural trends that seem to point to this as well, the most blatant of which are popular new video games. The U.S. Army released an online video game last year entitled “America’s Army Operations,” available free at www.GoArmy.com. The web page is emblazoned with the slogan, “Empower Yourself. Defend Freedom.” The existence of this game is particularly striking, as the Army itself seems to be promoting the concept of war as play, an idea that will serve it well as it tries to recruit the soldiers of tomorrow.

But beyond this, many popular video game systems, traditionally the domain of children but now played by young adults as well, feature a new line of video games realistically portraying urban combat. Some of these games are directly based on reality. A new game for the wildly popular Microsoft X-Box gaming system is entitled “U.S. Navy Seals.” A television advertisement for this game features a group of young men playing together via the Internet. They discuss strategy and tactics as their digital force moves through on-screen scenery. Suddenly, gunshots ring out, and within a matter of seconds, all of the soldiers on the screen have been killed. Stunned, the civilians wonder who has done them in. Indeed, actual U.S. Navy Seals are revealed to be at the other end of the console, playing in some remote army outpost. “Like shooting fish in a barrel,” one jokes to the others.

Is this what war is becoming in the mind of the average person? A game? Or, to return to “Hardball,” simply an interesting topic to discuss on television? Already, no one can claim that civilians have even the slightest inkling of what battle actually looks and feels like. The devastation that is unleashed by a modern bombing run is incomprehensible, completely outside of an average person’s experience. And yet, are we as a society moving even further away from being aware of the consequences of our actions? Warfare today is conducted from great distances. Smart bombs and cruise missiles do not require forces on the ground to light a fuse or to dodge bullets. In a war with Iraq, a great deal of the fighting will be viewed by U.S. soldiers on video screens, who will press buttons to fire satellite-guided missiles at satellite-produced images and who will then hope for the best. And back at home, the American people, all of whom will support this war either directly or indirectly, will watch fluorescent flashes of light on our TV screens that will not do justice to the death and destruction that they represent.

My concern is that increasingly, we will not even see this death and destruction, but will rather feel as if we are viewing a video game or watching a movie unfold. My fear is that war will come to be seen as entertainment instead of what it is: the annihilation of human life that can only be accepted if it produces a much greater good. When the generals on “Hardball” last week were made ready for their close-ups, as is any actor or TV personality, I got the feeling that the entire topic of a war with Iraq had lost its meaning and significance, that it had become totally separated from reality. I felt as if a war with Iraq had become simply the best new television program of the season.

John V. Santore is a sophomore in the College.

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