ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT – In its fifth day, Operation Iraqi Freedom is not playing well aboard Navy ships like the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Instead of the news channels, more and more sailors are watching basketball, movies — anything that takes them away from the world's first fully televised war.
"Thank God, it's not POWs and shot GIs," mutters a swabbie, as he goes past a TV screen set up near one of the aircraft carrier's gyms. Instead of news anchors, the monitor shows Robin Williams, mugging in Death to Smoochy.
The opening hours of the U.S. assault on Iraq were followed avidly by the 5,500 sailors, airmen and officers of the Roosevelt, one of two aircraft carriers deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. Pictures of U.S. heavy armor rolling unopposed through the desert fit the image of a quick, clean campaign that would topple Saddam Hussein with the minimum of harm to American servicemen.
Then came the bad news — 12 soldiers taken captive after they made a wrong turn and were ambushed; two pilots of an Apache helicopter captured after their chopper went down; still photos apparently depicting U.S. casualties.
As it becomes clear that the march to Baghdad is not going to be easy, crew members are increasingly tuning out in favor of lighter entertainment. Sports broadcasts are popular. So are the movies shown daily by the flattop's three channels. Besides Death to Smoochy, programming for Tuesday included Beetlejuice, Bull Durham, The Insider and Independence Day.
"I don't think the American people should be kept ignorant," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Tyler Stephen Paschal, 21, of Whidbey Island, Wash., one of those following Williams' antics. "But the media should be little more selective about what they show. Some of that stuff is too emotionally jarring."
None of those abroad is immune to the bad news airing on the networks, with embedded reporters taking the world closer to the war than ever before with live broadcasts from tank turrets and war ships.
News coverage of Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 assault on Iraq, was more restricted, focusing on targets exploding from the viewpoint of missile-mounted cameras and charts and graphs of allied successes. Operation Enduring Freedom, the Afghanistan campaign, also relied — at least initially — on images released by the Pentagon in a battle where overwhelming U.S. superiority ensured few American casualties.
Not so in this war. For the combat pilots, trained to shrug off adversity and concentrate on their missions, news of pilots down bring to mind the fate of one of their own — Michael Scott Spiker, missing since his F/A18C went missing in the 1991 Gulf War.
"We all sit around and we talk about it," said an F/A-18C pilot who asked to be identified only as Mungo, his call sign. "We can't afford to dwell on it, and it won't affect our morale, but it hurts to see our people suffering like that."
Worst hit are the rookies — the 18- to 24-year olds, many on their first sea tour, who represent 75 percent of those on board.
"They came on board very naive," said Lt. Kirsten Betak, the ship's 31-year-old psychologist. "They haven't seen a true war. What they've seen is videos and films glorifying war. "Now, they're in a bit of a shock because we're taking casualties and they're seeing it live time."
Betak, of Norfolk, Va., said there was a spike Sunday in the numbers of those seeing her who expressed worry about the war — the same day that the news networks started showing U.S. casualties.
Of the eight or nine people she sees daily "about 25 to 30 percent are now ambivalent about the war," Betak said. "They understand what needs to happen but they don't understand why we are dying."
Betak expects things to get worse once the names of the dead and missing are released.
"I pretty much guarantee that someone on this ship will have known one of the Marines or one of the soldiers," she said. "It doesn't help them do their jobs better to see people dying."