CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK
If we're going to make war, we should be allowed to watch what the rest of the world sees

By Ty Burr, Globe Staff, 3/30/2002

I don't think I'm alone when I say that my most vivid memories of the 1991 Gulf War come from the 1999 movie ''Three Kings.'' That's right, the one with George Clooney, Ice Cube, and Marky Mark, about a group of US soldiers who come up against greed and conscience while out on the war's sandy perimeter. Great film if you haven't seen it, but more to the point, it's just about the only American movie to get down in the desert and show us the conflict as it affected our troops and the people they came in contact with.

But it's a Hollywood movie, you splutter, shot in the wilds of California. To which I reply, yes, but there's still more human truth to the film than in the video-game footage of buildings silently exploding that we saw on TV during the Gulf War itself. The film industry takes its sweet time, but occasionally gets it right.

Perhaps we'll have to wait another eight years to see an unfiltered picture of what is happening now in Iraq. Unfortunately, the rest of the world is watching images and hearing voices that we can't, because our media handlers - the government and the mainstream news outlets - have decided that we're too sensitive to be exposed to them. Airing footage of casualties on both sides, close-up civilian damage, and captive American POWs - footage that has been seen everywhere but here - crosses the boundaries of taste, we are told.

So does war, in case anyone needs reminding. It doesn't matter where you stand on the question of whether or not this conflict is necessary. To say that we should wage battle while looking away, as a people, from its particulars, cannot be anything but hypocrisy. This nation is often accused by outsiders of living in a bubble, ignoring any but its own interests and culture. It's true that America has a specific genius for creating pictures and shipping them out to the world. We don't necessarily like to get pictures back, though. And by keeping the more unpleasant and incorrect images off our radar screens, we risk becoming actively, willfully blind.

The government wants you to see the good news, of course: the tanks forging across the desert, the bombs bursting in air over Baghdad. That's what governments during wartime do. Director John Huston made a brilliant series of documentaries for the US department of war during WWII, and the one they didn't like - ''Let There Be Light,'' about shellshocked soldiers - was banned for 35 years. To be surprised by this is to be, simply, naive.

This time around, our reporters - except the few still in Baghdad - are ''embedded,'' which means they're not getting out to get a different perspective. It's up to reporters from other countries to get other sides of the story, then. They're delivering the goods, but unless you consciously seek their reports out on their websites, on nonmainstream US news sources, or through personal weblogs, you're just getting a slicker version of the same old video game.

Some have argued that the airing of images of US casualties and prisoners goes against civilized propriety, not to mention the Geneva Convention. They are absolutely right - and, in an age of instantaneous satellite uplinks and Internet distribution, there is not a blessed thing anyone can do about it. The genie is out of the bottle, and wishing that it wasn't is like General Gage wishing that the Continental Army wouldn't be so uncouth as to fire from behind trees.

But children are watching TV, you protest. All right, then: Turn it off. If they're old enough, go through the daily newspapers with them; if they're too young, be your own news filter and give them only what they need to know. As the parent, it's up to you to get as much of the story as possible, then decide how much to share.

It's doubtful that you can get a rounded sense of this conflict from American TV alone, unless you're content with long shots of Baghdad by night, impressive displays of military hardware on the move, and crisp Defense Department spokesmen. As with the Gulf War, the enemy is abstract; what's different this time is that the rest of the Arab world and any other countries that have the temerity to disagree with us are being ignored, too. This is fine for morale purposes. It's not so great if lasting lessons are to be learned.

Those other voices are out there on the Web, but you have to look for them: This is why God, in his infinite wisdom, made Google. You can even find news feeds and links to suit your bias: left, right, center. The filings on Alternet ( www.alternet.org/waroniraq) are stridently antiwar but full of stuff you won't find on CNN. Ether Zone ( www.etherzone.com), by contrast, offers a prowar slant, but its media-links page is huge, useful, and reasonably bipartisan. One of the most informed and straight-down-the-middle journalists is Michael Young, columnist for the Lebanon Daily Star, whose personal news log is at www.beirutcalling.blogspot.com.

You could also go to the Arab news outlets, but most of them are in Arabic. One that isn't is the London-based newspaper Dar Al Hayat, at english.daralhayat.com - a good stop if you want to understand an Arab perspective that is anti-American but not over-the-top. The last time I tried to access Al-Jazeera online (www.aljazeera.net), it had been hacked with an image of the American flag. Nice patriotic gesture, and perfectly emblematic of our deep-seated desire to not know.

There are first-person weblogs emanating from within Baghdad, the most impressive of which is Salam Pax's at dearraed.blogspot.com - apolitical civilian reporting at its finest. If you have a strong stomach and a bit of tech knowledge, you can even get Iraqi TV on your computer. ''Never tell an American there's a channel he can't watch,'' says Paul Boutin on his weblog ( paulboutin.weblogger.com) before linking you to his instructions on how to patch in ( slate.msn.com/id/2080681).

You will probably see pictures there that will offend you. This is as it should be. To quote Susan Sontag in her remarkably prescient new book ''Regarding the Pain of Others'': ''Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing - may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don't forget.''

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com

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