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Reality TV, redefined

It’s gone to commercials.

Time for a quick run to the fridge for another beer, then the hurried rush to the porch to pull another bratwurst and burger off the grill.

Then it’s back to that favorite spot on the couch to settle in.

Back on the screen pops an image of American soldiers, pounding away at some Iraqi position. They advance, they shoot, and then, suddenly, bang, a huge explosion, killing or wounding countless enemy soldiers.

American soldiers rush forward again, bringing viewers to the edge of their seats. Those sitting at home feel like they should cheer.

“U.S.A.! U.S.A.! Beat those Iraqis!”

Never in the history of American warfare have media provided those at home with the kind of images seen during the first few days of the current Iraqi conflict. Gone are the days of the heroic war correspondents, many of whom paid the ultimate price to bring Americans gripping still images of the horrors of war. Now, remote cameras and embedded crews bring battles to the airwaves live and in full color.

War, it seems, now has the feel of a twisted, perverted, live sporting event. No doubt, when a particularly large bomb hits, Americans watching the action react much as they would sitting with buddies at a football game.

“Wow, man! Did you see that hit?”

Never was this more evident than in the wee hours of Saturday morning. U.S. troops, accompanied by a British camera crew, engaged an Iraqi force in a building in the southern Iraqi town of Umm Qasar. Marines lay in a row while tanks advanced. The tanks unloaded both cannons and high-caliber machine guns into the building, literally taking it apart. It was brutal, impressive and live.

During the engagement, a Marine stood behind his lines. He was approached by the British anchor, who questioned him about the building over his shoulder as it was being devastated. At that moment, the British news journalist seemed like a sideline reporter grabbing a coach at halftime.

Shortly thereafter, a Marine was given a camera and carried it as he monitored Iraqi resistance. Suddenly, the American public found itself in the Marine’s shoes, which offers the same vicarious pleasure as an in-car camera during a NASCAR race. The viewer rides along with the driver as he tries to avoid the wrecks.

Some time later, an American force apparently on a roof attacked a building across the street. The camera, just inches away, recorded live images of several soldiers firing their guns into the opposite building.

In the ensuing minutes, soldiers entered the building, and one ran out, pictured on several stations with various expert guest anchors analyzing, with his back on fire. He fell to the ground, burning, while his fellow soldiers frantically worked to put him out.

How odd it was, with these images, that CNN refused to show Al-Jazeera television’s tape of dead American soldiers, believing it would be too graphic. Those images, which can be seen on news-gathering Web sites, are no more graphic than those seen on the networks of American bodies being carried through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.

But, maybe stranger is the overall American reaction to the war. It has taken the brutal images of fighting that have appeared on television throughout the weekend to point out how desensitized Americans are to warfare. People die, and the sadness is there. But the reaction is more akin to a football fan sitting in the 700 level of a stadium, upset that a star running back blew out his knee not because he feels sorry for the player’s pain, but because of what the loss means to the team.

Maybe it has gotten too easy for Americans. It has been almost 60 years since the nation has been at war with an enemy that seemed to pose a real and immediate threat. There is now no urgency or concern.

The mood may change very quickly. If Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad don’t surrender, there will be street fighting. Technology that guarantees victory in an open desert engagement will be rendered useless in the city’s maze of buildings, meaning a more soldier-on-soldier battle.

The fighting in Baghdad could be ugly. President George W. Bush continues to warn that the war may not be easy or quick.

Will horrifying images out of Baghdad suddenly awake a different level of concern in Americans? It could happen, but it seems doubtful. As brutal as it may become, coalition forces will win the war. The result will never be in doubt.

And, even though in war, the tackles are made by bullets and the players often don’t get up, Americans are watching war a world away through modern eyes. Unlike previous conflicts, where life on the homefront changed as a result of war, an American without a television would notice no difference between today and last Monday.

And so with no threats and no basic changes to life, Americans will continue to watch and enjoy their blowout, hoping nothing happens that will hurt in a tougher game against a better team.