Intelligent Life?

Intelligent Life?

Intelligent Life?

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
April 16 1999 6:57 AM

Intelligent Life?

The war continues to be the news leader, with USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and New York Times going with the call-up of as many as 33,000 reservists to support the continuation of the air war for possibly many more months. USAT says the call-up may happen, while the others say it will. The Washington Post lead is NATO's admission yesterday that it was indeed responsible for the carnage that cost the lives of an estimated 75 Kosovar Albanians, an event that the military had briefly suggested could have been the work of the Serbs. All the other papers front the fess-up, but the early edition of the Post does not front the call-up. A USAT poll taken before the tragedy shows increasing American popular support for military action against Yugoslavia. Even a ground war is now favored by more than half the respondents. But Secretary of Defense William Cohen testified yesterday that within NATO there is no support for going to the ground.

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Most of the reservists would, say the papers, be Air Force personnel, although members of other branches would be affected also. Although Cohen and the Pentagon's top officer each warned yesterday in congressional testimony of near-certain U.S. casualties, the coverage doesn't mention if the call-up includes medical units, which are often a clue as to the amount and type of casualties expected. The NYT, LAT, and Wall Street Journal remind that many more reservists got the call during the Gulf War (the papers say 265,000, 245,000 and 230,000 respectively). The NYT goes high with the observation that because of its size, this call-up will likely have a significant domestic social and economic impact. Another domestic note is rung by the LAT: Congress just passed legislation permitting service members sent to the Balkans to put off filing their income tax until 180 days after they get back. (No word on the tax advantages of getting killed.)

The papers pass along NATO's explanation of the convoy disaster-- that a pilot went after military-style trucks involved in a mass house-burning, complete with the verbatim testimony of the pilot taken from his post-incident military debrief. One detail of his debrief that the LAT mentions but doesn't really mine for the reader: The pilot says he verified his target with infrared sensors and that he did so while at an altitude of 15,000 feet. The papers should be asking what the magnification on those devices is. For even if they had a magnification of 100 times, that would mean that the pilot, while flying 450 miles an hour, was deciding that a truck is military from a half a football field away. Which would explain why he didn't know what he was blowing up. This aspect of the episode also dramatizes how an overriding concern for pilot safety--he was at 15,000 feet to avoid anti-aircraft cannon fire--can lessen the chances of success.

But the coverage effectively impugns NATO's explanation: It turns out that there were more vehicles struck than in the pilot's account and in two other locations he didn't fly over. These anomalies are especially well limned in the LAT 's front-page on-the-ground account by Paul Watson, who managed to make unescorted trips to several sites where civilians were killed by bombs. Watson observes that 1) Given the density of the NATO air traffic, it's difficult to see how a Yugoslav jet could have sneaked in to attack the refugee column for propaganda purposes; 2) the shrapnel patterns, craters, and pieces of debris are almost identical at three different sites along a 12-mile stretch of highway, suggesting that refugees were bombed several times by NATO planes; 3) none of the survivors he interviewed confirmed the NATO claim that military vehicles were hiding in their convoy. No wonder the WSJ says that the NATO account could draw people to the conclusion that their political leaders are lying.

Watson and reporters from the other papers record the grimness of the accident site's charred bodies, blown-away limbs, and severed heads. The WP says the Yugoslav government seized upon the scene as a "public relations bonanza," leaving bodies and body parts in place until the Western press could be brought there. (The phrase suggests that the U.S. doesn't do the same. Yet in reality, this is just the low-tech version of the nose-cone-video briefing.) But the NYT's sharp-eyed Steven Erlanger notes some other features of the landscape that his escorts probably weren't pushing so hard: tanks hidden in the woods, and burned-down houses, some featuring shell holes and some crushed, as if by tanks.

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The WP, LAT, and USAT fronts tell of the discovery by astronomers of the first multi-planet solar system outside our own. This development, taken together with the day's more pressing news reminds us of the simultaneous seductions and limits of technology: Being able to detect a solar system from 44 light years away leads us to believe we can detect an innocent from three miles.