< Bird Shot

Transcript

Friday, February 09, 2007

BOB GARFIELD:
From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And I'm Brooke Gladstone. No one ever claimed helicopters were the safest way to get around in a war, but when an American chopper went down near Baghdad on Wednesday, it was at the top of the news, both in print and on the air.
ANNOUNCER
And now, the news with Brian Williams.
BRIAN WILLIAMS:
Good evening. On top of all the various dangers facing U.S. fighters in Iraq, tonight seven more Americans are dead in another helicopter crash.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
ANNOUNCER:
This is World News with Charles Gibson.
CHARLES GIBSON:
Good evening. Today in Iraq another chopper down. In four years -
[OVERTALK]
WOLF BLITZER:
Insurgents say they shot it down. The U.S. military, however, isn't so sure. Still, is it part of a disturbing new pattern?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
It's hard to argue that it isn't news when, in all, six choppers go down in three weeks. But we've noticed that whenever a helicopter crashes in Iraq, it seems to garner more headlines than almost any other kind of attack. And it's not simply a matter of casualties. Improvised explosive devices were responsible for more American deaths over that same three-week period.

And so, as media watchers, we had to ask ourselves why the story resonates so loudly here. We called Mark Bowden to help us find an answer. He, of course, is the reporter who wrote the book Black Hawk Down, about the failed American military campaign in Somalia. It was later made into a movie. Mark, welcome to the show.
MARK BOWDEN:
Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So I guess one of the unintended consequences of Black Hawk Down is that you've effectively been branded the go-to guy on helicopter crashes.
MARK BOWDEN:
[LAUGHS] That's true. Whenever a Black Hawk goes down anywhere in the world, I get called.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So would you agree that helicopter crashes seem to be getting a lot of attention here that is perhaps out of proportion with the actual losses they inflict?
MARK BOWDEN:
I think that it is an arresting image, certainly, in part because helicopters are kind of visual symbols of American technological superiority. Probably the distinct advantage that American forces have over any other military in the world is that we are capable of completely controlling the skies. And that's something that's felt not just from a distance, but by the soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, and who would much prefer to travel from place to place on a helicopter than in a vehicle. The vehicles are considered to be far more vulnerable. So it's a blow to America's sense of invulnerability.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You mentioned the symbolism. Do you think helicopters are actually a symbol of the superpower?
MARK BOWDEN:
They are. And for the same reason it alarms us when helicopters are shot down, it heartens the enemy. In Somalia, the primary tactic that the clansmen in Mogadishu employed was to target helicopters. They shot down five or six helicopters in the day of the Battle of Mogadishu with rocket-propelled grenades.

And that was a very alarming event to the American soldiers in the ground who had been lulled by their previous successes into a belief that the relatively primitive soldiery that they faced was not really capable of taking down a helicopter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And I guess it's worth noting that the downing of Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan in the eighties has been invoked by journalists and pundits on more than a few occasions this week as the turning point in that war.
MARK BOWDEN:
I think it's true. I mean it's a classic David vs. Goliath situation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Have helicopters always represented military superiority, mastery in the sky? I mean, everybody remembers the Coppola Wagnerian -
[MUSIC: RIDE OF THE VALKYRIES]
[SINGS] dah-dah-dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah-dah-dah – as they came pouring across the landscape in Apocalypse Now.

MARK BOWDEN:
You know, I think that's actually the first image that comes to my mind of helicopters as really menacing attack vehicles, at least in popular culture. I think that helicopters in the real world, even in the context of Vietnam, I think primarily of ways of sort of inserting troops and also pulling out the wounded and getting them to a hospital really quickly.

So in that sense, I didn't really perceive of helicopters as assault vehicles until that famous image from Apocalypse Now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I guess you have to wonder is the insurgency primarily sending a message, trafficking in the meanings they know will play powerfully to the American people and their own people rather than, you know, just carrying out a strictly tactical campaign?
MARK BOWDEN:
I think without question that's true, Brooke. I mean the insurgency has, from the beginning, been primarily about creating images and death tolls that will shock the American public and will shatter our country's resolve. That's the nature of any insurgency, really, is to demoralize a more powerful opponent.

And so these images - I think that they are shot for the same reason that they videotape their executions of prisoners and put them up on the Internet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So, just another salvo in a war that is being fought not just on the ground but in the media space.
MARK BOWDEN:
I think that's been the nature of all these conflicts that we've been involved in for the last 10 or 15 years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Mark, thank you so much.
MARK BOWDEN:
You're welcome, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and starting again this weekend, a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.