Sailors tune away as war news turns complicated

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 25, 2003

ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT (AP) - 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 Paula Zahn or Brit Hume, 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.

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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 Whitdbey 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.