During the Second World War, Col. Frank Capra directed a stunning series of motivational documentaries, titled Why We Fight, to be shown to GIs and home-front audiences under the assumption that you could not have an informed view of war if you were not informed. That assumption remains crucially valid today.
But despite access to instant and around-the-clock news on television, Americans still seem to crave a better understanding of the crisis in the Persian Gulf. Were a half million American troops sent to Saudi Arabia to protect Kuwait's sovereignty or the West's oil? Is Saddam Hussein a new Hitler or something less threatening to the world at large? Could this war have been avoided? The onslaught of news flashes, sound bites, and expert opinion on the tube too often turns into a wall of white noise.
For those seeking facts in an accessible form, the options are troublingly few. Two new videotapes, Saddam Hussein Defying the World and Desert Shield attempt to put the Mideast conflict in perspective. One tape succeeds.
Despite its saber-rattling title, Saddam Hussein-Defying the World is a concise history lesson, and one that's admirably well balanced. Produced by the British news service ITN, it uses maps, news footage, and straightforward narration to pack an astounding amount of information into 35 minutes without ever becoming confusing.
So much ground is covered here that while you're watching the tape you almost have audible clicks of comprehension. The documentary traces the creation of Iraq and Kuwait by the British in 1921 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, of which they had been a part, and briefly outlines Iraq's pre-Hussein attempt to claim Kuwait in 1961. At that time an eerily similar standoff with the British ended with Iraq's backing down.
Hussein's bloody rise to power through the ranks of the Baath party is traced, as well as the shifting allegiances and feuds with his neighboring leaders, the costly, eight-year-long war with Iran, and Hussein's dreams of attaining nuclear weapons and forging a pan-Arab state. The documentary never lets him off the hook of his own ruthlessness: The grim footage of gassed Kurdish women and children is silent testimony to the dictator's indifference to human life.
Unfortunately, a rundown of America's involvement in the region is conspicuously absent it's a British production, after all. But this quick history lesson at least explains and shows, through archival footage-some revealing facts about Iraq.
Desert Shield offers a different sort of education. In chapters such as ''Gulf Seapower,'' ''Desert Armor,'' and ''Desert Firepower,'' this 52-minute tape outlines the military strengths and weaknesses of both sides in the conflict. We're shown tanks, fighter planes, ballistic missiles, light armored vehicles first theirs, then ours, then both compared side by side in a creepily fascinating display of ''my toys are better than your toys.''
If it's assurance of U.S. battle superiority you want, you'll find it here, sloppily presented, a couple of months out of date, and divorced from any sense of politics, history, or humanity. By the time the 20th M1 Abrams tank rolls by the viewer's benumbed eyes, it has become obvious that this is aimed primarily at military buffs.
In the end, neither of these tapes fully answers the question: Why do we fight in the Mideast? At least Saddam Hussein Defying the World helps explain the history of the country the entire globe is trying to curb. If we weren't barrel-to-barrel with Iraq right now, this tape wouldn't necessarily be the most compelling video on the
shelves. But we are. And it is.
Saddam Hussein Defying the World: A Desert Shield: D+