Steve McRea flipped channels between the Civil War documentary broadcast on public television and the desert war unfolding live on commercial channels.
"I was looking at `The Civil War' program and they would say: `And that brought us to the brink of war.' And I would switch over to the commercial station and they would say: `We're on the brink of war.' "In an especially ironic juxtaposition during the documentary, McRea watched a canon unveiled, modern war technology circa the 1860s. "And they said it revolutionized the way the war would be fought. And then I switched over to ABC, and they were talking about the cruise missiles, about how they would revolutionize the way war would be fought from here on out."
McRea, like hundreds of other Utahns, watched war on every channel this week. After six months of waiting and just two days of bombing, already this skirmish has become TV's war.
Technology beams the Persian Gulf war into America's living rooms. And despite the familiarity of the battle lines, that unprecedented immediacy transforms this conflict into new territory, say local mental health experts. New turf, especially for children.
"Because of the technology of the media, this war, in my opinion, has become an intimate affair for people in this country, unlike any time in history," said Dr. Paul Whitehead, a child and adolescent psychiatrist practicing in Holladay. "It's almost like the war is going on on the other side of town, instead of the other side of the world."
As immediate as if a bomb could explode at a local school yard. Whitehead, like other local experts, has begun thinking about how this TV war will affect Utah's children.
"I've had several children ask me if we're going to have a nuclear bomb dropped on us. In the last few days, almost all the children have been talking about it."
The gulf crisis is confusing for children, Whitehead believes. As the sound of sorties echoes off the Saudi sand, the distinction between reality and TV's pseudo-reality blurs.
After growing up on a lifetime's worth of on-screen violence, children may feel they are at risk from the war, said Dr. Jed Morrison, a psychiatric social worker. Morrison, manager of the Psychiatric Emergency Service for Valley Mental Health and University Hospital, is considered a local crisis specialist.
"I do think it is important to reassure them that this isn't something we will experience directly in our local area. It is important for parents to be aware of the fact that little minds and feelings are exposed."
Dr. Alan Fogel, a developmental research psychologist at the University of Utah, said children entertain unrealistic but nevertheless frightening thoughts about war. They might worry whether there will be a terrorist attack on their school.
"Children are very sensitive to highly charged emotional situations, particularly to situations that involve violence," he said.
Around age 8, children develop a concept of war. Until age 13, that concept remains vague, related to playground games.
But young children aren't the only ones affected.
"I think the kids that are probably having the most difficult times are the ones who are in high school and college, the ones who really feel it as a direct threat to their well-being," Fogel said.
If the conflict continues and American forces suffer casualties, then that sweeping anxiety could spread throughout society.
"Definitely this is a stress," Whitehead said. "It's making people who are in good mental health pretty tense and nervous."
Still, the Utahns most affected by Operation Desert Storm so far are local military families, said Dr. Victoria Stout, of the Western Institute of Neuropsychiatry. "I haven't seen a lot of patients that are dealing with this."
Stout is a military-trained psychiatrist, who just left the Air Force last June. Her husband, an Air Force engineer, was sent to the gulf in December.
At this point, most people who are anxious about the world's uncertainties are relying on neighbors, friends, family or clergy, rather than mental health professionals.
Crisis workers have seen little measurable impact yet because of the war in the Persian Gulf, Morrison said. He is aware of two local suicide attempts related to the crisis: one involving a soldier who became overwhelmed at the thought of going to the gulf; another, the wife of a reservist.
History records that suicides decrease during world wars but increase during economic recessions, Morrison said. "Part of the logic of that is that the world wars were rallying times."
For that reason, Morrison advises Utahns to follow their normal routines, as their part of the war effort. People at home shouldn't feel guilty about not being in the gulf. "We can't be there. We're not part of the conflict. But it's our role to carry on here at home."
As tempting as it might be to recreate America's last good war, World War II, the world has changed. This war will fashion new history.
Whitehead said this war is unique because television cameras have focused on our opponents. "In past wars, the enemy has been faceless and nameless," he said. "These people that we are fighting now are feeling, real human beings. And the media has strongly portrayed that picture."
While in the long run that type of media coverage is excellent because it helps to minimize wars, in the short term it might cause conflicting emotions in viewers.
But that's only one reason this conflict is confusing.
A society's values, which can be reflected in the attitudes parents pass along to their children, are as crucial to a country's war preparation as building missiles. "The acceptability in being involved in a particular war has a lot to do with a culture's attitude," Whitehead said.
And America's agenda has been strongly influenced by the aging Baby Boomers, a generation that grew up staging the most radical rebellion against traditional values of any generation in modern history. "As a matter of fact, the generation that has children at this time is a generation that is anti-war, as a principle," Whitehead said. "That adds to the awkwardness, the insecurities, anxieties and tensions that parents are feeling and are going to spill over to the children."
In addition, their younger brothers and sisters, the 20-something generation who came of age during the 1970s, have never experienced the call to war, never had to rally together in a national crisis.
"Almost all aspects of this war so far have been unprecedented," Whitehead said. "Nobody can very adequately draw on past experience to relate to this war."
Adults can do several things to help their children deal with the war, local psychiatrists say:
- Talk to children about the war. Children need to be reassured about their personal safety.
If children don't bring up the subject, parents and teachers should focus on the conflict.
"If parents try to hide the fact, or too strongly downplay it, the kids tend to think this is something too awful to talk about, and that makes the whole situation worse," said Dr. Paul Whitehead.
"Parents should reassure their children there is almost no chance of any bombs falling in this country."
- Make sure children have correct information, and understand their feelings.
Don't lecture children by telling them not to worry or not to be afraid. "Recognize that a child's fears are as real as our own," said Dr. Alan Fogel.
And don't feed them with more detail than they need or desire.
"All of us have to realize that coping with fears and uncertainties is part of life," said Dr. Jed Morrison.
- Following normal routines can be a reassuring thread in a time of crisis, the experts say.