Worth a Thousand Words

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An image taken off Abu Dhabi satellite channel 11

If Firdos Square did not exist, a set designer could have built it. Sitting conveniently across from the Palestine Hotel, the de facto headquarters of the press in Baghdad, the square lacked only floodlights and a craft-services table to be a stage set for Saddam's grand finale. Dozens of journalists darted among Marines and Iraqis, shouldering cameras like rocket launchers. Was it amazing that we saw a war's climax live on TV? Or did this become the war's climax because it happened live on TV? After that statue of the tyrant fell, it was irresistible, if wrong, to speak of the war in the past tense. Fighting is a physical state; war, in the absence of formal declarations and surrenders, is a state of mind. The battle might drag on bloodily for months. But this moment — hollow Saddam collapsing, his metal insides jutting out — was too perfect, too cinematic, for the war not to be over.

War on Iraq
TIME.com's ongoing coverage of the U.S.-Iraq conflict

 After Saddam
Who will step in to fill the void?

 Tools of the Hunt
 On Assignment: The War

 Perry: Street Fighting in Karbala
 Robinson: Chaos at a Bridge
 Ware: Last Stand for Saddam

 When the Cheering Stops
Jubilation and chaos greet the fall of Saddam's regime, leaving Iraqis and Americans puzzling over how to rebuild the nation
 The Search for the Smoking Gun
 Counting the Casualties

CNN.com: War in Iraq
Gulf War I may have been a war made for TV, but Gulf War II has been a war made by TV. Knowing this campaign would be broadcast by Arab media like al-Jazeera — likely to show it in the goriest, least flattering light — the Pentagon chose targets and strategies to reduce blowback in the Muslim world, even at some military risk. After U.S. troops entered Baghdad, the war continued to be waged through TV. George Bush and Tony Blair took to Iraq's commandeered airwaves, press secretary Ari Fleischer began a White House briefing by announcing exactly when and for how long Bush watched TV the morning the statue fell, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged reporters to fan out and get the stories of Iraqis who could now speak without government oversight.

This media-aware Administration used the press, if not as a weapon, then as an advantageous feature of the landscape. The government managed coverage, giving reporters embedded with troops an exciting but limited view that made for thrilling pictures. TV also managed itself: as the statue fell, troops were in a fire fight blocks away, but viewers saw little of that scene — it didn't fit the master story line. Still, no stage management could keep Marines from undiplomatically raising Old Glory or shooting civilians at a checkpoint, as Australian TV caught Wednesday night in footage widely replayed in the States.

This was also the war of cable news, whose ratings jumped by triple digits while the ratings for network nightly news dropped slightly. Cable showed a war that was easy to see but hard to know, as 24-hour news took advantage of technology and access but often hurriedly picked up unconfirmable reports, albeit with caveats. "It's a hazard of the electronic-journalism game," says msnbc president Erik Sorenson. "My staff is so sick of me saying the word attribution." There is always the fog of war, but like smog trapped by a heat inversion, it was compounded by hot air, as anchors vamped to fill time and pushed guests to speculate. If anything, the fog grew thicker as the bombing slowed. The allies killed Saddam — or did they? — and troops found chemical weapons that later, diabolically, morphed into pesticides. Spend 30 minutes with cable news, and you'd be sure you knew where the war stood. Spend all day — the preferred mode of media professionals and the insane — and you'd have no clue.

That confusion (the more you watch, the less you know) is the inevitable result of the 24-hour news cycle, which exaggerates both advances and setbacks and in which war is a quagmire if it threatens to last as long as a season of The Bachelor. Yet TV also had fine moments, many, not coincidentally, when anchors and talking heads shut up, as with a fire fight in Baghdad that aired on msnbc last Thursday. For several chaotic minutes there were no voice-overs, charts or speculation, just the sound of spent shells clinking on concrete and the sights of G.I.s ducking behind walls, blood soaking into a soldier's pant leg. It was war, simple and unspun. Then the talking heads returned, for wars may come and go, but the battle for your attention never ends.