Operation Desert Fox begins - 18 December 1998

I never thought I would yearn for the good old days, before broadcasts were recorded and played later.

It may be news to some bright-eyed youngsters, say anyone under 60, that there was such a time, but recording started during the 1930s. There were acetate discs, the shellac versions were what the folks at home called gramophone records and then during the Second World War acetate, like steel, rubber, practically any metal, was commandeered for war purposes, so we had to use 16-inch wide glass records, a perilous undertaking, as I well remember, going through factories in the mid-West to record war workers and banging over dirt roads in Alabama, to record the incomparable voices of black cotton croppers.

Then we went back to some superior acetate that smelt of pineapples and then there was a real leap ahead, came tape recording, and those whirling little reels, reel to reel, and now digital recording and cassettes the size of book matches. That's what's happening at this moment. I mean rather, the moment that I'm talking, which is alas, not the same as the moment you're listening, which may be four hours from now or two days, or in the case of New Zealand, four days later.

So why do I yearn, well not exactly yearn, but wish, once or twice a year, that as in the olden time, I'd be given a one-minute warning by my friend the engineer, looking at me through a glass panel, then I'd clear my throat and wait for the second hand of the studio clock, get a big hand signal and begin and hope that a frog didn't suddenly hop into my throat.

Why I wish for all this is that, for once, the very latest news would be the same for you as for me because I usually record this talk on Thursdays, so the tape can be flown over by night, properly fumigated and made ready for playing in Britain on Friday evening. But I've always had the privilege, if something sudden and awful happened, of delaying the procedure and then putting it over the cable to London, which, of course, I did this time, on Friday.

Well, I decided last Wednesday that this talk was going to be a comment on the vote in the full House of Representatives to impeach President Clinton. All 435 of them had been notified or commanded to be on hand on Thursday for the vote and then, on Wednesday morning we heard that Thursday would be given over to debate and the vote would be taken over to Friday. This left me in a box.

Better, at this agonising moment in American history, just talk about the history of ice cream or the two German cities that gave their names to the two most characteristic American snacks. (If you're on tenterhooks – Hamburg and Frankfurt.)

But then, of all things, the impeachment vote seemed to slip out of our consciousness when, at sundown here, on Wednesday evening, we saw something we last saw almost eight years ago, a green screen punctuated with flares and the cool, sensible voice of Christiane Amanpour keeping tabs on the flares, warning New York or Atlanta rather, CNN's headquarters here, not to assume an explosion meant an attack. Iraqi anti-aircraft got busy it seems, well before any Cruise missiles were delivered.

When the missiles did start popping and smoke could be seen and there was much banging nearby, a fretful reporter on this side kept wondering aloud where Miss Amanpour was speaking from and was she protected and she kept replying, with great patience, that she was on the roof of the Ministry of Information building in Baghdad and no, no arrangements had been made for her protection. All the journalists were there and not to worry too much about the frightful banging, It might be nearby, but it was not that nearby.

This struck me as a uniquely tragic-comic start to news of a war or what the Pentagon, the White House and all the politicians here call "military activity". What is it about the modern politician and government official and now the soldiers, that makes them so afraid of the English language?

It's true that the English language is, of all languages, a simple, clean, clear instrument that can cut through muddy thought like a knife through butter. Maybe that's its great flaw when a politician is thought to think deeply and talk clearly or simply to tell the truth, and when I say modern politician, official, I mean in the past 50 years, for half our century.

I recall, and always will recall with sharpness, not to say pride, a meeting of top soldiers – the Anglo-American military staff in General Eisenhower's headquarters in Grosvenor Square, known then as Eisenhowerplatz, in the middle of the Second War. They were doing a post-mortem on a recent battle and after reviewing the casualties and the tactical outcome, an American colonel said, "How many ICPs have been counted?"

"What,", asked Mr Churchill, "are ICPs?"

Blandly, the colonel replied, "Impaired combatant personnel, sir."

"Never, " rang out the famous growl, "let me hear that detestable phrase again. If you're talking about British troops, you will refer to them as wounded soldiers." The Vietnamese War bulletins didn't have the guts to consider death, they adopted the pasteurised phrase "body count".

Now this is not a pedantic fiddle or fuss. Muddy language proceeds from muddy minds, which means simply minds that begin by refusing to face simple truths. There was a perfect and perfectly awful example of what bog of non-meaning this sort of thinking can lead you into on Wednesday evening, when various Congressmen were being tapped by reporters to react to the first word of the new war.

Needless to say, the most outspoken ones were the politicians who wanted to be sure their constituents knew that their first thoughts were for "our boys out there". Congressmen who were against the new war were quick to work themselves up into artificial indignation and there was this one man who pronounced a marvellous bit of double-talk when he said, "Our boys did not enlist to be put in harm's way". I can hear thousands of mothers saying "Hear, hear" and perhaps one grown-up voter saying, "Wait a minute, isn't that what soldiers are for?" In harm's way, as you know, has become another buzzword, which really says nothing unless it expresses a secret wish to have no army at all.

Wednesday night I stayed with CNN because it does tend to be the firstest with the mostest, as the general said. It was the first to catch live, in our Wednesday afternoon, Prime Minister Blair's speech at 10 Downing Street, but once the Iraqi flak started up, we alternated between the green, green sky, the flares, the booms, the voice of the cool, cool Miss Amanpour and direct cuts, at minute intervals, in Washington, to the Capitol and eventually to what we'd all been waiting for, some statement from someone in authority about the impeachment vote.

The impeachment! We'd let that slide in the sudden sound and fury of Operation Desert Fox. But after all, the whole House had been told to be on hand for the beginning of the impeachment debate and most of them had flown in and got caught by the war, like the rest of us. They were hanging around, only too glad for the moment to get their two cents' worth in about their devotion to the troops in the field, even though there were no troops and no field, and as I say, one or two, it must be the same in the House of Commons, who couldn't resist the opportunity of imputing the war to a calculating Clinton and saying they felt strongly about putting their boys in harm's way, to save Clinton. A mean remark, wherever it was made, and really not worth responding to.

The plan for Operation Desert Fox was put together ten days ago, when the first gloomy word came from Mr Butler's UN team, that they were being denied access to scores, maybe hundreds, of known sites for weapons of mass destruction.

If and when it was determined by the president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defence, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, if Mr Butler's report came in and the worst came to the worst, then there would be no more negotiations, no threats, no new ultimatums. It would be essential, then, to deprive Saddam of the leeway he'd had, the last three times, to divert or bury the weapons we were on to.

So, eventually, to the lingering mobs of Congress people, Mr Livingston came in and in a 15-minute speech, staggering through the more familiar jargon of Capitol Hill, said two things. One, on Thursday a resolution would be passed by the House declaring its support for the American troops engaged in the new military activity and two, the vote on the other matter, he never used the word impeachment, would be put off maybe till Friday, Saturday or whatever.

Well since then tumultuous things have happened. But the schedule survived, in spite of a furious campaign by the Democrats to postpone the debate and the vote, the House leader protesting at the outrage of having 24,000 men and women engaged in war while the Congress is preparing to impeach their commander in chief. So, as I talk, it's going ahead and even before the House assembled just about all the wobbling Republicans had ceased to wobble and move over to what appears to be a certain majority to impeach. The White House was, accordingly, now pondering its strategy for the trial in the Senate, early in the year.

But by now you will know as much as I and the way news is breaking, if you hear that an outer spaceship has landed on the White House lawn with a crew of invading aliens, weird men with slant eyes and pointy heads, you'd probably be right to believe it.

Meanwhile, I leave you to write the rest of the story about a nation's capital in a political and moral turmoil, the like of which I have not seen in the 61 years I've been watching it.

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC. Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.