Gulf War TV

by Ernest Larsen

from Jump Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 3-10
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1991, 2006

From this distance — the other side of the official ceasefire — everyone would agree that the image we saw most often throughout television coverage of Desert Storm certainly was not drawn from combat. Nor was the most frequent image the Scud missile attacks, nor the many classic close ups of the innocent faces of young grunts, nor even the ceaseless ripple of countless yellow ribbons. What we saw most often was a formula along the lines of: Cleared by military censors. Between by and military, or sometimes instead of military, we would invariably see the name of a country. So it was brought home to us that all these nations must employ battalions of such spectral censors. Perhaps I missed it but I never saw a single interview with a censor from any country. This was an odd omission on the part of the media, which often appeared ready, if not downright desperate, to interview anybody no matter how peripherally related to the war. Considering also the legions of retired generals who came out of mothballs to pretend to impersonate impartial experts on military strategy, why weren't any senior citizen censors dusted off for the viewers' edification?

This omission adds another unseen edge to the invisible power of the censor, of course. In what desert of the imagination had our censors received their basic training? And of what specific regimen did their basic training consist when what they were expected to kill was not human beings but moving images? Each time that subtitle appeared, like a label or a logo over images of the war, more questions, more gaps, more ambiguities, more indeterminacies became raised along with it. How could we credit what we saw, without any knowledge of what we didn't see? The force of sheer repetition did the trick.

Soon enough though, we didn't notice which country was doing the censoring unless the human anchor (Brokaw, Rather, Jennings, whoever was standing in for Bernard Shaw on CNN) made a point of bringing that fact to our attention. Of course, the human anchor would do that over and over again when the country was Iraq but otherwise hardly at all. We were urged to be duly suspicious of Iraqi imagery. So we paid much closer attention to it, as a rule. We sat there in our living rooms staring, wondering which of the injuries was faked, which bombed buildings were actually only cosmetic makeovers, which interview with a grieving woman painstakingly staged. Should we, for a quick refresher course, go out and rent a video of The Manchurian Candidate? Fiendishly clever of these Iraqis to find the resources to fake all that damage as the overwhelming tonnage of bombs continued to accumulate real damage in the weeks of the air war.

After a few days, we began to wonder what "cleared" meant. The reference here could not be to enlightenment, could it? In any case this designation soon grew so conventional that we assumed that a kind of authorship was being invoked. The images began to look as if they'd been branded by the censors, as a cowboy brands a steer, or as if they'd been signed by the censors as a painting is signed by an artist. To "clear" came to mean to "have created." The proprietary signature appended to just about every image of the war, every representation of how the war looked, was "military censor." In this way, military censors became not just the most prolific authors of war imagery but censorship and representation became synonymous. Perhaps this shouldn't come as a great surprise since the networks routinely exercise censorship on all their programming, but its nearly constant signatory acknowledgement was nonetheless disquieting. In the end it came to seem like a confession on the part of the networks, or at least an admission.

It was the first direct sign of a prospective new world order of television, Hereafter, TV seemed to be saying, we broadcast what we are given to broadcast. We are not authors, we are conduits, loyal circuits providing a direct feed from the Pentagon to the public. The networks' and CNN's subsequent reversion to programming as usual, once the Desert Storm had "cleared," cut short the still slightly open question of when, if ever, the usual proprietors of the air waves would reassert their prior privileges of authorship The war's brevity prevented any direct confrontation with the Pentagon's assuming control over the media. It also foreclosed any inquiry into the media's supine readiness to play the Pentagon's game. The media's present orgiastic portrayal of the wave of patriotism sweeping the country only exacerbates this issue: What were the effects and implications of the Pentagon's near-total control of the representation of Desert Storm?

To examine more closely this issue of authorship, recall if you can bear it, CNN's broadcasting of the daily press briefings which provided at once a horrific and dully histrionic reenactment of the superimposition of censorship and representation, minus only the signature at the bottom of the screen. The signature was unnecessary when the putative authors, the reporters, sat there in front of us, prepared to receive the day's ration of representation, from the actual authors, the Pentagon. The real dramatic content of the Pentagon's imperial control of information in Riyadh and in Washington was to enact an elegant exercise in ritual humiliation. The keening pack of journalists took every lash and called out for more. As this distasteful enterprise continued day after day, angry callers to C-SPAN began to complain, not about the journalists' stultifying dogs-on-a-leash restraint, but about what they saw as the journalists' disgraceful impertinence, endlessly asking questions that were seldom answered. Forgetting that even the best-trained dogs bark, these callers often interpreted what was before their eyes as the betrayal of United States' interests. The reporters' predictable routine was something along the lines of, "Oh, you won't answer that question? Well, how about refusing to answer my next question as well?" For the callers, this portrayal of meekness beyond measure became outright transgression.

The callers interpreted the unmitigated, unapologetic representation of Pentagon censorship as the license of a press gone mad with power. The representation of extreme lack of freedom was interpreted as too much freedom. The Pentagon carried out this major step forward in the history of censorship by using well-trained, personable briefers whose behavior made reporters seem like outright yahoos. CNN's live broadcast of the briefings exacerbated the contrast. The Pentagon well knew the impression this would create in U.S. living rooms.

Soon, however, the press began to find little ways if not to defend its prerogatives, at least to mention that they'd been lost. For example, a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times analyzed the Pentagon's strategies of control, quoting a Pentagon official, "We knew from doing our homework that the public would support our position on restricting the press." The Times report continued:

"The Pentagon has been studying how to conduct a television war for more than a decade, in planning sessions, military exercises, war college classes and through models of other recent military action. The conclusion...was that the press in the age of instant global communication had to be carefully controlled. Pictures in particular area powerful weapon, which could aid the enemy and demoralize morale at home."

The Pentagon corrected the negative model of we many embarrassing press revelations during the Vietnam War with the positive model of Britain's handling of the flow of information during the Falklands War (which of course was an equally embarrassing war). Then, reporters supposedly "on the scene" were in fact kept sequestered on ships far from the actual scenes of battle, while reporters in London were fed more information by government officials.

That technical ability to model forthcoming events, in which both the Pentagon and professional athletics like to indulge (lovingly enhancing their ruminations with data banks and video graphics, etc.), is often criticized on the basis that the complex contradictions of reality in fact tend to outstrip our predictive abilities. Some crucial factor or factors are inevitably not modeled in. But in the ease of television coverage of Desert Storm, the Pentagon was not concerned with the reality of a war but with how to manage its representation. Here such models proved more than accurate.

The few exceptions to this rule were weathered with considerable ease in each case. Peter Arnett's reports from Baghdad were falsely attacked as collaborationist. This accusation itself became news and thus generated many additional stories, supplying a picturesque mini desert storm of controversy. What Arnett was reporting from the Rashid Hotel paled in importance. Who can remember anything he said now? But everyone remembers those silly accusations. And then when several hundred Iraqi civilians were killed by a single smart U.S. bomb, the bomb site was labeled a "legitimate" target, while Iraq claimed that the rubble had been a shelter. This in turn helped to produce a hubbub of claims and counter-claims and commentary and interpretations of commentaries, which had the effect of burying the dead all over again under tons of verbiage.

Such relatively minor exceptions to the Pentagon's ramrod control of information indicate that the Pentagon didn't have to rely only on the media's reflex desire to keep the flag waving at all costs. It could also bank on the inherent, falsely objective tendency of the mainstream media to speedily multiply repetitive interpretations of any event. As the Pentagon's advertisers, the media followed advertising's cardinal rule: repetition creates the impression of truth. In practice this meant pseudo-heuristic interviews with a parade of pro-government shills, whom the media identified as "experts." The actual range of interpretation emanating from these ventriloquist's dummies was not quite as wide as a sandflea's tongue. A study conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting showed that, at the same time these experts were spewing the government's line, the anti-war movement was overwhelmingly marginalized by the networks:

"FAIR examined five months of TV coverage of the Gulf crisis, from the first commitment of U.S. troops on August 8, 1990, until Jan. 3,1991. Of a total 2855 minutes devoted to the Gulf crisis, only 29 minutes, roughly one percent, dealt with popular opposition to the U.S. military buildup."

Some local stations — one each in San Diego and Los Angeles, for instance — made it a deliberate policy not to cover anti-war demonstrations — and got away with it. Another FAIR pre-war survey of on-camera sources used in two weeks of nightly news coverage indicated that about 98% of those sources reflected "the tendency of the networks to present the war almost entirely from the view of the U.S-led coalition."

The most common ploy the networks used to prop up the tacky facade of objectivity were on-the-street interviews, a mode of representation which successfully creates an airy illusion of randomness and spontaneity to flank the rote patterns of speech common to the network hirelings. Among the hordes of so-called experts the star zombie was Anthony Cordesman, a retired Pentagon official, whose authentically ghoulish demeanor should guarantee him a lucrative career in horror films. The anchors always pretended that such "experts" were merely providing neutral information on weaponry and war strategy, but who could miss the adulation dripping from every syllable of these technofreaks' encomiums to our arsenal? These pasty veterans of the dead zone droning on and on about the spectacular, surgical efficiency and wondrous capabilities and the sheer genius of our star wars technology often seemed to push Dan Rather into a barely repressed, please don't stop now, frenzy.

One obvious effect of such exemplary coverage is that the war was seldom reported from its victims' perspective. The dead and the injured, the displaced and the refugees went unseen, except if they were Allies. What claim could mortal flesh make on our imaginations when such laser-lust possessed us? So clamorously did television praise Stormin' Norman's successful war of high-tech deception that we were clearly never supposed to gather the time or energy to notice that the means — those smart weapons — were never represented in relation to their actual ends — the decimation of a country and its people. Never, that is, except as targets, as sheer technical abstractions.

Instead of mounting a forceful "objective" counterattack to the Pentagon's technical mastery of its primary domestic target, the media, the networks and CNN joined the praise — to all intents and purposes collaborating with the Pentagon's domination. This is shown even by the few occasions when the media managed to jump out of its camouflaged playpen. When CBS reporter Bob McKeown slipped into Kuwait City ahead of U.S. forces, what he actually saw was far less significant than the fact that U.S. forces to the north were now trashing the ragged remnants of the Iraqi forces, even though they were in full retreat. But there were no pictures of that retreat. What we saw on television was what McKeown chose to report as the "liberation" of the ravaged city. McKeown's resourcefulness was praised as one of the only times the media managed to elude the military's total control, but this taste of triumph was really the Pentagon's. All hail Caesar.

The Vietnam War had long borne the sobriquet of the Living Room War but now everyone — especially the everyones at the Pentagon — seems to agree that this accolade should have been reserved for the present age of satellite communications, Peter Arnett's description from the Rashid Hotel of the first night's air attack on Baghdad created the effective illusion that this was the first war in which the dramatic unities of time and space could be and would be observed. As audience we would experience the war's drama as it happened, finally fulfilling the stirring promise of the title of the old Walter Cronkite series, You Are There. In a terrible way we felt that heightening of the moment that seems like a summary judgment on the repetitive inadequacy of everyday life. For anyone who lived through the days of television coverage of the Kennedy Assassination as it unfolded, television's unique capacity for the instantaneous seems irremediably associated with an effect of truth-telling. Could we really he living through another war? Right this second? In such rare circumstances, the moment of History seems manifest in the living room.

Unfortunately, the operative word here is "seems." The impression of truth-telling was successfully created, especially during the first two days. But the portion of truth visible from the Rashid Hotel, despite its drama, was very slender. Once we realized that little visual information was actually being broadcast, our obsessive desire to tune in quickly waned. We saw less and less over the next few days, partly because we tuned in for such a short time, but also because what we saw wasn't so much television, as visual radio. And the impoverishment wasn't only visual. The reports invariably underlined the reporter's ignorance of what was actually going on. The main body of the report was actually the reporter's dramatized confession of his or her own hotel-room entrapment in ignorance. We learned such details as what the reporter had eaten for breakfast, and how uncomfortable the basement shelter was, and Bernard Shaw's annoyance about having to give up his seat to an old woman. It was as if the main effect of living in a war zone was a radical increase in egotism. We pushed the button on the remote control.

Then, when the ground war began, soon after Bush's high-noon ultimatum passed, the television became a magnet once again. It scarcely mattered that there were still no real images of combat, The Pentagon had ruled that images of people who were wounded and suffering were not to be broadcast — and the networks played along. It wouldn't be tasteful to show pictures of such things, they agreed. That night I kept CNN on for hours, unable to credit the indications that the Iraqi ground forces were being so thoroughly routed. Though there was nothing to see and though CNN kept reporting essentially the same skeletal news each half hour, we all sat there, unmoving, scarcely able to move.

So thoroughly did the television block out every other sound that we didn't notice when six police cars appeared in the street directly in front of our apartment. Then at last some one of us did notice, we all got up, glanced out the window, and then trailed back to the screen. The sight didn't register. The War was on. The next day I discovered that the woman across the way — no more than fifty yards from our television — had shot and killed her husband. Reportedly she still had the gun in her hand when the police arrived. But we hadn't heard the shots. We hadn't heard a thing. Because we had the War on. The presence of the War pretty much emptied out everything around us.

That almost visceral illusion of presence is, of course, what makes much live television unusually compelling. What we see and hear seems immediate, seems unmediated, largely because of the effect of the instant. And of course it's anything but unmediated. It's just that the enormity of the process of mediation is invisible, at least from the vantage point of the couch: the infrastructures of the TV news systems, the vast capital expenditures, the complex, costly technology and the hundreds of decisions that have to have been made before any image can make its way to us in the full electronic flowering of the instantaneous. This kind of live television, much as I love it, can only produce a fetishizing of the moment.

This was the first war in history that everyone could turn off at night in order to sleep — and perchance to dream of all those smart bombs intelligently exploding in the stupid air — and then switch on again in the morning to know if the world had yet fallen to pieces. The knowledge that such television produces tends not to accumulate, in part because each new moment literally cancels, without a trace, what we have just seen. This experience of non-accumulation that TV affords us is of course the negation of the otherwise universal process occurring around us everyday, the otherwise inescapable process of capital accumulation. It is perhaps in this sense that television seems to offer an escape from the rest of everyday reality.

As if to corroborate some of these speculations, an interesting study by three University of Massachusetts professors, conducted toward the end of the war, concluded that the more television you watched, the fewer facts you were likely to know about the war, but the more likely you were to support it anyway. In the study, 250 randomly selected people in Denver were asked thirty questions over the telephone. One of the survey's designers, Sut Jhally, said,

"The study clearly indicates there is a relation between what people know and their attitudes toward the war. The media should understand that they aren't merely reporting the situation, they are also constantly helping to shape attitudes toward those events."

The numbing effect of hours of television-watching is obviously inimical to ordinary rationality. Isn't it possible that for many in the television audience, it is more desirable to be numb than to be informed? It's hard to see support of the war as anything but a form of numbness. Surely, the fulfillment of the common desire to be anesthetized is one of the primary functions of television. In this sense, one tunes in in order to tune out. The pioneers of virtual reality are certainly cognizant of this tendency. Anesthesia is a phenomenal form of non-accumulation. It's an odd contradiction: television, our represented experience, teaching us that nothing adds up, while our more direct apprehension of reality insists that nothing exists, including ourselves, unless it can be added to one stockpile or another. (We are all weapons in some arsenal.)

But within the air war's actual theater of operations, as opposed to the war theater on the air in our operational living rooms, the sobriquet Nintendo War early on seemed more precise than Living Room War. By far the most crucial and most characteristic video of the war was the nintendo image the bomber pilots saw on the screens in front of them as they zeroed in on their targets. It was at the stage of the air war, in fact, that television coverage was most chilling. The network glorification of the smart new technology of war was so extreme, so unremitting, and so cryptofascist that it was most reminiscent of the rabid hyperbole of the Italian Futurists.

Its idiom also evoked the jingoist jocksniffery of football announcers. The emphasis on numbers, names, and slats, on graphics, plays, and kicking ass, and later, on "cutting it off and killing it," in Cohn Powell's unstudied phrase, are all derived from the sports world, that sweaty utopia of repressed homoerotic ritual combat made up of grown-up males in uniforms whose entire livelihood is concentrated on their ability to use their fetishized bodies with the forceful precision of high-tech weapons. At one point Bush even called the war his Super Bowl.

Hold onto that notion of the football air war for a moment, so that lean balance the image of the gonzo pilot up there passionately pushing the buttons on his Nintendo-for-real with what may be the single most suggestive video image from the ground. The GIs, denied most of the customary exotic and sensual pleasures of being overseas because of their necessary adherence to the mores of their host country, Saudi Arabia, filled up most of their leisure time playing pocket-size video games, the favorite being nintendo's Game Boy ($87.50 complete with headphones). Now imagine an endless desert landscape across which streak the flyboys madly techno-masturbating to their targets, and at the very same moment down amid the sand and the dust the lowboys in desert camo jerk and flip their fingers massaging the buttons on the high-tech toys in their laps until they cant bear it any longer. One Nintendo-addicted GI said, "When you sit and let your mind drift, then the bad thoughts come." Does the pathos of this statement help to account for the numbness, for the desire to empty one's mind, apparently so rampant at home and at war? Please, no more bad thoughts, game boy.

Now, still keeping in mind this search for numbness, consider the fact that "NFL, Films, in a joint venture with the U.S. Department of Defense, is compiling a highlight film" of Desert Storm "for release by late summer." You see, there is something to look forward to. I think, for example, that we can hope for some tasteful slo-mo instant replays of close ups of Iraqi footsoldiers' heads being blown off. But who knows? The president of NFL Films, Steve Sabol, says, "I don't want to say that war is the same as football." But surely, Steve, it can be shot with as much brio and just as many gut-wrenching action shots?

"Our talent as filmmakers can very easily be transferred to this sort of venture. [The military] like the way we have presented and mythologized pro football. The same spirit and ideology that football glorifies and inspires — discipline, devotion, commitment to a cause — is also the spirit necessary for a successful military endeavor."

Steve's references to the spiritual dimensions of war and football are especially moving. Half a million dollars has been spent on the film, already six months in the making, with footage from military cameras placed inside and out of aircraft and tanks.

"The video, which includes government-cleared footage of bombing missions and ground assaults on the Iraqi army, will be delivered to more than 700,000 Operation Desert Storm troops and their families."

Here at fast is revealed the actual reason for all that censorship. It had little or nothing to do with protecting the lives of U.S. soldiers or the lives of the Allies. Why give away all that great footage, when you can sell it to the NFL? "The league also is negotiating with PBS, which is interested in using the footage as the basis for a 10-week series."

There are some alternatives to this new world order of television, in which the networks and the Pentagon march hand in hand across the gridiron of our consciousness. They are fragile and under-funded, and they lack game of the week glitz, however. The Gulf Crisis TV Project, a spin-off of the Deep Dish TV Network (itself a spin-off of Paper Tiger Television), aired four half-hour anti-war programs in January, and a second series of six programs beginning at the end of February on at least two hundred stations nationwide. The shows, used at teach-ins at college campuses, have also been seen in as many as fourteen countries, including Channel 4 in Britain. The wide-ranging material for these rough-edged energetic shows was supplied by several hundred producers, mostly from public access channels around the country. Covering such issues as anti-war protest, the history of U.S. foreign intervention, media collaboration with the war, and conscientious objection within the military, these programs critically subvert the mainstream's monopolistic one-way trickle of information. The Gulf Crisis TV Project, in taking advantage of relatively cheap satellite technology, like Deep Dish has in the past few years, suggests the potential for a full-time radical television network.

Shortly after Desert Storm began, our eight-year-old daughter conducted an informal poll among her classmates and was shocked to discover that she was the only person in her third-grade class to oppose the war. A week or so later she came home flushed and furious because her teacher had conscientiously characterized what our daughter recognized as wanton and horrific destruction as, instead, the noble effort of the U.S. to rescue poor little Kuwait. Her indignation was redoubled because she knew that in order to survive in that environment she would now be forced to choose self-censorship.

Each Sunday, as a member of the San Diego Peace Coalition's anti-war percussion band, she would chant and march and beat the drum. Each Monday, disguised as an ordinary U.S. schoolgirl, she would stand with the others and mumble invented gibberish as the class recited that idolatrous prayer known as the pledge of allegiance. This I Led Two Lives existence had the benefit, for her, of deepening her critique of what passes for public education in this country. Despite the duress of her split life, she continued throughout the war to make separate but equal successful commitments to both. Fortunately, the form of self-censorship she chose did not have to survive a long test. And there were in fact certain signs of leakage, even so: allowed each week a few spelling words of her own choice, she began picking "patriot" and "scud" and "Saudi Arabia,"

I would hope and suspect that her experience of segregation, perhaps only as short-lived as the war itself, but sharp and intense, would enliven her sense of contradiction and difference. This while the rest of her classmates were presumably engulfed in the purified waters of patriotism. It would seem nevertheless that the private project of self-censorship which all adults must negotiate on a daily basis (with all the attendant intimate consequences of embarrassment, regimentation of honesty, humiliation, suppressed anger, the desire or fear to hurt another's "feelings," etc.) could only soften our acceptance of the public representation of censorship. She, however, loudly denouncing our President any chance she got, was too tough to invite the Pentagon into her heart.