Remembering the "War in the Gulf" on TV

Now that a new George Bush has placed himself on the road to military action against an old Asian enemy, perhaps it is a good time to revisit the last time that “WAR” was screamed continuously across our television screens. Back in 1991, the media and the last President Bush rallied the nation to support Operation Desert Storm by carefully framing the action in terms of powerful cultural categories, and in the process they took steps towards reworking the meaning of another key American conflict-the Vietnam war-and forced critical voices to operate from impossibly weak positions. Now, as an even more omnipresent television news machine creates the frameworks to support the destruction of “evil” people and “terrorist” states in distant lands, this time under the catch phrases “Countdown: Iraq” and “Target: Iraq” rather than the now nostalgic “War in the Gulf,” those of us who try to disseminate alternatives to mass violence may be able to learn from the devices that were effectively used to immobilize us the last time around.

Sometimes the political slants of news providers are as obvious as the smirks on the faces of Fox News “reporters” or “analysts” as they hector a Palestinian spokesman or liberal fall guy. One approach to understanding these biases traces the corporate interests-Disney, General Electric, etc.-that control media outlets. Another looks at fabricated stories, such as the great Kuwait Incubator hoax, and direct military censorship.

But sometimes media biases are more subtle, and may operate independently from the intentions of individual reporters. News stories always deploy framing devices (such as the concept of a news “story”) that limit possible interpretations of what happened, privileging some while making others seem contrary to common sense. In the case of the first “War in the Gulf,” three subtle strategic moves the produced the Bush administration’s view of the first Iraqi war as common sense: 1) the compartmentalization of various aspects of the war, 2) the precision/randomness opposition, and 3) intertextuality and the uses of the story of Vietnam.

political, military, and nationalistic frames

The Bush regime’s preferred interpretation of “The War in the Gulf” contained the elements laid out directly and indirectly by President Bush and other government spokesmen: the war was a noble and justified assault by the forces of “good” and “light” (democracy, freedom, capitalism, progress, the flag, yellow ribbons, America, Christianity) against the minions of “evil” and “darkness” (aggression, tyranny, the ‘Other’, Islam, irrationality). Dominant voices emanating from outside the media industry made a concerted attempt to control the interpretation of the story, both by limiting (as “gatekeepers”) the flow of information to the media, and by imposing coherent categorizations on that information. Media representations of the lead up to the war attacked potentially oppositional interpretations by consistently separating out political, military, and nationalistic spheres of control and information. By labeling an event as pertaining to one of these categories, these producers of news limited the degree of acceptable debate.

“Politics,” in contemporary American culture, implies an argument between two points of view-pro/con, Republican/Democrat, Liberal/Conservative, etc. Everyone is theoretically entitled to an opinion within this frame, and the media typically construct political stories around two antagonistic voices, although of course even in this realm “experts” are employed to frame the debate around permissible issues. The political phase of the Gulf War, in which politicians and other experts were permitted to question the wisdom of an attack on Iraq, was declared over after a much-celebrated congressional debate ended in an endorsement of military action.

Once the “military” phase began, the issues became more technical, enabling “experts” to usurp a greater degree of authority. The destruction of Iraq and the deaths of thousands became more palatable when the debate was framed within the military idiom. Against the onslaught of uniformed military experts conjured up by CNN and the other networks to spew meaningless nonsense in an authoritative jargon (from inside the studio, the presumed source of truth), the voices of dissent sounded like those of ignorant outsiders who were hopelessly illiterate in the language of power and prestige. Within the military frame, the makers of news became generals, and many news broadcasts began with the image of an elderly, confident white male in a uniform standing in front of a podium and using every linguistic device at his disposal to enhance the power of the institution he represented. All other actors were marginalized.

The media accommodated to the military frame in several ways. Newspapers and television presented summaries of the war in the form of sports box scores (casualties, POWs, missions flown, first downs). The merging of the genres of sports and news has rhetorical implications in both the military and, as I shall discuss below, the nationalistic frames. When discussing a sports event, one typically asks, “Which team will win? Why? What strategies will give my team a better chance? ” And one expects answers from insiders-coaches and ex-players. One does not ask whether the game should be played. The sports metaphor allowed the routinization of the unusual events of war, and human suffering was transferred to the more impersonal summarizing of statistics and advantages. It is in this context that we should observe the announcement of the first U.S. ground casualties in the Battle of Khafji, at the end of a long list of destroyed and damaged equipment. The manipulation of figures, of pluses and minuses, hid the loss of human life behind the rhetoric of victory and defeat.

But even though the military categorization privileged the generals and other official figures, the news also bombarded us with images of normal, everyday Americans who encouraged us with their opinions. These stories fall under the parallel “nationalist” frame. Under the sign of the national, debate is limited even more severely. The politicians signified their passage to appropriate civilian roles at the outbreak of the war when they gathered in front of flags and evoked the timeworn signals of nationalism: unity, rallying around the President, patriotism, the special “American” character.

The language of nationalism requires constant expressions of unity against dangerous internal and external others. In the context of the nationalist frame, anti-war voices are automatically excluded as un-American and thus illegitimate. Instead of creating the American public in the political framework of (limited) debate, the media overwhelmingly promoted the loaded, nationalistic theme. This is especially apparent in the selection of “typical” Americans interviewed and in the coverage of pro- and anti-war demonstrations. Although over 40% of the American soldiers in the Persian Gulf were Black or Hispanic and over 50% of Americans now live in metropolitan areas with a population over one million, the spokespeople presented on television corresponded overwhelmingly to the hegemonic version of the model American; they were white, rural, and conservative. A reporter for CBS went on a trip to find out what America thought of the war. Significantly, his “America” was spatially located along Interstate 45, which runs from North Dakota south to Texas, and reproduced the ideological notion that equates the (not coincidentally, politically conservative) geographical center of America with the national soul. Given this construction of the “American,” voices became un-American to the extent that they differed from the standard. While the military and other conventional discourses presented themselves from studios, as experts draped with other trappings of hierarchical authority, the authority of nationalist discourse emerges because it is placed in the voices of “normal” Americans. Viewers were encouraged to identify with these models and to emulate them in voicing their own opinions, particularly when they stated the dominant position in a more emotional lexicon, like the gruff Idaho man who demanded that, “We kick his ass.” These selected, typical Americans presented a unified picture of acceptable American reactions to the war as seen on TV. By presenting voices that were selected and controlled as if they were autonomous, the networks encouraged the penetration of a single viewpoint that wears the mask of unfiltered public opinion.

The world of sports, always ready to enter into a wider nationalist role, was activated to its full extent. Athletes of all kinds wore American flags or yellow ribbons on their uniforms-one Italian college basketball player who refused was drummed off his team and out of the country-and the Super Bowl, one of the nation’s largest theatrical rituals, was turned into a celebration of patriotism. ABC and the other authors of the Super Bowl carefully orchestrated the event to align all of the prestige and attitudes of sport with the war effort; the half time ceremonies involved a lengthy but uninformative news report from Peter Jennings. This news report was not necessary to inform the public about some vital movement in the war-this was not its function. Rather, the presence of Jennings’ report in the middle of the Super Bowl linked the war and the nation with the values of sport, signaling that, “whatever our differences, we are on the same team, and when the chips are down and there is no tomorrow we do what the coach tells us and give 110%.

It should be noted that the interpretive categorization of an event as military or nationalist does not necessarily imply a pro-war stance. These categories do not carry an inherent content or ideological position but are themselves contestable, and many of the first anti-war protestors attempted to appropriate nationalist symbols and slogans such as the flag and “supporting our troops” and to infuse them with an oppositional meaning. But in the context of the Gulf war, these categories seemed weighted, by their history and the unequal power of those who employ them, towards a certain interpretation. As the Kansas farm-boy interviewed on CBS affirmed, “You can’t support the troops and not support what they’re doing.” Indeed, the very efforts of protestors to employ these same categories testified to the power of the dominant construction and the desperate condition of the opposition.

Dissenters and protesters-ordinary citizens who try to position themselves as organized, autonomous agents and not passive “men on the street”-fall into an anomalous position. Protestors are not legitimate “political” actors-these are elected officials. Their collective and independent action separates them from the cheerleading role assigned to the nationalist frame. And their lack of political or military credentials exclude them from the studios where experts make strategic and tactical pronouncements under the military frame. Some stories may treat them sympathetically-as a valued, albeit quirky and confused, sign of our “democratic freedoms”-but dissenters are never part of “us” who are represented by “ordinary (not political) Americans” or the experts who provide models of reasonable opinion from the studio. Cable News’ coverage of this year’s massive January 18 protests demonstrates the continuing marginalization of the roles of protesters. Fox News morning panel of experts mentioned the protests in a joking tone, acknowledging their impressive size only to laugh at the “incoherence” of their message, as demonstrated through placards like “US out of Iraq and San Fransisco.” The smiles on the “experts” faces immediately faded as they turned to serious, real news made by congressmen, the UN inspectors, and members of the administration. MSNBC opened a discussion of the protests by asking this question: “Protesters: Unamerican or a good example of the freedoms our soldiers are getting ready to go to war to defend?” In other words, should we deal with dissenters as dangerous transgressors of the hegemonic categories for understanding the war, or should we incorporate them into these categories as harmless “examples” of American freedoms? In either case, the protestors remain a “they”; we are not invited to identify with their critical position, and they are not invited to join the talk radio hosts and other pundits whose answers reflect “real American” opinion.

precision and chaos, pristine and grotesque, culture and nature

Television news produced the story of the war in terms of an opposition between precision and chaos, encouraging the interpretation of this narrative through the mechanism of already circulating cultural categories. Both the military and the media consistently described the American war effort through the poetic language of precision. All the networks ran effusive special reports on the high tech weapons in the U.S. arsenal. All spokesmen emphasized the accuracy of these weapons, which were said to strike their military targets unerringly. The military briefers showed videos, which the networks aired and reaired, purporting to show American weapons going through doors and down chimneys. But despite the extensive media coverage of these high tech weapons systems, the so-called smart bombs comprised a small percentage of the explosives dropped on Iraq and Kuwait.

At the same time that the American war was shrouded in high-tech precision, the Iraqi war effort was represented as containing all of the dangerous and unpredictable traits of the “other.” The SCUD missiles came randomly; nobody knew when or where they would hit or whether they would carry conventional or chemical warheads. The Iraqis transgressed the boundaries of what was defined as “proper” military action, an attribute which referred back to their violation of international borders which was the ostensible cause of the United States intervention. The comments made by “experts” after the oil spills initially attributed to Iraq were typical of this construction of Iraq as transgressing boundaries. The oil not only violated international borders; it also crossed over the line between the military and environmental spheres of influence. The confrontation between the U.S. Patriot missiles and the Iraqi SCUDs was promoted as a symbol for the conflict as a whole. The Patriot, with its nationalist name, represented high-tech precision and the defense of innocents; the ominously titled, vaguely obscene SCUDs represented random destruction that violates national boundaries and the military/non-military distinction. This weapon was denied a place inside the legitimate arsenal. Unlike the U.S. missiles and bombs that struck “targets,” the SCUD, according to Dan Rather, was a “terrorist” weapon with no intelligible military value. This construction of the war encountered its toughest test when a U.S. bomb entered an Iraqi shelter and killed 500 civilians. Here, it appeared, the Americans were responsible for violating their own boundary between military and civilian spheres. But the generals’ explanation for the atrocity still enabled the event to be categorized according to the successful scheme; the shelter was a military target, General Kelly insisted, and the Iraqis were blamed for, in effect, violating our pristine high-tech military space with their grotesque dead bodies.

The emphasis on this dichotomy between precision and chaos served several functions. First of all, at the corporate level, the powers that control the networks are motivated towards promoting their other business interests. General Electric, the owner of NBC, also is involved in the manufacture of weapons, and members of the boards of directors of CBS and ABC are also members of the boards of directors of many other corporations. One of the motivations for the war could have been the need to garner support for continuing the high level of military spending after the close of the Cold War. The glorification of precision weapons by the media contributes to the network executives’ own financial interests and helps to combat the perceptions that military spending is wasteful and the weapons are inefficient or do not work.

On a wider level, this construction of the war contributes to the scheme of classifying, ordering, and incorporating possible conceptions of reality into distinct, bounded units. An oppositional representation of the war, on the other hand, would most likely stress the grotesque aspects which contradict the pure and bounded high tech images that poetically invoke the ideal of precision; particularly, it would present images of dead and wounded bodies vividly transgressing their own limits and contradicting the abstract language of the machines with the inescapable concrete reality of flesh. The military demonstrated its awareness of the power of these images by taking steps to keep cameramen away from the casualties; during a previous (practice) war, the Panama invasion of 1989, American soldiers reportedly shot and killed a Spanish photographer who would not stop taking pictures of the corpses produced by U.S. bombing.

But besides limiting the possibilities for the production of this subversive grotesque version, the media reduced its strength by incorporating it at the low end of an established hierarchy. Disorder and its associated critique of the war were associated with Iraq and the practices of the enemy. The chaotic blurring of boundaries and hierarchies was given a firmly bounded location in a scheme of fixed hierarchy and the American forces remained clean and unbloodied while the Iraqis became associated with the oil splattered birds and burned children that dampen the enthusiasm of all but the most virulent advocates of war.

The strategically constructed opposition between the precise and clearly bounded American weaponry and the chaotic and grotesque Iraqis was also made to correspond to another frequently deployed device; the opposition between nature and culture. There are no inherent values that can be attached to this trope; at any given moment nature can be made to signify “good” and culture “bad” and vice versa. In an article published in 1988, Robert Karl Manoff analyzed an ABC story that associated SDI with nature in its positive aspect in the form of a “bucolic campus” and “the promise of a new Eden, free of technological sin, in which SDI will supersede the Satanic engines of modern war.” The alignment of high-tech military innovations with nature against a destructive slightly more primitive “technology” corresponds, as Manoff demonstrates, to the master narrative of the Reagan presidency, which revolved around a moral, nontechnical discourse.

To some extent, this alignment was continued in the Persian Gulf narrative, as the realm of the “super high-tech” emerges as the protector of nature against the destructive, uncontrolled pollution spilling out of the smoky Iraqi machinery. But the media is not limited in any way in its use of this opposition. In some stories the United States was portrayed as the defenders of purity and nature pitted against a sinful technology, but in other stories the Americans represented an advanced culture at war with the chaotic forces of nature. This second construction was mobilized, for example, in the stories that described Saddam Hussein as “crafty” or decried the “animalistic atrocities” allegedly committed by Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait. George Bush and his spokespeople were not interested primarily in establishing a coherent ideological position, but in continually deploying images that resonate with powerful cultural categories-a task that necessarily involves the construction of contradictory statements.

remaking Vietnam

News stories always refer to other stories, including fiction and non-fiction. The Persian Gulf story constantly evoked other narratives and codes with origins at various distances from the current event; the portrayal of the celebrations of the happy little Kuwaiti people after the destruction of the evil witch by American air power seems to refer as much to The Wizard of Oz as anything else. But there is one story in particular that remained in the background of every statement or image to come out of the Gulf War. That story, of course, was Vietnam.

America’s last great war had become a great national story, like the Wild West or the Alamo. Great national stories serve as shorthand tools to encapuslate dominant ideologies, but they are also too big to be the property of a single group or ideology, and they are always open to competing, subversive versions. Vietnam had emerged in the 70’s and 80’s as the one of the culture’s most conflicted terrains for contesting interpretations. The war was universally represented through the images of chaos and tragedy and the idea that the war signified a great national mistake, but these images and ideas themselves still allowed for debate; as Rambo took on Apocalypse Now and Reagan incorporated Rambo. The Persian Gulf War provided an opportunity for the dominant forces to launch an all out effort to fix the meaning of Vietnam in an authoritative manner.

This was accomplished (though not completely) through the same categorizations that I discussed earlier; the war was transferred from the political frame to the realm of the military and the nationalist. “No More Vietnams” had been mobilized in the 70’s and 80’s by the liberal opposition as a tool against military intervention, particularly in El Salvador and Nicaragua. In this context, the slogan referred to an essentially mistaken foreign policy and indexed an anti-military political position. The same slogan was appropriated, in context of the War in the Gulf, by the government and military-Bush, Quayle, Schwarzkopf, and the rest of the posse brought out the sign of Vietnam in many speeches and briefings-but its meaning was drastically altered to resonate with the aims of the war against Iraq.

The problems of Vietnam, according to the authoritative version, were threefold. The first set of problems were military; the strategy of the Vietnam War was flawed because “the troops were forced to fight with one hand tied behind their back.” This new war, the corollary of this suggestion asserts, avoided that error by committing a massive immediate attack. The second set of problems involved the lack of support given to the war effort by the American public. The new war could contrast with the failure of Vietnam if the nation united under the great banner of patriotism. The third aspect of this dominant memory blamed the lack of public support, in part, on the media, which was remembered as having overly reported the negative and grotesque aspects of the war and thus turned public support against it. This construction of the past justified the tight controls placed on the press; it also placed the media in the position of needing to correct its past “errors” by constructing its practice in the Persian Gulf in contrast to this perception of Vietnam-and do everything possible to bolster popular support for the war and avoid grotesque images.

The one critique of Vietnam that is missing from this construction, of course, is political. The leaders of that era were absolved from all blame except in the technical field of military strategy. Dissenters were blamed for the war’s failure; the new authoritative meaning assigned to Vietnam by the government and most elements of the media demands that the new war be approached through demonstrations of unity and loyalty, that so-called political issues be downplayed and that all decisions be left to the appropriate “experts” in military uniforms. The image of Vietnam aided the establishment of a hegemonic interpretation of the new war, and the Gulf conflict, in turn, provided the opportunity to seize upon the “great national story” of Vietnam. This interpretation, powerful though it may be, still faces opposition, and new challenges will arise in the future. But for now, the ideological mobilization of the Gulf War on TV has restored the moral integrity of Vietnam-a recent Mel Gibson version of Vietnam called “We were Soldiers” reproduces the war as a forum for WWII movie style individual heroism and male bonding, without a hint of moral ambiguity-and even given a new positive meaning for the signs of “war” and of an expansionist, militaristic state; images that had lost some of their luster in the 60s.


As the date for the next war rapidly approaches, apparently determined more by the details of military deployment and strategy than the activities of the UN inspectors or the proof of Bush’s odd claims about Iraq’s menace to the United States, those of us who hold critical viewpoints about American military power may seek lessons from the way our position was effectively neutralized the last time around. How can our message escape the categories and histories erected to make military aggression seem like common sense?

First of all, we must not give any legitimacy to the qualifications of military “experts” or calls to nationalist “unity.” The outbreak of war should not be seen as a signal to put aside our differences and “support our troops.” The prosecution of the war is itself a political process-and real politics does not only include two manufactured positions represented by comfortable leaders. Seemingly apolitical calls to commend our troops made by sports announcers or others outside the circumscribed spheres of debate are not innocent-they are subtle ways to get us to endorse military action-and should be consistently rejected.

Secondly, our message should challenge the sweeping stereotypes that represent the “enemy” as a single, malevolent individual who manifests the out-of-control, irrational, and boundary-crossing characteristics of negative Nature. Instead, we should focus on the humanity we share with the victims of US military aggression, and the grotesque impact of bombs on human flesh. The war, when it starts, is not a clean game of high-tech football played on a video screen-wherever we can, we need to publicize photographs that demonstrate the true, dirty nature of these assaults. Pilots are not heroes risking their lives to protect our freedoms. They are men who awake from comfortable beds, fly hundreds of miles to destroy the homes, bodies, and lives of people (and whatever cats, dogs, or cows live with them) they will never know or see, and then return home in time for supper.

Finally, we need to challenge the wholesale rewriting of history that accompanies each new war. Noted historian G.W. Bush (who once stated perceptively that “the past is over”) claims that opponents of the war “have not learned the lessons of history.” Instead of returning to trite homilies about the “greatest generation” of World War II or remaking Vietnam as a noble cause undermined by weak public support, we need to describe the war in terms of other, post-WWII US-led regime changes, and to educate Americans about what happened next. What happened after the 1954 regime change in Guatemala that deposed a left-leaning democratic government described by the Eisenhower administration as a communist threat to America? What about the 1953 regime change in Iran? The attempted overthrow of the Cuban government in 1961? The infamous coup of September 11, 1973 that murdered Chilean president Salvadore Allende and imposed General Pinochet? And what about the militarization of the “War on Drugs” or the invasion of Panama?

Have these mostly unilateral regime changes, justified by claims later shown to be false, led to greater democracy and opportunity for the people in the affected nations? Have they made the United States safer and created regional stability? The shocking history of American military aggression and its aftermath is almost completely absent from reporting on Iraq. It shouldn’t be.

BEN FEINBERG is a Professor of Anthropology at Warren Wilson College in Asheville NC. He can be reached at: