PRINT March 1991


The Gulf War: a Report from the Couch

Just as there have grown up in America experts in merchandising and experts in selling and advertising—so our complex democracy has developed this expert in appraising public opinion and in developing a technique for changing it. Press agents they were called in Barnum days, when through one spectacular device after another . . . they regimented the public mind to a box office. . . . And propagandists they developed into during the [First World] war, with a regimentation of the human mind that availed itself of every primitive desire and instinct of the individual and the group.
—Edward L. Bernays, father of public relations, 1925

One, two, three. . . .What are we fighting for?
—Country Joe and the Fish, 1967

WRITING IN 1925, Walter Lippmann—one of America’s most incisive chroniclers of the “public mind”—advanced the following explication of the ways in which “leaders, politicians and steering committees” seek to mold public opinion in favor of actions or schemes they are about to undertake.

The general opinions of large numbers of persons are almost certain to be a vague and confusing medley . . . action cannot be taken until these opinions have been factored down, canalized, compressed and made uniform. The making of one general will out of a multitude of general wishes. . . . consists essentially in the use of symbols which assemble emotions after they have been detached from their ideas. . . . The process, therefore, by which general opinions are brought to cooperation consists of an intensification of feeling and a degradation of significance. Before a mass of general opinions can eventuate in executive action, the choice is narrowed down to a few alternatives.1

The months between early August (when the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait) and mid January (when the United States went to war against Iraq) provide a textbook example of what Lippmann was talking about. These were months of a blustering American public-relations war against Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Simultaneously, Hussein fired up his own program to construct one “general will out of a multitude of . . . [Arab] wishes.”

As American troops convened in the Saudi desert, and as limited attention spans were tested by the tedious results of economic sanction, tabloid newspapers submitted to the exhortations of national cheerleader President Bush in a lurid flood of extravagant headlines: “BUTCHER OF BAGHDAD!”; “HITLER!”; “CHILD ABUSE”; and so forth. (I kept waiting for “SADDAMY!,” or “IRAQ & A HARD PLACE!”—only to be frustrated.) The commercial media ensemble called out its well-oiled demonization machinery, still warm from successive confrontations with the Ayatollah Khomeini, Muammar Qaddafi, and Manuel Noriega. Downplaying the ways in which to defend the royal families of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia would itself constitute an apology for tyranny, the symbol apparatus presented Americans with a simplified stage set of alternatives. Nothing to be negotiated! Get out or get pummeled! Understanding and analysis of the social and historical issues festering within these events were made irrelevant: an “intensification of feeling” was promoted at the cost of a “degradation of significance.”

While questions were raised by a peace movement that stirred some at the grass roots, the image of virtuous indignation was in full regalia. It was “Our Way of Life” against the Heathen. It was Democracy and decency against the congenital corruption of the Arab horde. Even as word got out that the Saudi monarchy would not permit freedom of worship among the American troops camped in the desert, American war pieties were never seriously questioned. This was a battle between good and evil, and when George Bush (white hat) gave “Saaddim” (black hat) 24 hours (until January 15) to “git out of town,” the genre and the script (High Noon) became all the more familiar. It was, to quote Gil Scott-Heron, “nothing but a movie.”

As in a Don King promotion before a Tyson fight, the opponent had to be established as a bona fide rival to rouse the blood lust of the crowd. But at the end of the day, the outcome was presented as all but certain. Diverted from the worries that plague the nation, Americans watched and waited, expecting that Saddam Hussein and his “war-weary” army would take flight, fold up their tents, and retreat under the rocks from which they came. When that didn’t happen, when Saddam didn’t “blink,” there was an uneasy moment of pause. The intercontinental game of chicken wasn’t going according to plan. People wondered and worried what would happen.

The answer arrived on TV. Not long past 6 (EDT) on January 16, as people returned home from work for the evening news, human devastation as popular entertainment became real. It was here. It was Fight Night. Amidst a disorienting feeling of churning stomachs and dread, Americans sat and watched the show unfold.

Long in the planning stage, production values were high. Video computer-graphics teams had worked for weeks to establish a tenor of telegenic urgency. Bold letters filled the screen—“AMERICA AT WAR,” “WAR IN THE GULF”—providing alarming but stylish logos for the hours, days, weeks to come. This was truly the “living room war” that Vietnam had only purported to be. Certainly the fighting in Southeast Asia sent graphic televisual images of blood and dirt into America’s living rooms, but it was also the case that many who initially watched took to the streets to join in the mounting antiwar movement, abandoning the status of spectator. The explanation for this, according to Pentagon lore, was that unescorted and relatively unrestricted journalists had “undercut public opinion.” This time the media would be reined in, keeping American eyes in uniform. When Bush assured the nation that this “won’t be another Vietnam,” he meant that this time the media images would be more thoroughly orchestrated for home consumption; symbols would compellingly “assemble emotions.”

In the first hours of war, the media obeyed completely. The script for the first night was tightly managed; “factored down, canalized, compressed and made uniform.” Saddam hadn’t budged, and now America would sit back and watch as he took his lumps. Reports of the initial air strikes were astonishing and apparently conclusive. With cool precision—it was reported across the dial—a proud wave of Tomahawk Cruise missiles, followed by thousands upon thousands of exotic fighter jets and B-52s, were reducing the boastful and foolish Saddam to a quivering shadow of his former self. Resist the mightiest force the world has ever known, will ya? Take that! No commercials intervened to break the rhythm or thrust of the evening.

Moving via remote from network to network, you got the same message. Baghdad was incapacitated. Iraq’s Scud missiles were shattered on the ground, along with its nuclear and chemical-warfare facilities. (The flat guttural sound of the word “Scud” would be zeroed in on by commentators and late-night entertainers in the days to come.) Announcing—without a hint of self-reflection—that “allied” aircraft were dropping loads that outdistanced the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb, news anchors declared that the Iraqi air force was decimated, that Hussein’s communications systems were annihilated, that the “elite Republican Guard,” the cream of Hussein’s troops, had been destroyed. By the end of the evening, to all appearances, it was settled. Between the local evening news hour and the close of the late-night-talk-show slot, American mettle and determination had prevailed. Saddam and his armies were in ruins without having landed a shot. By evening’s end, news anchors were pondering “The Gulf War in Retrospect.” Disregarding the mythic destiny of imperial hubris, commentators declared a Pax Americana in the offing. As images of dawn breaking over the Arabian desert filled our television screens, Americans were assured that they could wake up to a world at peace . . . or nearly so.

Only one problem. Like the “news” salvos that paved the way toward the hostilities, first-night television fare, conveniently scheduled for prime time, was pure public relations, a show conceived in large measure by the White House and the Pentagon with the collusion of network news organizations. Occasional static-laced telephone transmissions (superimposed over still graphics depicting the reporter speaking) inserted a low-tech sense of on-the-spot authenticity in the propaganda blitz; with the image frozen, it was as though the TV had regressed into a radio, to evoke collective memories of Edward R. Murrow’s intrepid dispatches during World War II. Soon—now as talking heads reporting from inside gas masks—correspondents would send home new and haunting pictures of journalistic courage. Yet when you added it up, actual information was sparse, nearly all of it coming from laundered Pentagon press releases and censored—excuse me, “screened”—pool footage.

One of the most disturbing elements of the coverage was the battalion of retired military brass, war-college instructors, intelligence personnel, and state department apparatchiks who were there in the news rooms, participating as honorary members of the news teams. During World War I, when America’s first coordinated war propaganda machine took shape in the form of the Committee on Public Information, the idea was to mobilize all of the nation’s media professionals (journalists, advertising men, illustrators, and press agents) in the service of the military. Now, with all notion of the independence of the Fourth Estate tossed aside, it was the military that came to the service of the media professionals. Assertions of journalistic sovereignty had become a joke.

By the second and third days—as reports of Iraq’s death turned out to be premature—the tale of prime-time victory was succeeded by accounts of technological triumph. Another item on the Pentagon’s agenda was surfacing. In the period leading up to the war—as homelessnesss, joblessness, AIDS, the deficit, corporate thuggery, and a general climate of social and economic breakdown enveloped American society—military spending had begun to come under sharp attack. The need to reevaluate priorities was becoming the order of the day. And then, before our eyes, the “Patriot” missile came to the rescue, knocking Iraqi Scuds from the air like clay pigeons and launching war-industry stocks through the roof. This miraculous feat was fortified by Nintendo-esque cockpit footage from bombing missions over Baghdad. Alive with electronic cross-hairs, pulverizing targets before our eyes, here was an hour-upon-hour, unpaid television commercial for America’s military industries, particularly those producing exotic, high-tech weapons systems. Posed, prime-timed, and glamorized as the arsenal of freedom, the bad name of war profiteering was swiftly being cleared.

Less than a week into the war, leaks began to surface about the fervor with which the Pentagon was coordinating and doctoring all information, or access to information, from the Middle East. But despite some grumbling correspondents, the visual protocol of triumphalism continued unabated. Mid a well-guarded void of countervailing perspectives—and in the absence of any social or political evaluation —the official story ruled.

A normalized inequality of coverage about the human cost of the air war meant that while intermittent Iraqi missile strikes on Israel yielded poignant and lingering close-ups on the faces of innocent victims and the rubble of their lives, Iraqi victims of the perpetual and furious U.S. assaults for the most part remained faceless. Their suffering was sublimated under the deodorized veil of Pentagonian techno-speak: “B.D.A.” for bomb-damage assessment, or “collateral damage” a euphemism for civilian casualties. The Iraqi forces were always “he,” the archfiend Saddam.

Similarly, while a booming traffic in American flags and yellow ribbons was hailed as an index of the country’s support for the war, the rise of the antiwar protests around the country, let alone in other parts of the world, was trivialized, or indiscernible, in television coverage. When major antiwar demonstrations were represented, they were invariably countered by reports of prowar manifestations, no matter how puny. Later, even American families’ bereavements were used to shore up the military orthodoxy, proof of our decency and humanity in the face of the murderous other. For the most part, the commercial broadcast media marched in lockstep, elevating the moral economy of the war.

Last October, on a lecture visit to North Carolina State University, I was driven around by a student who told me an anecdote from her recent experience in Kenya. To illustrate the rampant illiteracy in that country, she described how, at election time, people unable to read ballots vote by lining up behind the pictures of politicians they favor. As television coverage of the gulf war unfolded in those first few days, I was reminded of her story. In America, too, we were rallied to line up behind pictures. A right-wing administration whose social ethics recall the robber barons had built a popular base on a bedrock of smoke and mirrors. Then it had led us into war. A regime that had come to power on a slogan of NO MORE GOVERNMENT SPENDING was now shelling out nearly a billion dollars a day on a ghastly spectacle of consumption and human waste. All because Saddam hadn’t blinked. In the middle of it all, America’s garden remains untended.

Over a year ago in this column, I recalled Walter Benjamin’s observation that the estrangement of humankind had reached such a point “that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” Once again—as a population hearkens to the doctors of appearance—these words have become pertinent. In the cool of the day, as the adrenalin subsides and the bloodshed carries on, the dull fact of it sits in the stomach of America.

Stuart Ewen is a professor of media studies at the City University of New York.



1. Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, Inc., 1925, pp. 47–48.