PRINT May 1991


War in the Gulf

IT DIDN'T TAKE UNUSUAL POWERS of insight to discern the American public’s mood during the escalating gulf war. As soon as it was clear “we” were going to win without too much loss of American life, a large majority of good citizens started screaming for Iraqi blood. What they got was more like a gigantic human barbecue. The first visual evidence of horribly burned and mutilated Iraqi civilians was beamed into U.S. homes after an American air raid destroyed the Amiriya shelter, a bunker with hundreds of people inside it that was described as either a civilian bomb shelter (Iraqi claim) or a military command center (U.S. claim). Otherwise, we could only imagine what kinds of horrible deaths the people of Baghdad were dying as a result of our bombs, smart and otherwise.

If we had any doubts that “burn, baby, burn” was the unacknowledged American war cry, however, they were dispelled by the end of the war. CBS News showed snippets of the massive seven-mile bomb destruction visited on a disorganized Iraqi convoy fleeing Kuwait, pausing on two thoroughly charred bodies sitting upright in a burned-out truck. ABC’s Nightline showed the same footage but included a close-up of one of the corpses, its head thrown back in seeming agony. Together with images of the grief-stricken family members of slain American troops, these were among the only TV-news offerings that showed the real cost of war instead of trumpeting its glory.

But if you couldn’t watch the television news or didn’t get cable and instead had to rely on the print media for visual information, you missed even these suggestions of human devastation. Newsweek led the war coverage of its 25 February issue with a big picture that showed men in various uniforms quietly standing near four cloth-covered bundles identified as civilians killed in the infamous Amiriya bomb-shelter attack; there was no evidence of suffering, crying bystanders, or mangled bodies. Newsweek, though, did better than Time, which didn’t show any images of dead civilians at all. It simply mentioned them in an introduction to a portfolio of pictures from war-torn Iraq, where it appeared that buildings suffered more than people did. (Time has an injunction against running blood and gore, although it does show blood—even on the cover—if it illustrates an official U.S. position.) When the newsmagazines and the New York Times covered the seven-mile fire-ravaged convoy, they ran only aerial views distant enough to obscure any corpses. Perhaps that was as close as military censors let pool-bound photographers get. But it’s difficult to believe that none of the rule-breaking photographers from the French agencies such as Gamma and Sygma didn’t get a few close-up shots; otherwise, how did Nightline get its video?

It’s a cliché to call this a Nintendo war, but the combination of elegant aerial images broadcast by smart bombs and patriotic scenarios of gung-ho American troops in the desert did add up to a long-running photo op that Ronald Reagan must have enjoyed. Even a cursory look at foreign magazines and newspapers, however, shows how truly sanitized, unreal, and perversely upbeat American print coverage has been—and that restrictions on imagery came not only from the military.

The Sunday supplement of the British newspaper The Independent, for example, ran several pages of photos unlike anything that was published in the American national press during the war itself. In one, Iraqi troops lie tightly trussed up, facedown on a highway; in another, U.S. troops seem to be throttling some Iraqi prisoners who are on the ground. Even more disturbing is a picture of three U.S. soldiers walking near the charred remains of a body, its hand cocked in a seeming gesture of appeal. All three of these photographs belie the common image of grateful Iraqi troops being solicitously tended by kindly American grunts. Americans saw nothing so horrific as a totally burned body in any of the major print-media publications. Instead, one shot of a dead Iraqi soldier lying peacefully on his back—fully intact and not even noticeably wounded—was used repeatedly. Although military censorship prevented a lot of images from being made or from being circulated, it’s clear that some potentially upsetting, graphic pictures got past the military censors only to encounter censorship somewhere else along the line.

The thoroughgoing cowardice of the press response to the war is partially conditioned by a decade of press bashing and overt news manipulation at the highest levels of the U.S. government. And although the military’s censorship of news from the Persian Gulf has often been mentioned, no one has begun to examine its long-term effects on America’s vaunted democracy. Certainly, the scathing attacks by Republican Senator Alan Simpson on CNN’s Peter Arnett for reporting from Iraq, and the vice president’s criticism of the media for covering antiwar protests, send a message to the electorate.

Life-and-death decisions are increasingly made by the government alone. The voters who are taxed to pay for them have no say in how their money is spent and so, it is felt, have no need to be informed about those decisions. In fact, the ordinary American has been encouraged to become a censor, to praise and even to desire censorship. And there are many situations in which that desire can be acted out: the ordinary Alabama National Guardsman in Saudi Arabia who held Sipa photographer Wesley Bocxe blindfolded at gunpoint for 30 hours was bolstered not only by the military’s stringent rules for journalists but by the antipress fervor that held sway long before that soldier ever got to the gulf. The guardsmen and other soldiers who harassed, detained, and arrested scores of journalists didn’t learn the anger that fueled those actions merely by reading official guidelines.

And there is no indication that public opinion will change any time in the near future. As the Village Voice’s Doug Ireland recently reported, when talk-show icon Phil Donahue tried to defend the necessity of a free and aggressive press, he was roundly shouted down by his studio audience. Hundreds of readers wrote angry letters to Newsweek when it ran a photo of captured U.S. Navy Lieutenant Jeffrey Zaun on its cover, protesting it as too graphic and too sensationalistic. One wonders whether these days any real images of war would be acceptable to delicate American sensibilities.

Clearly, the print media’s top brass don’t think so. Although Newsweek defended its cover choice to its irate readers on the grounds that it was the “anguished and battered faces of the captured pilots that brought the war home to many Americans,” the magazine and its competition studiously avoided bringing the war home. Perhaps they realized beforehand how great the economic and political gains of victory could be. The unalloyed glee of the business community at the war’s outcome might have been sullied by too much emphasis on suffering and death. And what the businessmen and politicians stand to gain can’t be compellingly shown in images. “The Big Spoils From a Bargain War,” shouted the business-section headline of the New York Times at war’s end, with a subhead that added: “Cheap oil for years to come. A quicker end to the recession. The Pentagon might even show a profit.”

There you have the gulf war, summed up in a few words that tell more than a thousand images. Nothing succeeds like success. The bottom line is all that counts. These are the kinds of values that two Massachusetts high-school students recently protested on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Pointing out that “few of us have actually stopped to ponder what our news stations and manufacturing companies have dropped on our toes in the form of trendy patriotism,” Maxwell Hart and Jeremy W. Jones go on to ask some questions that most of America doesn’t seem to want to consider. “Does anyone see the problem with selling war cards to impressionable kids? These cards . . . portray the war as a game where we ‘kicked butt.’ To quote from a T-shirt: ‘Kick their ass, take their gas.’ Is this patriotism or blatant commercialism?” Judging from the publicity surrounding the war, blatant commercialism is patriotic—and selling war cards to kids can only help ensure an obedient armed force in the future.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator, and senior editor at American Photo. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.