War Projection: Filmmakers and Critics on the Images That Made History (2023)

War Projection: Filmmakers and Critics on the Images That Made History (1)


Johnny Carson summed up public sentiment about the Persian Gulf War two weeks after the armistice when he told Pentagon chief of operations Lt. General Thomas Kelly, a guest on his talk show. Before asking the general about his impending retirement from the army, not to mention the war itself, Johnny played a clip of Kelly bidding farewell to the Gulf press, spouting platitudes about the importance of a free press in a democracy. Like the actors in movie clips from other big-budget projects, Kelly was intensely human, superbly controlled and moderately funny. His performance was so real and moving that Johnny temporarily lost his remarkable calm. Confused and, well, happy in the tall man's presence, Johnny blurted out, "I'm going to miss your show!"

The studio audience went wild. The "show" had everything we could hope for: heroic pilots, warm-hearted soldiers, a contrite and submissive enemy, and almost no blood. War every night is better than the dark offerings of the seasons, which everyone must resort to after the war. There will be collective disappointment on TV when the Persian Gulf War show ends.

While it's a cliché to call this a Nintendo war, it actually felt gripping, fascinatingly accurate, mechanical and bloodless, and filled with the kind of unrealistic excitement we pay to see in theaters. And it was also a war of sorts with Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris when the commander of the Coalition Forces, General Norman Schwarzkopf, visited the troops early and told them to "kick some ass". It was an Orwellian war of sorts, after all, with silent snarling drones appearing on the evening news, announcing like automatons that they had a job to do and would do it.

What the American public was so carefully protected from was the result of our guys doing their jobs. Between American television and American print media, the war was presented as if it were a finely crafted work of art or a high-tech afternoon tea. US troops were uniformly professional, courteous and friendly, even with captured Iraqi troops. Iraqis were either sadistic monsters or pathetic weaklings. And everyone who was injured or died just disappeared. When the United States bombed a civilian bunker in Baghdad, killing hundreds of civilians, both authorities and American citizens were outraged that video footage of burned and mutilated corpses was being shown on television; this was pure Iraqi propaganda. On 25 February, an 11 kilometer stretch of Iraqis and Kuwaitis fleeing Kuwait came under fire from Harrier planes and bombers after being surrounded by an armored brigade. By all indications, the explosive bombs caused secondary explosions of gasoline and ammunition and caused a frighteningly incendiary traffic jam involving about 1,400 vehicles. CBS News aired a March 1 story about the convoy, which included millisecond footage of two completely burned bodies on the seat of a truck. later that nightnight lineit showed the same footage but included a close-up of the head of a man lying back in apparent agony.

These visions didn't seem to elicit any significant outcry from viewers, probably because they were so fleetingly brief and the victims were so deeply dehumanized. But when weekly newspapers published aerial photos of the convoy, not photos of the body, readers rose.Tempohe felt compelled not to justify his own editorial process and reasons for selecting the harrowing half-page images, but the military justification for the air strike against the fleeing troops.

So this is a truly terrible result of this war: that the media have abandoned any pretense of factual reporting or mythical objectivity. Instead, it was conceived entirely as a propaganda vehicle for the White House and Pentagon. What happened was a war; What we saw was military rise. Few in the United States seem to know the difference.

Carol Squiers is senior editor atamerican photo, and the publisher ofThe critical image: essays on contemporary photography..


As we have become more and more dependent on visual cues and language in recent years, and less and less a country and society of letter and diary writers, television has become more and more the way we treat history. These visual connections have become the emotional glue that keeps our new stories etched in our minds and hearts, remaining an enduring part of who each of us is and defining the life of the nation.

So what does this new Gulf War tell us visually? Why do we feel so disconnected from it in any way? Why did the power of images and their ability to tell a story diminish in this situation? Why was this, at least in those memorable early days, a war of voices going back to the early days of radio? How to understand an event when there are so few images?

If we expect the same vivid images of the Gulf War that we have had in every conflict since the Civil War, particularly in our most recent experience, the agonizing indoor warfare that Vietnam has become, we find ourselves more than slightly disconnected from isso. Experiment and expect more in the form of images and get significantly less.

Indeed, on the first night of the war, we spent hours glued not to stark, painful footage of the conflict but to maps of central Baghdad, imagining destruction the old-fashioned way, through excellent and incredibly professional reporting. As the war progressed, images gave way to just information. On the second night of the war, we all became prisoners of war for hours on end amid rumors and gossip, as unconfirmed reports of gas attacks against Israel exploded in our electronic warehouse, producing, but only in our heads, the images more frightening. .

However, the images contributed in many ways to our understanding of this new war. Technology loves other technology and that's why, for lack of real footage, the Gulf War has become a war of hardware and hardware descriptions; Never since the Second World War have we been so avidly acquainted with the nature, shape and capabilities of the machines we have invented for warfare. Also television has made our geographically ignorant country indelibly aware of the plight of this dangerous country. We all got to know our leaders in new and genuine ways, saw the pain and obvious weariness on our President's face, the intelligence and no-nonsense candor of our Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the eloquence of the leader of the majority in the Senate. And we have been constantly reminded that not everyone in this country is supporting the war, and maybe they are doing it better than our government, what makes the real strength of our position and the world trend continues towards a government for, for and for the people.

But the images, the images of all time, are not there yet. And maybe it never will. It is unclear whether this Gulf War will produce images that are as enduring a part of our history as the images of the Union and Confederate skeletons on the fields of the Battle of the Desert, or of the Spanish Civil War partisans at the time. death. , or the execution of an alleged Viet Cong on the streets of Saigon. Right now they are simply too few, used too painfully or exaggerated, too censored or too far removed to leave the lasting impression on our visual history that these other wars and images have.

Ken Burns is the producer and director ofCivil war.Copyright © 1991 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission.


With only a few notable exceptions, television coverage of the Gulf War was barely noticeable or memorable; there's certainly no way the networks are going to get out of the news business, given all their intentions with the latest round of budget cuts and office closures.

On the positive side, it was the first time in a war that we covered a conflict from both sides. We are grateful to Peter Arnett for this. CNN deserves credit for capitalizing on an obvious technology initiative that the slow channels didn't, and for bringing Arnett's live coverage to the airwaves. However, it was his skill, courage and insight, which many of us saw and admired more than once in Vietnam, that gave CNN so much credibility.

Arnett was challenged by media critics Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media (AIM) and Dorothy Rabinowitz ofWall Street Journal. However, his claims that Arnett was the tool of Iraqi propaganda conveniently overlooked an obvious fact. The daily US military briefings in Riyadh and Washington were little more than propaganda designed to mislead the media; demonizing Iraqis and spreading exaggerated reports of Iraq's abuses of Kuwaiti civilians last fall and winter. Five months before the war, the American public was deluged with television footage of tanks, planes, ships, and equipment that could have been produced by the video departments of weapons manufacturers. The vapid interviews with US soldiers sounded like the work of Pentagon agents. None of the endless tangle of meaningless and overpatriotic conjecture prepared us for the swift end of the struggle.

However, it was the live reporting that kept millions of Americans glued to their television sets, usually CNN, for hours. But what people who don't have an institutional memory may not have realized is that we've been able to use instant coverage for decades. The difference this time was the portability of the satellites. This was no excuse for letting technology run wild as the networks did in the early days of the war.

Also, as a correspondent in Korea and Vietnam, I don't remember reporting exactly like advertising journalism. War, all wars, is chaotic and confusing; reinforced by herd journalism and the ignorance of correspondents in foreign languages ​​and in the news gathering environment in other countries. These problems are inevitably exacerbated by the introduction of a military verification system that forces escorts to participate in the intelligence gathering process; a sure invitation to more confusion, anger, and frustration.

Operating under strict censorship, as we did in Korea, or the more subtle kind of reticence in Vietnam caused by our near-total reliance on US military aircraft to get us to and from combat zones, inevitably led to inaccurate reporting. I doubt that more than a dozen TV stories over eight years in Vietnam can really be called remarkable or memorable.

Whether war or peace, what news does best is not analyze but convey emotion. Little of that came out of Nintendo's Gulf region game. The Pentagon allowed the American public to read, watch and hear a personalized version of the war. No one, least of all George Bush, wanted another Vietnam under his command.

The true story and geopolitical ramifications of what US policies have created in an extremely complex part of the world have yet to be fully told. Sadly, when the inevitable studies of media coverage of the conflict are complete, it would be surprising if they did not show that no more than a handful of American journalists had extensive knowledge of Arabic, the Koran or the roots of the political issues of the conflict. . the region, which emerged during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of British and French colonialism.

Operating in such a vacuum inevitably led to the kind of nonsense that was playing too much on our television screens during the Gulf War.

Murray Fromson is professor of journalism and director of the USC Center for International Journalism in Los Angeles. He is a veteran journalist who has covered seven wars for CBS News and the Associated Press during his nearly 35-year reporting career.


Consistent with the US orchestrated manipulation of the war's image and control of public opinion, television coverage of the Gulf conflict appeared consistent with the government's language and style. When President Bush announced major decisions about the Gulf War on his weekend retreat, smiling at reporters and swinging his golf club with a nonchalant, confident demeanor, he was delivering masculine language of controlled government over a challenging world. and rich in resources, Arab and Islamic. .

It is a world painted in Western minds by Orientalist notions of a feminine and sexy Orient, a world of harems, voluptuous belly dancers and men in blue veils on horseback and camels in the desert. It is an Orientalist fantasy, made in Hollywood, of a world in which the West has an underlying desire to invade, to dominate.

This romantic image, however, is sharply challenged by memories of Arabs defeating the Crusaders and, more recently, nearly two decades of humiliation at the hands of an Islamic revolution and an ever-present Khomeini, Americans taken hostage, Marines flying from Beirut, and now Saddam Hussein. strong, defiant

Bush seemed to be struggling with more than a Vietnam syndrome, not just his own "soft" image, but that of the United States as well. CNN helped him with that. She mastered the drama of war and victory. The American public was seduced and tamed.

Beginning with its initial hit lists, CNN presented the Gulf conflict as a drama that grew by the day: suspense mounted as the Desert Shield, with its overtones of protective measures, threatened to become a desert storm when the January 15 deadline approached. Just as the United States began its unprecedented bombardment of Baghdad with high-tech weapons, the previous cooler colors of "Gulf Crisis" in "Gulf War" turned golden red and yellow, accompanied by the sound of war. drums, followed by a dramatic silence, then the deep male voice: "Yeah, pause," it's CNN.

The dominant television coverage was the commanding general of Allied Desert Storm, General Norman Schwarzkopf, in military garb, who exuded an aura of unquestioned authority as he gave an intimidated and passive group of periodic briefings about an "area of ​​operations" a statement of masculinity power. dominance and dominance, not just over the desert, but also over the flow of information.

Unlike Vietnam, not much "true" coverage was shown. Instead, the graphics and video footage showed pilots in high-tech war machines looking at dehumanized targets, images of military superiority over a demonized enemy who dared to engage the US in a war billed as "surgical", "disinfectant" . ' and has been described as antiseptic. The damage was formulated strategically and militarily. The military has projected American victories and enemy casualties not as human suffering but as "collateral damage" to an audience whose worldview is limited to winners and losers, cops and thieves, cowboys and Indians.

How convenient that the "Indians" in this drama are Arabs. The viewer is already conditioned by familiar portrayals on television and in Hollywood movies to think of Arabs as rich sheikhs with hooked noses, obsequiously veiled women, dark-skinned terrorists or Muslim fanatics. It's not a pretty picture. The only moments during the conflict where Iraqis were shown as people were those of undignified surrender: Iraqi soldiers, described as lice-infested, dirty, hungry, dehydrated and disoriented by their callous and cruel leadership, surrendered. One revealing scene was that of an Iraqi prisoner kissing an American soldier's boots in the desert. The effect of a particular framing and camera angle, and a selectivity of the edited material in the transmitted messages, created an image of humiliation: the ultimate submission to Western colonial powers. The East (Arabs and Muslims) bowed to the West and kissed its feet, finally subdued, subjugated, conquered.

Spectators lost sight of the "cause" and supported the United States in a fantasy of victory. It became a reflective experience in which the spectator became emotionally involved and seemed to step into the scene, sit in the booth and identify with the one who exuded strength and control through a mental process of unification with the image on the screen, that's what it is, participating and participating in power and victory. Ambiguities and contradictions in US objectives or between images and facts disappeared. Protest and dissent were drowned out by the rising euphoria. Flags flew everywhere and yellow ribbons grew. The image constructed by Washington and television began to take on a life of its own and merge with reality.

Fadwa El Guindi is a Visual Anthropologist at El Nil Research, a Los Angeles-based non-profit foundation dedicated to ethnographic cinema and research on Arab culture. directed the award-winningEl Sebou': Egyptian birth ritual, and is currently Film Critics Editor atamerican anthropologist.

Ralph Arlyck

At its height, the war disappeared from my life. The week the Allied forces surrounded the Republican Guard, I participated in one of those approval marathons where 40-second news segments were replaced by 10-minute film segments.

That was fine with me. In a war with such a tightly managed news flow, everyone's devices should have been turned off and we should have returned to our imaginations. But to try to understand the reality of war for yourself is to discover that the relaunched imagination has atrophied from disuse. I couldn't imagine any war that was different from the televised war. There were no people, no roads, no meat, no heat, no smells. I only had the war I saw before I left; the one dominated by synthesized music, color maps, and night-vision shots of blurry structures looming like frames on a projector door; and a desert presented as a secular, ahistorical place where tanks properly roamed. And, of course, endless reports from all over the world, except from places where real people were surprised. Most irritating were the "Homefront" plays in a small town in America, where enterprising reporters would go to ask, "What do you think?" In other words, "How much of what we've been feeding you these past few months would you like to give back to us?"

The economic blows that television has inflicted on print journalism are well known, and even independents are perpetrators. In New York, I rediscovered an advantage of taking the train to meetings: one has the opportunity to repent by reading the newspapers more carefully. Then I came across one of those paragraphs that makes you shake your head in disbelief. Something like this is probably buried in every issue of major newspapers, but is usually only noticed by readers who approach them in a crouching panther pose, like I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky. I found this at the bottom of page 5 on Feb 23rd.New York Times:

When Bush ordered a review of national security policy in his first months in office, Pentagon and CIA officials warned that the United States must squarely address Third World threats.

“In cases where the United States faces much weaker enemies, our challenge is not just to defeat them decisively and quickly,” concluded the National Security Review. "For small countries hostile to us, victory can be enough to weaken our forces in protracted or indecisive conflicts, or to embarrass us by damaging a conspicuous element of our forces, and it can increase political support to undermine US efforts against them. ".

It doesn't get any clearer. A "one of a kind" blueprint for how we will treat anyone in the Third World (whether heavyweights like Saddam or true heroes) who have the audacity to have an alternative vision of what the New World Order could look like. And when the next military decision is made, what are the chances that subsequent television footage will make us question our birthright to make them?

Ralph Arlyck is a veteran freelance producer and media representative whose latest film, Current Events, explores how people react to the news - or not.


The mainstream media's coverage of the Gulf War is probably the most scrutinized aspect of that conflict. This may be because no other aspect of the conflict has been as widely exposed to the general public as the current arena of public debate is the media.

It seems that the press, especially television, has happily assumed the role of the “official press” that only reports what the government and the military want to present. However, it should also be noted that neither Congress nor the general public intended to oppose the war, and this cannot be attributed to "media brainwashing" alone.

It is particularly difficult for television to report this war. On the one hand, they were tied to the way the Pentagon organized limited access through pools of reporters, supervised troop interviews, and so on. On the other hand, given the staggering costs of television to cover such conflicts, it is clear that executives and reporters had to maintain good relations with government and Pentagon officials or risk having their access even more restricted. And, of course, television stations are owned by giant corporations with extensive military contracts. Moreover, from the many letters to the editor and comments on radio and television talk shows, it is clear that the general public was more than willing to allow censorship and manipulation of information in the name of victory and "patriotic" self-esteem. ". . Given this, it is clear that the government had little to lose in the pitfalls of imposing censorship: the press was more than willing to impose self-censorship to ensure economic viability.

The task of documentarians, who see and fear the arrival of absolute power, is to go beyond the superficial analysis of journalistic coverage: the metaphors of sport and medicine, the lack of images, destruction and its economic costs. out of the country. , the alarming senselessness of the tremendous loss of life of the Iraqi people in this "bloodless" war, etc. We have to see how and why the American public has come to accept a narrow, uncritical press that is incapable of effectively controlling the government. There is an urgent need to convey the fact that, without effective scrutiny of the government press, future military involvement could become bigger, bloodier and closer to home.

Ivan Zatz-Diaz, an independent Mexican filmmaker based in New York, is currently filming a documentary about television coverage of the war with Karen Sheehan-Pell.


The success of government and business in shaping not just the news but also the permissible responses to Bush administration policies in this latest disaster demonstrates a new level of centralized opinion formation that epitomizes the current weakness of free speech in the United States.

Blaming government censorship for the failures of our press only masks a more serious press problem: the media refused to question Bush's policies and show the true horrors of war, even when it was presented to them. When former Attorney General Ramsey Clark presented hours of footage of Baghdad's vast destruction and civilian casualties in late January (which was uncensored by either Iraqis or the US), not a single major US vehicle was broadcast on the networks. networks. out of the country.

The language chosen by the network's moderators and reporters was particularly non-journalistic and subjective. There can be no "state censorship" for this. On January 17, Charles Osgood described the bombing of Iraq as a "miracle". "We won it all," said George Lewis on NBC on Jan. 19. On January 24, CBS correspondent Allen Pizzey called Saddam Hussein "mentally warped", while Peter Jennings reported on the "brightness of laser-guided bombs" used by the United States. however, he described the Iraqi missile as "a terrible killer". (January 21st and 22nd). This continued throughout the war and was equally ubiquitous on PBS, according to FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a media monitoring organization that carefully monitored broadcasts and later published its findings. If independent filmmakers or videographers dared to use a similar subjective narrative in any film or video, their film would be condemned as outright propaganda by critics, distributors and broadcasters.

It is interesting to note that during the two years of the Empowerment Project's censorship battles, PBS and its POV series required detailed documentation of not just every fact, but every little insinuation that might cast doubt on the credibility of George's film. Bush.COVERAGE: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair. These "high standards of journalism" that apply to independent documentarians certainly do not apply to PBS, CNN, or the network's "coverage" of the Gulf crisis.

What is striking is the extraordinarily unbalanced selection of experts and analysts that appear on the network's news. FAIR's study of programs such as the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour or Ted Koppel's Nightline during the first month of the war shows that "nearly half of the US guests on both programs were current or former government officials, and the officials were even more non-governmental". "Experts" also came, usually from conservative think tanks. Progressive think tanks like the Institute for Policy Studies or the World Policy Institute were never convened.

An independent press does not have the right to strictly control the facts, images, or range of views available to the American public at any given time. We face a serious threat to our First Amendment rights in this country, and we must all do better to demand reform.

Barbara Trent and Joanne Doroshow are co-producing The Empowerment Project's latest work in progress,invasion in panama. Barbara Trent is a board member of the International Documentary Association.

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