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 infallibly summed up public opinion about the Gulf War two weeks after the ceasefire when he had the Pentagon's chief of operations, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, as a guest on his talk show. Before asking the general about his upcoming retirement from the army, not to mention the war itself, Johnny played a clip of Kelly bidding farewell to the Gulf press and delivering platitudes about the importance of freedom of the press in a democracy. Like actors in film clips from other big-budget companies, Kelly proved extremely human, superbly controlled, and modestly funny. His performance was so real and moving that Johnny momentarily lost his remarkable calm. Nervous and, shall we say, happy in the presence of the tall man, Johnny exuberantly exploded, "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 slavish enemy, and almost no blood. Better the war every night than the gloomy offers of the networks to which everyone must return, the post-war period. There will be collective TV disappointment when the Persian Gulf War show ends.

While it's cliché to call this a Nintendo war, it actually felt riveting, mesmerizingly precise, mechanical and bloodless, and loaded with the kind of unrealistic emotions we pay to see in movies . And it was also a war of sorts between Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, in which the commander of the coalition forces, General Norman Schwarzkopf, visited the troops early and told them to "kick ass". It ended up being an Orwellian war of sorts, with snarling drones showing up on the evening news automatically proclaiming that they had a job to do and they would get it done.

What the American public was meticulously shielded from was the result of our work. Between American television and American print media, the war was portrayed as if it were a finely crafted work of art or high-tech tea. US troops were uniformly professional, courteous, and friendly, even to captured Iraqi troops. Iraqis were either sadistic monsters or pathetic wimps. And everyone who was hurt or killed just disappeared. When the US bombed a civilian bunker in Baghdad, killing hundreds of civilians, US officials and citizens alike were outraged that video of burned and mutilated bodies was shown on television; that was pure Iraqi propaganda. On February 25, 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. Apparently, the high-explosive bombs caused secondary explosions of petrol and ammunition, creating a horrendous traffic jam involving about 1,400 vehicles. CBS News aired a March 1 piece about the convoy, which included a millisecond footage of two completely burned bodies in the seat of a truck. later that nightnight lineIt showed the same footage but included a close-up of a man's head tilted back in apparent agony.

These visions did not seem to elicit an outcry from viewers, likely because they were so fleetingly brief and the victims were essentially dehumanized. But when weekly newspapers published aerial photos of the train without photos of the body, readers rebelled.Tempothey felt compelled to give a half-page justification not about their own editorial process and the reasons for choosing the disturbing images, but about the military justification for attacking fleeing troops from the air.

So this is a truly frightening result of this war: that the media has abandoned any claim to factual information or mythical objectivity. Instead, it was designed solely as a propaganda vehicle for the White House and the Pentagon. What happened was a war; What we saw was the military advancement. Few in the United States seem to notice a difference.

Carol Squiers is Senior Editor atamerican photo, and the publisher ofThe Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography..


As we have become more dependent on visual signs and language in recent years, less and less of a country and society of letter and diarists, television has increasingly become the means through which we are connected to story-making. These visual connections have become the emotional glue that keeps our new stories stuck in our minds and hearts, enduringly a part of who we all are, and shaping the life of the nation along the way.

So what is this new Gulf War telling us visually? Why do we feel so detached from it in a way? Why has the power of images and their ability to tell a story diminished in this situation? Why was this a war of voices, at least in those memorable early days, stretching back to the early days of radio? How can one understand an event when there are so few images?

While we expected the same vivid images of the Gulf War that we have had in any conflict since the Civil War, particularly in our most recent experience, the agonizing living room war that Vietnam has become, we found ourselves more than slightly disconnected from that experience. more in the form of pictures and less and less.

In fact, on the first night of the war we spent hours clinging not to hard, painful images of the conflict but to maps of central Baghdad, imagining the destruction the old-fashioned way, through excellent and incredibly professional reporting. As the war progressed, images took a back seat to simply obtaining information. On the second night of the war we all became prisoners of war for hours on end of rumor and rumor upon rumour, while unconfirmed reports of gas attacks in Israel echoed through our electronic warehouse, producing, but only in our heads, the most chilling images. .

However, the images helped us to understand this new war in several ways. Technology loves other technology, so in the absence of actual pictures, the Gulf War became a war of hardware and hardware descriptions; Never since World War II have we so eagerly learned the nature, form, and capabilities of the machines we invented to continue the war. Television has also made our geographically ignorant country indelibly aware of the nature of this dangerous country. We all got to know our leaders firsthand in a new way, saw the pain and 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 majority leader in the Senate. And we have been constantly reminded that not everyone in this country supports war, which perhaps better than our government reinforces the true strength of our position and the ongoing global trend towards government by, by and for the people.

But the images, the images of all times, are not there yet. And it may never arrive. It is not clear if this Gulf War will produce images as enduring in our history as the images of the skeletons of the Union and Confederacy on the desert battlefields, or of the Spanish Civil War partisan at the moment of his death or execution in Nassau Saigon streets of an alleged vietcong There are currently too few of them, too painfully overused or overused, too censored or too remote to leave a lasting impression on our visual history that these other wars and images have.

Ken Burns is the producer and director ofto the civil 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; It's certainly not a way for the networks to phase out the news business like they intend with their latest round of budget cuts and office closures.

On the plus side, it was the first time in a war that we've broadcast reports of conflict on either side. We are indebted to Peter Arnett for this. CNN deserves credit for capitalizing on an apparent technology initiative that the slow networks haven't, and for airing Arnett's live coverage. However, it was his skill, courage and insight, which many of us have seen and admired more than once in Vietnam, that gave CNN so much credibility.

Arnett has been criticized by media critics Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media (AIM) and Dorothy RabinowitzWall Street Journal. However, his claims that Arnett was the tool of Iraqi propaganda conveniently overlooked an obvious fact. Likewise, the US military's daily briefings in Riyadh and Washington were little more than propaganda designed to mislead the media; Demonizing Iraqis and promoting exaggerated portrayals of Iraqi mistreatment of Kuwaiti civilians last fall and winter. Five months before the war, the American public was inundated with television footage of tanks, planes, ships, and equipment that might have been produced by the weapons manufacturers' video departments. The tasteless interviews with US soldiers sounded like the work of Pentagon agents. None of the endless streams of uber-patriotic nonsense and conjecture prepared us for the swift end of the battle.

However, it was the live coverage that kept millions of Americans glued to their TVs for hours, usually on CNN. But what people who lack institutional memory may not have realized is that we have been able to deploy instant coverage for decades. The difference this time was the portability of the satellites. This was no excuse for letting technology run wild like the networks did in the early days of the war.

As a correspondent in Korea and Vietnam, I don't remember reporting that mainstream journalism existed. War, all wars, is chaotic and confusing; even more because of packet journalism and correspondents' ignorance of foreign languages ​​and the news gathering environment in other countries. These problems are inevitably exacerbated by the introduction of a military screening system that forces escorts to participate in intelligence gathering; a sure invitation to more confusion, anger and frustration.

Operating under strict censorship like we did in Korea, or the more subtle kind of restrictions in Vietnam caused by our almost total reliance on US military planes to fly us to and from combat zones, inevitably leads to a false one Reporting. I doubt that more than a dozen television stories about the eight years of the Vietnam War can really be called remarkable or memorable.

Whether war or peace, what news does best is not to analyze, but to convey emotions. Little of that came from Nintendo's Gulf game. The Pentagon allowed the American public to read, watch, and hear a personalized version of the war. Nobody, least of all George Bush, wanted another Vietnam under his command.

The true story and geopolitical ramifications of what US policies have wrought in an extremely complex part of the world has yet to be fully told. Unfortunately, if the inevitable studies of media coverage of the conflict are conducted, it would be surprising if they did not show that only a handful of American journalists had an in-depth knowledge of Arabic, the Koran, or the roots of the political issue. Problems in the region that arose during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of British and French colonialism.

Working in such a vacuum inevitably led to the kind of chatter that popped up on our TV screens all too often during the Gulf War.

Murray Fromson is a 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 in his nearly 35-year reporting career.


As was consistent with concerted US image management of the war and control of public opinion, television coverage of the Gulf conflict appeared consistent with government language and style. When President Bush announced key decisions about the Gulf War at his weekend retreat, smiling at reporters and swinging his golf club with a casual, confident attitude, he feigned masculine language of controlled domination of a challenging world rich in challenges. Arabs and Muslims.

It is a world painted in the minds of the West by the orientalist imagination of a feminine and sexy East, full of harems, voluptuous belly dancers and men in blue veils on horseback and camels in the desert. It is an Orientalist-created and Hollywood-realized fantasy of a world that the West subliminally desires to penetrate and dominate.

However, this romantic image is sharpened by memories of Arabs defeating the Crusaders and recently nearly two decades of humiliation at the hands of an Islamic revolution and an ever-present Khomeini, Americans taken hostage, Marines expelled from Beirut and now Saddam Hussein in Asked a question. , strong, defiant.

It was more than a Vietnam syndrome that Bush seemed to be fighting, and not just his own "coward image" but America's as well. CNN helped him with that. He mastered the drama of war and victory. The American public has been seduced and tamed.

Beginning with its opening charts, CNN presented the Gulf conflict as a drama that intensified by the hour, building suspense as the protection-innuendo Desert Shield threatened to become Desert Storm as the December 15 deadline neared . Just as the United States began its unprecedented high-tech weapon attack on Baghdad, the cooler colors turned from "Gulf Crisis" to "Gulf War" in red and golden yellow, accompanied by the sounds of war drums, followed by a dramatic silence, then the deep male voice : "That," pause, "is CNN."

The dominant television coverage showed the Allied Desert Storm commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, in military uniform exuding an air of unquestioned authority as he gave an intimidated and passive group of regular briefings on a "scene of operations," a reassurance of male power. Dominion and dominion, not only over the desert, but also over the flow of information.

Unlike Vietnam, not many "truthful" reports were shown. Instead, the graphics and video footage showed pilots in high-tech war machines contemplating dehumanized targets - images of military supremacy over a demonized enemy daring to turn against the US - in a war described as "surgical," disinfecting, and antiseptic becomes. . The damage was written in strategic and military terms. The military has projected America's victories and enemy defeats not as human suffering but as "collateral damage" to an audience whose worldview is limited to winners and losers, cops and robbers, 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 films to see Arabs as wealthy, hook-nosed sheikhs, submissive veiled women, dark-skinned terrorists or Muslim fanatics. It's not a pretty picture. The only moments during the conflict in which Iraqis were shown as human beings were those of unworthy surrender: Iraqi soldiers who were described as lousy, dirty, hungry, dehydrated, and disoriented because of their callous and indifferent 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 broadcast news created an image of humiliation: the maximum submission to the western colonial powers. By bowing down to the west and kissing his feet, the east (Arabs and Muslims) finally became subdued, subdued, conquered.

Viewers lost sight of the "cause" and joined the United States in a victory fantasy. It became a reflective experience where the viewer became emotionally involved and appeared to enter the scenes, sat in the booth and identified with whoever projected strength and control through a mental process of integration with the image on screen, thereby he participated and shared power and victory. Ambiguities and contradictions in US targets or between images and facts disappeared. Protest and dissent were drowned out by the rising euphoria. Flags were waving everywhere and yellow ribbons were growing. The image constructed by Washington and television began to take on a life of its own and to merge with reality.

Fadwa El Guindi is a visual anthropologist at El Nil Research, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit foundation dedicated to ethnographic film and research on Arabic culture. Directed by the award winnerEl Sebou': Egyptian Birth Ritual, and is currently Film Critics Editor atAmerican anthropologist.

Ralph Arlyck

At its peak, the war left my life. The week the Allies surrounded the Republican Guard, I attended one of those marathon grant evaluation sessions that replaced 40-second news segments with 10-minute movie segments.

That was fine with me. In a war with news flow so tightly controlled, everyone should have shut down and we should have used our imaginations. But to try to grasp the reality of war for oneself is to discover that the imagination conjured has atrophied with disuse. I couldn't imagine a war that was different from the war on TV. There were no people, no roads, no flesh, no heat, no smells. I only had the war I saw before I left; the one dominated by synthesized music, color charts and night shots of blurred structures unfolding like single frames captured on a projector gate; and a desert presented as a secular, ahistorical place where tanks properly roamed. And of course endless reports from all over the world, apart from the places where real people were dragged. Most annoying were the front-of-house articles in a small town in America, where enterprising journalists would go to ask, "What do you think?" In other words, "What specific part of what we've given you over the past few months would you like to give back?"

The economic caning that television has inflicted on print journalism is well known, and even independents are perpetrators. In New York, I rediscovered a benefit of taking trains to meetings: one has the opportunity to repent by reading the newspapers more carefully. This led me to one of those paragraphs that make you shake your head in disbelief. It's the sort of thing that's probably buried in every issue of the major newspapers, but is usually only noticed by readers who approach them in a crouching panther posture, like I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky. I found this at the bottom of page 5 of February 23rd.New York Times:

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

"In cases where the United States faces much weaker enemies, our challenge will not simply be to decisively and quickly defeat them," the national security review concluded. "For small countries hostile to us, it may be victory enough to plunge our forces into a protracted or indecisive conflict, or embarrass ourselves by damaging a notable element of our armed forces, and political support for undermine US efforts against them.”

It couldn't be clearer. A "clear" plan for how we will treat anyone in the third world (whether heavy like Saddam or real heroes) who has the audacity to present an alternative vision of what the New World Order might look like. And when the next military decision is made, what is the likelihood that subsequent television footage will cause us to question our innate right to make it?

Ralph Arlyck is an veteran freelance producer and media representative whose recent film, Current Events, explores the ways people react and don't react to the news.


Media coverage of the Gulf War is arguably the most studied aspect of this conflict. This may well be because no other aspect of the conflict has been presented to the general public as widely as the fact that the media are the current arena of public debate.

It seems that the press, especially television, has quite happily taken on the role of "official press" and simply reports what the government and 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 especially difficult for television to report on this war. On the one hand, they were tied to the Pentagon's way of organizing limited access through pools of reporters, supervised troop interviews, and so on. On the other hand, given the enormous cost of television coverage of such a conflict, it is evident that executives and reporters had to maintain good relationships with government and Pentagon officials or risked having their access further restricted. And, of course, television stations are owned by large corporations with large military contracts. Furthermore, it is clear from the many letters to the editor and commentary on radio and television talk shows 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 would hardly fall into the trap of censorship: the press was more than willing to impose self-censorship to ensure economic viability.

The task of documentary filmmakers, who see and fear the arrival of absolute power, is to go beyond the superficial analysis of journalistic reporting: the sporting and medical metaphors, the lack of images, the destruction and its economic costs at home and abroad show. , the appalling futility of the tremendous loss of life in Iraq in this "bloodless" war, etc. We need to see how and why the American public came to accept a narrow-minded and uncritical press that was unable to effectively represent the government to consider. . There is an urgent need to convey the fact that without an effective press scrutiny of the government, future military involvement could become larger, bloodier and closer to home.

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


The success of government and business in shaping not only the news, but also the allowed responses to Bush administration policies in this latest catastrophe demonstrates a new level of centralized opinion-making that epitomizes the current weakness of press freedom in the United States.

Blaming government censorship for our press failures only masks a more serious press problem: that the media refused both to question Bush policies and to show the true horrors of the war, even when presented to them. When former Attorney General Ramsey Clark left Baghdad in late January with hours of footage (censored by Iraqis and the US) of the extensive destruction and civilian casualties there, there was no major American media outlet.

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 everything," George Lewis said on NBC on Jan. 19. On January 24, CBS correspondent Allen Pizzey called Saddam Hussein a "psychologically twisted" while Peter Jennings reported on the "brightness of the laser-guided bombs used by the United States." however, described the Iraqi missile as "a terrible killer". (January 21 and 22). This continued throughout the war and was equally prevalent 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 a film or video, their film would be condemned as blatant propaganda by critics, distributors, and broadcasters.

Interestingly, during the Empowerment Project's two-year censorship battle over your film, the PBS network and its POV series demanded detailed documentation not only of all the facts, but also of any small clues that might cast doubt on George Bush's credibility.COVERAGE: Behind the case against Iran. These "high standards of journalism" that apply to independent documentary filmmakers certainly weren't applied to PBS, CNN, or the "coverage" of the Gulf Crisis.

Of particular note is the remarkably unbalanced selection of pundits and analysts appearing on the network's newscasts. FAIR's examination of programs such as MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour or Ted Koppel's Nightline during the first month of the war shows that "nearly half the American guests on both programs were current or former government officials. Moreover, they were usually non-governmental “experts”. came from conservative think tanks. Progressive think tanks like the Institute for Policy Studies or the World Policy Institute were never tapped.

An independent press need not tightly control the facts, pictures, or 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 all better demand reform.

Barbara Trent and Joanne Doroshow are co-producing the current work of The Empowerment Project,Invasion in Panama. Barbara Trent is a board member of the International Documentary Association.

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