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Screening the War: Filmmakers & Critics on the Images That Made History

By IDA Editorial Staff

Four black and white T.V. screens, displaying images of a man in a gas mask and army men speaking to crowds.


Johnny Carson unerringly summed up the public mood about the war in the Persian Gulf two weeks after the ceasefire, when he had Pentagon's Operations Chief Lt. General Thomas Kelly as a guest on his talk show. Before asking the general about his impending retirement from the military, not to mention the war itself, Johnny showed a clip of Kelly bidding farewell to the Gulf press corps by mouthing platitudes about how important a free press is in a democracy. Like actors in film clips from other big-budget ventures, Kelly came off as supremely human, magnificently self-possessed and self-effacingly witty. So real and moving was his performance that Johnny temporarily lost his notable cool. Flustered and, well, happy in the big man's presence, Johnny impetuously burst out, "I'm going to miss your show!"

The studio audience went wild. The "show" had had everything we could hope for: heroic pilots, tender-hearted troops, a contrite and grovelling enemy and hardly any blood. Better war every night than the dismal offerings of the networks, which is what everyone will have to go back to, postwar. There's going to be a collective television let-down as the Persian Gulf War Show winds down.

Though it's a cliche to call this a Nintendo war, it was in fact presented as thrillingly, rivetingly precise, mechanical and bloodless, and full of the kind of unreal excitement we pay money to see at the movies. And it was a Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris kind of war, too, with coalition forces commander General Norman Schwarzkopf visiting the troops early on and telling them to "kick some butt." Lastly, it was an Orwellian kind of war, with lowly grunt drones appearing on the nightly news proclaiming like automatons that they had a job to do and they were going to do it.

What the American public has been fastidiously protected from seeing was the result of our boys doing their job. Between American TV and the American print media, the war has been presented as if it was a finely engineered piece of art or a high-tech tea party. American troops were uniformly professional, courteous and kind, even toward captured Iraqi troops. Iraqis were either sadistic monsters or pathetic weaklings. And anyone who was wounded or died just vanished. When the U.S. bombed a civilian bunker in Baghdad, killing hundreds of civilians, U.S. authorities and citizens alike were outraged that video images of the burned and mutilated bodies were shown on TV—this was sheer Iraqi propaganda. On February 25 a seven-mile stretch of Iraqis and Kuwaitis fleeing Kuwait was pounded by Harrier jets and bombers after being hemmed in by an armored brigade. According to all reports, the exploding bombs ignited secondary explosions of gasoline and munitions, creating a ghastly flaming traffic jam of some 1,400 vehicles. CBS News on March 1 aired a segment on the convoy including a milli-second shot of two totally burned bodies in the seat of a truck. Later that night, Nightline showed the same footage but included a closeup of one man's head bent back in seeming agony.

These visions apparently aroused no newsworthy viewer protest, probably because they were so fleetingly brief and the victims were so essentially dehumanized. But when the newsweeklies printed aerial views of the convoy—no shots of bodies—readers rose up. Time felt compelled to do a half­ page justification not on their own editorial process and reasons for choosing the upsetting pictures, but on the military justification for attacking the fleeing troops from the air.

This then, is one truly frightening outcome of this war: that the news media abandoned any pretense of factual reporting or mythical objectivity. Instead, it fashioned itself wholly as a propaganda vehicle for the White House and Pentagon. What happened was a war; what we saw was military promotion. Few in the United States seem to notice a distinction.

Carol Squiers is Senior Editor at American Photo, and the editor of The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography.


In recent years, as we have grown more and more dependent on visual signs and language, less and less a country and society of letter writers and diary keepers, television has become more and more the way we are connected to the making of history. These visual connections have become a kind of emotional glue that makes our new histories stick in our minds and hearts, permanently a part of who each of us is, defining as they go the life of the nation.

So what, visually, is this new Gulf war telling us? Why do we feel, in a way, so unconnected to it? Why have the potency of images and their ability to tell, to narrate a story, dimin­ished in this situation? Why has this been, at least in these memorable early days, a war of voices, harking back to the first days of radio? How do we understand an event when there are so few pictures?

Expecting in the Gulf war the same vivid imagery we have had in every conflict since the Civil War, especially in our most recent experience, the excruciating living-room war that Vietnam became, we find ourselves more than slightly disconnected from this experience, expecting more in the way of images and getting significantly less.

Indeed, we spent hours the first night of the war glued not to hard, painful imagery of the conflict, but to maps of downtown Baghdad, imagining the destruction the old-fashioned way, through superb and unbelievably professional reporting. As the war progressed, imagery took a back seat to merely getting any information. For hours the second night of war, we all became P.O.W.s to rumors, and rumors of rumors, as unconfirmed reports of gas attacks on Israel ricocheted throughout our electronic campsite, producing, but only in the mind, the most gruesome pictures.

Images have helped our understanding of this new war, though, in many ways. Technology loves other technology, and so the Gulf war, in the absence of real footage, has become a war of hardware and descriptions of hardware; not since World War II have we with such avidity learned the type and shape and capabilities of the engines we have invented to prosecute the war. Television, too, has made our geographically ignorant country indelibly aware of the lay of this dangerous land. We have all come to know our leaders in a new and undiluted way, seeing the pain and obvious weari­ness in our President's face, the intel­ ligence and no-nonsense directness of our Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the eloquence of the Senate Majority Leader. And we have been reminded constantly that not everyone in this country supports the war, perhaps thereby reinforcing better than our Government has the real strength of our position and the continuing world trend toward governments of, by and for the people.

But the images, the images for all time, are not there yet. And may never come. It is not clear whether this Gulf war will produce images as permanently part of our history as the images of Union and Confederate skeletons on the fields at the Battle of Wilderness, or the partisan in the Spanish Civil War at the moment of his death, or the execution on the streets of Saigon of a suspected Viet Cong. For the time being, there are just too few, too painfully overused or overhyped, too censored, or too remote to make the kind of lasting impression on our visual history these other wars and images have.

Ken Burns is the producer and director of The Civil War. Copyright © 1991 by the New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.


With only a few notable exceptions, television's coverage of the Gulf War was hardly distinguishable or memorable; certainly not a way for the networks to phase out of the news­ gathering business as they give every intention of doing with their latest round of budget cuts and bureau closures.

On the upside, it was the first time in any war that we had broadcast reporting of a conflict from both sides. For that, we owe a debt of gratitude to Peter Arnett. CNN deserves credit for having taken advan­tage of an obvious technological initiative, which the slow­ footed networks did not, and for having put Arnett's live reporting o n the air. However, it was his skill, courage and intuition, which many of us saw and admired on more than one occasion in Vietnam, that gave CNN such credibility.

Arnett has been taken to task by media critics, Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media (AIM) and Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal. However, their assertions that Arnett was the tool of Iraqi propaganda conveniently ignored one obvious fact. The daily U.S. military briefings in Riyadh a nd W ash­ ington also were oftentimes little more than propaganda used to gull the media; to demonize the Iraqis and leak exaggerated portrayals of Iraqi mis­ treatment of Kuwaiti civilians last fall and winter. For five months before the war, the American public was inundated by televised images of tanks, planes, ships and hardware that could have been produced by the video departments of the weapons makers. The insipid interviews with U.S. service men and women sounded like the work of Pentagon flacks. None of the endless gaggle of super-patriotic drivel and guesswork prepared us for the swift end to the fighting.

It was live coverage, however, that caused millions of Americans to remain glue d to their TV sets hours at a time, usually to CNN. But what people lacking any institutional memory may not have realized was that we have had the capacity to employ instantaneous coverage for decades. The difference this time was the portability of satellites. That was hardly an excuse for letting technology run amuck the way the networks did in those first days of the war.

As a correspondent both in Korea and Vietnam, I do not remember that the reporting there was exactly banner journalism, either. War, a ll wars, are chaotic and confusing; made even more so by pack journalism and the correspon­dents' unfamiliarity with foreign languages and the environment of news gathering in other countries. These problems are inevitably aggravated by the imposition of a military review sys­tem that forces escorts into the news­ gathering process; a sure invitation for even more confusion, anger and frustration.

Working under strict censorship, as we did in Korea, or the more subtle kind of restraint in Vietnam caused by our almost total dependence on U.S. military aircraft to ferry us to and from battle zones, inevitably flawed news coverage. I doubt more than a dozen television stories during the course of eight years of the Vietnam war could truly be described as noteworthy or memorable.

In war or peace, what television news does best is not to analyze but to convey emotion. There was precious little of that to emerge from the Nintendo game in the Gulf. The Pentagon permitted the American public to read, see and hear a tailored version of the war. Nobody, least of all George Bush, wanted another Vietnam on their watch.

The real story and geopolitical implications of what U.S. policy has wrought in an exceedingly complex part of the world is yet to be fully told. Unfortunately, when the inevitable studies of media coverage of the conflict are done, they would be surprising if they did not show that no more than a handful of U.S. journalists had a substantial knowledge of Arabic, the Koran, or the roots of the political prob­ lems of the region that emerged during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of British and French colonialism.

Functioning in such a vacuum was inevitably bound to produce the kind of fluff of which there was far too much on our television screens 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 reported seven wars for CBS News and the Associated Press during a journalistic career of nearly 35 years.


As if in concert with an orchestrated U.S. management of the war image and control of public opinion, television coverage of the Gulf conflict appeared in harmony with the administration's language and style. When President Bush reported significant decisions about war in the Gulf at his weekend retreat, smiling at reporters and swinging his golf club in ·a carefree, confident manner, he was affecting a masculinized language of controlled domination over a defiant, resource-rich world of Arabs and Islam.

It is a world painted in the minds of the West by Orientalist imaginations of an effemi­nate, sexy East, one filled with harems, voluptuous belly dancers and blue-veiled men on horses and camels in the desert. It is a fantasy created by Orientalists, come true in Hollywood, of a world the West has a subliminal desire to penetrate, to dominate.

This romanticized imagery, though, is harshly challenged by the memory of Arabs defeating Crusaders, and recently of almost two decades of humiliation by an Islamic Revolution and an omnipresent Khomeini, from Americans held hostage, marines blown out of Beirut, and now Saddam Hussein, strong, defiant.

It was more than a Vietnam syndrome that Bush seemed to be combatting, and not only his own "wimp image" but America's as well. CNN helped him do it. It mastered the drama of war and victory. The American public was seduced and tamed.

Beginning with its opening graphics, CNN presented the Gulf conflict as a drama intensifying daily and hourly—building in suspense as Desert Shield, with its allusions of protectiveness, threatened to turn into Desert Storm as the deadline of January 15 neared. At the very moment when the United States began its unprecedented bombing attack s by hi-tech weaponry on Baghdad, the earlier cooler colors of "Crisis in the Gulf" turned into "War in the Gulf" in red and goldish-yellow, accompanied by rolling sounds of the drums of war, followed by a dramatic silence, then the deep masculine voice, "This," pause, "is CNN."

The dominant television coverage was of Allied Com­ mander of Desert Storm General Norman Schwarzkopf in military fatigues, exuding an air of unquestioned authority as he granted an intimidated and passive press pool regular briefings about a "theater of operation"—a reaffirmation of masculinized power, mastery and domination, not only over the Desert but over the information flow.

In contrast with Vietnam not much "verite" reporting was shown. Instead, graphs and video images showed pilots inside hi-tech war machines looking at dehumanized tar­gets—images of military supremacy over a demonized enemy that had dared to stand up to the U.S.—in a war described as "surgical, " sanitized, and antiseptic. Damage was worded in strategic and military terms. The military projected U.S. successes and enemy losses, not as human suffering but "collateral damage," to an audience whose worldview is limited to that of winners and losers, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians.

How convenient that the "Indians" in this drama are Arabs. The viewer is already conditioned from the familiar portrayal on television and in Hollywood films to think of Arabs as hook-nosed wealthy sheiks, subordinate veiled women, dark-skinned terrorists or Muslim fanatics. Not a pretty picture. The only moments during the conflict that Iraqis were shown as persons were those of undignified surrender—Iraqi soldiers capitulating, described as lice­ ridden, dirty, starved, dehydrated and disoriented because of their uncaring cruel leadership. One telling scene was that of an Iraqi captive kissing the boots of a U.S. soldier in the desert. The effect of a certain framing and camera angle and a selectivity of mate­ rial edited into the broadcast news created an image of humiliation—the ultimate submission to Western colonial powers. Bowing to the West and kissing its feet, the East (Arabs and Muslims) was finally subdued, subordinated, conquered.

Viewers lost track of the "cause" and rallied behind the U.S. in a fantasy of victory. It became a reflexive experience in which the viewer became emotionally involved and seemed to enter the scenes, to sit in the cockpit and identify with those projecting strength and control through a mental process of becoming one with the image on the screen, hence, participating and sharing in the power and the victory. Ambiguities and contradictions in U.S. goals or between the image and the facts faded. Protest and dissent were drowned by the growing euphoria. Flags waved everywhere and yellow ribbons grew bigger. The image built by Washington and television began to take on a life of its own and mingled with the reality.

Fadwa El Guindi is a visual anthropologist at El Nil Research, a nonprofit Los Angeles-based foundation for research and ethnographic film on Arab culture. She directed the award-winning El Sebou': Egyptian Birth Ritual, and is currently the Film Review Editor at American Anthropologist.


At its zenith, the war dropped out of my life. The week allied forces were encircling the Republican Guard, I was involved in one of those marathon grant-judging sessions, so the 40-second news segments were replaced by 10-minute film segments.

This was all right with me. In a war with such a tightly managed news flow, everyone's set should have been off, and we ought to have been thrown back on our imaginations. But to try to apprehend the reality of war on your own is to discover that the imagination you've been thrown back on has atrophied through disuse. I could con­jure up no war in my mind that differed from the televised war. There were no people, no streets, no flesh, no heat, no smells. I had only the war I'd watched before leaving; the one dominated by synthesized music, colored maps and night-scope shots of fuzzy structures puffing apart like single frames caught in a projector gate; and a desert presented as a secular and ahistorical place where tanks roamed appropriately. And, of course, endless reports from everywhere on earth except the spots where actual people were being blown away. The most irritating of these were the "homefront " pieces in small town America, where enterprising reporters went to ask,"What do you think?" In other words, "What particular part of what we've been feeding you over the past few months would you like to give back to us?"

The economic beating that TV has inflicted on print journalism is well known, and even we independents are perpetrators. In New York I rediscovered one advantage of riding trains to meetings—you get a chance to do penance by reading the papers more thoroughly. This enabled me to stumble across one of those paragraphs that make you slap your head in disbelief. It's the sort of thing that probably lies buried in every issue of the larger dailies, but which is usually noticed only by readers who approach them in the attitude of a crouched panther—people like I. F. Stone and Noam Chomsky. This is what I came across at the bottom of page 5 of the February 23 New York Times:

When Mr. Bush, in his first months in office, ordered a review of national security policy, Pentagon and CIA officials warned that the United States must deal with third-world threats unambiguously.

"In cases where the U. S. confronts much weaker enemies, our challenge will be not simply to defeat them decisively and rapidly, " the national security review concluded. "For small countries hostile to us, bleeding our forces in protracted or indecisive conflict or embarrassing us by inflicting damage on some conspicuous element of our forces may be victory enough, and could undercut political support for U.S. efforts against them."

Couldn't be any clearer. An "unambiguous" blueprint for how we will deal with anyone in the Third-World (be they heavies like Saddam, or genuine heroes) who has the audacity to hold an alternate view of what the New World Order might look like. And when the next military decision is made, what are the chances that subsequent televised images will lead us to question our inherent right to make it?

Ralph Arlyck is a veteran independent producer and media advocate, whose latest film, Current Events, looks at ways in which people respond—or don't respond to the news.


The mass media coverage of the Gulf War is very possibly the most analyzed aspect of this conflict. This may well be due to the fact that no other aspect of the conflict was displayed so fully before the general public, as much as the fact that the contemporary arena for public debate is the media.

It seems as if the press, most of all television, has very happily accepted the role of an "official press," merely reporting on what the government and the army want to present. However, it must also be pointed out that neither the Congress nor the general public have been intent on opposing the war either, and this cannot be attributed to "media brainwashing" alone.

Television, in particular, has a very tough time covering this war. On the one hand, they were tied to the way the Pentagon organized limited access through pools of reporters, supervised interviews with the troops, etc. On the other hand, considering the staggering television costs of covering such conflict, it is obvious that executives and reporters had to be on good terms with government and Pentagon officials, or risk having their access limited even further. And, of course, television networks are owned by huge corporations with hefty military contracts. Furthermore, it is clear from the many letters to the editor, and comments in radio and television talk shows that the general public was more than willing to allow censorship and manipulation of information for the sake of victory and "patriotic" self-esteem. Considering this, one can see that the government hardly had to get mired in the pitfalls of imposing censorship-the press was more than willing to impose self-censorship to safeguard commercial viability.

The task ahead for documentary filmmakers who see and fear the coming of absolute power, is to go beyond the superficial analysis of the press coverage: the sports and medical metaphor s, the absence of any images showing the destruction and its economic cost here and abroad, the alarming lack of any sense of the huge loss of life for the Iraqi people in this "bloodless" war, etc. We have to look at how and why the American public came to accept a restricted and uncritical press unable to effectively scrutinize government. It is urgent to convey the fact that without effective press scrutiny of the govern­ ment, future military involvement may well get bigger, bloodier and closer to home.

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


The government and corporate success at shaping, not only the news, but likewise the allowable responses to Bush administration policy in this latest debacle, demonstrates a new level of centralized opinion-shaping that symbolize s the present weakness of press freedom in America.

Blaming government censorship for the failure of our press only obscures even more serious press issues: that the media refused both to challenge Bush's policy and to show the real horror of war even when it was presented to them. When former Attorney General Ramsey Clark emerged from Baghdad in late January with hours of footage of the extensive destruction and civilian casualties there, (cen­sored by either the Iraqis nor the U.S.), not one major U.S. media outlet would broadcast it, although the footage aired on networks abroad.

The language chosen by network anchors and reporters was particularly non journalistic and subjective. There can be no "government censorship" excuse for this. On January 17, Charles Osgood described the bombing of Iraq as a "marvel." "We were winning everything, " said George Lewis on NBC, January 19. On January 24, CBS correspondent Allen Pizzey called Saddam Hussein "psychologically deformed" while Peter Jennings reported the "brilliance of laser-guided bombs" used by the United States, but described the Iraqi missile as "a terrifying killer." (January 21 and 22.) This continued throughout the war, and was equally pervasive on PBS, according to FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), a media watch organization that carefully monitored broadcasts, and later published their findings. If independent filmmakers or videographers dared use similarly subjective narration in any film or video, their film would be condemned by critics, distributors, and broadcasters alike as obvious propaganda.

It is interesting to note that the PBS network and its POV series de­ manded detailed documentation of not only each fact, but of every slight innuendo that could cast doubt on the credibility of George Bush, during the Empowerment Project's two-year censorship battles over its film COVERUP: Behind the Iran Contra Affair. These "high journalistic standards" applied to independent documentarians have certainly not been applied to either PBS, CNN, or the network's' "news cover­ age" of the Gulf crisis.

Particularly noticeable is the extraordinarily imbalanced selection of experts and analysts appearing on network news shows. FAIR's study of such programs as MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour or Ted Koppel's Nightline during the first month of the war reveal that "Nearly half of the U.S. guests on both programs were current or former government officials. When international guests were included, the percentage of government officials was even higher." Further, non-government "experts" generally came from conservative think tanks. Progressive think tank s such as the Institute for Policy Studies or the World Policy Institute were never tapped.

An independent press has no business tightly controlling the facts, images or the range of viewpoints available to the U.S. public at any time. We are facing a grave threat to our First Amendment rights in this country, and we had all better step up efforts to demand reform.

Barbara Trent and Joanne Doroshow are co-producers of The Empowerment Project's current work-in-progress, Invasion in Panama. Barbara Trent is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Documentary Association.