Culture Wars

W.J.T. Mitchell

I am old enough to remember a time when going to the movies meant going to see the newsreels too. Perhaps that is why the juxtaposition of CNN and JFK makes so much sense to me. I’ve never been able to get over the idea that the news is just another kind of movie, and vice versa. But Cable News Network and JFK belong together in a historical proximity as well, as the framing media events of a very strange year in American cultural history. 1991 began, for American spectators, with the most heavily publicised war in American history, and ended with a cinematic re-enactment of the Kennedy assassination, the most highly publicised event in what JFK represents as a secret war for control of America’s national destiny. Between CNN’s Operation Desert Storm and JFK’s Operation Mongoose fall the media shadows of what are now called America’s ‘culture wars’. These are the ongoing battles for the ideological soul of America played out in the convergence of television news and melodrama. Pitched battles of the sexes and races were staged with unprecedented intensity in such media ‘events’ as the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, and the David Duke campaign. Conspiracy theories detailed the infiltration of American higher education by ‘politically correct’ militants, and lamented the takeover of the art world by feminists, homosexuals and ethnic minorities. In short, for Americans who watch television news, 1991 was a year of war and publicity – not just the publicising or representing of war, but the waging of war by means of publicity and representation. Oliver Stone’s JFK is the perfect cinematic coda to such a year.

I want to compare two melodramatic scenarios that captured the imagination of American spectators in 1991, and to analyse the impact of these representations on public discourse. The Kennedy assassination and Operation Desert Storm are both widely perceived as major turning-points in American history, the one signalling the beginning of the Vietnam era, the other marking the transition between the end of the Cold War and the unveiling of George Bush’s ‘new world order’. Both events were also turning points in the history of American television, reaching unprecedented numbers of viewers. According to Major-General Perry Smith in How CNN fought the war, CNN’s public relations office estimated that one billion people in 108 nations watched their coverage of the Gulf War. The Kennedy assassination drew transfixed viewers into an instant international community of shock and mourning, while Operation Desert Storm elicited responses of horror, anxiety and fascination at the spectacle of a war which brought to bear the latest in high-tech electronic communications and weaponry. Appropriately emblematic for the convergence of war, representation and the public spectacle are the famous image-sequences transmitted from the noses of the smart bombs descending on their targets, taking a dazzled American public directly into the heart of mass destruction. The corresponding moment in the television reportage of the Kennedy assassination would be, I suppose, the moment when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald during a live television broadcast.

These two images typify many of the differences between CNN’s Desert Storm and Stone’s JFK, purely at the level of representational style. The Desert Storm image is abstract, like a display in a video game. It represents a war of aerial reconnaissance and electronic mapping, one in which bodies (except for the endangered bodies of heroic media personalities) rarely appear. The Oswald image is bodily, visceral and intimate; its endangerment was realised in the instantaneous transmission of a close-up pistol shot to the gut. It is a perfect piece of raw material for a film that relentlessly explores the human body, and assaults the body of the spectator. Stone’s aim is to make us not so much sec as feel the physical reality of Kennedy’s skull being shattered by rifle fire. We are even forced to watch the President’s autopsy, including the spilling of his brains from the skull cavity and the insertion of a surgeon’s finger into an open wound.

Now one might object that these are simply differences in the content of two drastically different historical events, the assassination of a single individual and the waging of a massive military campaign. To this I can only reply that it would have been possible to represent both these events in very different ways. The Kennedy assassination can be (and has been) represented as a remote, abstract event whose physical reality can never be recaptured, a product of forces that will remain for ever invisible and untouchable, even unknowable and insignificant. Mass warfare can be (and has been) represented in immediate and palpable ways on both film and television. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, for instance, is notorious for the way it conveys the physical reality of combat. In this respect it is in keeping with what might be thought of as the dominant style of Vietnam’s television representation. Vietnam was, above all, represented as a war about the human body. Many of us can recall the television coverage of body counts, the innumerable flag-draped caskets, the massacres, atrocities and mass burials seen on television, as well as singular images like the naked Vietnamese girl her flesh aflame with napalm. and the dismembered American soldiers returning home.

The abstract image provided for television by the remote, robotic sensors of a ‘smart bomb’, then, is not just an accidental feature of the way this war was fought, but a crucial element in its overall narrative construction. A major objective in the presentation of the Gulf War to the American public was the erasure of the human body from the picture. General Schwarzkopf announced at the very outset that there would be no body counts or body bags in this war. Instead, we had the euphemism of ‘human remains pouches’ and the strict refusal to enumerate casualties, especially Iraqi casualties, which to this very day have received no official estimate from the Pentagon. The closest thing to a crisis in the public acceptance of Operation Desert Storm occurred when CNN’s Peter Arnett broke the rule against showing bodies, and transmitted images of Iraqi civilians killed by one of our smart bombs. Senator Simpson of Wyoming promptly labelled Arnett an Iraqi ‘sympathiser’. The criticism even extended to Ted Turner, who was labelled ‘Baghdad Ted’, an appropriate consort for ‘Hanoi Jane’. Military and political leaders were instantly dispatched to the major television talk shows to provide spin control with euphemisms about ‘collateral damage’ and (in the case of the late Senator Tower) outright denial that the bodies existed. Even the veiled representation of our own war dead was prohibited in this war. Media coverage of military funerals or the unloading of flag-draped caskets was strictly censored. This was a war without bodies or tears (the other moment when CNN received negative responses from its viewers was when it showed the press conferences of captured US pilots, their faces covered with bruises), but filled, at the same time, with a sense of danger, with paranoia, and with spectacular violence.

The reasons for censoring representations of the body are not difficult to grasp. Schwarzkopf rejected the body count on aesthetic grounds, as a tasteless, ghoulish and demoralising way of keeping score. But the more fundamental reason was to construct Operation Desert Storm as both the antithesis and the antidote to Vietnam. It is common military wisdom that the Vietnam War was lost because it lost the support of the American public. And the loss of public support is generally traced to the media coverage of the war. Vietnam was the first ‘television war’: it brought home to the American public harrowing images of mutilated human bodies in over-whelming numbers. CNN and the American media in general collaborated fully in the project of evoking while erasing all reminders of Vietnam by eliminating, as completely as possible, all traces of the human body. This control of the representation of the war was just as crucial to its success as control of the battlefield. Vietnam had shown us that American wars are won or lost on the home front, so the war of publicity was given at least as much attention as the military operation itself.

A more comprehensive account of this public relations war would take note, not only of its negative work – the erasure or ‘unwriting’ of the Vietnam scenario – but also its attempt to provide a positive alternative story-line. The main source of images and narrative materials for this positive construction was the American mythology of World War Two, preserved in newsreels, photos, and (of course) the movies, from, say, The Desert Fox to Patton. Operation Desert Storm was a kind of utopian replay of World War Two, fulfilling all the fantasies of victory through overwhelming air superiority against an enemy portrayed as Hitler reincarnate. I don’t mean to deny, of course, that Saddam Hussein was (and still is) an evil, vicious and dangerous tyrant. I only want to note that his characterisation as Hitler, as the Butcher of Baghdad, as a man whose very name on American lips elicits echoes of sodomy and sadism, has more to do with the strategies of a public relations war than it does with any political or historical analysis of the real aims and consequences of our war in the Middle East. The main function of this caricature was reductive and emotional: to simplify the issues to a straightforward moral choice, to whip up war fever and mass hatred against the enemy, and to make rational debate and opposition to the war seem like an act of treason.

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