Sucking up

Michael Rogin

  • Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War by John MacArthur
    California, 274 pp, £10.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 520 08398 9
  • Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad – 35 Years in the World’s War Zones by Peter Arnett
    Bloomsbury, 463 pp, £17.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1680 4

The United States has been gripped by a campaign to drive violence from television. Some blame violent images for violent acts; others insist that the images themselves do violence. Senators bemoan television brutality, a national debate on the pros and cons of censorship takes centre stage for a time – displaced by other violent attention-getters like Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, Singapore’s caning sentence to punish an American teenager, the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ Congressional proposal to jail for life those convicted of three violent crimes (a category that includes any drug-related offence and the use of imitation guns) – but nothing will change. Since violence sells, this campaign will fail. So long as the state is unwilling to interfere with the operations of the marketplace, the debate augments the fascination with violence rather than standing in its way.

Happily, however, there are circumstances under which the United States government acts to keep violence off the air. What is required is American war. When the state kills en masse and sends its own citizens to die, it takes action against the effects of verbal descriptions and visual images. War becomes entertainment that, properly orchestrated, can make Americans feel good again, however briefly, about their country: ‘Washington is not the backwater that it seemed to some when the action was in the streets to Prague or at the Berlin Wall,’ New York Times reporter R.W. Apple wrote during the Gulf War; ‘Is making a superior Walkman a better index of technological sophistication than making laser bombs that enter through the front door?’ asked Charles Krauthammer, for whom the Gulf War refuted the myth that the US was being overtaken by Japan. Censorship is too negative a term to describe the government’s relation to television and press: far from being, like the old Hollywood Hays office, a mere nay-sayer, the state is a co-producer of images. Working creatively with the fourth branch of American government, the media, it aims – for the mass public at home, not those on the contested foreign ground – to substitute for war the image of war.

That effort, failing in Vietnam, produced the news reporter as American hero – Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Seymour Hersch, Jonathan Schell, Peter Arnett. They reported not only the war the government did not want its citizens to see, but also the government efforts to invent a war for domestic consumption. ‘Part of the Vietnamese Seventh Infantry Division was being assigned to make a movie,’ Arnett reported from the scene of the crime. ‘In the paddy field beyond the tree line, the Vietnamese war was being filmed in full 35 mm colour as a United States Information Service project. A line of helmeted soldiers was staging a battle scene, standing on a paddy dike and firing into the middle-distance mud as the cameras rolled. Other troops were providing security to keep the real communist Viet Cong from getting into the act.’ ‘What we are looking for is realism,’ a USIS official reported to Arnett. ‘Two days ago we staged a great attack on a little outpost. We had the men defending it like heroes and their women binding their wounds ... We don’t want to show the cruel things like bodies. We want to show how the Vietnamese fight the war as people.’

Peter Arnett won a Pulitzer Prize for Hollywood-on-the-Mekong. Twenty-five years later, President George Bush introduced an ABC docudrama, The Heroes of Desert Storm, which, according to the network disclaimer, ‘interweaves news footage and dramatisations with actors and actual participants. To achieve realism, no distinction is made among these elements.’ The only difference between The Heroes of Desert Storm and network coverage of the Gulf War was that the latter contained no disclaimer.

John MacArthur documents in sickening detail the love affair between the media and the Pentagon/White House during the Gulf War and the months of foreplay that made it possible. (One of the features of what Dan Rather called ‘suck-up coverage’ was that media personnel who participated in it engaged in widespread mea culpas after it was over.) The media covered the story of Iraqi soldiers throwing hundreds of babies from Kuwaiti incubators. It ignored the story that the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton, paid millions of dollars by Kuwait, had orchestrated the television testimonies to the alleged atrocity, that the unidentified female eyewitness was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, and that the only documented babies thrown from incubators were victims of the first night of the American bombing of Baghdad. The media covered the story of Saddam Hussein’s aggression. It ignored the story of American aid to this murderous regime right up to the Kuwaiti invasion. It publicised Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson’s hallucinatory accusation that Peter Arnett undermined the US in Vietnam because his brother-in-law was in the Viet Cong, but mostly ignored Simpson’s own pre-war fawning over Saddam Hussein, with whom, lamenting the independence of the media, he commiserated over unfavourable stories about the Iraqi regime. (Simpson was the Clarence Thomas defender who charged Anita Hill with being a radical lesbian source of pornography; he is well-liked on Capitol Hill.)

Months before the bombing of Baghdad, the White House set up an operation to ensure that ‘news media representatives will be escorted at all times.’ For unsupervised troop interviews and actual war footage, the Pentagon substituted video games, publicity photos and a reporter pool. In the pool system those running the war chose the reporters and news organisations that would cover (in both meanings of that word) their operations. The networks engaged in a competition not over war-reporting but over logos and graphics. Since smart bombs and Patriot missiles worked better in the studio than on the battlefield, the truth about their inaccuracy only emerged once the war was over.

Those who do not believe in the existence of the special relationship between Great Britain and the United States may be surprised to learn from MacArthur that the United States borrowed these techniques of press censorship and the pool system from the Falklands War. As Lieutenant Commander and ‘public affairs specialist’ Arthur A. Humphries explained, ‘in spite of a perception of choice in a democratic society, the Falklands War shows us how to make certain that government policy is not undermined by the way a war is reported.’ Humphreys was warning against another Vietnam; the United States followed his advice first in Granada (a Vice Admiral called the exclusion of reporters from that bungled invasion ‘a marvellous sterile operation’), then in Panama (‘the first war as media event,’ according to Arnett), and finally in the Persian Gulf.

During the Vietnam War, a member of Johnson’s White House staff, Jack Valenti, suggested that the Administration should publicise the charge that the New Zealander, Arnett, and the Canadian, Morley Safer, were undermining the war effort because ‘they are not Americans and do not have the basic American interests at heart.’ During the Gulf War, Valenti headed the Hollywood Motion Picture Association. But Tom Johnson, who had moved from the White House press office to CNN, ran the single American news organisation to allow its reporters to remain in Baghdad. Peter Arnett was, as a result, the only American-based journalist to cover both the American defeat in Vietnam (as one of the last Americans to leave Saigon) and its victory in the Persian Gulf. Resisting efforts to silence him in Vietnam, Arnett had made public a major’s now-famous explanation for the obliteration of Ben Tre: ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.’ Ignoring American accusations that he was a ‘video Benedict Arnold’, Arnett reported the bombing of a civilian shelter and refuted Pentagon charges that it was the camouflaged source of military instructions ‘to the Iraqi war machine’. But even Arnett censors one story about himself. The man MacArthur calls ‘the only well-known reporter who had maintained an image of independence from the Bush administration during the war’ omits from this admirable autobiography his participation in the White House Correspondents Association’s post-war homage to George Bush, Colin Powell and General H. Norman Schwarzkopf. We must turn to Second Front for Arnett’s handshake with Schwarzkopf, the Hero of Desert Storm, ‘contender for People’s Sexiest Man Alive; co-architect of Desert Muzzle’, who had, in the words of Newsday feature writer Michèle Ingrassia, ‘gone from mere general to genuine sex symbol faster than a speeding smart bomb’. In fawning over ‘a general who clearly despised the press,’ MacArthur writes, ‘the fourth estate was bowing to a man who had treated it with the contempt normally reserved for enemy soldiers.’

Itself a prisoner of the belief that media coverage deprived the United States of victory in Vietnam, the fourth estate made reparation in the Persian Gulf. MacArthur wants to have it both ways, by denying that the media lost Vietnam, yet contrasting the failure of Johnson’s news management with the Bush/Schwarzkopf success. The stab-in-the-back myth about Vietnam, to be sure, analogous to Hitler’s blaming the home front for the German defeat in World War One, ignores the preponderant media support for the war that had lasted until after the Tet offensive, and also ignores the successful resistance in Vietnam itself. Nonetheless, by speaking truth to power, reporters like Arnett did break through the myths spread by Hollywood on the Mekong, aiding the domestic opposition that helped bring the war to an end. The ‘crush of frenzied admiration’ for Schwarzkopf at the WHCA dinner reminds MacArthur of the final scene of Nathanael West’s Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust, for the military man had now achieved the status of a motion picture star. The intermingling of media, political and military celebrities also recalls the end of Animal Farm, the feast at which one can no longer tell the pigs from the humans.