May 1 2003

That’s Militainment!

The Pentagon's media-friendly 'reality' war

The media build-up to war presented a military attack on Iraq as an overwhelming natural force whose momentum could not be stopped. “The clock is ticking,” NPR reported in early March (3/8/03), with soldiers in Kuwait complaining that there was “too much waiting around.” Military preparations were like a “huge gun and every day you cock the hammer back a little more.”

February 15 marked the first time in history that millions of people around the world demonstrated against a war before it started. But Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw were already wearing khakis in the desert, driving humvees, profiling soldiers, hitching rides on helicopters and previewing high-tech weaponry. “With all this firepower and all these forces primed and ready to go, how long can they stay in peak condition?” worried Brokaw (NBC, 2/18/03), reporting from the northern frontier of Kuwait with “a new band of brothers preparing for the first war of the 21st Century.”

The “waiting for war” stories that dominated coverage were the result of what was being heralded as a new era of military openness. The Pentagon promised access to the battlefield unseen since Vietnam. Hundreds of journalists were “embedding” with military units, waiting for close-up views of combat. A spate of stories followed showing “embeds” training at media boot camps, learning about gas masks, running with heavy backpacks and pointing their cameras at soldiers.

Embedding was the brainchild of Assistant Defense Secretary Victoria Clarke, formerly with Hill and Knowlton, the PR firm infamous for promoting the false baby-incubator story during the first Gulf War. “We want robust coverage,” she claimed (CNBC, 2/19/03).

One reporter waiting to embed told Extra! over the phone from Bahrain: “They’re not crapping around this time. Journalists could die.” ABC‘s Peter Jennings (3/11/03) told viewers the military wanted Americans to “see war as it really is.” It was the best PR the Pentagon had seen in decades.

“A member of the team”

The military did not hide its desire to shape positive coverage, as evidenced by its hiring of a Hollywood set designer to create a media-friendly backdrop for official briefings in Qatar (London Times, 3/11/03). Gen. Wesley Clark, now a CNN analyst, admitted that restricting the press during the 1991 Gulf War was a “huge mistake” (AlterNet, 2/20/03): It was “perhaps the biggest armored battle ever, but not a single image was reported or documented.” The military understood the need to enlist the vast resources of the media, in what White House chief of staff Andrew Card referred to as the war’s extensive “product-marketing campaign” (New York Times, 3/23/03).

At briefings in Kuwait City, journalists were told, “The idea is by making you a part of the unit, you’ll be a member of the team” (Washington Post, 3/7/03). Veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges called embedding insidious, predicting that it would produce a “further loss of distance” and a “false sense of loyalty” (Democracy Now!, 2/27/03).

Military minders made their intentions clear even as they promised battlefield access: “Reporters shouldn’t be…independently probing for facts,” Lt. Col. Rick Long told the Washington Post (3/7/03). “If something bad happens, it’s the military’s job to investigate.”

Embedding journalists was a strategy for news told from the American military’s point of view. When Extra! asked a journalist if the military would allow embeds to take pictures of Iraqi civilian casualties, the response was, “We’re telling the U.S. military’s story; that will be up to other journalists.”

One way military strategists shaped positive coverage of the first Gulf War was by favoring local TV crews over national and print journalists. “Hometowners” were given much freer access to the field because the Information Bureau chief in Saudi Arabia admitted he favored human-interest news (Progressive, 3/91). Local TV excelled in morale-boosting stories, sending words and pictures of the boys to the folks back home.

Network anchors learned the lesson well. Twelve years later, NBC‘s Tom Brokaw promised his TV audience (2/17/03), “I’ll be back later in the broadcast with a touching story of a sergeant with the 3rd Infantry Division who is here, his family back in America, and how we managed to connect them via videotape.” Sgt. Charles Weaver waved to his wife and children, who gazed back at him from the screen of Brokaw’s digital video camera–all for the benefit of national TV audiences. Such stage-managed heroes have become the mythic stereotype at the center of a new TV genre–call it militainment.

War as adrenaline rush

When the “Final Hours” (ABC, 3/19/03) finally passed, the war was picture perfect. Initial coverage blended excitement and anticipation with firepower and the photogenic bombing of Baghdad. On March 21, when 300 cruise missiles destroyed two dozen buildings in a matter of minutes, incredible devastation registered on television as painterly pink clouds. In the city once again, Peter Arnett exclaimed, “An amazing sight, just like out of an action movie, but this is real.”

As U.S. troops pressed into southern Iraq, TV images merged cinematic references with reality-style camera perspectives. Viewers gazed across the sand from inside army vehicles, a fantasy ride-along with Lawrence of Arabia as the tanks and armored convoys sped “virtually unopposed deep into the Iraqi desert” (CNN, 3/21/03).

Empowered by riding shotgun with these road warriors, journalists barely contained their excitement. They wore goggles, flack jackets and even reported through gas masks as they adopted military jargon (“There are boots on the ground”). They interviewed Top Gun pilots and crawled along the ground with gunfire in the distance, pressing microphones into soldier’s faces as they pointed their weapons.

Tom Brokaw (New York Times, 3/23/03) understood the effects of such visual and narrative representations: “Television cannot ever adequately convey the sheer brute force of war, the noise and utter violence.” This is certainly true when the violence and brutality are edited out, while the excitement and heroics are sensationalized. But Brokaw passed blame to the medium itself. “It somehow gets filtered through the TV screen, and that’s probably just as well,” he said.

Few unpleasant images disrupted the flow, certainly nothing horrific, gruesome or in “bad taste.” This was war as adrenaline rush, with no responsibility.

Shattered illusions

But by the afternoon of March 23, conflicting images shattered the grand illusion. As the whole world was watching, Al Jazeera aired video footage from Iraqi state TV of the bloodied bodies of dead American soldiers sprawled carelessly on a slab floor. Iraqi interrogators interviewed the POWs. The war that couldn’t wait had suddenly become a problem. Alternative information finally rendered the war real, horrible. Though networks censored the footage initially, they showed clips.

Almost overnight, the tone of media coverage flipped from what CNN‘s Aaron Brown (New York Times, 3/25/03) admitted was a “gee whiz” attitude to a tempered anxiety about “another messy, frustrating combat situation” (CNN, 3/24/03). The mix of sentimentality and visual sensationalism was wildly successful as long as it remained unchallenged. By March 24, the New York Times noted, “An image of awesome American firepower had been replaced by pictures of vulnerability.” The thrilling momentum of the Iraq reality war slammed into a different set of cultural references and memories: an overmatched enemy was engaging in guerrilla tactics resulting in American casualties., a website displaying images of Iraqi civilian casualties, was shut down on March 24, with the company that hosted it, Vortech, pulling the plug on the basis of “inappropriate graphic material.” Later, an email from the company elaborated: “As ‘NO’ TV station in the U.S. is allowing any dead U.S. soldiers or POWs to be displayed…we will not either” (Scoop, 3/25/03).

That night, embedded journalist Phil Ittner (CBS, 3/24/03) showed pictures of wounded Iraqi children, but provided an acceptable, war-justifying context. The videophone story from south-central Iraq showed a soldier rocking a little girl in his arms and another stroking her face. They came “streaming out to give what aid they could. They are here to take down the leadership in Baghdad which they see as a threat to their families back home…. They wish they didn’t have to do it.”

As the Pentagon scrambled to control the meaning of its now unpredictable war, it knocked out the Iraqi TV signal. “War as it really is” was far too harsh for the Pentagon. On Tuesday, Dan Rather announced approvingly that the U.S. military had “pulled the plug” on what CBS called Saddam’s “propaganda” channel.

Saving Private Lynch

What the war needed was a stunning plot reversal to propel the narrative forward. On April 2, the military provided the much-needed heroic device (accompanied by middle-of-the-night footage): the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch from a Nasiriya hospital, in what was ubiquitously described as a “daring raid” (e.g., CNN, 4/8/03; NBC, 4/6/03; ABC, 4/7/03).

The gripping story of a crack commando operation that plucked the wounded private from danger was fed to reporters at CentCom and eagerly repeated. For CBS (4/11/03), it was “a story for history, Jessica comes home.” CNN (4/1/03) declared “it was such a lift”; as Time magazine put it (4/14/03), the story “buoyed a nation wondering what had happened to the short, neat liberation of Iraq.” “Hollywood,” the magazine asserted, “could not have dreamed up a more singular tale.”

But an eyewitness account published in the London Times (4/16/03) undermined the fantasy. Lynch’s rescue, the paper reported, “was not the heroic Hollywood story told by the U.S. military, but a staged operation that terrified patients and victimized the doctors who had struggled to save her life.” Based on interviews with hospital personnel, including Dr. Harith al-Houssona, the doctor who attended Lynch, the Times account described a terrifying assault in which soldiers handcuffed and interrogated doctors and patients, one of whom was paralyzed and on an intravenous drip.

Was such force really necessary? Doctors told the British paper that the assault met no resistance, as Iraqi and Baath leadership forces had fled the city the day before. And Dr. Harith explained that he had attempted to deliver Lynch to a U.S. outpost the day before the raid, but Americans had fired on the ambulance driver, making it impossible to proceed. A far cry, it would seem, from the mission that one military officer (Time, 4/14/03) claimed “worked perfectly. It was like Black Hawk Down except nothing went wrong.”

“Not choreographed, not stage-managed”

If Lynch’s rescue provided the symbol of America’s sacrifice and heroism, the downed statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square became the icon of its triumph over Iraq. Before the war, publisher and author John MacArthur told Extra! that the military wanted embeds with the troops “for the victory pictures, waving flags and cheering Iraqis.”

This is precisely what the statue-toppling seemed to provide, and networks ran the footage countless times, with breathless commentary about its meaning. “It’s a time for rejoicing particularly because of what television cameras clearly revealed–that many Iraqis support the coalition’s mission and see the U.S. and its allies not as enemies but as friends and liberators,” the Indianapolis Star (4/10/03) spelled out.

“The picture says something about us as Americans,” pronounced USA Today (4/10/03), “about our can-do spirit, our belief in lending a hand.” The Washington Post‘s Ceci Connelly, interviewed on Fox News Channel (4/9/03), was one of many to compare it to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall: “Just sort of that pure emotional expression, not choreographed, not stage-managed, the way so many things these days seem to be. Really breathtaking.”

A few reporters indicated that the event was not as straightforward as U.S. media usually presented it. “Whenever the cameras pulled back, they revealed a relatively small crowd at the statue,” the Boston Globe noted (4/10/03); others were struck by the fortuitous appearance on the scene of a pre=Gulf War=era Iraqi flag, as well as crowd members who had been spotted at Nasiriyah just the previous day, suggesting their appearance in Firdos Square might be something other than spontaneous.

Such questions were all but lost, however, in media’s overwhelming rush to lift the image to iconic status. By the end of the day, noted Chicago Tribune television critic Steve Johnson (4/10/03), “the symbol’s power had overtaken the hard facts.”

Indeed, 23 days after the war started, CBS’s 48 Hours (4/11/03) opened its celebratory segment, “After the Fall,” with footage of the toppling statue. As Dan Rather observed with evident approval, “Remnants of the regime still stand, but surrounded now by a conquering power.” Rather encountered burnt-out vehicles and intoned, “In this one there is a body. What happened, who shot him, who knows?” In the world of militainment, the “conquering power” bears no responsibility for the death left in its wake. In the chaos that is Baghdad, where soldiers serve as “police and social workers,” no phrase is too hackneyed for Rather: “Theirs is not to reason why, theirs is but to do or die.”

The actual quote, from Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” is the less melodramatic “theirs but to do and die.” In either case, an ominous quotation at a time of endless war, when democracy’s critical dialogue is replaced with militainment.