The Pentagon Rivals Hollywood at Telling War Stories
Soon after World War II began, at the request of Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Hollywood director Frank Capra launched the production of a series of official propaganda films to explain American war aims. They went under the general title, Why We Fight. The "why" was purely informative in nature. In it lurked not the faintest hint of a question, only of a powerful answer.
Over two decades later, in 1965, in the midst of an already bloody, stalemated war in Vietnam, the U.S. government released another official propaganda film, modeled on the Why We Fight series, with the title, Why Vietnam. But there the similarities ended. No longer was the making of such a film a simple matter of fleshing out American verities -- that the enemy was aggressive and savage, that victory was assured, that postwar goals were obvious. Doubt had, by then, crept deeply into what had once been an American tale of triumph that had seemed like nothing short of a centuries-old birthright.
Although this film, too, finally appeared without a question mark, by then questions, doubts of every sort, lurked everywhere, barely below the surface. Thanks to an article at the time by a State Department East Asian specialist, James Thomson, Jr., we know that the issue of acknowledging that question mark, already deeply embedded in an American public wondering why indeed we were in Vietnam, was argued out in the most literal way within the administration of Lyndon Johnson. "My most discouraging assignment in the realm of public relations," he recalled, "was the preparation of a White House pamphlet entitled Why Vietnam, in September, 1965; in a gesture toward my conscience I fought -- and lost -- a battle to have the title followed by a question mark."
But there was no way to get rid of that mark or the doubts that only grew more prominent as the war years lengthened. After Vietnam, the Pentagon, licking its wounds, started a campaign to blame that question mark on a traitorous media (which had supposedly stabbed it in the back) and began planning to bring it to heel and so take the question mark out of our culture. The following excerpt from the new afterward to my book, The End of Victory Culture, just reissued and updated, takes into account the way that culture of triumph returned in the era of the younger Bush, only to crash and burn in record time in Iraq, and focuses on that Pentagon campaign.
It turns out to be no small trick to create a warstory that will stick to the public's ribs these days. Despite decades of well-planned, well-financed post-Vietnam efforts to create a lasting tale of American triumph, the Pentagon is still running hard with no end in sight. In 1982, still licking their Vietnam wounds, convinced that the war had been lost largely thanks to traitorous media coverage, pentagon officials watched the British military win a one-sided victory over Argentina in the isolated south Atlantic and defeat the press at the same time. With reporters largely confined to a naval vessel and unsympathetic journalists left behind, the British military (their eyes on our Vietnam experience) almost completely controlled the flow of war news. Inspired, our military began to plan to give better war.
It has been said that each of our many wars and interventions since the Reagan administration ordered the invasion of the tiny island of Grenada in 1983 has proved yet another living laboratory for the military-industrial complex; for the testing of ever newer, ever more powerful, more technologically sophisticated generations of weaponry. The practically sub-nuclear MOAB (nicknamed the "Mother of all Bombs"), for instance, was rushed from its testing grounds in Florida to the Persian Gulf region just days too late for use in the invasion of Iraq. Its first battle tests will have to await our next frontier war -- even if that frontier turns out, once again, to be in the oil heartlands of the planet.
A similar testing-out process has been under way, war by war, in terms of media coverage. The pentagon's first impulse, following the British example, was simply to deny war to the media, and so in a sense to the public. As the British had sidelined the press in the Falkland Islands, so for the invasion of Grenada the pentagon "pooled" reporters, then placed them offshore and did not allow them to watch, film, or cover events for several days. This was but the crude beginning of an attempt to rebuild the imagery of war as something thrilling to Americans (as the Army itself was being rebuilt as an all-volunteer force that would again capture public esteem), but it also held powerful elements of left-over, Vietnam-era anger and revenge against the media. War coverage was being managed as a form of punishment.
Though refined in each war to follow from Panama to Afghanistan, the Pentagon's approach remained at heart defensive, based on a set of negative, near-biblical injunctions. Thou shalt not, for instance, show "body bags" on television (since American casualties turn off the public and hence might lead to a lessening of war support at home). In the process, body bags were renamed and functionally taken off the air, while the bodies of the American dead were essentially flown home in the dead of night and the coffins carefully unloaded beyond the sight of reporters or cameras. Another Vietnam-era injunction, put into a pungent phrase by Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of our Afghan War in 2001, was: "We don't do body counts." This injunction slowly faded in the years after the invasion as Iraq turned into a full-scale counterinsurgency war, but for a while the dead of war on either side of the battle ceased to exist.
As late as November 2006, president Bush expressed his irritation to a group of conservative news columnists that "[w]e don't get to say that -- a thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was. It's happening. You just don't know it." the problem, he explained in frustration was: "We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team." It's probably the best confirmation we have of the degree to which the Bush administration was still consciously playing an opposites game with what they considered to be the deleterious "lessons" of Vietnam.
This defensive version of Pentagon news management reached its ultimate point with Gulf War I when reporters were again pooled and largely kept from the "action," leaving Americans at home to view spectacular images of rockets taking off into blue skies, as well as nose-cone shots, edited and released by the Pentagon, of the Destruction of chosen Iraqi targets. But there was, in a sense, a hole at the center of such coverage -- and this still represented a crippling legacy of Vietnam. Where, after all, was the "war,Ã¢â‚¬Â the action? Where were all those thrillingly heroic moments from the on-screen version of victory culture? With reporters again sidelined, the production was strangely inert. The war -- really a slaughter from the air -- was taking place, as planned, largely out of sight. It was as if the Pentagon's men had captured the news frame, but all they were capable of putting in it was the military equivalent of screen-savers.
Victory was declared and massive victory parades organized to prove that this wasn't Vietnam, that this time the soldiers would come home to the mass acclamation they, the Pentagon, and the first Bush Administration so rightly deserved. But when, despite the expectations of the president and his top officials, no group of plotters within the defeated "hitlerian" dictator's military knocked him off, the victory story proved lame indeed. After Gulf War I, as before, Saddam Hussein remained frustratingly in power. Our former ally against Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, the man whose hand Donald Rumsfeld had shaken on December 20, 1983, as a special envoy for president Ronald Reagan, the commander for whom our satellites spotted Iranian troop concentrations to gas with his weapons of mass destruction in the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq War, was clearly going nowhere fast.
Twelve years later, Gulf War II, the "regime change" war, would be organized as a better remake of our first Iraq War. This time, the tyrant would go down for the count and there would be plenty of stories to go around. But how exactly to manage the reporters who would write them? For one thing, between our first and second Gulf Wars, the technology of portable transmission had taken another major leap forward, threatening to make it ever easier for a reporter in a war zone, carrying all the equipment needed for instant independent reporting, to transmit stories as well as images that might displease the Bush administration greatly in something close to real time. (Reporters -- and they had been rare -- who made it into the war zone on their own in the first Gulf War were dismissively called "unilaterals," a term that, a decade later, officials of the younger Bush's Washington would embrace as the essence of american global policy, "unilateralism." )
Former NBC News chief Reuven Frank, recalling the news mood of late 2001, commented: "the war in Afghanistan has seen [televised war coverage] take a giant step forward with what is called the videophone." A device about the size of a laptop computer but far thicker, it was small enough to be carried in a few suitcases (no need for bulky uplink trucks or fixed transmission facilities), could "be assembled or broken down in minutes," and could "plug into an automobile cigarette lighter." Frank suggested that, with such technology, "a new breed of journalist is evolving ... part cowboy, part electronics engineer, part police reporter, part foreign correspondent."
This worried the Pentagon, as did any hint that the media might have access to the sort of information that would make covering war independently more plausible and attractive. one small way the U.S. military attempted to meet such challenges during the Afghan War, according to Frank, was to pay Space Images, Inc., of Thornton, Colorado, which supplies the best commercially available satellite photos of Earth, "$1.9 million a month for exclusive rights to its satellite pictures of Afghanistan and the surrounding region" -- even though similar photos from the military's own satellites had a resolution 10 times higher. Afghan images were then proscribed. As frank put it, "[t]he clear purpose of the deal is to keep all others from access -- meaning, primarily, the news media." This was but part of a program to hobble the ability of reporters to move and report independently and effectively in the battle zone.
From the urge to create a story of American triumph and from the urge to ensure that technology-facilitated reporting would not be done independently came a new approach. Reporters were now to be "embedded" in military units, bonded with the military through prewar "boot camps," and then sent off to relay the war back to us, unit by unit, from those convoys of Bradley fighting vehicles and abrams tanks, which bore such a resemblance to the long lines of pioneer wagons heading west in countless westerns. Born in part of technological necessity, the idea of embedding reporters also reflected how confident the administration was of victory over Saddam Hussein's punchless army -- confident enough to take a chance on a steady flow of images in real time from the once hated, dreaded media.
Movie-making and war-making would now be intertwined. The location of this production would be Iraq. The director would be the Pentagon. The production staff would be situated at that quarter-million-dollar set for war briefings at centcom headquarters in Doha, Qatar, and Americans would see our troops advance in triumph just the way they were supposed to, just the way they had on-screen all those long, glorious years ago.
Though the Bush Administration had some bad moments once the invasion began -- when various Iraqis refused to welcome their liberators and, briefly, when the war threatened to bog down in the south -- in three weeks they had indeed managed to enter Baghdad without serious casualties; Saddam Hussein had vanished; his regime was no more; the Iraqi army had gone home; and all their storytelling dreams seemed to have come true. Perhaps the height of the Pentagon's instant movie-making was the rescue of 19-year-old clerk private Jessica Lynch, whose unit had taken a wrong turn near Nassiriya and been ambushed. Nine of them were killed and she was captured. Eight days later, American special forces troops arrived, armed with night-vision cameras, at the hospital where she was being treated by Iraqi medical personnel, shot film of the rescue, and transmitted it in real time to Centcom headquarters in Doha, where it was edited and released. The result was a real American hero(ine) and a dreamy media frenzy of patriotism back home, complete with a wave of Jessica t-shirts and other paraphernalia and an NBC movie of the week focused on her life and "rescue."
And yet Jessica Lynch's story, like the story of that toppled Saddam statue in Baghdad, like the story of Saddam's vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, was soon in tatters. An unheroic version that lacked all the thrilling details -- Lynch's reputed gun or knife wounds, her alleged mistreatment by her Iraqi captors -- practically galloped onto the scene. By the time that Lynch herself more or less rejected the much-publicized Pentagon version of her story in an as-told-to book, I Am a Soldier, Too, it was too late. The public had lost interest in any version, and the book proved an instant remainder-table item because her story had already evaporated.
This was but one example of the problems involved in creating mythology on the fly, however high-tech your cameras or dramatic your sets. In Gulf War I, the Pentagon ran head-on into a new phenomenon -- 24/7 news, then being used by CNN to grab viewers from the networks. In their initial meeting and even in the early stages of this one, the Pentagon may have looked like the victor, but, as we know, images can be deceptive. By Gulf War II, the problems of keeping control over, and the attention of, an easily distractable 24/7 cable news system were well recognized; but, in the meantime, unexpected new factors had arisen. In the Middle East, the growth of al-Jazeera -- with its own teams of cameramen and reporters on the ground -- suddenly offered a new range of imagery and messages that proved beyond the reach of the Bush Administration and the Pentagon as well as inimical to their style of storytelling. Attempts to intimidate al-Jazeera or change the nature of its reporting, both through high-level U.S. complaints to the ruler of Qatar (who had set up the network and was a staunch U.S. Ally) and by actual attacks on Al-Jazeera facilities, first in Kabul in 2001 and then in Baghdad in 2003, proved unavailing.
Meanwhile, the growth of a thoroughly uncontrollable political internet, working in "36/7" time, and attracting ever more readers, turned out to be a problem of a different kind. Its various oppositional sites and bloggers were generally intent on dismantling the Bush Administration's heroic tales almost as they arose in a way that a largely cowed mainstream media certainly wasn't. For instance, the thrilling and heroic close-up photos of jubilant Iraqis pulling down the statue of the hated dictator Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad -- images that went instantly and triumphantly around the world and into every American Newspaper -- were soon being undermined on the Web. There, you could see the longer shots of the crowd, clearly indicating that it was exceedingly small, and had been organized by, as well as directed by, the American Military.
These counter-photos with appropriate explanations passed in a flash around the political internet and slowly made their way ever closer to the mainstream world. It would be on the political internet that information clearing house would first show images of the flag-draped coffins of the American dead that the administration was so eager to keep out of sight. It was on the political internet that the Downing Street Memos -- those secret documents from the inner sanctum of the British government indicating how intent on an invasion the Bush administration had really been in 2002 -- leaked to and released in the British press but initially ignored by all major newspapers in the United states made it to our "shores." (The Original Downing Street Memo first made it into print in the United states not in a newspaper but in the New York Review of Books, a fact that spoke volumes about the state of the mainstream press.) throughout these years, the political internet was on the spot -- from the Bush administration's prewar lies and WMD fantasies to the heroic tales the Pentagon concocted to cover up the real story of the "friendly fire" death of former NFL football player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. While its scope and readership remained limited and its ability to bring its accounts of reality into the mainstream circumscribed, it was certainly a factor in the steady undermining of the latest version of victory culture.
In our noisy cultural universe, amid what Todd Gitlin has called "the torrent" of the media, sooner or later (usually sooner) just about everything, wars and administrations included, is swept away. Like the national Museum in Baghdad, our world is repeatedly looted -- for topics and images, plots that grab our eyeballs, and stories that rivet us to the screens and sound systems of our lives. As the Bush Administration -- by 2004-5 crying out in the wilderness for the media to produce some "good news" stories about Iraq -- discovered, it's not easy to build something permanent in a looter's paradise where, in Donald Rumsfeld's memorable phrase, "stuff happens" all the time -- or in a situation where those being assigned to do the rebuilding are themselves plunderers. In the cultural free market of the moment, you can't create a lasting mythology out of war. You can hardly make it to the next event.