During the Persian Gulf War television was uniquely positioned to blur the boundaries between war as horror and war as entertainment. We got 24 hour round-the-clock reporting, saturation coverage of saturation bombing. And people watched ... and watched. When Bush addressed the nation shortly after the outbreak of the conflict more than 71.5 million people tuned in, enchanted, probably the largest single audience in TV history (Bianculli 1992:223). It soon became television at its most captivating, dramatic and seductive, clean story-lines, clearly defined heroes and villains, and no one knowing for certain what would happen next. Television allowed the narrative cloth of Operation Desert Storm to unfold. Although there had been a considerable build-up to the Storm, much of it was removed from public view, often consigned to the back pages of papers, brief blurbs in the national news magazines or sandwiched between soundbites on the network news. Brief blurbs continued to be a structural motif of reported coverage, but they were incorporated into the overall story-line, as television introduced us to the main characters and conflict, created a space from which to view the escalation and eventual climax of that conflict, and ultimately provided a sense of closure.

The first portion of this chapter looks at changes experienced within the television industry between war coverage during the Vietnam era in the 1960s (where television production and consumption was still in its relative infancy and the viewing screen was much more likely to be perceived as a window onto reality) and coverage in the Persian Gulf during the 1990s (where television was much more blatantly acknowledged and used as a propaganda tool, a tool that had become increasingly important in shaping the overall discursive field of war). The second section takes a look at how newly forced/formed (though historically precedented) alliances between the press and military--in large measure the result of restrictive reporting regulations enacted and enforced by the Pentagon--influenced the style and content of war's televisual representation.

For those not physically engaged in battle, information about war has always been incredibly mediated. Songs, legends, stories, newspaper reports, photographs, film, and most recently television and computer, have all been used to reproduce the experience of war for those excluded from its actual waging. While the history of technologically mediated war on the battlefront might be considered one of progressive estrangement from death and destruction (see "The Killing Zone" and "Battle Scenes"), the history of technologically mediated war on the homefront should not. New representational technologies provided us with unprecedented potential for seeing war faster and in far greater detail than ever before. But the types of things we saw so quickly and in such detail were not the human traumas most people associated with war, thus its recognition and coding as "unreal." The tension surrounding this misrecognition provides the subject matter for the chapter's final section.


While Vietnam is consistently heralded as the first war of the television age (see "The Killing Zone"), television played a relatively limited role in shaping the totality of its discursive field. It was the Persian Gulf War that was the first war to be defined by its televised coverage (see Time January 28, 1991:69). Operation Desert Shield -> Sword -> Storm was in many ways coordinated specifically for television viewing. It seemed pure synchronicity that the fighting broke out during prime-time viewing hours--6:00 EST--on January 16th, 1991 in the United States (Mellencamp 1992:121-22).

During the Vietnam era television was still a relatively new technology--particularly with regard to its use as a vehicle for displaying war--only recently adopted into the majority of mainstream American homes. A good deal of the American public, industry executives, and media critics watching, producing for, and writing about television in the 1960s perceived TV as a relatively innocent box that when properly wired up provided a window onto the real-life experiences of distant people and places (see Curran et al. 1982:21). While the potential of TV to influence the hearts and minds of the American public became increasingly clear pretty early on in its development, the idea of co-opting television for military propaganda purposes, and using it as a strategic site from which to wage the war itself, never really came to pass--at least nowhere near to the degree that it did in the Persian Gulf.

There are many reasons why television underwent this dramatic metamorphosis. Between the 1960s and the 1980s television technology and television viewers had become far more sophisticated, partly because of the way television had so quickly become omnipresent in people's lives. The political, economic and social significance of TV was escalating--political campaigns had much greater chances for success if politicians were televisually savvy, pivotal events were being broadcast to fascinated publics, hearings were being held in the halls of congress in order to assess the impact of television on the American psyche, increasing numbers of academics were writing about its cultural consequences, and advertisers were seeing tremendous financial rewards from effective advertising, spawning one of the largest, fastest growing and most lucrative industries in corporate history (Curran et al. 1982).

For a growing number of the world's people television had become the primary source of information and knowledge about the world, and network news was often the anointed bearer. But there have been a lot of stylistic changes in the twenty-some odd years since the somber transmission of televised news characteristic of the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. In 1991, to retain a captive share of the audience, network news had to compete with a whole slew of "Trash-TV" shows like Current Affair, Hard Copy, I Witness Video, Cops, and Rescue 911 that were capitalizing on the network news format in order to persuade a mass public that what they were seeing was not only interesting and important, but entertaining and enjoyable too.

Network news was now in stiff competition with these "infotainment" spinoffs, while, at the same time, cable television made significant headway in establishing itself as a major player in the broadcast television industry. Thirteen channels had turned into well over a hundred. No longer were the big three--ABC, CBS, and NBC--just competing with one another, but they were competing with a rapidly expanding group of cable start-ups like FOX, MTV, C-SPAN, and, most importantly, CNN, a cable station whose sole purpose was to replay the most current news continually, 24 hours a day. During the Gulf War CNN was broadcasting to over 100 different countries, more than any other single televised news station. Because CNN had committed itself to broadcasting nothing but news, all day and night, and because it was able to transmit live-action coverage of the latest breaking reports via satellite, it was CNN that dealt the most severe blow to the market-share of the other major networks. According to Nielsen ratings service, CNN's ratings from 25 major cities jumped 27.1 percent the night prior to the outbreak of war, while during prime-time hours CNN had a 19.1 rating among household with cable TV, compared to NBC which had a 15.1 share, and CBS, whose share stabilized at 11.3 (Kellner 1992:141, n. 4). In an equally interesting turn of events, due to the pooling system, CNN was able to successfully broadcast CBS, NBC, and ABC reportage, reportage that sometimes didn't even make it to the network for which it was originally produced (Fialka 1991:36-37).

Although CNN had been around for quite some time prior to the outbreak of war in the Gulf it was the Gulf War that thrust CNN to international prominence. No other news outlet was granted access to the battlefront like CNN was, and no other agency received the same level of acceptance if not outright endorsement from practically all sides of the struggle. There simply is no comparable analogy to be made for coverage during the Vietnam era. Satellite television and 24 hour news networks were non-existent. During Vietnam it was virtually impossible for a single TV news station to have the range and power of vision enjoyed by CNN during Desert Storm. And it wasn't just that a reported one billion people spread out over 108 different countries (Scarry 1993:63) were tuned into the televisual reality CNN transmitted. In an even more interesting turn of events, the officials and officers in charge of orchestrating the war, Bush and Hussein included, were also tuning in because CNN's coverage provided information about the war that extended further, transmitted faster, and was more up-to-date than almost any other information-gathering source. Never before had television coverage of war had such a self-reflexive and recursive relationship to its strategizing and waging (Friedland and Boden 1994:19). This power to go beyond television's intended and expected role of representing reality to the unintended and unexpected role of shaping and defining reality made a lot of people pretty edgy. It was this realization and recognition of television's newfound power that the Pentagon wanted so desperately to control.


Of course CNN hardly provided an independent voice. Like practically every other major and minor news outlet, CNN's coverage of the war was tightly controlled by the long arm of the Pentagon, and in many ways, as mentioned elsewhere (see "Controlling the Press"), symbolized the symbiotic relationship that had developed between journalists and military officials. For many critics of the media, this linkage between the military and the press was one of the most troubling aspects of the wartime coverage:

Each network had resident ex-generals as expert commentators serving a function comparable to scientists during space launches, or older and wiser journalists during the now-infrequent TV news editorials... Our war instructors wore combat fatigues and were pedagogically armed with maps, pointers, and TV. Like film instructors, they stood beside TV monitors closely analyzing the sortie footage of bombings, pointing out details yet refusing specificity... (Mellencamp 1992:124).

That specificity would be refused is of little surprise given that most of the military spokespeople hired to explicate the unfolding of the Gulf campaign were, to a very large degree, wearing the same set of blinders the rest of the population had on. So what we got instead of news of human bodies from the front was news of the military technologies used to wage the war, and of that we got quite a lot. It was this alliance between the press and the military and its influence over the content and character of the televised war coverage that helped give rise to the media's and academics' framing of this war as a "prime-time videowargame."

Baudrillard's (1988:166) famous passage about the map preceding the territory had seemingly come to pass in the most graphic of senses. The televisual mediation of war was epitomized not by a window onto its "reality," but by a window onto the imaginary battle scenarios being electronically displayed and explicated via charts, graphs and computer generated maps. Even before the official outbreak of war in mid-January of the new year, these televisual windows occupied a prominent position and provided compelling visual evidence of the type of war we could expect:

Aerial (pilots') views and military cartography took over, replicating the battle plan ... The Middle East, whose disasters ... had rarely been covered, grew more prominent on our map of the world. In a fall 1990 special program, after the invasion of Kuwait, Peter Jennings walked on an extraordinary ABC map of the Middle East. On this map, the theater of war, the perspectives were multiple, his points illustrated by his movements over the cartography which filled the TV monitor (Mellencamp 1992:126).

Peter Jennings' grandiose projection was a giant first step in the direction of control and containment via videographic representation. Maps soon began to play an even more important though far less visible role in the popular and technological imag(in)ing of war. As discussed (see "Battle Scenes"), thanks to sophisticated satellite imaging techniques virtually every square inch of Iraqi territory had been photographed and digitally stored in computer databases lodged in the nosecones of missiles providing electronic vision of the entire battlezone (a vision that got fuzzy fast, since every time a new round of bombs were blasted, the terrain that had been previously mapped was radically altered, making the digital replication obsolete). Thanks to these mappings, the dominant motifs of the Persian Gulf War--cross-hair footage of (noticeably absent) death and (obviously gratifying) destruction--could emerge to enjoy their continual re-play within the televisual field. As one author commented: "The advance of American technology allowed us to sit in our living rooms and watch missiles homing onto their Baghdad targets, relayed via nosecone cameras that had the good taste to cease transmitting just as they obliterated their quarry, thus vetting a cool, bloodless war through a cool medium. Here was a kind of video press release ... a bomb that was simultaneously image, warfare, news, spectacle, and advertisement for the Pentagon" (Cumings 1992:122). The fact that less than ten percent of the total bombs were of the "smart" type--most of the destruction was being done the old-fashioned way with "dumb" bombs dropped from B-52s--and that of that small percentage, fewer still actually hit their targets, was apparently of little concern. For many media critics, this was because: "As a cool medium TV has ... introduced a kind of rigor mortis into the body politic" (McLuhan 1964:270).

War was no longer simply being mass mediated through the television, the news press, and the theater, it was being mediated through the nosecones of missiles, remotely-piloted vehicles, and computerized command control centers. The antiseptic imagery resulting from this type of technological mediation was a far cry from the battle images generated during Vietnam--CBS correspondent Morley Safer's Zippo lighter report showing U.S. soldiers torching an entire community, the assassination of a Viet-Cong guerrilla, or the little girl running naked down the road after being bathed in napalm (Newsweek March 11, 1991:50). The 1990's aesthetic evoked a sense of pleasure and excitement uniquely geared toward an audience, on the homefront as well as the battlefront, whose viewing habits had been honed by the Hollywood special effects industry, videogame parlors and Nintendo home entertainment systems. But it should not be assumed, as it was by many, that the televisual representation of the Vietnam War was any more "real" in an ontological or experiential sense than the Gulf War simply because it was positioned more within a viewing field that struggled to evoke an affective experience of war as pain, death and destruction. Television in Vietnam simply captured an image of war that spoke more convincingly to an audience conditioned (and still wanting) to believe that pain and suffering is the real story of war.

Even with all of our newfound abilities to see war, it is a rather ironic twist that critics frustrated with their severely truncated field of vision had such parochial points of reference when it came to conceptualizing what constituted legitimate views of war. The disappearance of one reality of war, familiar to so many, was accompanied by the reappearance of many unfamiliar others, others we simply could not imag(in)e very well. Just as granting sight to one who has been sightless from birth can be an utterly overwhelming and disorienting experience (often causing the newly sighted to long for nothing more than a retreat back into the more stable, secure, and darkened world of their past), so was the experience of this war for many critics attempting to theorize its meaning. The resistive stories that got constructed around it were shaped by an epistemological desire reflective of, what Stephen Pfohl described in another context as, a "patriarchal nostalgia for the authority of 'our' modernist past" (Pfohl 1992:192), an authority that had lost a good deal of its purchasing power. There were plenty of realities to be seen in this war, we just needed to be better trained to see them.


According to many media scholars, if you were expecting--as most television producers and consumers were--to gain direct access to some "real" picture of the catastrophic action on the front, screening war through the medium of television was a losing proposition from the start. The explanation most frequently given for this is that television, for reasons having to do with the viewing apparatus and the production, dissemination and consumption of televised information, is incapable of representing the catastrophe it purportedly provides direct access to. Thus, Baudrillard argues, TV functions as a medium without message; news has the profound function of deception and stupidity, people swallow it fascinated, appeased by evidence of montage that has inoculated us through eyes, senses, discourses (1991c). Interestingly this is not believed to be the case for cinematic representations of war. It is not, necessarily, that battles portrayed on film give one a more objectively real experience of war, but that the affective engagement of the viewer operates at a much deeper level, allowing for heightened identification with the words and images portrayed.

Film theorists tend to offer the most sophisticated explanation as to why the televisual engagement of the viewer is perceived to be fundamentally different from cinematic engagement. Much of this explanation has to do with the way each medium engages its viewers and displays its constitutive elements. Whereas films are most often viewed uninterrupted on large screens in the enclosed space of a darkened theater, the television is most often viewed in the home on relatively small screens and in open, well-lit spaces that are both familiar and tamed (Flitterman-Lewis 1992:217). This implies that the sight/site of reception has a dramatic influence on the viewer's ability to be sutured into the scene on the screen (see "The Killing Zone" and "navigating THE cyberspaces of VIRtuAL WAR" for additional discussion of the phenomenological difference between the photographic, cinematic, and electronic).

From this perspective the projection of death in a darkened theater is simply experientially different than the projection of death in a living-room: "Cinema depends on the sustained and concentrated gaze of the spectator and the continuous, uninterrupted unfolding of its stories on the screen. Television, on the other hand, merely requires the glance of the viewer" (Flitterman-Lewis 1992:217). It is for this reason that the televisual space can presumably never be inhabited by the subject in the same way that cinematic space can, where more elaborate narrative constructions are allowed to unfold. Whereas gazing implies conscious intent and involvement, glances are far more transitory, and indeed, often emotionally distanced, disinterested and distracted. Thus we are absorbed by the film but we absorb the television (Flitterman-Lewis 1992:218).

Clearly this position is debatable. Undoubtedly, many have been in darkened theaters with movies playing and their minds wandering, and just as many have been in well-lit rooms in familiar spaces, completely absorbed by the television. In fact, McLuhan argues that television evokes an extensionality of all sensorial experience at once, and thus requires "participation and involvement in depth of the whole being. It will not work as a background. It engages you" (1967:125). The problem, according to McLuhan, is that little if anything follows from this engagement. And in terms of instant access to late-breaking information, satellite-linked television can provide the viewer with a sense of temporal immediacy that film cannot: "A film is always distanced from us in time ... whereas television ... offers a quality of presentness, of 'here and now' as distinct from the cinema's 'there and then'" (Flitterman-Lewis 1992:218). Nevertheless there probably is some merit to the assertion that war's televisual representation, as a general rule, has less visual and emotional impact than its cinematic representation, as theorists like Flitterman-Lewis and Sobchack claim. Although I think it can be safely argued that the advent of VCRs, real-time reporting, HDTV, and home theater systems has further complicated this distinction.

Nowhere was the potential for television to supply us with a sense of "being-there" more eagerly awaited by broadcast media than during the buildup to the Storm. The journalistic hope was that the instant-access afforded by television and satellite technologies would provide relatively unmediated entree to the front. Clearly it did not. An even bigger problem than television's failed potential to transmit live-action coverage from the battlefield was the belief, advanced by some academics, that television, due to its very nature as a medium, necessitated the experience of war as entertainment. To make matters worse, from this point of view, the organizational structure of television does the opposite of inform, instead it provides viewers with disinformation, "misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information that creates the illusion of knowing but which in fact leads one away from knowing" (Postman 1985:107).

There were some interesting findings from the Gulf that provide supporting evidence for this position. In a study done at the University of Massachusetts, Sut Jhally and his colleagues discovered that the more TV news people watched during the Gulf War the less they new about the underlying issues surrounding the war, and the more likely they were to support it (no telling how moviegoers or newspaper readers rated however). For example: only 13% knew that the U.S. had stated it would take no action if Hussein decided to use force against Kuwait; 65% wrongly believed the U.S. had vowed to provide military support to Kuwait; less than 33% were aware that Israel occupied land in the Middle East; only 3% were aware of Syria's occupation of Lebanon; and only 2% knew the history of the strain put on the Iraqi economy by Kuwait's lowering of oil prices. Not surprisingly, given the type of coverage we got, over 80% knew the name of the missile used to shoot down the Iraqi SCUDs: the Patriot. (Jhally et al. 1991).

Another piece to the puzzle about why television was seen to fail so miserably in its ability to provide a realistic image of war (apart from the processes of censorship described in "Controlling the Press") has to do with the format and reception of information congenial to the televisual narrative. John Fiske asserts that television realism is "constantly fractured both by the segmentation of the television text and by its mode of reception" (1987:226). The existence of television is predicated upon the economic support of advertising sponsors whose market-share is created through, and dependent upon, effective display and sales of products, delivered to consumers in the comfort of the home. The flow of television news is constantly ruptured by corporate commercial concerns, presumably making it impossible to engage in any deep sense with the subject matter on the screen.

This perception of the dangerous and deceptive yet playful dispersion and fragmentation of information inherent to television is what lurks behind the following statement by Postman: "it's not that television is entertaining but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience" (1985:87). Thus, "[e]ntertainment is the supraideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure" (1985:87). And he is not alone in this belief:

While a war is among the biggest things that can ever happen to a nation or people, devastating families, blasting away the roofs and walls, we see it compressed and miniaturized on a sturdy little piece of furniture, which stands and shines at the very center of our household... Even in extreme close-up, the medium maintains a subtle distance between viewer and victim... As a means of conveying the realities of war, TV is all but useless, precisely because of that very quality which, some think, makes TV the perfect instrument for just such communication: its uninflected vision" (Crispin-Miller 1988:157-58).

The ultimate horror of televised warfare, from the perspective of most media scholars thinking, speaking and writing about Operation Desert Storm was precisely this uninflected vision:

What was the Event of the Gulf War? It cannot have been the war. It was not the photo or the film. It was television itself, but then we can only intuit its production processes, particularly in regard to a Pentavision shrouded in secrecy. All that is left, therefore, is "the reception of it," the passive, easy-chair apprehension of an "Event" so many times removed as to be incomprehensible. This event then passes quickly as memory, because there is no recess in the brain to locate it as "what I saw in the war," or as "what I thought about it," but only as "identity," as "facsimile," as simulacrum ... (Cumings 1992:127).

Thus, from these author's perspectives, no matter what images were ultimately broadcast--smart-bomb or napalm--using television to tell it "the way it was" was doomed to failure from the start. Though television producers and consumers might assert otherwise, we never really knew the war for the simple reason that either the "real" war was kept hidden from our view, or even if it weren't we wouldn't "really" be able to see it anyway. But is it TV that makes war less real, as is argued in different ways by the various people cited, or what's seen to get channeled through it? And how does one reconcile the different receptions of Vietnam, where television was presumed to have a tremendously powerful emotional impact, and the Gulf War, where the emotional impact, or at least the "proper" emotional impact, was presumed to be missing altogether? Surely the content and the context goes a long way to explain this difference, particularly when, as was the case during the Gulf War, the contents and contexts were determined militarily and politically.

The big problem here has to do with the implicit and explicit relationships being made between seeing and experiencing. Social theorist Anthony Giddens, in an essay tracing out the contours of what he calls "high-modernity," makes the compelling point that electronic media are as much an expression of the disembedding (and disembodying) characteristics of a late-modern (or what others call postmodern) period as they are the instruments of such tendencies; therefore, as he puts it: "the media do not mirror realities but in some part form them" (1991:26-27). If technology is thought of as prosthesis, then television becomes an extension of the eye: not remaining separate from, but integrally attached to, the sensorial self. Take the television camera for example: "The television camera is never a mere observer of something going on independently of it. Rather, it is an integral and essential part of the military action itself. The television camera is part of the system of guidance and evaluation through which missiles are directed at targets, hits or misses confirmed, and finally, future strikes determined... the television camera and its technology is anything but a mere voyeur in the enormous destructive activity taking place" (Weber 1991). More than that, as the camera is indistinguishable from the scene of the activity it records, becoming part and parcel of it, so to is the human body and psyche as it is extended through technological device.

All technology, including language, is weapon-like in the sense that it is a means of processing experience, storing, retrieving, and disseminating information, television included (McLuhan 1964:299). What televised war did, with its beginning in Vietnam, was dissolve the dichotomy between civilian and military, making the public an active armchair participant, with many of the main battle actions being fought in the American home itself (McLuhan 1968:134); the war in the Gulf was merely an extreme extension of this process. Baudrillard (1991a) was right to assert that "television and the news have become the ground [of war] itself," but wrong to conclude that this transformation meant that we could no longer retain "the privilege of real war"; we just need to learn how to rethink the reality of the war we have retained.