22 September 2012

Triumph of the Image in the Persian Gulf Oil War

While the 2003 American invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq, initiated by then president George W. Bush, raised a global protest movement against the growing imperial aspirations of the USA, to many observers the previous 1990-91 Persian Gulf Oil War, waged by George Bush Sr., inaugurated the so-called ‘New World Order,’ in which the US with its interests and allies would attempt to reign supreme and remain unchallenged. One of the key features of implementing such imperial aspirations was control of media and information sources, and in this way it would 'not be another Vietnam,' as Bush the Father was often quoted to say. As such, the 1990-91 Iraq war remains an important turning point for how tight control of information sources can be pressed into service to create the illusion of multilateral support for a supposedly ‘clean’ unilateral action.

The 1990-91 American war against Iraq was famous for the sound bites offered by George Bush Sr. When he proclaimed that the war would 'not be another Vietnam,' he seemed to be saying that there would be no images permitted that might sway public opinion against the war; no nightly lists of dead US soldiers; no images of pain, suffering and death; no public acknowledgment of civilian casualties; no media coverage of domestic opposition to the war. When he said that the US would never again ‘fight with one arm tied behind its back,’ Bush had to be implying that the US military machine would have total freedom to engage in wanton destruction without being accountable to anyone (with millions of people killed by the US in Southeast Asia, it is hard to imagine what would have happened if the US fought with 'both arms'). Another difference with Vietnam was the highly touted technical advances in warfare, many tested for the first time against hapless Iraqis. Remove the human dimension from war and one is left with the video game-like televised images of ‘smart bombs,’ ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘collateral damage’ witnessed in media coverage of the 1990-91 war upon Iraq.

Published a year after the war, Triumph of the Image: The Media's War in the Persian Gulf assembles a collection of essays and press excerpts from journalists and scholars who collectively consider the role of the media in the 1990-91 American war against Iraq. The book consists of three parts, the first on background to the war from a media perspective, the second part on analysis of news reports from various regions during the war, and the third part includes several interpretive essays. In an introductory essay in Part One, ‘Roots of War: The Long Road of Intervention,’ co-editor of the volume and then president of the International Association of Media Research Hamid Mowlana provides a useful background essay in which he discusses European control of communications in the Persian Gulf as a necessary part of maintaining global empires during the 19th century, the subsequent American inheritance of those media networks, and the role of the media as ‘a supporter of the status quo.’ Mowlana concludes by noting that the 1990-91 war was a ‘cultural testing ground between the West and the Islamic East,’ but that an ‘accounting of the cultural impact’ of the war remains to be written. Another highlight of Part One is Noam Chomsky’s essay ‘Media and the War: What War?’ in which he notes that by all reasonable definitions, the US-led murderous assault upon Iraq barely qualifies as a ‘war,’ but that ‘when the guns are firing, even if only in one direction, the media close ranks and become a cheering section for the home team.’ In his usual sharp-edged critical style, Chomsky emphasized that the decision to go to war was made in an entirely anti-democratic fashion, and that ‘the president offered no reason for going to war – no reason, that is, that could not be demolished in a moment by a literate teenager.’ Other essays in Part One by media studies luminaries Andre Gunder Frank and Herbert I. Schiller provide further necessary background for understanding the role of media in times of warfare.

Part Two features a collection of short essays and news reports from various sources around the world. Writers from Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Malaysia represent the Muslim world. Taken collectively, these essays provide a useful summary of international efforts to cope with and struggle against US domination of information sources. Hamid Mowlana notes that the Islamic Republic of Iran maintained a neutral stance in the conflict, that ‘Iranian editorialists viewed many of the Persian Gulf crisis events within the Islamic and historical context,’ and that the Iranian media quickly dubbed the conflict as an ‘Oil War.’ Other Muslim reporting tended to side with Saddam Hussein, either as the defender of Arabism and Third World nationalism, or as the lesser of two evils. The book also includes a variety of European and other perspectives on media and the war. Farrel Corcoran, of Dublin City University, notes how difficult it was for Ireland to maintain its stated neutral position in the war. While the Irish press was able to maintain an independent and neutral status, the Irish government had to give in to United Nations demands for using Irish air bases as refueling stations for long distance bombing runs. Corcoran also makes the useful point that the ‘new world order’ is about western domination, and he outlines the reasoning behind this: US military superiority equals modernity, and modernity in turn equals moral superiority. This is echoed later in an essay by Asu Aksoy and Kevin Robins, who state that the primary message of the conflict was ‘might is right.’

Several essays in Part Two emphasize the difficulty in getting accurate news stories due to the near total control of information from the region by the US military censors. Stig Nohrstedt recalls how Swedish correspondents in the war zone often noticed the complacency of American journalists toward the US government position. He also notes how participants in the pool system often censored one another, and that independent reporters were intimidated by US soldiers. Noting an interesting alternative to the flood of official US news, Finnish professor of journalism Heikki Loustarinen comments on how Finnish television stations used official US war video, but that they did not adopt the official US interpretation, and at times even publicly ridiculed the official interpretation. Japanese media activist Tetsuo Kogawa concludes that a major purpose of the war was to keep the world dependent on oil in order to undermine development of alternative energy sources. Turkish journalist Haluk Sahin reveals that the Turkish media censored CNN reports of US planes taking off from Incirlik airbase in Turkey. Rune Ottesen of Oslo reveals how news stories about US pilots watching porno movies before embarking on bombing missions were censored by the military, but that racist epithets referring to Iraqis as ‘cockroaches’ were allowed as 'official news.' Overall, this section of the book provides a valuable survey of global perspectives on the 1990-91 American war against Iraq.

The authors contributing to Part Three try to look at future implications of the war and its media coverage. International law expert Richard Falk contributes an essay on how the UN charter was twisted to suit US goals, and asks whether or not the UN can be salvaged at all after such a dismal performance. In a chapter entitled ‘More Viewing, Less Knowledge,’ media studies scholar Sut Jhally and colleagues at the Media Education Foundation present the results of a survey they conducted with consumers of American news reporting during the crisis. They conclude that, among other things: the more Americans consumed news, the less they knew about the war and related events; the American public is ‘alarmingly’ ill-informed; Americans had little or no basis for understanding the connection between the war against Iraq and the occupation of Palestine; public understanding of the facts that led up to the 1990-91 war amount to ‘a remarkable rewriting of history’; and that American consumers of news are being selectively but systematically misinformed. Additional chapters in this section explore the cultural dimensions and implications of the war and the associated media imagery.

Beyond informing readers of the role of media in the 1990-91 American war against Iraq, Triumph of the Image points to the necessity of finding alternatives to the domination of global news reporting by such agencies as CNN and BBC. While several alternatives have been developed in the wake of the 1990-91 war, such as Arab media outlets like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya, it remains important to remember that virtually everything shown on American and to some extent British based global media sources remains tightly controlled and serves very narrow interests, and that these outlets are also dominated by advertising as their primary source of revenue, which applies particularly to CNN. This  raises an additional point worth further reflection. While it is important for Third World peoples to keep informed on what is happening around the world and to develop their own sources of information, the danger exists that regional media outlets will follow the lead of the major Western media outlets, both in form and content. In fact, some readers of Triumph of the Image might be tempted to conclude that the only option is to avoid the major media outlets altogether. This may prove difficult, however, as these outlets are pervasive. Perhaps a better strategy, supported by many of the writers in Triumph of the Image, is to watch actively and selectively and to supplement consuming media images with reading, research and discussion. Toward that end, the book remains a valuable critical resource.

[This is a slightly edited version of an essay originally published in Books for Critical Consciousness: Forty Reviews by J. Progler (Penang, Malaysia: Citizens International, 2010.]

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