From Realism to Virtual Reality: Images of America’s Wars - WhoWhatWhy
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A highly engrossing essay on the images of war, what they do to us, and what the military does about that.

Excerpt:

"The almost complete absence of photographic images was quite convenient for the invasions of Grenada and Panama, which were carried out so swiftly and with such minimal military risk that the government did not bother to seek prior congressional or public approval. And for the first several days after US troops had been dispatched to confront Iraq in August 1990, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney refused to allow journalists to accompany them.

The Pentagon seemed to be operating under the belief that photographic and televised images had helped bring about the US defeat in Vietnam. But for the Gulf War, with its long build up until Washington launched its assault in January, its potential for significant casualties, and its intended international and domestic political purposes, some effective images had to be engineered.

To control these images, the US government set up pools of selected reporters and photographers, confined them to certain locations, required them to have military escorts when gathering news, established stringent guidelines limiting what could be reported or photographed, and subjected all written copy, photographs, and videotape to strict censorship.

Most of those admitted to the pools represented the same newspapers and TV networks that were simultaneously mounting a major campaign to build support for the war. Journalists were forced to depend on military briefings, where they were often fed deliberately falsified information. Immediately after the ground offensive began, all press briefings and pool reports were indefinitely suspended.

In a most revealing negation of the achievement of Civil War photography, with its shocking disclosure of the reality of death, the Pentagon banned the press entirely from Dover Air Force Base during the arrival of the bodies of those killed in the war. Responding to an ACLU legal argument that it was attempting to shield the public from disturbing images, the Pentagon replied that it was merely protecting the privacy of grieving relatives.

Although the media were largely denied access to the battlefields, the Gulf War nevertheless gained the reputation of the first ‘‘real-time’’ television war, and the images projected into American homes helped to incite the most passionate war fever since World War II. These screened images ranged from the most traditional to the most innovative modes of picturing America’s wars.

Even the antiquated icon of the heroic commanding general, missing from public consciousness for about forty years, was given new life. Though hardly as striking a figure as the commander in Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware or the posed picture of General Douglas MacArthur returning to the Philippines during World War II, a public idol took shape in the corpulent form of General Norman Schwarzkopf in his fatigues, boots, and jaunty cap.

The preeminent public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, working closely with the governments of Kuwait and the United States, staged a brilliant propaganda campaign including thirty video releases distributed free to television stations. Its most audacious and successful concoction was an elaborate but entirely phony scenario of Iraqi soldiers dumping Kuwaiti babies out of hospital incubators, a story first told to the Congressional Human Rights hearings (which Hill and Knowlton helped to organize) by an unidentified ‘‘eyewitness’’ (actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States).

But the most potent images combined techniques pioneered by Billy Mitchell with General Peckem’s quest for aerial photos of perfect bomb patterns, the medium of television, and the technological capabilities of the weapons themselves. After all, since one of the main goals of the war-makers was to create the impression of a ‘‘clean’’ techno war — a war almost devoid of human suffering and death, conducted with surgical precision by wondrous mechanisms — why not project the war from the point of view of the weapons?

And so the most thrilling images were transmitted directly by the laser guidance systems of missiles and by those brilliant creations, ‘‘smart’’ bombs. Fascinated, tens of millions of excited Americans stared at their screens, sharing the experience of these missiles and bombs unerringly guided by the wonders of American technology to a target identified by a narrator as an important military installation. A generation raised in video arcades and on Nintendo could hardly be more satisfied.

The target got closer and closer, larger and larger. And then everything ended with the explosion. There were no bloated human bodies, as in the photographs of the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg. There was none of the agony of the burned and wounded glimpsed on television relays from Vietnam. There was just nothing at all. In this magnificent triumph of technowar, America’s images of its wars had seemingly reached perfection."

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