Volume 5 Number 1-4
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Operation Desert Storm and its Media Appropriation, Part I
Frédéric Pallez, English Department, Louisiana State University. Translated by Rebecca Tabeau
The Gulf War is over. Television news broadcasts have abandoned the topic because it is no longer a current event, but the reconstruction of the war's events, or in other words, its history, has begun. Critical texts about the war are now being written and, among the many subjects taken up in this context, the role of the media will be without doubt the most widely discussed.
Live television broadcasts provided the viewer with minute to minute coverage of the developments of the conflict. This immediacy, replete with sounds and pictures, created the impression that such immediacy facilitates comprehension, but television broadcasts, as well as newspaper articles, rendered the information they sought to clarify confusing. Such confusion seems paradoxical in light of the vast resources available to the news agencies.
The technological power and journalistic expertise deployed to cover the conflict had the effect of distancing the war, as a concept, from its concrete military realization, permitting only traces of the action to come through. A conflict so represented is ultimately unrepresentable if all the diverse means of observation are simultaneously employed. Because of censorship coupled with real technical and logistical difficulties, journalists were unable to get close to the war. While describing combat they relied most heavily on metaphoric constructions borrowed from military jargon, particularly those linked to sophisticated weapons systems.
Once the war is over, the critic must go back and reconstruct the "history" of the war, utilizing, as data, the only observational foundation available to him: journalistic texts, military communiques and accumulated television video images. The object of the critic's study will be not only the means of representation and their approach to accomplishing a representation of the conflict, but also the conflict itself, unapproachable except through the media. Furthermore, the means utilized by journalists to represent the war are immediately parallel to those utilized by the military to conduct the war. The high-tech pilot, like the high-tech journalist, uses the video image and since this image is for them identical, and the commentator explains the image actually seen by the pilot during combat, this puts them in a symbiotic relationship vis à vis the image.
In contrast to the journalist's task, the critic's is undertaken after the fact. It is not subject to the immediate unfolding of the event. The critic's work thus needs a greater spatiotemporal distance from which to approach a general understanding of the event. Consequently, journalistic and critical representations oppose each other insofar as temporal urgency is concerned. The literary, as historical text, is not subject to the same temporal pressures as the journalist "text." A condition of the critical text is temporal distance relative to the event.
Between these two opposing visions of representation, the journalistic and the critical, my text aims for the middle ground. It incorporates both the immediacy of the first and the reflexive distance of the second. This is because it was first written then presented at a conference before the war was over. This oral "authentication" of my text had, as a goal, to put itself into opposition with its written counterpart: the critical text normally published long after the event it analyzed has past.
The two titles of this text represent the two differing versions of the event: the current title (written, critical, published) refers directly to the event: Operation Desert Storm and its Media Appropriation. The former title (read, oral, immediate) presented in February 1991 did not incorporate the event directly: The Deception of Immediacy. There was no need at that time, to refer directly to the event (the war) since the war was the only referent relative to discussions of the media.
This text under both titles still retains the illusion of immediacy since its referents were everywhere present at the time of the conference and it incorporates the uncertainties of that moment with regard to the outcome of the war: a news text in many ways!
The Deception of Immediacy 1
Current events in the Persian Gulf have led to the resurgence of the "war-machine," following the expression of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. 2 This resurgence of the study of conflicts is what allows me to appropriate a right to discourse on the war in the space of this text.
This appropriation takes place in the more general movement of re-militarization, which is only fully accepted during wartime; and since conflict, which is eccentric with regard to civil society, unfolds deploying all available forms of representation, this state of affairs reveals the multiplicity of all possible discourses.
In forcing my discourse to cohabit two ambivalent forms of speech, which are on the one hand the immediate present and on the other the immediate past (the reflexive distance characteristic of the critical text), I risk involving myself directly in day to day reporting and thereby imposing onto as yet unorganized and unverified information, a prophetic or apocalyptic tone consistent with Kant's use of the term: by "an apocalyptic tone," I mean one in which resides a willingness to represent future possibilities in such a way as to valorize the discursive form which engenders them. This doctrinaire tone serves to incite criticism. Such a tone will also highlight the hierarchy existing between war as reality and war as representation so as to simplify this dichotomy between the represented (war as reality) and representing (war as representation).
But what gives this text its validity is its grounding in immediacy. In speaking of the war now, that is to say, at a moment prior to both the publication of this text and the resolution of the war, I do not yet know what the linearity of history will be. This discrepancy between the presentation and publication of my text removes any dogmatic aspect from my discourse because of the temporal displacement soon to be imposed on it by the chronology of the war, otherwise referred to as history. My discourse loses its value at the moment it is read; it is dated while my corpus, the war as represented by the media, is not. My corpus, because it follows the movement of the war, is in perpetual motion while my discourse stops at the moment it is read. My narration is thus fundamentally proleptic, prolepsis being a rhetorical strategy by which one anticipates refutation according to the terminology of the literary critic Gérard Genette. 3
Even if the doctrinaire tone remains in my text, it loses its didactic power because it refers to future possibilities rather than currently established realities. My text imposes, however, a necessary distanciation with regard to current events. These same current events in which we are so engrossed, will ultimately be seen in an ordered chronological series. History is the study of the past; it is therefore possible to say after the fact: "This text is dated, it represents a particular vision of the war at a particular moment of the war."
My study is neither historical/critical nor one concerned uniquely with current events. It is a utilization of the event. It is a "report" on the media during the war and at the same time a critical study of the media's utilization of the event. My task is thus comparable to the media-process that one can observe at this moment as a representation which is evolving daily.
In starting this text by quoting the chapter title of Paul Virilio's Logistique de la perception, I am centering my work around what seems to be a "given" that Paul Virilio announces clearly at the beginning of his text: "There is no war without representation." 4
He adds that war is above all a question of recognizing the enemy which is consistent with the military use of the term "reconnaissance" defined as a method by which the disposition of the enemy is revealed. Reconnaissance is an operation which seems passive, where one wants only to sight the enemy, but which is also implicitly active because one must displace oneself to go search for the enemy, so as to determine where they are located. Also, reconnaissance is often a prelude to action, in that once the disposition of the enemy is determined the opposing force places itself in a position to intercept and engage the enemy.
The perceptual economy operative in military reconnaissance is comparable to the economy of vision operative in the media. The weapon, a war tool, like the camera, a media tool, are both equipped with a view-finder, often tellingly referred to as the peep-hole, and serves to enhance and sharpen sight. Infrared equipped goggles for night vision, cameras attached to reconnaissance planes and the aiming periscopes of antitank vehicles are all perceptual aids that facilitate the accurate firing of weapons, but can all be reserved for simple observation as are binoculars. These devices of amplified perception used by military personnel are radically different, however, from the more sophisticated electronic and computerized firing systems, which also calculate firing trajectories, in that they are interior to the armament and not designed to be used for directly amplifying human perception.
To locate, frame and aim are all actions familiar and essential both to television journalism and to military conduct in war and both domains rely heavily on high-technology to heighten their perceptual capabilities. New armaments called "smart bombs" were used for the first time in combat by the U.S. Army and Air Force. They are "smart" because they are themselves equipped with cameras and permit the crew of the aircraft to continue directing the bomb to its target after the launching of the bomb. Consequently, bombs so equipped are said to enjoy near perfect results every time:
The fusion is perfect, the confusion perfect, no longer distinguishing the function of the arm from that of the eye, the image of the projectile and the projectile of the image form a pair: detection, acquisition, search and destroy, the projectile is an image, a "signature" on the screen, and the televised image a hypersonic projectile which multiplies at the speed of light. 5
The perceived image permits one to know the results of the launch. Video is not only indispensable to the remote control of the bomb, but is also the iconographic proof of the accomplishment and success of the mission. The image gathers and relays information which is in turn valuable to the intelligence services who determine the results of the bombardment from these images. Such information is crucial to a media system that is as efficient as what we have at our disposal at the present time. Such information is frantically sought by journalists in order to fill numerous "live" TV hours during which commentators must constantly provide fresh images and fresh information or risk losing their audience.
The present war, covered by the continuous instantaneous diffusion of video images, obliges the viewer to remain glued to his television set so as not to miss any developments. The information is as rapid and concise as a missile launching, and is in many ways as ephemeral: it is forgotten a few minutes after being received. In the words of a CBS News anchor, the viewer must remain in a state of constant hypervigilance.
The simultaneity of action and its representation, or media lock, to remain consistent with my parallel, makes television an efficient source of military intelligence. This is the strongest argument for aggressive censorship still being challenged by journalists. But if the means of representation utilized by the journalistic and military communities are comparable and often identical, the ultimate use of the information differs. Perceptual military interpretation is a technique in itself. The image it sees is metonymic, presupposing an "off-screen" which it should also be possible to interpret. It should be said that a photograph is also metaphoric in that it represents a camouflaged reality. Those who possess some military expertise could guess the "non-said," the "next-to" or the "implicitly understood" of an image or a text.
Therefore, as an example of interpretive possibilities, I could say, as a former French Army officer, that my own knowledge of personal protection from chemical weapons leads me to interpret the reports coming out of the Gulf by saying that such a menace is not being taken seriously by the allied troops. The reports I have seen lead me further to interpret that basic precautions are not being respected; decontamination methods are practically nonexistent (this is my impression at the time of this writing, which is less obvious at the time of the rewriting of this text and which is perhaps ultimately erroneous).
What is important, in this context, is not the validity of the interpretation itself, but rather that such interpretation is always possible. Because of interpretive potential, the viewer sees images at a "degree-zero" of comprehension. For example, the cover of Time Magazine showed a nighttime photo of Baghdad during what one imagines to be an aerial attack. The sky was studded with luminous traces, but whether they denoted victorious American domination of the skies or a violently effective Iraqi air defense, only a military expert could say for sure. The caption read: "Baghdad, January 17, 2:44 AM" The image, we imagine, could only signify an absolute representation of allied victory unless of course we were to learn that the same image had been used by Iraq for propaganda purposes...
"I wish I could show you the photographs," said General Colin Powell, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a press conference on Wednesday, January 23rd. In the absence of iconic representation, General Powell compensates with a plethora of diagrams, maps and photographic reconstitutions. Military Intelligence forbade him to present original photographs. The schematic figurations of the photographs were devoid of any recognizable details which might have proven useful to the enemy. What this amounted to was a representation of a representation.
This war of televised images is also a war of numbers and symbols. The number of fallen planes is repeated hourly so as to update and adjust its "veracity." These numbers are transformed in percentages due to evolving circumstances: eighty percent of the planes destroyed is adjusted becoming eighty percent of the planes still able to fly.
The more sophisticated representational forms utilized by the military, such as echo-radar and aerial photographs have been substituted and thus transformed through a process of iconographic "mise en abyme." The end product of this procedural transformation is unapproachable by the kind of narrational frame which was provided in my previous example of the photograph of the aerial attack on Baghdad. All speech was arrested on the fatal date of January 15, as Marc Kravetz of the newspaper Libération observed two days later:
In the Iraqi capital, no agitation, but a kind of quasi-palpable anguish. The "nomenklatura" watch C.N.N., which leads one to believe that the only possible dialogue between the countries is one that passes through images.
Conflict is opposed to communication. The front, the place where war "happens," is subject to, from without, an informational blackout. Only those reports which journalists identify as censored, are allowed to come out of the "theater of operations." This term, "theater of operations," traditionally linked to military operations, draws attention to the unreal temporarily prefabricated nature of representations of war. Representations which create illusions are thus appropriately linked to theater.
Rudyard Kipling said, "the first casualty of war is truth," insinuating that the substitution of reality for a codified system of anachronistic images is easily possible, indeed probable (i.e., images filmed prior to the war and shown afterwards to give an idea of war). Such images can also be diagrams and maps, or, if linguistically rendered, nicknames, synonyms, pseudonyms which serve to further dramatize the event. A significant example of this is the nickname, "The Bear," bestowed on General Norman Schwartzkopf, the commander of Allied Forces in Saudi Arabia by his soldiers. The bear, and its fairytale representations, which range from the bumptious to the ferocious, carries with it all the implicit connotative traditions whether they be burlesque or heroic. Such a nickname heightens his mystique and that of the war.