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Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book

Volume 5 Number 1-4
March 1994

Texts made available by the Sixties Project, are generally copyrighted by the Author or by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., all rights reserved. These texts may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. These texts may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. A few of the texts we publish are in the public domain. For information on a specific text, contact Kalí Tal. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is dedicated to using electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.

Operation Desert Storm and its Media Appropriation, Part II

Frédéric Pallez, English Department, Louisiana State University. Translated by Rebecca Tabeau

Gary Abrams, of the Los Angeles Times, wrote an article entitled, "Gulf war's fighting words invading everyday language," in which he familiarized his reader with military terminology in spite of constant television exposure. This accumulative metaphorization of war conduct indicates the inability to control and adequately represent the war. A bomber pilot, discussing enemy FLAK, Anti-Aircraft Artillery or Triple-A can only approach it through a comparison:

The only way I can describe it is if you turn a room into the world's biggest popcorn popper... and try to walk from one end to the other without getting hit by a piece of popcorn.

In the absence of direct representable information, the television journalist will impose a context onto his discourse. He thus makes of his broadcast an imperative to fill the void created by the lack of action by describing a referent, any referent. It is the "live" moment which is important. This void focuses on details of the live moment of communication like for example the strange light blue domes that were behind Arthur Kent and Charles Jaco, who were reporting live from Dahrain for C.N.N., and which so intrigued the viewers.

The information vacuum created by the lack of representable action in the war is also filled in by focusing in on official witnesses or "actors" in the war, which is what the media did with General Schwartzkopf. When he made the cover of Time Magazine, it was in the form of a characterization: his physical demeanor and his frank speaking style came to represent the army as a whole. In the same way, the names of the now famous C.N.N. reporters, Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett, have become synonymous with the journalistic presence on Iraqi soil and the representation of the war from inside Iraq: a "live" link to the enemy.

To continue to speak and prolong the dramatic instant is an imperative created by the lack of concrete representable information, and yet another media method to accomplish this is the ingenious use of the phatic function of language as defined by Roman Jakobson:6 "Hello? Jerusalem here... Can you hear me through this gas mask?" This method creates a context for discourse by giving itself a referent.

This process of dramatization of the war peaked during the first U.S. raids on Baghdad and the simultaneous launching of the first SCUD missiles on Dahrain and Israel; the current situation, known to all, allows me to dispense with explanations of historical context.

This information was transmitted live by television stations. The correspondents assigned to the site followed the action from afar, in offices and hotel rooms, and often relied on local radio broadcasts or on their own conclusions drawn from the air-raid sirens that signaled either the beginning or the end of an alert. The viewers who watched these developments were watching a retransmission of witnesses' reactions to the conflict. The most cogent information received was the feeling of universal anxiety, an example of which was a broadcast of the feverish activity revolving around the donning of gas masks.

This anxiety was heightened by the ghoulish aspect of people in gas masks: their eyes magnified by fear through the enlarged lenses and their mouths replaced by the hideously protruding breathing apparatus.

All of these media devices which fill in the void of concrete military activity are mythical in the Barthesian sense of the term; a system by which the sign, not directly representable, in this case the military war, is signified by another sign, that I would qualify as being the war as represented by journalists. In the words of Barthes, "That which is a sign in the first system becomes a simple signifier in the second."7 The mythical creation is born of the communication between two signs and their difference, Marc Kravetz writes: "In Baghdad, these universal images [he is referring to television images which retrace the events in the Iraqi capital] had, in their brute realism, something unreal about them."

This dramatization of the event is a kind of compensation for the lack of a concrete image. It should facilitate an understanding of the chronology and import of the conflict, but the reverse happens. The dramatization of the war makes the war itself non-representable. The war to which I refer is the military one. The figurative media representations are the ones the public receives first and are the ones from which it will construct its own image of the conflict. This particular chronology produced by the dramatization which is then called "reality" is going to depreciate the reality deemed too "real." During the first moments of the war, Baghdad was quiet. The reporters in Baghdad at that time described a city calm to the point of pacifism. This view greatly differed with the erratic agitated reports which were elsewhere describing the commencement of hostilities as anything but pacifist. These differing views of Iraq during the first moments of the war heightened the confusion of the reader/viewer.

The effect of media dramatization is comparable to the "denegation-illusion" defined by Anne Ubersfeld in her book entitled Lire le théâtre.8 The scenic play of the reporter's reactions, broadcast live, opens up a distance between the spectator and the reality of the war. This phenomenon of denegation is comparable to the theatrical effect Brecht strives for when he constructs a series of signs precisely to remind the spectator that he is in the theater. So the dramatic effect generated by the media is essentially theatrical. It opens up a distance between the military war and the public and fills it in with a myth of a more realistic appearance.

The dramatization creates, for the spectator, a familiarity with the war, one which is closely allied to a will to power over the representation of the conflict. This will to power originates in creating the impression that one is at the center of events, especially temporarily. The imposition of a final date of compliance, January 15, automatically gives the initiative to the one who does the imposing since the gesture implies the inevitability of conflict.

In this same parallax principle of error, war plans anticipate reality. Real combat, the military incessantly repeats, is simply the application of planned contingencies. The reader more or less alerted to the reality of war plans has the impression of being ahead of the war and thus in control.

A t-shirt manufacturer in New Orleans, according to an article in the Times Picayune, is making t-shirts with the following slogan: "Tomorrow we liberate. Today we terminate."

The use of the simple present tense implies finality and control as well as the ambiguity of a present, that is already past, since it is generally agreed that the allies have already secured victory (Tomorrow we liberate comes before today we terminate.) President Bush, when addressing the nation, appropriates the same rhetoric of certainty concerning allied victory. It is not a question of whether we will win but when we will win. President Bush envisions three possible war scenarios: lightning fast, protracted, and long-term with allied casualties ranging anywhere from one hundred to ten thousand depending on the duration of the war.

Another way of comprehending and apprehending the conflict is by comparing it to other wars of the past. This method attempts to enfold the conflict in a collective memory and is more effective than an isolated objective treatment of the war. Operation Desert Storm is thus compared to the Vietnam war for two reasons: to put it into both a war-context and an American context thereby drawing from a fund of historical and cultural points of reference; and to put it into opposition with that war's painful, horrible consequences so as to make this war assume a redemptive, cleansing function.

Another attempt at contextualization assumes the form of numerous published studies dealing with the Middle East, one of these being the recently published Guerre du Golfe, by Pierre Salinger and Eric Laurent.9 Along the same lines, fiction offers us Gerard de Villiers' most recent (and debatable) S.A.S. (Villiers is a popular French author of highly successful espionage novels). Both examples (fictional and critical) provide literary referents which aim for contextualization and clarification.

Texts, whether fictional or critical, provide their readers with particular understandings of their subject matter, in other words, they provide definitions and representations through a shared structure of interpretive will. Fictional and critical systems present unities which are reassuring in their finality. Even in a spy novel, the author's story, although considered fantastic, does treat a current event and the gesture "authenticates" the text by association.

A last example of war-contextualization is to be found in the fashion world. Van Pier, a New York fashion designer, has called his new collection Warfashion. Putting aside camouflaged khaki chic, what captures the imagination is the gas masks. The gas masks which normally inspire terror are now affectionately honored, and appropriated by high society. This represents the anticipatory appropriation of a chemical war referent prior to its actual use and which, up until now, has still not been used. I insist particularly on the effects of chemical gas, which provokes horror, in conjunction with this example so as to emphasize that contextualization attempts to control the uncontrollable.

The live image is the anticipation of the expected event. Thus it can be said that representation precedes its referent as does my discourse in this instance by the rapport it shares with the immediate and the critical (reflexive distance). In doing so, my discourse has attempted to apply a certain tone to facts which, in their immediacy, refer to a present which is interior to the continuity of the Persian Gulf War.

To finish, but not finish up that which only just started and probably will continue, I return my attention to the immediate present (or future), which is considered a representable totality, by quoting an exclamation from the first moments of the war. This exclamation, printed in Time Magazine, but taken from a live broadcast, is naive in its poetic imagery and reads:

Something is happening outside...
We're getting starbursts...
In the black sky.

L.S.U. February 1991

The conclusion of this text could not be achieved until the war had ended. Media representation is now total insofar as there is now a beginning and an end ascribed to all filmed images and written articles. History imposes this totality. What will follow can only be critical work which is distant, inspired and supported by the media source material amassed during the conflict.

The focus of my study has been media representation of Operation Desert Storm. With this in mind, my main interest has been the confusion generated by media reports during the conflict. This confusion revealed ellipses, errors and gaps which were compensated for by a valorization of the event as described by the journalist in his capacity as witness. The best example of this discrepancy between representation and its referent, insofar as the war is concerned, took place live during the first launchings of Iraqi SCUD missiles on Israel. During the television coverage of this event, the fear and tension of the reporters were palpable. The lack of pertinent images and information was replaced by focusing on the reporters rather than on the events that they were there to cover.

The war which has been rebroadcast on television is a collection of reporters' interpretations of certain events, often minor in relation to what was really going on. Military action was being conducted at that time but was impossible to describe. The fact that both journalist and spectator were conscious of this informational gap highlighted the frenzied search for a way to fill in the void of representation.

The image of children wearing gas masks has become emblematic of the Persian Gulf War. The chemical weapon turned out to represent an empty threat corresponding to a representation without a referent; or more precisely a representation having an unrealized referent. Insofar as the war is concerned, this referent was constantly realizable in the collective imagination of the public. Gas masks still remind us of the trenches of World War I.

Other enduring images of the war are those procured by military technology such as combat footage taken from fighter planes. Photographs are a primary source of military intelligence. Comparing this war to a video game, itself a reproduction of military flight training simulators, reinforces the preeminence of a militarized vision of the war. This legacy of the Gulf War is in complete opposition to the legacy of the Viet Nam war because media coverage during the Viet Nam war was largely uncensored and thus completely independent from official military briefings. Also, the reporter enjoyed a much greater distance vis à vis the military.

During the Gulf Crisis, the war was silent and far away. The distance that images imposed on the war affected an important change in systems of perception. It seems that the idea of framing, which is the defining of objects, proper to modern armaments and, by extension, to the media, is in opposition to any notion of an overall view. Diverse television coverage showed us that the war was very limited. It was in its diversity as blind as the single camera is to everything that lies outside its frame. Unlike the reductive finality of framing, interpretation of this war presupposed the idea of a possible totality. This is done in the same way as the military artist, who, before photography existed, would paint the entire battlefield, including even those things which were materially invisible to the painter. But what captured the imagination in the Gulf War was its detail; the war was said to be conducted surgically and perception followed suit.

1In reference to the title of a chapter in Paul Virilio's Logistique de la perception (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma) 1985.

2 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: Univ. of MN Press) 1987.

3 Gerard Genette, Figures of Literary Discourse (New York: Columbia Univ. Press) 1982.

4 Virilio: 8.

5 Ibid.: 140.

6 Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature (Cambridge: Belknap Press) 1987.

7 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang) 1972.

8 Anne Ubersfeld, Lire le théàtre (Paris: Messidor) 1982.

9 Pierre Salinger and Eric Laurent, La Guerre du Golfe (Paris: Orban) 1990.

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