The Gulf War appears, in retrospect, a study in emotional extremes disproportionate to its fundamental reality. A relatively weak and isolated Third World country, whose gross national product was perhaps a third the size of the U.S. defense budget, took on the world’s only superpower, which was funded by the entire developed world and assisted by several major military powers. Having placed its forces in a hopelessly, and quite literally, exposed set of positions in the desert, Iraq lost ignominiously after five weeks of pounding by air and four days of retreat on the ground. From the vantage point of 1994, the anxieties expressed before the war in somber testimony before Congress about the risks of an American bloodbath on the battlefield, and the exuberant celebrations on Main Street after the war seem not merely excessive, but even somewhat bizarre. According to the memoirs of General Schwarzkopf, he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, wanted to use the deck of the battleship Missouri, the location of the Japanese surrender in 1945, for the Iraqi capitulation. If true, this suggests that it was not only pundits, senators and private citizens who lost their sense of perspective during the war.
Despite its overwhelming operational success, the war has left a curious unease about the way it was conceived and conducted, and how it was covered by the media. To make sense of the war at the time one relied, of course, on the press, which inundated the Persian Gulf with hundreds of journalists, ranging from professional war reporters who had spent a generation on the edge of combat to stringers from hometown newspapers eager to hear the rumble of tanks charging across the desert. Most of these journalists were frustrated by the military’s system for handling them and by a suite of briefers who looked a lot better than their questioners on television.
Two of the abler journalists have written of their war stints, and their accounts are revealing, although not always in the ways their authors might have hoped. Television correspondent Peter Arnett’s memoir devotes barely 80 pages to his experiences covering Baghdad. Most of the discussion deals not so much with the war as with himself and CNN, the television network that employed him. CNN’s self-absorption is mirrored by Arnett’s. The Gulf War was good for CNN, which reveled in having a correspondent in Baghdad on the air, even if he could not see all that much of interest or cover the Iraqis in a serious way. The network was delighted by the inadvertent commercials offered by air war planners, who confirmed the success of their attacks on the Iraqi electrical grid by watching the lights go out in Baghdad on cable television.
CNN’s relentless self-promotion (including preening during air time usually devoted to commercials) helped create the mystique of a ubiquitous Western news service, one that made the conflict transparent to those watching it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although Arnett was able to see a few sites where bombs had landed, he lacked the linguistic skills, historical expertise, freedom of movement and access to give more than the most superficial of impressions. The thinness of television coverage, not its ubiquity, stands out in retrospect.
Molly Moore’s account of her time with the Marines is far more informative about some of the substance of the Gulf War, although it too exhibits modern journalists’ fascination with exploring their emotions at the expense of portraying unfolding events. Moore accompanied Marine commander Lieutenant General Walter Boomer throughout the ground war. Boomer, who had served as the head of public affairs for the Marine Corps, well understood the utility of keeping the press close, shrewdly guessing that the Marines would gain an advantage in the battle of public opinion. The Marines, on the slenderest budget of all the services, live by their wits, and in this case as in others they outmaneuvered their more conventional colleagues.
Moore’s narrative begins with a blast at the rest of the military bureaucracy, which she believes successfully stiff-armed the press throughout most of the war and will try to do so again. The book ends with an (incorrect) assessment of the lethality of air attacks across the front and a screaming match between her and a military audience back in the United States. It is striking that a journalist who received such exceptional access to commanders and their plans came away so bitter and mistrustful toward the armed forces.
THE SWORD AND THE PEN
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