Nothing's Shocking: Mainstream Media Manipulation and the Gulf War

by David Hrycyszyn


In the present situation, with all of the Western governments beating the drums of war, and the news media obediently falling into line, it may be instructive to take a look back at the media's role in shaping public acceptance of U.S. foreign policy during the lead up to the Gulf War, as well as during the war itself.

First, let us be clear about one thing: the Persian Gulf war seen by millions worldwide was a polite fiction. Despite live satellite feeds providing almost instant worldwide communication, the world public (and especially the North American public) was lulled by a propaganda offensive which was every bit as intense as the air war which began on 16 January 1991. Plenty of 'combat' footage was shown on television: laser-guided munitions swooping down from invulnerable aircraft in the best Hollywood style. In the Gulf War, the good guys always won against massive odds, and at its end the world was once again safe for democracy. However, as Los Angeles Times reporter John Balzar saw it, the reality of the war was far dirtier than was apparent to the average network television viewer. While the public was being shown a cinematic extravaganza somewhere between Star Wars and Lawrence of Arabia, coalition forces were grinding the Iraqi army into all-too-real fragments of flesh and bone:

"One by one [Iraqi soldiers] were cut down by attackers they could not see or understand. Some were blown to bits by bursts of 30-millimeter exploding cannon shells. One man dropped, writhed on the ground, then struggled to his feet; another burst of fire tore him apart.[1]"

This article from RIFT - Resistance Is Fertile and Tasty via
RIFT is a community based anti-authoritarian organization in Northern Ontario, Canada.

U.S. domestic opinion, which ran heavily in favour of the sanitized video-game war,[2] would likely have reacted against such graphic images. While Balzar's description of a U.S. Army helicopter gun-camera tape was picked up by the Reuters News Agency,[3] the story was never followed up. Balzar himself suspects that the tape was destroyed before any of the major TV networks could pick up on the story.[4]

Events which led to broadly based American public support for the war were manipulated just as skillfully as 'battlefield' news reporting. Nonexistent Iraqi troop buildups and fictional babies thrown from their incubators set the stage for an eventual U.S. intervention in the Middle East. The public interest was not served by fairy tales such as 'the defense of Kuwaiti democracy' being behind U.S. involvement in the Gulf War. Prewar Kuwait was emphatically not a democracy; the emirate was firmly under the control of the Sabah family. There was no universal suffrage during the rare elections and Kuwait's human rights record was hardly a glowing one.[5] What was at stake was oil, and the global political power of the West.

The Role of the Media The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides for a press free to "vigorously scrutinize and criticize government without fear of prosecution." [6] Most other Western states provide similar guarantees of freedom of the press. The media is thus an independent actor upon the world stage, and is theoretically free to challenge any government's assertion in any fashion at any time. The failure of the Western media to effectively question United States and United Nations assertions of Iraqi aggression and abuses, coupled with a jingoistic acceptance of the official American line during the war, can be attributed to the corporate, bureaucratic, and profit-oriented mindset of the major news media organizations. One of the simplest lessons of the Gulf War is that corporations do not take risks with news coverage, and that in fact they are quite willing to help political and military elites build whatever consensus is supposed to represent the 'national interest.' In effect, the corporate news media does not question the role of the government and the military; it takes its place beside them as one of the primary institutions of power in modern society.

The role of the U.S. media in particular must be examined. Because it is the country with the most capability to engage in military adventures, the U.S. is the nation to study in relation to the media role in the Gulf War. In contrast, for example, Canadian public opinion matters very little in terms of world events. It is the ability of American elites to manipulate domestic opinion that has allowed the U.S. to engage in military operations such as Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf War, and now possibly in Afghanistan or whatever other part(s) of the world are designated as 'terrorist bases.'

It is only to be expected that elites try to retain a perception of legitimacy when the nation goes to war. However, the media is theoretically supposed to ask questions, and the media, especially in the U.S., has fallen prey to a fit of caution. Many reporters during the war seemed exceedingly anxious to avoid offending Pentagon briefing officers. The minority of reporters who showed initiative and drive in securing uncensored or anti-Coalition stories were stonewalled by bland corporate managers who were fearful of 'bucking the trend.'

The failure of the managers to back up their reporters and air or print controversial stories was compounded by the seeming impossibility of falsifying news reports that were transmitted live. Advanced technology provides the illusion of instant (and therefore uncensored) images and commentary from relevant locations around the world. What is not seen by the viewer (and is noticed as rarely by the reader) is the extensive preparation for a newscast and the background work that goes into any printed story. Insofar as most of the background work for mainstream media stories was done by Pentagon 'information officers,' the Gulf War as viewed by the average consumer of news in the Western liberal democracies can best be seen as a massive media event staged by the American military.

" senior commander agreed that the information about Iraqi defenses, put out before the war, was highly exaggerated. "There was a great disinformation campaign surrounding this war," he said with some satisfaction.[7]"

The task of detailing alternative histories of the Gulf War has been undertaken by numerous authors. Unfortunately, their books will reach only the tiny fraction of the Western public with the time and interest to wade through them. In the mass consciousness, the Gulf War will largely remain a Just War, a victory over tyranny and a triumph for the forces of democracy. In point of fact, the victory was not achieved, and the ideals of democracy were buried alive by U.S. Army earthmoving equipment along with thousands of hapless Iraqi soldiers.[8]

War Coverage in Vietnam

The widespread antipathy towards the media in American military circles previous to the Gulf War stems largely from the experience of Vietnam. In the military mind, the war could have been won had the nation not been betrayed by peace protests spurred in turn by violent images of the war on American television. As General William Westmoreland, who was in charge of U.S. forces in Vietnam, stated: "television's unique requirements contributed to a distorted view of the war...The news had to be compressed and visually dramatic." Thus, "..the war Americans saw was almost exclusively violent, miserable, or controversial." [9] This view, shared by 'hawks' in the American political and economic elites, is challenged by many media critics. Daniel Hallin, for example, claims that before the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive against U.S. forces, "Editorial comments by television journalists ran nearly four to one in favour of Administration policy."[10] Similar studies have concluded that media commentary followed public opinion rather than leading it. [11] In fact as MacArthur further relates in his book Second Front, " 1972, Newsweek found that the public may have become inured to the war from watching too many newscasts." [12]

Whether or not the media did in fact contribute to the growing unpopularity of the war in the late 1960's, it became an article of faith in military circles that the media was largely responsible for the loss in Vietnam. As President George Bush declared in 1991, "By God, we've finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all." Many took this to mean that in Vietnam, "the press tied our hands {i.e. the hands of the American military}." [13] Ironically, the official view of the media role in Vietnam, as defined by the U.S. Army Center of Military History, is that "rising casualties and the lack of a winning strategy - not news coverage - [had resulted in the loss in Vietnam]." The study continued that "the press reports were still often more accurate than the public statements of the Administration in portraying the situation in Vietnam."[14]


The 'lesson' of Vietnam was given a first clumsy application in the Grenada invasion of 1983. Preparatory to U.S. invasion, all sea and air links with the tiny island were cut.[15] Only a very few reporters made it onto the island, including Hugh O'Shaughnessy of the London Observer, who succeeded in chartering a 15-foot motor launch on Union Island near Grenada.[16] As soon as the invasion began, reporters were warned against such tricks by U.S. Rear Admiral Joseph Metcalf: "Any of you guys coming in on press boats? Well, I know how to stop those press boats. We've been shooting at them. We haven't sunk any yet, but who are we to know who's on them?"[17] Officially sanctioned news stories such as those found in Newsweek played up the theme of the patriotic, competent American soldier which would later become a standard in the Gulf War. Note the similarities with Gulf War reportage:

"In order to minimize civilian casualties, the American commanders decided against a full-scale assault. Instead they deployed small units backed by heavy air power. Inside St George's [the Grenadian capital] they fought a tough battle for Fort Rupert, where a week before troops loyal to the rebel junta had executed Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. From behind the limestone walls of the French-built, 18th century fortress, Cuban and Grenadian defenders showered small-arms fire on US attack squads...Eventually the American air attack reduced Fort Rupert to a smouldering shell, with only one wall left standing.[18]"

Even on first observation, this account makes little sense. Air bombardment is hardly consistent with "minimizing civilian casualties." The account of the Newsweek reporter using official sources is scathingly attacked by O'Shaughnessy:

"It is not clear how the editors of Newsweek were able to reconcile their account with the fact...that Fort Rupert fell without a fight on the morning of 27 October, that no Cuban was observed fighting in St George's and that the fort still has its full complement of walls.[19]"

The Pool System

Widespread journalistic outcry over the complete exclusion of the media from the Grenada invasion [20] led to a concern on the part of the Reagan Administration that politically influential members of the press might vent their frustrations during the 1984 election campaign.[21] While Reagan was ultimately re-elected, his successor George Bush had learned from the experience of Grenada. The invasion of Panama saw the military allowing partial media access to events in order to promote a positive image of the military operations. The system was perfected during the Gulf War. Pentagon planners became incredibly skilled at media manipulation. Reporters were forced to use a media pooling scheme:

"The one-hundred-plus pool reporters were chosen from among the 1500 covering the war (2000 had covered the Super Bowl) on the basis of how long their news organizations had been in Saudi Arabia. They were divided into groups and assigned to different military units, whose commanders decided where they could go and provided their transportation...[22]"

The pool reporters then shared their reports with the other 1400 reporters who were in-country at the time. From the military's point of view, the pool system had numerous advantages. First, it limited the amount of information that military censors had to deal with. Second, it ensured that reporters were completely under the control of escorts at all times. This, in turn, allowed censors to edit out any 'undesirable' material long before the story could be filed back to a news organization - assuming the whole story wasn't either rejected outright or delayed so long by military couriers that it lost any relevance it might have had. Lastly, the pool system allowed unit commanders to determine exactly what reporters would see.

Manufacturing a War

The diplomatic and political conduct of the United States from the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1988) onwards seems almost calculated to lure Saddam Hussein into believing that an Iraqi takeover of Kuwait would be tolerated by the world community. At the same time as the U.S. was selling grain and military equipment to Iraq,[23] the Kuwaitis were overproducing within OPEC, which was driving down the price of oil.[24] Given Iraq's massive war debts and its dependence on oil exports to repay them,[25] this was tantamount to economic warfare being waged by Kuwait against its larger neighbour. In addition, the Kuwaitis were taking a very tough stance on the matter of a border dispute with Iraq.[26] Kuwait's continuously irritating diplomatic stance has led to speculation that the U.S. was using the emirate to goad Saddam Hussein into making a move. As Dr. Mussama al-Mubarak, a political science professor at Kuwait University, states: "I don't know what the government was thinking, but they adopted an extremely hard line, which makes me think that the decisions were not Kuwait's alone. It is my assumption that, as a matter of course, Kuwait would have consulted on such matters with Saudi Arabia and Britain, as well as with the United States."

As tensions mounted between the two Persian Gulf nations, the Americans were secretly conducting detailed war simulations which assumed an Iraqi takeover of Kuwait.[27] On 25 July, U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam Hussein personally that "...we have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts, like your dispute with Kuwait." [28] In a 31 July House Armed Services subcommittee public hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Kelly repeatedly asserted that the U.S. had no treaty commitments with Kuwait in the event of an Iraqi attack. On 2 August, Iraqi armored divisions rolled across the Kuwaiti border. The emirate and the capital (Kuwait City), were completely secured within two days.[29] Few in the media remarked upon this chain of events as a unified whole. The press was largely dominated by a Pentagon propaganda machine that had shifted into high gear.

As American troops were being deployed to bases which had secretly been prepared for them well in advance by the Saudi government,[30] Pentagon news conferences were playing up the Iraqi threat to Saudi Arabia. In fact, despite the Bush Administration's push for a larger U.S. involvement in the Gulf crisis, by 9 August sources within the emirate had reported the withdrawal of Saddam Hussein's best troops - the Republican Guard armored divisions.[31] Though U.S. Central Command General H. Norman Schwarzkopf was aware of the withdrawal, he later told a newsman "I don't think there is any question at all that he would have attacked Saudi Arabia."[32]

Up until this point, the media shoulders little blame for the sequence of events. However, from the middle of September onwards, the media can increasingly be seen to fail in its primary duties of impartiality, accuracy, and inquisitiveness. For example, the Pentagon was claiming that by mid-month, there were 250,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait, that they were in attack formations and ready to roll into Saudi Arabia.33 However, satellite photos taken on 11 and 13 September by the commercial Soviet company Soyuz-Karta revealed "no evidence of a massive Iraqi presence in Kuwait in September."[34] The pictures were widely distributed in media circles, but only the St. Petersburg Times, an independently owned daily in Florida, pursued the story. There was a complete unwillingness on the part of major news organizations (notably ABC News) to 'buck the trend' and question the Administration. Therefore, the possibility that there was little reason for a massive deployment of U.S. military power in the Gulf was not something of which many Americans became aware.[35]

If the Soyuz-Karta incident was a case of a real story with no interest, reports of Iraqi atrocities committed against 300 imaginary infants were a case of massive interest without a story. John MacArthur has chronicled in minute detail the process by which the American and Kuwaiti governments planted this elegant fiction in the Western media. Iraqi soldiers had allegedly stripped Kuwaiti hospitals of incubators and tossed premature babies onto cold hospital floors to die. Witnesses using assumed names were a favorite method. MacArthur cites a Reuters News Agency story in which "Cindy from San Francisco," who had recently been evacuated from Kuwait, told colorful atrocity stories. As he goes on to say, "Reporters are often gullible; sometimes they can be ignorant. But even the mediocre ones are usually suspicious of people who won't give their last names."[36] The deception continued as Kuwaiti witnesses using false names (without saying so) testified before the Senate Human Rights Caucus as to similar Iraqi atrocities. [37] Eventually, the fabrication took on a life of its own, and the respected human rights organization Amnesty International was duped into providing President Bush with anti-Saddam propaganda. Had the press been slightly more vigilant, it might not have escaped public notice that the main witnesses to the 'atrocity' included the Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter, a Kuwaiti government minister's wife, and a vice president of Citizens for a Free Kuwait.[38] CFK was an organization comprised of highly placed Kuwaitis eager to end the Iraqi occupation of the emirate. It was over a month before Amnesty officials realized that they had been duped. By that time, it was too late, as the war had already started.[39]

Other examples of pro-American propaganda are not hard to find. For instance, a 5 October 1990 story in the Los Angeles Times detailed a diabolical Iraqi weapon known as the Fuel Air Explosive (FAE), which the U.S. allegedly did not have in its inventory. In reality, it is well known that the U.S. Air Force has been stockpiling FAEs since the time of the Vietnam War. These bombs are designed to disperse fuel into a diffuse cloud, then detonate the volatile gases after they have been sufficiently mixed with air. The result is a blast wave akin to that of a small nuclear weapon; victims have their lungs and other internal organs exploded by air overpressure hundreds of meters from the center of the blast. The use of FAEs is prohibited by international law, which is likely why the L.A. Times made mention of them in connection with Iraq. Apparently, this is simply another case of a gullible press that had been lulled by Pentagon misinformation. Incidentally, the U.S. used FAE's during the war while the Iraqis did not.[40]

As time went on, the American public remained less than enthusiastic about a war in the Middle East. In order to tip the balance of public opinion in his favour, President Bush deliberately misled the public about Saddam Hussein's ability to produce nuclear weapons. Though his own intelligence estimates predicted that it would be years before Iraq could produce such weapons, on 22 November President Bush stated that it might be a mere matter of months before Saddam could cross the atomic threshold. American public opinion quickly shifted to support the war option.[41]

During this time, the administration of President George Bush (Sr.) engaged in active sabotage of any diplomacy which could have resolved the crisis without bloodshed. As Noam Chomsky put it,

"Professing high principle, Washington moved vigorously to block all diplomatic efforts, restricting its own contacts with Iraq to delivery of an ultimatum demanding immediate and total capitulation to U.S. force -- what George Bush called "going the extra mile to achieve a peaceful solution." Europeans were warned not to deviate from the firm U.S. rejection of any form of diplomacy or any hint of willingness to negotiate. Washington also sternly rejected any "linkage" with regional issues, expressing its moral revulsion at the very thought of rewarding an aggressor by considering problems of armaments, security, and others in a regional context. The effect was to minimize the likelihood that Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait might be arranged without the threat or use of force. It is difficult to imagine that this was not the purpose of the rejection of "linkage," also an unprecedented stand.

These solemn declarations of high principle were generally accepted at face value, leaving unchallenged the pretexts offered for war. Debate was therefore limited to tactical questions of U.S. interest. In this limited frame, the Administration is sure to prevail, and did. The rhetorical stance, in contrast, could not have survived the slightest challenge. The general abdication of critical standards was thus a matter of no small importance -- not for the first time. [42]"

As the deadline for Iraqi troop withdrawals drew closer, the U.S. Defense Department published estimates of Iraqi strength at 540,000. General Schwarzkopf, commanding officer of the coalition forces massing in Saudi Arabia, claimed that his forces faced 623,000 enemy soldiers.[43] Huge numbers such as these were cited as the main reason for the buildup of coalition forces to a massive 700,000 men.[44] However, as Secretary of Defense Les Aspin stated after the war, "the one certainty is that there never really were 547,000 Iraqi troops in theater...many [Iraqi] units were sent to the theater substantially understrength." [45] Though Aspin claims that this fact was not known until after the war, his arguments are unconvincing. It is hard to believe his statement that "Washington, concerned with avoiding any situation that could lead prematurely to war, decided not to fly any reconnaissance aircraft over Iraq or occupied Kuwait during Operation Desert Shield." [46] Even if the U.S. Air Force has not replaced the retired Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird with a more advanced aircraft,[47] and even if the Air Force decided not to risk one of its radar-invisible 'Stealth' fighters on such a mission, the fact remains that the old U-2 spyplane was still in service. From a height of 80,000 feet, this aircraft is capable of looking at least 35 miles into enemy territory without crossing the border.[48] Given the small size of Kuwait, the shape of the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, and the proximity of the Persian Gulf on Kuwait's eastern frontier, U.S. planners certainly had a good picture of the opposition. In any case, the media continued to dutifully quote official Pentagon estimates of Iraqi troop strengths. In doing so, they allowed the Administration to paint a picture of a fearsome, if fictional, Iraqi army.

By allowing themselves to be used in such a fashion, the media made Bush's "war option" seem much more plausible and attractive. A massive, highly trained force of over half a million combat veterans who kill infants and obey the orders of a man who is "a second Hitler"[49] is a very credible offensive force - perhaps this mythical army could have swept south and captured the Saudi oil fields. However, the sad reality of Saddam Hussein's understrength, poorly trained military machine was such that a much smaller coalition force could have prevented any offensive move while sanctions and diplomacy had more time to work. Once again, according to Noam Chomksy:

"Two weeks before the deadline for Iraqi withdrawal, the possible contours of a diplomatic settlement appeared to be these: Iraq would withdraw completely from Kuwait with a U.S. pledge not to attack withdrawing forces; foreign troops leave the region; the Security Council indicates a serious commitment to settle other major regional problems. Disputed border issues would be left for later consideration. Once again, we cannot evaluate the prospects for settlement along these -- surely reasonable -- lines, because the offers were flatly rejected, and scarcely entered the media or public awareness. The United States and Britain maintained their commitment to force alone."[50]

The United States and Britain blocked a last-minute attempt at peaceful settlement which was put forward by France in the form of a proposal to the U.N. Security Council on 14 January 1991. Very few people in North America ever became aware of the absolute rejection of diplomacy by their leaders.

Desert Storm

It was the evening of 16 January 1991. All across the Eastern Seaboard, families were finishing their meals and turning on the evening news. At 7 PM, the first reports came in: Baghdad was lit up by antiaircraft fire and alive with the thunder of exploding bombs. The air war had begun on network television.

The Air Force planners had done their homework. They picked spectacular targets designed to show off the capabilities of advanced coalition weaponry. Dramatic pictures of 'smart bombs' flying into windows and down air ducts to destroy military targets thrilled and delighted the prime-time audience. Because the vast majority of images released by the military for public consumption were of this variety during the air war, the public was rarely reminded of the human beings being torn apart under the impact of these technological marvels.

The first attacks were planned with incredible precision. George Bush Sr. was watching;[51] so was General Colin Powell of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who spent the evening with Richard Cheney, the Secretary of Defense.[52] In addition, hoards of Air Force planners were watching the video images transmitted by CNN out of Baghdad in order to determine bomb damage and to check on the effectiveness of Baghdad's air defenses.[53] In light of the attention which was going to be paid to any bomb attack within range of CNN's cameras, it is probable that any pilot who missed his target and destroyed a civilian target within camera range in those first few instants would have been crucified upon his return to base. The world was watching, and the Air Force got it right. With the commencement of the war, reporters found the restrictions on what they could print or say tightened to an extreme degree. As Carl Nolte of the San Francisco Chronicle put it on 23 January,

"...the pool reports, written by some of the best journalists in the world, are banal and upbeat like papers handed in at a sophomore feature writing class back in journalism school. Of course, the reports are cleared by military censors, and the reporters, who spend weeks at a time in the field wearing flak jackets and combat helmets, are rooting for the home team. No one can go to the front. It is forbidden. What is left is what the world is seeing and reading..."54

Military control of the journalists in Saudi Arabia was made easier by an interesting strategy: the journalists themselves were put in charge of selecting who would go out in the pools. Continuous infighting among the reporters kept them compliant.[55] However, the military was certainly not afraid to get nasty when its divide-and-conquer techniques failed. During street fighting in the port city of Khafji, a French film crew operating outside of the pool system was stripped of its videotape by the military.[56]

Hardly more subtle was the intimidation of low-level military personnel during interviews.

"Whenever I began interviewing a soldier, this PAO [Public Affairs Officer] would stand right behind me, stare into the eyes of the [soldier], stretch out a hand holding a cassette recorder, and click it on in the soldier's face. This was patent intimidation...which was clear from the soldier's reactions. After a virtually every interview, the soldier would let out a deep breath, turn to the PAO, and ask [something like], "Can I keep my job?" [57]

Another favorite tactic of the military was to force the journalists to use military couriers to relay films and dispatches back to their news organizations. During the two weeks that Gary Matsumoto of NBC was in the field, he had to rely on military couriers to deliver film back to his pool. "Delays were never less than 24 hours, and sometimes as long as three days." Matsumoto estimated that delivery should have taken three and one half hours at most. Defense contractors must have been among the groups most satisfied with war coverage. The Patriot missile system, in particular, was singled out for high praise in war coverage. The point-defense missile system, used against Iraq's Soviet-built Scud ballistic missiles, actually proved to be a failure in many respects, but that didn't deter news anchors from exclamations such as "Bulls-eye! No more Scud!".[58] The illusion that the Patriots were performing magnificently was bolstered by spectacular mid-air explosions. However, in many cases the Patriots were simply hitting the Scuds' discarded fuel tanks, spreading debris over a much wider area while the Scud warhead hit its target unmolested. Also, Patriots sometimes caused damage themselves:

ABC-TV correspondent Leslie Cockburn watched four Patriots that were launched over Tel Aviv one night..."The first self-destructed. The second and third roared across town below the level of the buildings and then hit in Tel Aviv. The fourth one flew up, did a wonderful hairpin maneuver and came down and exploded next to a restaurant called Mandy's. The citizens were just as at risk from falling Patriots as they were from Scuds."[59]

MIT scientist Theodore Postol confirmed this view in front of the House Armed Services Committee: "When the Patriot defense was used, it appears that the damage per Scud attack was actually higher than when there had been no defense."[60]

In contrast, the 'smart' munitions used by Air Force crews to blow bridges and bunkers generally worked well, from all the information available. However, one of the biggest misconceptions of the war was that the use of 'smart' bombs had allowed the coalition to destroy Iraq's military infrastructure without causing large numbers of civilian casualties. While the high-tech weaponry was 90 per cent accurate, it was so expensive that it made up only 7 per cent of all explosives dropped on Iraq. The Greenpeace estimate of civilian casualties in Iraq runs between twenty-five hundred and thirty-five hundred.[61] Other estimates, which factor in indirect deaths due to starvation, disease, poor health care, and massive infant mortality rates, place the death toll at 100,000.[62] It should be noted that the targeting of civilian populations and the infrastructure which supports the life of a nation's civilian population is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. By the beginning of the ground campaign, casualties and desertion had reduced the Iraqi army to about 183,000 soldiers [63] by official postwar estimates. These dazed, demoralized conscripts were subjected to massive air bombardment as they withdrew northwards.[64] In at least one instance, it appears that Iraqi units were slaughtered while trying to surrender. In testimony before the European Parliament in March-April 1991, Mike Erlich of the Military Counseling Network related the following:

"...hundreds, possibly thousands, of Iraqi soldiers began walking toward the U.S. position unarmed, with their arms raised in the air in an attempt to surrender. However, the orders for this unit were not to take any prisoners...The commander of the unit began the firing by shooting an anti-tank missile through one of the Iraqi soldiers. This is a missile designed to destroy tanks, but it was used against one man. At that point, everybody in the unit began shooting. Quite simply, it was a slaughter."[65]

In another incident, American troops apparently engaged and destroyed an Iraqi unit two days after the cease-fire, with the approval of General Norman Schwarzkopf. The Iraqis were unaware of the cease-fire. This account of the attack appeared in New York Newsday:

" ...The battle occurred 2 March, after soldiers from the 7,000-man Iraqi force fired at a patrol of the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division..."We really waxed them," said one American Desert Storm commander who asked not to be identified...Although McCaffrey's division was equipped with loudspeakers mounted on helicopters, they were never used to broadcast word of the cease-fire. "There wasn't time to use the helicopters," said [Operations Chief Lt.-Col. Patrick] Lamar. Instead, after the 6:30 am Iraqi attack, McCaffrey assembled attack helicopters, tanks, fighting vehicles, and artillery for the assault, which began at 8:15 am.

Details of the attack were known in Washington and Riyadh, including the manner in which Apache attack helicopter pilots blocked the highway north of the Iraqis to prevent their escaping. However, "[the attack] didn't look good coming after the cease-fire," so no mention was made of it at the time.[66]

Perhaps the most illuminating instance of the bankruptcy of the pool system was the arrival of CBS' Bob McKeown in Kuwait City on 26 February 1991. At exactly the same moment as a military briefer in Riyadh was telling reporters that "portions of the Iraqi army are still in Kuwait, including Kuwait City...", McKeown was busily "interviewing joyous Kuwaiti citizens in the heart of the capital." McKeown, who had been excluded from the pool system, had struck out on his own and unwittingly contradicted the Pentagon in a most impressive manner. Pete Williams, chief spokesman for the Pentagon, was forced to admit that McKeown and his crew were not compromising military security.[67]

The News is Just Another Show

"In effect, each pool member is an unpaid employee of the Department of Defense, on whose behalf he or she prepares the news of the war for the outside world." [68] This sentiment, expressed by Malcolm W. Browne of the New York Times, is an accurate expression of the anti-pool sentiments among Gulf War journalists. To be sure, not all journalists expressed outrage at the system - which may in itself be a telling commentary on the state of the American news media. Another interesting footnote is that the only paper to carry the Soyuz-Karta satellite photo story regarding 'missing' Iraqi troops during the U.S. buildup was the St Petersburg Times, an independent paper.

There were reporters who were willing to evade military censors and go after stories in an enterprising manner. Noted war cameraman Jon Alpert toured Iraq starting 2 February and returned with six hours of videotape and hundreds of still photos showing civilian damage resulting from the coalition bombing campaign. NBC Nightly News reportedly wanted to use segments of the film, but this was vetoed by NBC News President Michael Gartner, who had not seen the film.[69] MacArthur in particular is critical of the role of management in permitting the military to run roughshod over reporters from the mainstream media: "of course, the corporations' middle management had been all too happy to be recruited the previous fall when they passively accepted Pentagon restrictions."[70] The comments of CBS anchor Dan Rather are especially telling, though he is obviously unable to directly criticize his superiors:

"...some of what happened was because of a lack of will, a lack of guts to speak up, to speak out, speak our minds...consider the possibility that this fits into a general trend of American journalism over the last five to ten years that you can see in the coverage of political campaigns, in the coverage of domestic issues such as race and the economy, just to pick two, and manifested itself in the intensive coverage which is the inevitable consequence of a war... ...obviously politicians have learned ways to intimidate individual reporters, news organizations, and the press in general."[71]

Rather was critical of press coverage in Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf. He traced the roots of the problem to the increasingly corporate nature of the press:

"We begin to think less in terms of responsibility and integrity, which get you in trouble...and more in terms of power and money...increasingly anybody who subscribes to this idea that the job is not to curry favor with people you cover...finds himself as a kind of lone wolf [who] probably ought to wear one of those shirts that says 'last of the independents,' and will be in the minority. ...I do subscribe to the idea that journalism with guts starts with a publisher who has guts...[Nowadays] the publisher [or network equivalent] says, "Listen, I've got to have circulation, I've got to have ratings, I've got to have know [X] in California just makes people feel good. Why can't we have a broadcast like that?" ...Suck-up coverage is in". [72]

Frighteningly, it seems that almost all of the criticism of the pool system comes from older reporters who have experienced war coverage outside the pool system, for example in Vietnam. Perhaps the authors of books on the media failure in the Gulf were only quoting the more established (read older) figures in the journalism establishment. However, there may be a younger generation rising through the ranks that accepts Gulf War-type restrictions as the norm.

Ramsey Clark pointed to the non-coverage of the United States War Crimes Tribunal as evidence that the American media can no longer criticize the government.[73] Given the popularity of the war with the American public, the reluctance of the media to cover a trial of the nation's political and military leaders is unsurprising. The incredibly short attention span of the news media also plays a part - in 1992 the Gulf War was referred to in the media as 'ancient history.'[74] Perhaps it is a history which is still relevant today.


Aspin, Les & Dickinson, William. Defense for a New Era: Lessons of the Persian Gulf War (Riverside, NJ: AUSA Institute, 1992)
Blackwell, Major James. Thunder in the Desert (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1991)
Clark, Ramsey. The Fire This Time (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992)
Chomsky, Noam,
Gunston, William. The Modern U.S. Air Force (New York: Arco Publishing, 1982)
Heppenheimer, T.A. Popular Science November 1988 "Mach 5 Spyplane " (New York: 1988)
MacArthur, John R. Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992)
NY Times, 'Sense of Pride Outweighs Fear of War' 24 February 1991, Section 4: 1
O'Shaughnessy, Hugh. Grenada (NY: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1984)
Taylor, Philip N. War and the Media: Propaganda and Persuasion in the Gulf War (New York: Manchester University Press, 1992)
U.S. News. Triumph Without Victory (Toronto: Random House, 1992)
Yant, Martin. Desert Mirage (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991)
1 (MacArthur, Second Front: 163)
2 (NY Times, 24 February 1991, Section 4: 1)
3 (Clark, The Fire This Time: 48)
4 (MacArthur: 163).
5 (Clark: 111).
6 (Clark: 121)
7 (Macarthur: 178)
8 (Clark: 52)
9 (MacArthur: 132)
10 (MacArthur: 134)
11 (MacArthur: 133)
12 (MacArthur: 134)
13 (Taylor: 1)
14 (Yant, Desert Mirage: 32)
15 (O'Shaughnessy: 201)
16 (O'Shaughnessy: 201)
17 (O'Shaughnessy: 206)
18 (OShaughnessy: 215)
19 (O'Shaughnessy: 215)
20 (Yant: 32)
21 (O'Shaughnessy: 213)
22 (Yant: 28)
23 (Yant: 71-72)
24 (Clark: 14)
25 (Clark: 14; Yant: 80)
26 (Yant: 81)
27 (Clark: 11)
28 (U.S News, 'Triumph Without Victory': 25)
29 (Blackwell, Thunder in the Desert: 72)
30 (Yant: 105)
31 (U.S. News: 97)
32 (U.S. News: 97)
33 (MacArthur: 172)
34 (MacArthur: 173)
35 (MacArthur: 172-174)
36 (MacArthur: 54)
37 (MacArthur: 58)
38 (MacArthur: 65)
39 (MacArthur: 74)
40 (Clark: 44) Further information on Fuel-Air Explosives can be found at
41 (Yant: 107)
42 (Noam Chomsky, Z Magazine 'The Gulf Crisis', February 1991
43 (U.S. News: 405)
44 (Les Aspin, Operation Desert Storm Examined: 32)
45 (Aspin: 31)
46 (Aspin: 30)
47 (Popular Science, November 1988, 'Mach 5 Spyplane': 72)
48 (Gunston, The USAF: 99)
49 (U.S. News: 123)
50 (Noam Chomsky, Z Magazine 'The Gulf Crisis', February 1991
51 (U.S. News: 218)
52 (U.S. News: 244)
53 (U.S. News: 233)
54 (Clark: 132)
55 (MacArthur: 182)
56 (MacArthur: 183)
57 (MacArthur: 171)
58 (MacArthur: 162)
59 (Yant: 118-119)
60 (MacArthur: 162)
61 (MacArthur: 161)
62 (Clark: 84) Some estimates for the actual six weeks of the war go even
higher, to 200,000 dead. In addition, the subsequent sanctions against Iraq
have cost the lives of over one million people, according to the UN Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to the FAO, half of the victims
have been children under the age of four.
63 (Aspin: 32)
64 (Clark: 48)
65 (Clark: 47)
66 (Clark: 51)
67 (Yant: 143)
68 (Yant: 29)
69 (Clark: 185)
70 (MacArthur: 156)
71 (MacArthur: 213)
72 (MacArthur: 216)
73 (Clark: 145)
74 (Clark: 145)


To the Stop the War page