Things Done Changed: America in the ‘90s

Chapter Seven: Postmodern War

Matt Pulver
10 min readMar 30, 2019

“That’s the way it was scheduled,” said President Bush to one of his aides as the nation’s nightly news broadcasts were interrupted, right on cue, by the American bombardment of Baghdad on January 17, 1991. The Gulf War, dubbed “Operation Desert Storm,” was the first war to be literally scheduled programming, a TV war, with reporters and cameras ready to broadcast the air assault in real time. No one on earth had ever experienced this, watching war televised as it occurred, the new high-tech “stealth” aircraft hidden until their total visibility. Bush and his team arranged it to be this way, with the first bombers ripping through the night sky over Baghdad at 7pm/6 central. This was the first war designed to be watched, a war with Nielsen ratings — a war, yes, but also a spectacle, a performance, entertainment.

The stealth fighter F-117 Nighthawk’s futuristic contours announced to the world the Americans’ technological superiority.

“The first Gulf War…is widely considered the first instance of a brand-centric war, consciously tailored for the mass media,” observed the San Francisco Chronicle. The war was even given a marketable name: Operation Desert Storm. The name sounded focus-grouped and tailored for television compared to other operational names given to recent military endeavors (names like Operation Earnest Will and Just Cause in 1988 and 1990, for example). The branding and marketing of the war was aimed at everyone, from adults who got televised press briefings from Generals Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell to make them feel like they were themselves part of the fight, to wildly popular Desert Storm trading cards for the kids. On the eve of the war, a Time magazine cover story on General Powell and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney would read like a Pentagon press kit, calling the duo “the savviest pair to lead the Pentagon in years.” Once the invasion was underway, NBC Nightly News’ Tom Brokaw would dedicate an entire segment to a highlight reel of Centcom commander Schwarzkopf’s press briefings and extol the general in a sort of hagiography of the living: “Some people were born to be a general; Norman Schwarzkopf, for one. ”Stormin’” Norman, a scholar-warrior, I.Q. said to be in the 170 range…”

A Desert Storm trading card craze swept the nation, with sports card industry leader Topps becoming the first to issue war cards during an active conflict. Several other companies followed suit after seeing Topps’ explosive success, and Topps issued a second and third series. The late ’80s and early ’90s was the height of the sports card industry, which in the first year of the decade became a billion-dollar industry. The New York Times’ business section in 1988 had already suggested adding baseball cards to investment portfolios as the sports card bubble began to inflate. By the time that bubble matured in the early 1990s, card manufacturers were producing more than 80 billion cards a year, as estimated by Mint Condition author Dave Jamieson. Desert Storm trading cards, entering the market at just the right time, took off like the fighter jets they celebrated, with American children now trading a “Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney” (card #3) for a “Carpet Bombing” (#90). Instead of their favorite ballplayers’ stats, collectors now flipped cards over to find the specs of various weapons systems and attack aircraft, all provided by the arms manufacturers and the Pentagon.

“[Desert Storm] cards have been so popular that local card shops are having a difficult time keeping them in stock,” reported a Pittsburgh area newspaper at the time. “Some dealers have been forced to draw up waiting lists of prospective customers.” Another account would cite a baseball card shop owner: “They’re the most popular cards I’ve sold in a long time.” In Syracuse, New York, the local paper ran a front-page story on the sensation, calling it a “frenzy” and describing how local stores can’t keep the cards in stock, a local card shop owner explaining how the war cards “sold out the quickest of anything we’ve ever carried.” Topps, the world’s leader in sports card production, could not print the cards fast enough to match demand, a company spokesperson said. The company expanded production and immediately began work on second and third series of cards. Another card company, Pro Set, mostly known for football cards, issued their own set on the success of Topps’ cards. Another company, Pacific, followed Pro Set, all due to a war that lasted six weeks.

These sorts of efforts to brand and market the war accompanied a simultaneous effort by the White House and Pentagon to severely censor the news media and control how the war was covered. Americans were receiving, then, simultaneously too much information and too little. The Pentagon aimed to transform the free press into a temporary state media organ for the duration of the war after experimenting with press suppression techniques in the Grenada and Panama invasions of 1983 and 1989. As early as the first days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait the White House and Pentagon started work on what the New York Times’ Washington bureau chief would call a “system of censorship unlike anything in recent combat history.” The program, initially known inside the Pentagon as Annex Foxtrot, was ultimately presided over by Dick Cheney and was intended to make the press into an auxiliary of the Pentagon. After being thoroughly stifled by the military during the conflict the New York Times would later assert that “the Gulf war marked this century’s first major conflict where the policy was to confine reporters to escorted pools that sharply curtailed when and how they could talk to troops.”

Journalists, from the time they left the United States until they returned home, were under military escort, their reporting (or “reporting”) pooled by their Pentagon overseers and approved or altered by military censors. Articles about the war appearing in the nation’s papers would commonly conclude with “This article was compiled from Pentagon pool reports reviewed by military censors.” Other newspapers would insert a box onto their pages alerting readers of the propagandistic character of the content. Those journalists seeking to circumvent their armed escorts could become prisoners of the military. After the war, it would be reported that “more than two dozen reporters and photographers have been held for up to eight hours by the United States or the Saudi military for trying to cover the war on their own, without military escorts.” A Newsweek correspondent reporting on the war, himself a decorated war veteran, said, “I had more guns pointed at me by Americans or Saudis who were into controlling the press than in all my years of actual combat.”

The Washington Post (left) and the New York Times (right) both published disclaimers to alert readers of military control and censorship of the coverage. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times would often include their disclaimer at the end of each of their Gulf War-related articles: “This article was compiled from Pentagon pool reports reviewed by military censors.”

But despite such severe censorship of the press, despite so much being hidden, the Gulf War was also where war became more visible than ever. “Over the six weeks of the war more people watched more hours of television per day than at any time in history,” reported retired Air Force major general Perry Smith. The Gulf War became the first war of its kind in human history: It was a war designed to be watched by a population who, it was immediately revealed, really wanted to watch war, and now there existed a dedicated 24-hour news network, CNN, to connect Stateside eyes with their empire’s martial edge. CNN had been on air for a decade already as the world’s only cable news network, but it wasn’t until the fledgling news outlet became the only broadcaster from the besieged Baghdad in the early days of the war that Ted Turner’s experiment became an institution. The first night of the war, choreographed by the White House, with the scheduled news-hour attack followed by a primetime presidential address, attracted the largest television audience in American history. Three of the four local channels in New York City simply ran a live CNN feed as their broadcast that night. The nation’s second largest city, Los Angeles, saw all four of its local channels become CNN feeds for the evening. Many millions of Americans had their televisions essentially colonized by CNN that night. Network affiliates across the country, like CBS affiliate WAGA in Atlanta, even periodically cut away from their own networks’ coverage in favor of CNN. The New York Times reported, “Colin L. Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Dick Cheney and even NBC anchors, Tom Brokaw, declared on broadcast television that they were getting their information on the impact of the bombing from reports by CNN’s reporters in Baghdad.”

With CNN’s growing global reach in 1991, the war was being watched across the world. It was reported that the beginning of the war was being watched on CNN simultaneously by George Bush, Saddam Hussein, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, British prime minister John Major, and the emir of Kuwait, giving CNN another name, “an intercom service for world leaders.” It wasn’t an empty sobriquet. Very suddenly, war had changed and CNN (and global mass media generally) was woven into this new way that war worked. Air Force major general Perry Smith, who at that time was a military analyst for CNN, wrote a book about the new phenomenon, revealing, “In my conversations with Pentagon officials from the rank of major through two-star general, it was interesting how often they would say, in effect, ‘We are trying to get something done here, but we are stuck. It would be great if you could raise the issue on CNN. That might help us get some important things done more quickly.’” But while CNN allowed military officials to shuttle messages along new paths to circumvent bureaucratic channels, it was anything but a closed-circuit system; many millions across the world, allies and enemies, were watching simultaneously.

“An odd new phenomenon occurs with real-time capability,” observed a strategic military planner in a 1997 paper. “The public now gets credible, current information with commentary from analysts during military operations.” Until the Gulf War and CNN, “this type of information was only available to government and military decision-makers.” The decision-cycle was suddenly compressed, and time, which hitherto in war’s history was the privileged province of generals and those in command, was no longer an asset they possessed. The military paper described the brand new moment in war: “Communications technology is shrinking the globe with news reports delivering the images of battle into offices and living rooms while events are happening,” and, crucially, this was seen to “bring viewers into the decision cycle of military leaders.” The new media environment formed “vital linkages between the public, the government and military operations in the field.” A 1996 military strategic assessment report would take note of the “information explosion” and how, as opposed to prior reliance on the intelligence community and the military, “policymakers are likely to get their first news on fast-breaking developments from CNN.”

“The media itself became an actor in the Gulf War,” concluded a McCluhanesque military assessment. It was strange to hear the Pentagon planners sound like postmodern philosophers in their attempts to make sense of the new electronic terrain. Those philosophers and theorists were themselves struggling to make sense of what many were calling the first postmodern war. Noam Chomsky and others named the televised component of the war “the second front,” suggesting that each image of the war, broadcast in real-time, was part of the war itself. Writing initially for European audiences, philosophers Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio brought their cutting-edge philosophical thought to bear on the new circumstance. Baudrillard wrote a series of essays during the war, enigmatically titled “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” tackling this new sort of war. The French thinker called it the first “electronic war,” with that character being as essential as any traditionally martial component. “That is indeed why the targeted bombings carefully avoided the Iraqi television antennae (which stand out like a sore thumb in the sky over Baghdad). War is no longer what it used to be.”

Fellow French philosopher Paul Virilio offered his “Desert Screen,” a series, like Baudrillard’s, issued during Desert Storm and after its conclusion. Virilio called the conflict the “first postmodern” war. In an interview just after the war’s start, Virilio explained that “war henceforth takes place in a stadium, the squared horizon of the screen, presented to spectators in the bleachers.” Even the weapons had cameras. Some of the most memorable footage broadcast was the view from the cameras on the tips of laser-guided “smart” bombs. Was it a bomb with a camera attached or a camera with a bomb attached? Either way, each of the war’s spectator-participants could ride on the tip of the ordnance anywhere there was a screen. “It is easy to see that with this conflict in ‘real time,’ we can no longer legitimately speak of a battlefield or of a ‘localized’ war,” explained Virilio. “Even if the land maneuvers remain precisely situated, they are overshadowed, totally dominated by the scope of a global capacity, of an environment in which the spatio-temporal reduction is the essential characteristic.”

War was now going to be anywhere and everywhere.



Matt Pulver

Writer — bylines at Salon, Alternet, McSweeney’s, Flagpole Magazine