1991: Censorship During the Gulf War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Gulf War, which began as Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi invasion and became Operation Desert Storm to liberate Iraqi-held Kuwait, involved world access to Persian Gulf oil. The United States fought to keep the mercurial Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, from military dominance in a sensitive region. Consequently, the United States began a military buildup in the region in August, 1990, after Iraq overran its small neighbor, Kuwait. United States and allied forces waged a massive air and ground assault on Iraq from January 16, 1991, to February 28, 1991. This assault liberated Kuwait but stopped short of total occupation of Iraq or removal of Saddam Hussein. The campaign involved serious censorship issues.

The war included strict controls on the information allowed to the media.

The Gulf War, which began as Operation Desert Shield to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraqi invasion and became Operation Desert Storm to liberate Iraqi-held Kuwait, involved world access to Persian Gulf oil. The United States fought to keep the mercurial Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, from military dominance in a sensitive region. Consequently, the United States began a military buildup in the region in August, 1990, after Iraq overran its small neighbor, Kuwait. United States and allied forces waged a massive air and ground assault on Iraq from January 16, 1991, to February 28, 1991. This assault liberated Kuwait but stopped short of total occupation of Iraq or removal of Saddam Hussein. The campaign involved serious censorship issues.

Military Censorship

Generally, the restriction or manipulation of information in a free society during wartime has been viewed as acceptable when national or military security is at stake. It is viewed as unacceptable when information is restricted or manipulated for political purposes–such as protecting the images of military and civilian leaders. Generally too, the media and the wartime authorities conflict over the manner and degree of censorship.

The Vietnam War prompted American leadership to develop a new model for dealing with the media during subsequent conflicts. Vietnam had been the most open war in U.S. history. It was also the first television war. Brutal images flashed back to the United States the reality of war. Although political and military leadership had tried to influence the type and flow of information, the media were free to roam the war zone and talk to the troops. In a war without fronts, the count of enemy dead became the military yardstick by which success was measured. The media exposed the body count system as fantasy and folly. Some in the military blamed the media for damaging American morale to the extent that the war became unwinnable.

The new model for war coverage in an age of instant communication, based on the British practice during the Falkland Islands War of 1982, involved sanitizing visual images, controlling media access to military operations, censoring information that could upset civilians, and excluding journalists who filed unfavorable stories. True to the British model, during the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983 the media were simply held incommunicado until the operation was complete. During the Gulf War, this proved impractical, owing to the duration of the conflict. Not a single journalist, however, accompanied the first American troops to the Persian Gulf in August of 1990 (actual fighting did not begin until January, 1991), as the Department of Defense began to lay the groundwork for censorship. In September, 1990, the Department of Defense claimed that at least 250,000 Iraqi troops were massing in Kuwait to attack Saudi Arabia. President George Bush used this misinformation to “draw a line in the sand.” No such buildup existed. Journalists at first accepted the military’s word. As journalists arrived in the Persian Gulf, the military implemented the pool system for controlling the flow of information.

The pool system restricted journalists to group meetings with selected military units and accompanied by a military official. The military also instituted a security-review procedure, which constituted a prior restraint on the news. Escort guidelines further dictated that the media were allowed no “unilateral coverage” of events. Finally, all stories and photographs had to be cleared by the Pentagon.

The commanding U.S. field general, Norman Schwarzkopf, deflected all criticism of the system by claiming that he was merely following orders and referring all critics to the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in the Pentagon. Schwartzkopf’s own rules for dealing with the media were “Don’t let them intimidate you”; “There’s no law that says you have to answer all their questions”; “Don’t answer any questions that in your judgment would help the enemy”; and “Don’t ever lie to the American people.”

As a junior officer in Vietnam, Schwartzkopf had had firsthand experience with the high command’s insistence upon a body count. Consequently, as commander in the Persian Gulf, he angrily rejected any talk about body counts. He claimed that he was as forthcoming as he could be, and that he even had to intercede with the Saudis to ensure some media access to the war. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were without any tradition of a free press. Officially, the Saudis and the Kuwaitis could not understand why censorship could not be complete. Schwartzkopf’s command had to handle this situation delicately.

Political Necessities

Politics, rather than military necessity, was the motive for much of the censorship in the Persian Gulf War. Washington insisted that it engaged in “precision bombing” using “smart” bombs during its forty-three day pounding of Baghdad, and doctored its photographic evidence accordingly. In fact, more than 90 percent of the bombs dropped were “dumb” bombs (those without guidance systems). Success was defined as avoiding civilian targets. Peter Arnett, a Cable News Network (CNN) correspondent who was allowed to broadcast from Baghdad, documented damage to civilian targets. He also verified the destruction of a plant that produced powdered milk for infants (the United States had insisted that the plant was used to produce biological weapons). The Iraqi government shadowed Arnett, but likely figured it was getting more propaganda value from his reports than the enemy was getting morale value. This introduced a new technological twist to modern warfare. A correspondent may broadcast live attacks on the enemy from the enemy’s position; Arnett did so. Some viewed this, in the heat of war, as treasonous. Arnett was vilified in Washington. Senator Alan Simpson even went so far as to call him a “sympathizer” with the enemy.

War is ugly and any attempt to beautify it–such as showing only attractive videos of perfect hits with smart bombs–must have political implications. Presidential orders barred the media from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware when American caskets returned from the war zone. The military report minimizing the number of Iraqis killed became a sanitized account of how many tanks, planes, and pieces of equipment had been destroyed. Critics have claimed that these attempts to shield a free people from the consequences of their country’s actions can have no justification as military security. They see this as a way of shielding political and military leaders from criticism. Clearly, a controversial and delicate balance exists between military security and freedom of information.

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