Television and Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Just as the film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) changed the ways that many people looked at warfare, so the presence of warfare in televised media of various types has once again changed public perceptions.


Just as the film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) changed the ways that many people looked at warfare, so the presence of warfare in televised media of various types has once again changed public perceptions. Sometimes television programs can change the ways that the public perceives war, and sometimes they can impact how policy makers conduct war. No matter how one regards the relationship of television and warfare, however, the way that television portrays war–whether in news coverage, documentaries, or dramatic fiction–can have an effect on how war is thought about in the abstract, how it is conducted, and how it is remembered.Television and warfareTelevision and warfare


Although war coverage on television goes back to its roots in the late 1940’s, it was in the 1960’s when television first began to have a significant impact. In January, 1968, although the war in Vietnam War (1961-1975);on television[television]Vietnam (1961-1975) was controversial, “Middle America” largely supported the war and believed the statements of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and General William Westmoreland: that the end of the war, in victory, was imminent. That all changed when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) launched what came to be known as the Tet Offensive, attacking more than thirty cities throughout South Vietnam at once during the Vietnamese New Year celebration week, which was traditionally a time of truce. Television crews were there when the VC breached the gates of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.

Although, as a battle, the Tet Offensive (1968);on television[television]Tet Offensive had to be considered a loss for the NVA and VC, it proved to be a victory in the long term. The reason for that victory is the key to the significance of television and war: The American public saw that a victory for their side was not “just around the corner.” Public opinion turned quickly against Johnson, McNamara, and Westmoreland. Not long after, Cronkite, WalterCronkite, WalterWalter Cronkite, news anchor for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), came out against the war, leading Johnson to state, famously, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

News Coverage

The News coveragefirst American war to be covered on television was not the Vietnam War but the Korean War (1950-1953);on television[television]Korean War (1950-1953). However, the television coverage of the Korean War did not have the impact of the coverage of the Vietnam War, for two reasons. First, in the early 1950’s, network broadcast signals reached only half of the country, and less than half of the families in the areas to which signals were broadcast actually owned television sets. Second, the footage of the Korean War was provided largely by military cameramen who worked with black-and-white film and within the format established during the 1930’s and 1940’s for newsreels distributed to movie theaters. Therefore, although much of the footage of the war shot by these cameramen is vivid and often very moving, it reached relatively few viewers and demonstrated very little awareness of the possibilities peculiar to the new medium of television.

By the mid-1960’s, when the American involvement in the Vietnam War (1961-1975);on television[television]Vietnam War dramatically escalated, the television networks had expanded and refined their news shows into centerpieces of their programming and had developed large organizations of overseas reporters and cameramen, rivaling the news-gathering capabilities of the major newspapers and newsmagazines. The crews assigned to cover the Vietnam War competed to “scoop” competitors on important or controversial developments. Their reports from the “battle front,” which in Vietnam was just about anywhere, often led off the nightly news broadcasts, and because the cameramen used color film, the conflict had an immediacy that was dramatically new. Indeed, because war had never officially been declared against the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, reporting was not anywhere nearly as strictly censored as the reporting on World War II (1939-1945) had been. Families often sat eating their TV dinners while they watched some harrowing footage of firefights in which soldiers on both sides were wounded or killed on camera. The blood was red, and the gore was not always edited out. Moreover, because the draft system meant that every neighborhood and most families had someone serving in the war, the television coverage of its brutal realities not only fueled the radical antiwar movement but also, perhaps more significantly, eroded mainstream confidence in the conduct of the war. Indeed, the turning point in public support for the war effort is often identified as Cronkite, WalterCronkite, WalterCronkite’s declaration that he believed that victory was no longer possible, if indeed it had ever been possible.

Nonetheless, given the protracted nature of the Vietnam conflict, it eventually became a challenge to show or say anything new about it. Because the news reports were still recorded on film that had to be sent to processing centers, it was also difficult to protect a “scoop.” In the mid-1970’s, the development of videotape and then the rapid expansion and refinement of satellite transmission would have had a dramatic effect on the coverage of the invasions of Grenada and Panama–but those military operations were so focused, suddenly launched, and quickly concluded that the new technologies had relatively little impact on the coverage of the conflicts.

Then, after Gulf War (1990-1991);on television[television]Hussein, SaddamSaddam Hussein seized Kuwait in 1990, the United States and its coalition of allies took some months to build a sufficient force on the ground and to reduce the Iraqi military capabilities from the air. The military strictly controlled coverage of this prolonged buildup to what was a very swiftly decisive ground war. News organizations subsequently complained that their ability to cover the conflict with any objectivity had been seriously compromised by military controls. The military and political criticism of reporters such as Arnett, PeterArnett, PeterPeter Arnett, reporting for CNN (Cable News Network)Cable News Network (CNN)–who remained in Baghdad and provided firsthand reports on the allied air attacks against the military, transportation, and communication facilities in the city (reports that were described as something close to enemy propaganda)–was ultimately mitigated by the American military’s own heavy-handed manipulation of the media.

By the time of the war in War on Terror;on television[television]Afghanistan;television reportsAfghanistan and the invasion of Iraq War (beg. 2003);on television[television]Iraq, which followed on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, terrorist attacksSeptember 11, 2001, the development of the twenty-four-hour Cable news networkscable news networks created an almost insatiable demand for news and intensified competition among news organizations. In addition, advancements in electronic technologies had turned every cell phone into a camera whose images could very easily be disseminated by e-mail or uploaded to the Internet. The development of Blogsblogs and other“new” electronic venues for reportage and news commentary meant that the audience for television news was being further fragmented. Indeed, the InternetWeb became a repository for television news clips, whether legitimately or illicitly distributed, and television news programs began to promote “extended” discussions meant exclusively for broadcast on the Web.

Recognizing that all of these developments meant that it could not control coverage of these more geographically dispersed and prolonged conflicts as it had controlled coverage of the first Gulf War, the military developed the strategy of Journalism;embeddedEmbedded reporters“embedding” reporters with small units. The reporters thus shared the experiences of the troops with whom they traveled and came to see the war largely through their eyes. Coverage of the conflicts was sometimes extremely intense, but each reporter was able to provide a perspective on only a very small part of the conflicts. It is arguable that this strategy diffused and delayed the media attention to the lack of clearly defined strategic goals and plans in both conflicts.

Television Documentaries

Some of the Documentariesdocumentaries that have been shown on television were originally developed as newsreel material to be shown in movie theaters. They had a major influence on documentaries subsequently produced for television. For instance, during World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];documentaries[World War 02]World War II, the renowned film director Frank Capra produced Why We Fight (documentary) Why We Fight (1942-1945), a seven-part series made for the U.S. government and presenting the case for American involvement in all theaters of the war. Although less overtly propagandistic than Capra’s series, the series Victory at Sea (documentary) Victory at Sea, a twenty-six-episode series first aired in 1952 and 1953 by the National Broadcasing Company (NBC) and narrated by Walter Huston, and Thames Television’s World at War, The (documentary) The World at War, a twenty-six-episode series first aired in 1973 and narrated by Laurence Olivier, both owed a great deal to the style of Capra’s series. That style also carried over to CBS’s acclaimed documentary series Twentieth Century, The (documentary series) The Twentieth Century, which aired each week from 1957 until 1966. Narrated by Cronkite, WalterCronkite, Walter Walter Cronkite, each episode covered one of the century’s most important political and cultural events or figures. The series was reworked, with Wallace, MikeWallace, Mike Mike Wallace as narrator, for broadcast on A&E in the 1980’s. All of these documentaries relied on black-and-white archival footage, inspiring the 1999 documentary series World War II in Color (documentary series) World War II in Color.

The two major documentary series about World War I have been Great War, The (documentary series) The Great War, jointly produced by the British, Canadian, and Australian Broadcasting Corporations and chiefly narrated by Michael Redgrave, and World War I (documentary series) World War I, produced by CBS and narrated by Robert Ryan. Both series were first aired in 1964, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the war, and both consisted of twenty-six episodes.

The major documentary about the Korean War has been Korea: The Forgotten War (documentary) Korea: The Forgotten War, aired in 1987. The Vietnam War has been the subject of many compelling documentaries focusing on individual battles and campaigns and particular aspects of the war–from the soldiers who cleared enemy tunnel systems to the use of chemical defoliants to the experiences of prisoners of war. However, the two most significant documentary series that provide a broader perspective on the conflict have been The World of Charlie Company, aired on CBS in 1970, and Vietnam: The Ten-Thousand-Day War, a twenty-six-episode series produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that originally aired between 1980 and 1982. Not surprisingly, the Iraq War of the early 2000’s has already resulted in a large number of documentaries. Of those that have aired on television Baghdad ER (documentary) Baghdad ER, which aired on HBO in 2006, has perhaps received the most visceral attention and critical acclaim.

War-related documentaries have largely focused on twentieth and twenty-first century conflicts because there is no archival footage from earlier conflicts on which the filmmakers can draw. Most recently lauded for his documentary series on the World War II, titled simply War, The (documentary series) The War, Ken Burns had a profound impact on the application of the documentary form to earlier conflicts with his series Civil War, The (documentary series) The Civil War. A nine-part series that aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1990, The Civil War remains one of the most popular programs ever aired on that network. The Civil War was groundbreaking because Burns recruited well-known actors and actresses to read letters and journals from combatants and their loved ones, which were voiced over actual photographs of the people, battles, and national events associated with the war, skillfully intercut. Moreover, he found commentators on the conflict–notably historian and author Shelby Foote–who made the history truly compelling without indulging in any melodramatic turns. The producers of the documentary series American Revolution, The (documentary series) The American Revolution were obviously inspired by Burns’s success, but they lacked the photographic archives that Burns had available to him. Thus, in this thirteen-part series originally aired on the History Channel in 2006, they employed actors to portray the famous figures and ordinary people from whose perspectives the story of the war is told. Thus, the documentary series moved very close to the television miniseries.

Television Miniseries

The two most successful television miniseries have both treated World War II. In the 1970’s, Wouk, HermanWouk, HermanWinds of War, The (Wouk novel, miniseries) War and Remembrance (Wouk novel, miniseries) Herman Wouk’s novels The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978) were turned into the most costly miniseries in television history. The series featured some major film actors, including Robert Mitchum, who played the scion of a widely dispersed American family that manages to be on the scene in most of the war’s major theaters. In contrast, the HBO series Band of Brothers (book, miniseries) Band of Brothers (2001) was based on a nonfiction book of the same title by historian Stephen Ambrose and follows an airborne unit from the weeks preceding the D-day landings in Normandy to the mountains of Austria at the war’s conclusion.

Other notable miniseries treating wars have included Julius Caesar (2002), treating the conflicts that marked Rome’s transformation from a Republic to an Empire; Masada (1981), depicting the desperate climax of Jewish resistance to Roman rule in 73 c.e. ; John Adams (2008), dramatizing the second U.S. president’s pivotal contributions to the American Revolution; The Blue and the Gray (1982), Gettysburg (1993), and Lincoln (1974), treating the American Civil War; Holocaust (1978), personalizing the Nazi genocide against Europe’s Jews; Uprising (2001), focusing on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; Then There Were Giants (1994), depicting the Tehran Conference during World War II; Changi (2002), documenting the Japanese mistreatment of Australian prisoners of war; Oppenheimer (1980), focusing on the physicist who coordinated the effort to develop the atomic bomb; Nuremberg (2000), dramatizing the war-crimes trials of surviving Nazi leaders; and Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy (1986), capturing the bloodletting that marked the partition of the British raj into the independent nations of India and Pakistan.Television and warfare

Books and Articles
  • Anderson, Robin. A Century of Media, a Century of War. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. Looks at how modern media have turned war into entertainment, in motion pictures, on television screens, and in video games.
  • Bullert, B. J. Public Television: Politics and Battle over Documentary Film. Trenton, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997. Examines how PBS has carefully shaped the documentaries that it airs, sometimes stifling the freedom of expression and diverse voices that are a part of its mandate.
  • DeVito, John, and Frank Tropea. Epic Television Miniseries: A Critical History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009. Looks the historical development of television miniseries, covering the two-series set that established the standard for war television, Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.
  • Hoskins, Andrew. Televising War: From Vietnam to Iraq. London: Continuum, 2004. From a critical perspective, looks at the ways that the television media have taken advantage of war, sometimes hyping conflict in the name of ratings.
  • Kilborn, Richard, and John Izod. Confronting Reality: An Introduction to the Television Documentary. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997. Investigates the role of the institutions that produce documentaries in shaping how audiences interpret the images they see, some of the most vivid of which have to do with war.
  • Mermin, Jonathan. Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999. Uses a case-study format to argue that television coverage of warfare affects not only individual opinions of war but also foreign policy agendas.
  • Rueven, Frank. “TV in a Time of War.” New Leader, November/December, 2001, 47-49. This article examines how television, in terms of both news coverage and dramatic series, has shaped views on the War on Terrorism.
  • Thrall, A. Trevor. War in the Media Age. Creskill, N.J.: Hampton, 2000. Investigates the press strategy of the American government from the Vietnam War to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, drawing attention to the increasing importance of the press in the war over political opinion.
  • Thussu, Daya Kishan, and Des Freedman, eds. War and the Media: Reporting Conflict 24/7. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2003. Looks at the historical and contemporary relationships between the media and the military and how the reporter’s role has changed along with the changing definitions of war and terrorism.

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