5. the Gulf War of 1991

By Biernatzki, William E. | Communication Research Trends, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

5. the Gulf War of 1991


Biernatzki, William E., Communication Research Trends


"A War by Any Other Name ..."

One's audience is important to consider when discussing the wars in the Persian Gulf region during the past two decades. People in the region often refer to them as the "First," "Second," and "Third" Gulf Wars (TBS, 2003, #10). The first was the long, bloody struggle between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988, that began with an Iraqi attack on an Iran perceived by the Iraqis to be militarily vulnerable. The second began with the Iraqi attack on Kuwait and ended with the American and Coalition forces' defeat of the Iraqi army, in 1991. The third was the 2003 defeat and occupation of Iraq by chiefly American forces. More usual in the United States is to call the first the "Iran-Iraq War," the second the "Persian Gulf War," the "First Gulf War," or simply the "Gulf War," and the third the "Iraq War" or the "War in Iraq," provisionally, although history may eventually give it a more permanent name. Since most of the sources to be cited in this paper are American, it seems simplest to stay with the U.S. terminology.

Paradigms and Social Dramas

Iraq's blatant invasion of Kuwait had established Saddam Hussein as the "villain" from the very beginning of the 1991 war. In spite of Kuwait's autocratic government and its alleged subservience to Western governments and their petroleum industries, it was cast as the "underdog." In the light of a familiar, "good guys/bad guys" paradigm, relatively little opposition to the war developed in its early stages.

As a sidelight, it might be noted that for the media and the public, at least in America, the scenario of "heroically rushing to the aid of the victim" had been deeply ingrained in the course of all major wars since Cuba, in 1898; through France in 1917; China, Britain, the Philippines, and much of the rest of the world in the Second World War; South Korea in 1950; and South Vietnam, in the 1960s. Anthropologist Victor Turner's conceptualization of "social dramas" and "ritual metaphors" suggests how such cultural patterning can establish a program for action which may seem "obvious" and "self-evident" when it appears applicable to emerging historical processes (Turner, 1974). The invasion of Kuwait seemed to fit this pattern perfectly, and made American involvement practically inevitable, with strong support from U.S. public opinion. Although Gallup polls between the invasion and mid- to late January 1991 were only slightly in favor of "going to war," the favorable percentage rose to 71% in a poll of January 30-February 2nd, when only 24% voiced opposition (Moore, 2003). Whether or not this patterning was influenced by propaganda or slanted reporting is beside the point, since--rightly or wrongly--they are factors in shaping public opinion and cultural paradigms.

Battlefield in the Living Room

The 1991 war exploded onto a mass media environment that had developed significantly since the Vietnam War. In the United States, 60% of households now had cable television linked to networks by satellite, with the average cable franchise supplying 36 channels, almost always including CNN. Remote control permitted viewers to change channels instantly. Most television was received in color. Since the early 1960s, a majority of American adults had cited television as their main source of news, and by 1989, 65% said it was (Gantz,1993, p. 8). A survey in January 1991 found that, in two U.S. states, 79% and 88%, respectively, of those who were at home when the air war began, on January 16, 1991, got their first news about it from television. Almost all those in transit at the time first heard about it from radio (Gantz & Greenberg, 1993, pp. 170-171). In Europe and other industrially developed countries, and many developing countries, satellite links often made diverse sources of news available to viewers, although some governments attempted to control access. The Internet also had evolved as a common means of communication among a small, but influential part of the world's population. …

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