Shock and Awe: Operation Iraqi Freedom and the media

BY Subarno Chattarji| IN Media Practice | 24/03/2003
The BBC World Service television presentation of the war indicated political opinions beneath the veneer of objectivity.


Subarno Chattarji


After months of inspections, diplomatic wrangling, and the US refusal to work through the UN, the war on Iraq is underway. The commencement of hostilities seems to be a relief for the US political and military establishment which had been preparing for such an eventuality for months. As in 1991 the world media is all over the battle zone and as in Gulf War I heavily dependent on military sources for information. The preparation for battle and its media propagation are perhaps best indicated by the media centre of the US Central Command, designed by Hollywood studio designers at considerable cost. The idea of war as spectacle - most memorably summed up by CNN’s Peter Arnett in 1991 - is further underlined by the easy collaboration between Hollywood and the US armed forces. ‘The skies are [once again] illuminated over Baghdad’ and there is both a sense of sameness (akin to watching a war movie one more time) and difference. The difference is, of course, in the technological advancements in armaments and the absolute commitment to ‘regime change’. As many analysts note (not so much in mainstream media, but websites such as and the current war is necessary to test and use military hardware that has been developed since 1991. In such an analysis war makes good economic sense both from the point of view of destruction and reconstruction contracts. Media coverage thus far highlights, consciously or otherwise, other continuities and breaks from the past.


I look primarily at BBC World Service television presentation of the war. Like every other channel BBC is techno-savvy, has correspondents swarming all over the Middle East and parts of Iraq, and provides 24-hour, often real time coverage. The BBC reflects, if only partially, the ambiguity of the British position. British (and European) anti-war protests, the acrimonious House of Commons debate, and the fact that Tony Blair won the parliamentary vote with Conservative support have all been reported by BBC. Mass media most often obliterates contexts so that facts take on an absolute validity and life of their own. While this is largely true of BBC reportage, it is significant that the channel ran a feature (a ‘backgrounder’ as it were) on Saddam Hussein that actually mentioned western (read US, UK, France, Germany) support for and complicity in Iraq’s development of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), particularly during the Iran-Iraq war. The feature showed footage of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attack on Hallabja and mentioned western silence at the time. This brief historicised interlude offers a window onto alternative perspectives seldom available in mainstream television.


Occasionally ‘Middle East experts’ (and this is prime time for such academic analysts) have nudged the BBC into perceiving - and making available to the media consumer - histories and realities all but wiped out in the dominant language of war. There have also been very occasional snide remarks by BBC correspondents indicating political opinions beneath the veneer of ‘objectivity’. For instance, the BBC man at 10 Downing Street was justifiably convinced that Geoff Hoon, British Defence Secretary, had not been informed prior to the ‘decapitation’ attack. Hoon, of course, claimed that he had and the correspondent said that the information must have been shared between the Secretary and his pillow. On another occasion, Nik Gowing, responding to General Tommy Franks’ reference to the email he had received from his wife Cathy, mentioned that Cathy always sends her husband off on campaigns with: ‘Go make the world safe for democracy’. These examples do not mean that the BBC has transformed itself into a subversive force, but they do indicate fissures in dominant rhetoric and representation. In comparison to MSNBC which ends each news bulletin sector with ‘God Bless America’, BBC at least makes a gesture towards representative coverage. I will look at some of the commentary on BBC in the context of the language of this war.


General Tommy Franks in his press conference on 22 March emphasised the new terminology for describing the conflict. He said the campaign would revolve around ‘shock’, ‘surprise’, ‘flexibility’, and the use of overwhelming force. The first three were, I suppose, demonstrated in the initial ‘decapitation’ attack on Baghdad and were tied up with Saddam Hussein and his cohorts being described as ‘targets of opportunity’. Given the decimation of Iraq’s air capability the entire country represents such ‘targets of opportunity’ but it is important that the term was linked exclusively to the stated objective of the campaign: ‘regime change’. The attempt to ‘decapitate’ the Iraqi leadership harks back, in cultural and lexical terms, to the language of the American frontier in its direct reference to violence. This direct referentiality is at odds with general war language which abounds in euphemisms such as collateral damage. ‘Decapitation’ reminds me of American Indian scalping and, along with naming of missiles such as the Tomahawk, indicates a seamless appropriation of an earlier period of violence integral to the making of the US. The rough-and-ready language relates in more contemporary terms to the US President’s ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ pronouncement on Osama bin-Laden. The violence inherent in ‘decapitation’ is directly linked to the demonisation of Saddam immediately prior to and since 1991. The largely unsubstantiated links between Saddam in 2003, WMDs, and Al Qaeda further that process of placing Saddam within the ‘axis of evil’. One need not be an apologist for the Iraqi dictator to recognise the rhetorical and political connections used by the US and the media to build a case for war. Extremist, absolute language is also used by the Iraqis. For instance, the Iraqi Information Minister continually refers to US forces as ‘mercenaries’ and ‘stupid’. The complete dichotomies are necessary to sustain the war and not new to this conflict. General Franks’ four terms are not particularly novel either. The scale and scope of destruction has obviously increased with advances in military technology, but all four factors mentioned by the General were in operation in Vietnam, for instance. The North Vietnamese displayed greater flexibility - and hence won the war - but they too were subjected to overwhelming force. In terms of tonnage more bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos than during the entire Second World War. It is because the Vietnam War has been written out of mainstream American imagination and history that General Franks can propound his principles as revolutionary.


It is interesting to chart the changes in US rhetoric just prior to and since the war began. As Dr Rosemary Hollis pointed out on BBC, the first emphasis was on asking Saddam and his sons to leave the country within 48 hours. The second was the assassination attempt or ‘decapitation’. The third shift is the hope of a coup or at least an internal uprising. While there is now a new focus on liberation and not occupation as well as a desire to move away from the personality of Saddam Hussein, he keeps cropping up. Is he dead or alive, injured or in good health? These questions and rumours adeptly circulated by intelligence and military agencies are part of psychological operations to demoralise the enemy and immediately picked up by the media.


Along with the stress on liberating Iraq from a tyrannical regime is the skilfully orchestrated repetition of the care that is being taken to avoid civilian casualties. In 1991 Iraq scored propaganda and humanitarian points by inviting the global media to hospitals that had been bombed. This time round precision bombing, Geoff Hoon, among others tells us, will minimise civilian casualties. Precision bombs existed in 1991 but presumably they have become more precise. In 1991 the focus was more on the liberation of Kuwait; this time it will be a public relations disaster if the Iraqis who are the object of liberation are killed by their liberators. The preoccupation with liberation has created another piquant situation. While Iraqi soldiers have surrendered there have been no open welcome from the population of towns currently occupied by the ‘coalition forces’. In fact the US military seems troubled by the tenacity and extent of the resistance in Umm Qasr and other places in southern Iraq.


Coupled with the idea of liberation is the repetition of the advances and achievements of ‘coalition forces’. The term ‘coalition forces’ is important to deflect the reality of the accusation that this is in effect a US effort. There are troops from UK, Australia, Denmark, and Netherlands, but in comparison to the US their numbers are minimal and the command and planning is obviously with the US. On the first day of the war Ari Fleisher, White House Spokesman, referred to the 35-country coalition supporting the US war, subsequently upgraded to 40 by Donald Rumsfeld. Fleisher highlighted the fact that the 35 countries constitute 1.8 billion people of all faiths, races, and continents. The implications of this are obvious: that all the 1.8 billion people in those countries support the war. That this not so is proved if one looks at just two of the 35 mentioned by Fleisher: Italy and Australia, both of which have witnessed and continue to witness anti-war demonstrations. Anti-war protests in the US and elsewhere are completely ignored by the political elite and receive scattered coverage from mainstream media. It is significant that BBC has reported anti-war protests in the UK and Europe and is now reporting on such protests in Jordan, Yemen, and Egypt. The actual time spent on such reportage is minimal but at least it is available. Even the New York Times in an op-ed by David Callahan acknowledged the significance of anti-war protest in the US, particularly with regard to the future of American politics. Callahan writes: ‘Many protesters are unhappy that their arguments are being ignored — not so much by the news media, although coverage has been sporadic at best, but by their elected leaders. Of course, a disconnect between the will of ordinary people and elites in Washington has been obvious for more than a decade. It has spurred many third-party candidacies and led to campaign-finance reform. Now, after the manipulation of public opinion by a president intent on war, and the failure of Congress to offer real dissent to his policy, voters’ concerns about the health of American democracy will only deepen.’[i] Some of these concerns are reflected in relatively new media sites such as the internet. There is an active Veterans Against the Iraq War ( which contains articles and testimonies by American veterans from the Second World War, Vietnam, and the Gulf War in 1991. Organisations such as ( have petitioned the UN, circulated well-researched mail on what Gulf War II will mean, and created a virtual community of dissenters around the globe. Fleisher’s coalition is mere sleight of hand and does not delve into complex politics within the US and without. Turkey’s refusal to permit US forces to use its airspace, the opposition from China, France, Germany, Russia, among others form a complex mosaic of geopolitics that neither Fleisher nor the mainstream media picks up in any detail.


Along with liberation is the curious insistence that WMDs will be found in Iraq. This was mentioned by Geoff Hoon in his press briefing on 22 March and by General Franks on the same day. If Iraq uses WMDs it will be a vindication of sorts of the US position. If it does not (because they may not exist any more) the US and its coalition is in a bit of a spot. Whatever the case may be one can be sure that US media managers will continue to spin their stories which, by and large, the mainstream media will replicate faithfully. Several BBC correspondents in the field have referred to the ‘fog of war’ when trying to indicate the lack of credible information. Undoubtedly the US military managers control the flow of information very strictly. There is, however, the close symbiosis between the military and the media, the media as force multiplier and purveyor of official rumours and information as news that contributes to the ‘fog of war’. As ordinary Iraqis are shocked and awed by US firepower one can only hope that their day of liberation is at hand.



  Subarno Chattarji teaches English at Delhi University. Contact:






[1] David Callahan, ‘Marching Forward’, New York Times, 22 March 2003.





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