on television has been the subject of both fictional accounts and
extensive, often compelling, news coverage. War and other bellicose
activities have inspired television documentaries, docudramas, dramatic
series and situation comedies. Fictional accounts of war and documentary
accounts of historical wars, however, are not discussed in this
article that focuses instead on televised coverage of contemporary
warfare and related military actions.
The first noteworthy war to occur in the television age was the
Korean War (1950-53). Television was, of course, in its infancy
as a mass medium at the time and, as a consequence, the Korean conflict
is not widely thought of as a televised war. Not only did relatively
few viewers have access to television sets, but, because satellite
technology was unavailable, television film had to be transported
by air to broadcasters. By the time such film arrived its immediacy
was much diminished; often, therefore, newspapers and radio remained
the media of choice. Nonetheless, in August 1950, a CBS television
news announcer reported an infantry landing as it was in-progress,
and the controversy caused by this possible security breach reflects
conflicts that would long continue between military authorities
waging war and television reporters covering that warfare.
In some national contexts, concern about security has sometimes
led to formal legal censorship of television war coverage, although,
as frequently, physical or technological obstacles inherent to television
broadcasting from theaters of war or erected by military personnel
at the scene of a conflict served the same censorship purpose. Debates
about censorship raged during many of the post-War European military
campaigns to maintain control over the many colonies that would
eventually achieve national independence. Informal censorship was
frequent, however, as when during the 1956 Suez expedition British
media were requested to refrain from reporting certain information,
but were not forced to do so under penalty of law.
coverage also inspired controversy during the Vietnam War (1962-1975).
Despite clear evidence that the war effort was less than successful
in objective terms, popular opinion and much expert military opinion
regard the Vietnam War as one that could have been won on the battlefield
but was lost in the living room (where viewers watched their television
sets). Reporters who covered the war in the early 1960s remember,
however, that most of that early coverage was laudatory and that,
in the words of Bernard Kalb who would later join the Cable News
Network (CNN), there was "an awful of lot of jingoism...on the part
of the press in which it celebrated the American involvement in
Vietnam." Methodical scholarly accounts of televised coverage also
uniformly discover that television coverage was inclined overall
to highlight positive aspects of the Vietnam War and that viewers
exposed to the most televised coverage were also most inclined to
view the military favorably. Nevertheless, domestic social schisms
blamed on the Vietnam War and the war's ultimate failure to sustain
a non-Communist regime in Vietnam are often blamed on television
and other media.
Whether the public turned against the Vietnam War because television,
in particular, and the media, in general, presented it unfavorably,
or whether the public turned against the war because media accurately
depicted its horrors and television did so most graphically remains
an open and hotly contested question in the public debate. There
is, however, no historic evidence to prove that a graphic portrayal
of war disinclines a viewing public to engage in a war. Some critics
suggest that the opposite may be the case when a public considers
a war justified and is exposed to images of its side enduring great
a less than definitive understanding of television coverage and
its impact on popular support for war efforts, military strategists
began to integrate domestic public relations strategy and overall
military strategy during the Vietnam War. As the war progressed,
military analysts continued to debate whether it was appropriate
for the military to attempt to influence civilian public policy
through such efforts. Within military circles and in the wake of
the Vietnam War, most such debates were left behind and media relations
strategies went far beyond censorship and toward a full-fledged
engagement (some say co-optation) of televised media.
During 1976 naval conflicts between Britain and Iceland over fishing
rights, strategies to influence televised coverage were used by
the Icelandic side to depict Britain as the aggressive party, while
the British Navy still even refused to allow television crews on
its ships. As late as the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War, during which
Britain successfully regained control of the South Atlantic islands
that Argentina's military government had invaded, British military
strategists had yet to develop a comprehensive media strategy. Although,
the British Navy did allow television and other media personnel
to travel aboard its ships to the geographically isolated Falklands/Malvinas
Islands, the British did not control the content of the war coverage
by systematically influencing television media.
following year when the United States invaded Grenada, concerns
regarding less than favorable television coverage prompted military
planners to exclude civilian in favor of military television camera
crews. Sensitivity to unfavorable television coverage was heightened
at this time by the deaths of 230 U.S. Marine and 50 French peacekeepers
in a bomb attack during operations in Beirut. But in 1989, when
the U.S. invaded Panama, the exclusion of civilian television crews
was not possible and thanks to satellite technology and round-the-clock
CNN coverage, television viewers were able to watch the progress
of military operations with much immediacy. As had been the case
during the early Vietnam War, the television media was generally
inclined to stress the salutary aspects of the Panama Invasion,
and U.S. military planners also did a more effective job of controlling
the public perception of the invasion.
short-lived nature of the Panama, Grenada, and Falklands/Malvinas
operations may have also forestalled adverse public reactions among
the civilian populations who watched their governments wage war
on television. Some argue that television coverage makes short-lived
military engagements more likely. Yet, despite many short-lived
military endeavors, long-term warfare is still possible in the television
age. Still, some observers suggest that lack of widely available
independent television coverage is what makes long-term warfare
palatable to the international community in contemporary times.
The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), for example, received often negligible
international television coverage. Yet, the recent Civil Wars in
former Yugoslavia (1991-?) have continued at varying levels of intensity
despite often extensive international coverage. Other extended or
particularly brutal border conflicts, terrorist campaigns, coups
d'état, civil wars and genocidal endeavors have also received sometimes
varying levels of television coverage. Such latter-day wars have
been waged in Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Chad, Chechnya,
El Salvador, Ethiopia, Georgia, Guatemala, Liberia, Nigeria, Peru,
Rwanda, the Sudan, Yemen and in other places far too numerous to
the 1992 U.S.-led occupation of Somalia and the 1994 U.S.-led occupation
of Haiti may have, however, failed to create much domestic opposition
because of their short-duration. The 1992 Somalia operation did,
nonetheless, feature one of the most surreal interactions between
military personnel and television film crews. This occurred when
the first U.S. occupation forces landing on Somali beaches at night
found their landings illuminated by the television lights of international
news organizations. Criticism of the security risk this illumination
entailed harks back to similar criticism of the 1950 CBS report
on the infantry landing in Korea.
far the most noteworthy recent interaction between military and
television was occasioned not by a localized conflict but by U.S.-led,
internationally sponsored 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. In the aftermath
of this war, television and other media were criticized for having
failed to provide a balanced and complete account of the war. Some
critics, most notably Douglass Kellner in the The Persian Gulf
TV War, argue that television and other media failed to provide
a balanced and complete account of the war because the corporate
owners of commercial networks felt it was not in their business
interest to do so. Other critics suggest that television coverage
simply reflects popular prejudices. To a great extent, however,
during the actual war, as in previous wars, the various national
media had to rely on the military forces for access to events and
for access to their broadcast networks. According to the Wall
Street Journal's John Fialka, the importance of military cooperation
is seen in this: that U.S. Marines, despite their smaller role in
the war, received more U.S. news coverage than the U.S. Army, in
part, because U.S. Marines were more dedicated to opening the lines
of communication between reporters in their operations area and
the reporters' news organizations back home. Overall, however, British
television coverage-benefiting from access policies put in place
after the Falklands/Malvinas War-featured the timeliest reports
on front-line action. The British military forces were the only
ones to allow satellite up-links near the front lines.
cooperation with the media also made possible the most notable television
innovation during the 1991 Gulf War. This was the access broadcast
television had to the closed-circuit video images that emanated
from camera-equipped high-tech weaponry directed against Iraqi targets.
Thanks to this access, television viewers were literally able to
see from the viewpoint of missiles and other weapons as these bore
down on Iraqi civilian and military targets-mostly vehicles, buildings
and other inanimate infrastructure. Significantly, also according
to the Journal's Fialka, videotape from cameras mounted on
U.S. Army Apache helicopter-gunships "showing Iraqi soldiers being
mowed down by the gunship's Gatling gun" were seen by a Los Angeles
Times reporter but were suppressed thereafter and made unavailable
for television broadcast.
Delarbe argues that sophisticated efforts to control television
coverage were also attempted by Mexico's Zapatista Army of National
Liberation during its (1994-) uprising against the central government--a
particularly well-televised war in contrast to many listed above.
Such efforts to control televised imagery have, indeed, been attempted
as part of other military actions, guerrilla movements and terrorist
campaigns, but a military's having actual control of the point-of-view
of televised imagery is a phenomenon thus far almost unique to the
"The Troubles" of Northern Ireland
Photo courtesy of AP/ Wide World Photos
A soldier in Vietnam
lack of control sometimes seems to work in unexpected ways. This
has often seemed to b the case in the present conflict in the former
Yugoslavia. It has not been uncommon to see military actions from
multiple perspectives, interviews with political and military leaders
from all factions, human interest stories from within every combat
zone, and analyses of the aftermath of battles and shelling from
civilian as well as combatant or diplomatic points of view. And
when a particularly bloody mortar attack on Sarajevo came at a time
of tense diplomatic activity-apparent diplomatic failure to reach
a settlement of the conflict-televised images and stories seemed
to provide justification for increased military action by NATO forces
in an attempt to force the parties to the settlement table.
In spite of such apparently random and opportunistic events that
often define warfare, the control of televised imagery is, nevertheless,
a logical consequence of military planners' increasing willingness
to control the media relations aspects of warfare as if exercising
this control were just another aspect of military strategy. Moreover,
the ability to control televised imagery is also a consequence of
the evolution of military technology. Far from the contentious early
days, when most military organizations considered television coverage
a mere nuisance or a possible security risk, cutting-edge military
planners today use many aspects of television to prosecute wars
or to prepare for them. As writers for Wired point out, today
television technology is used to provide military personnel in training
with images of war conditions or maneuvers and the next step in
military technological development is said to include "virtual warfare".
During such warfare military personnel will be safely ensconced
at distant locations as televised imagery and other telemetry allows
them to direct weaponry against remote targets. Such a prospect
may well signify that, as media guru Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1968,
"television war (will have) meant the end of the dichotomy between
civilian and military."
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See also Cable
News Network; China
A Television History; Vietnam
on Television; War