On February 25, 1991 the war correspondent Leon Daniel arrived at a battlefield at the tip of the neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Daniel was one of a pool of journalists who had been held back from witnessing action the previous day, when Desert Storm’s ground war had been launched.
There, right where he was standing, 8,400 soldiers of the US First Infantry Division – known as the Big Red One – had attacked an estimated 8,000 Iraqis with 3,000 Abrams main battle tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees and armoured personnel carriers.
Daniel had seen the aftermath of modest firefights in Vietnam. “The bodies would be stacked up like cordwood,” he recalled. Yet this ferocious attack had not produced a single visible body.
It was a battlefield without the stench of urine, faeces, blood and bits of flesh. Daniel wondered what happened to the estimated 6,000 Iraqi defenders who had vanished. “Where are the bodies?” he finally asked the First Division’s public affairs officer, an army major.
“What bodies?” the major replied.
Months later, Daniel and the world would learn why the dead had eluded eyewitnesses, cameras and video footage. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers, some of them firing their weapons from first world war-style trenches, had been buried by ploughs mounted on Abrams tanks.
The tanks had flanked the lines so that tons of sand from the plough spoil had funnelled into the trenches. Just behind the tanks, straddling the trench line, came Bradleys pumping machine-gun bullets into Iraqi troops.
“I came through right after the lead company,” said Colonel Anthony Moreno. “What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with people’s arms and legs sticking out of them. For all I know, we could have killed thousands.”
Two other brigades used the same tank-mounted ploughs and Bradleys to obliterate an estimated 70 miles of defensive trenches. They moved swiftly. The operation had been rehearsed repeatedly, weeks before, on a mile-long trench line built according to satellite photographs.
The finishing touches were made by armoured combat earth-movers (ACEs). These massive bulldozers, with armoured cockpits impervious to small-arms fire, smoothed away any hint of the carnage. “A lot of guys were scared, but I enjoyed it,” said PFC Joe Queen, an ACE driver awarded a Bronze Star for his performance in the battle.
What happened in the neutral zone that day is a metaphor for the art of war in an era when domestic politics is often more important than the predictable outcome on the field of battle. In 1991 American voters rallied behind President George Bush Sr for the seemingly bloodless confrontation with Saddam Hussein.
Neatly hidden from a small army of journalists was the reality of war – a reality that can make these very same voters recoil in disapproval.
His son is likely to use the same sort of tactics to blind one of the world’s freest and most influential media establishments. Running the show for President George Bush is the man who manipulated global perceptions of the first Gulf war for Bush Sr: Dick Cheney. Then defence secretary and now vice-president, Cheney is likely to buffalo the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN and others ready to bend to US government censorship.
According to White House officials, no final decisions have been made by Bush, Cheney and current defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld. “We’re still negotiating with the media,” said one administration official. But Bush has already implemented ground rules that require journalists to give up their mobile and satellite phones to military commanders who would control the movements of these so-called pool reporters during Desert Storm II.
If the final rules, organised by the Pentagon, are anything like the pool system designed by Bush Sr and Cheney in 1991, the world will be given a cloudy mixture of video footage and misinformation that will fog the reality of war.
Daniel, the wire service veteran, was part of the 1991 pool system. About 150 American journalists, photographers and film crews were scattered among attacking units. Their reports were supposed to be fed to a rear headquarters and then shared by hundreds of journalists from around the world.
“They wouldn’t let us see anything,” said Daniel, who has seen just about everything there is to see in war. Not a single eyewitness account, photograph or strip of video of combat between 400,000 soldiers in the desert was produced by this battalion of professional observers.
Most of the grisly photos from Desert Storm seen today were the work of independent journalists who raced to the “Highway of Death” north of Kuwait, where war planes had destroyed thousands of vehicles in which Iraqi soldiers had fled after the start of the ground war.
The area was free of the military handlers who routinely interrupted interviews to chastise soldiers into changing their statements while reporters stood back, or forcibly removed film from cameras that captured images deemed offensive by an Army public affairs officer.
Cheney, brimming with contempt and hostility for the press, saw journalists as critics of the military who must be contained. “Frankly, I looked on it as a problem to be managed,” he said after the war. “The information function was extraordinarily important. I did not have a lot of confidence that I could leave that to the press.”
Since being brought into government as an intern by Donald Rumsfeld, then a congressman, Cheney has spent most of his adult life fencing with the media and learning its strengths and weaknesses. A stunning victory in 1991 was the media’s agreement to permit the Pentagon to censor journalists’ reports before they were printed or broadcast.
In the past the Pentagon had left censorship up to individual reporters. During 10 years of war in Vietnam, not one journalist violated self-imposed rules against reporting, for example, specific locations of attacks.
As a result, the conventional wisdom was that the government was not violating the First Amendment to the Constitution: that Congress “will make no law to abridge [. . .] freedom of the press”. Only a handful of journalists went to federal court to challenge the government censorship imposed by Bush, Cheney and Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The court ruled the suit moot – the war was over – but invited the press to try again so that the issue might be settled. It never was.
The media was more duped than cowed. Cheney won over some people with the promise that places in the pool would give them an advantage over competitors. For instance, a Washington Post pool reporter kept to himself all details of a US Marine operation for exclusive use by the Post and, later, a book.
For independent journalists, life was much more difficult. More than 70 operating outside the pool system were arrested, detained, threatened at gunpoint or chased from the front line. Army public affairs officers made nightly visits to hotels and restaurants in Hafir al Batin, a Saudi town on the Iraqi border. Reporters and photographers would bolt from the table. The slower ones were arrested.
But when the ground war started, the mighty were hamstrung along with the mediocre. The Associated Press, which benefited most from a system that turned all journalists into wire service reporters, sent photographer Scott Applewhite to cover victims of a Scud missile attack near Dahran.
The warhead had hit an American tent, killing 25 army reservists and wounding 70. It was the single biggest loss to Saddam Hussein during Desert Storm. Applewhite, an accredited pool member, was stopped by US Army military police. When he objected, they punched and handcuffed him while ripping the film from his cameras.
Cheney made sure it was just as bad for the rest of the pool. When the ground war started, the defence secretary declared a “media blackout”, blocking all reports. After the war, General Norman Schwarzkopf and his aides revealed that the blackout was ordered because of fears that Saddam would use chemical weapons on allied forces.
Potential news reports of soldiers writhing in agony from a cloud of sarin nerve gas had spooked the president and his commanders. “No pictures of that,” said General Richard Neal, who directed ground operations during the war.
As a result, reports and film were delayed or “lost” by military commanders so that most of it arrived too late for most deadlines. Neal and Schwarzkopf provided the bulk of briefings and videos in Saudi Arabia, and these were the first reports to filter through; many became the basis of the most lasting perceptions of Desert Storm.
Gun camera footage always showed empty bridges or aircraft hangars being destroyed by “smart bombs” – laser-guided munitions that never struck a single human. But only 6% of the munitions used against Iraq could be guided to a target. Over 94% were far less surgical during the 30-day air war, which often saw 400 sorties a day. Those bombs depended on gravity and variable winds, and were capable of causing “collateral damage” to nearby unarmed civilians.
The global television audience was awed by Tomahawk cruise missiles roaring from the decks of US Navy warships at sea. But less than 10% hit their targets.
The missile’s accuracy depends on landmarks that can be spotted by an on-board camera that can shift the weapon’s direction. But the featureless desert led many Tomahawks to wander away like so many lost patrols, according to Pentagon studies.
Schwarzkopf conducted televised briefings about the allied counterattack on Saddam’s Scud missiles that had terrorised Saudi Arabia as well as Israel. Yet an air force study after the war showed that Iraq had ended up with as many Scud launchers as it had possessed before the war started. A murky Schwarzkopf video showed the destruction of what seemed to be a Scud launcher, but later turned out to be a bombed oil truck.
Controlling the briefings, the videos and the press during Desert Storm was an extension of US policy started by President Ronald Reagan and his defence chief, Caspar Weinberger. It was Weinberger, an anglophile, who admired Margaret Thatcher’s manipulation of the media during the Falklands war, which led directly to her political revival in 1982. A year later, Weinberger took control of the US media when Reagan found himself in a deepening hole in Lebanon.
On October 23 1983, 241 US Marines died after a truck laden with explosives destroyed a makeshift barracks at Beirut airport. The massacre suddenly focused attention on the ageing actor’s foreign policy decisions as the reports and pictures showed the removal of American bodies. Within 48 hours of the bombing, the president dispatched the first wave of 5,000 American troops to Grenada in the Caribbean.
But the invasion angered Thatcher. Grenada was linked to the UK as a member of the Commonwealth. Only the previous week, Washington had informed London that there was no need for outside intervention, as local political turmoil was likely to play itself out without further bloodshed. Geoffrey Howe, Britain’s foreign minister, was explicit.
“The invasion of Grenada was clearly designed to divert attention,” Howe said in an interview. “You had disaster in Beirut; now triumph in Grenada. ‘Don’t look there,’ ” he said, gesturing with his forefinger, ” ‘look over here.’ ”
Reporters were banned from Grenada. Those who tried to land on the island, such as Morris Thompson of Newsday, were arrested and imprisoned on US ships offshore. All details and videos were supplied by military reporters and photographers at Pentagon briefings.
The media barons howled, but little changed. When Bush Sr invaded Panama in 1989, journalists were once again banned. Democratic congressman Charles Rangle of New York still insists that as many as 5,000 civilians in Panama City were killed by US invaders. But there are no pictures, no eyewitness accounts.
The invasion of Panama and the arrest of Manuel Noriega were, like Desert Storm later, something of a political triumph for Bush. But the reality of that particular war asserted itself during a televised briefing by the president. It was just at the end of the session, when Bush was wisecracking with reporters, that most networks split their screens to show the arrival of dead US soldiers from Panama.
Bush was caught bantering as flag-draped coffins arrived at an air force base in Dover, Delaware – a military mortuary. Later that week, Bush ordered the press banned from covering the arrival ceremonies for the fallen. President Clinton continued the ban.
And his successor, President George Bush, also wants to keep the dead out of the national limelight.