From Realism to Virtual Reality: Images of America’s Wars

The Face of War

As he watched a video of Tomahawk missiles zooming off to an airbase in Syria, NBC’s Brian Williams seemed ecstatic:

“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over to this airfield… What did they hit?”

The affable anchor with the lopsided smile sounded like a little boy watching an especially exciting video game. People all over the world were appalled by his “insensitivity,” his cheerful disconnect from reality, the gruesome result of such missile strikes.

Most people if only for the sake of appearances would not want to be caught expressing such glee at such a time. Yet, they may secretly share that insensitivity, acquired to insulate themselves from the pain inflicted by their own empathy. They don’t dare feel.  (Not that this necessarily explains Williams’s reaction.)

On the other hand, some people like to look at gory pictures of mangled human beings. “If it bleeds, it leads,” old newspaper people say. And thanks to wars and embedded photographers, there is plenty of bleeding to see. But most don’t want to look at it — especially if they know that such gore was caused by their own country.

This presents a potential problem for hawkish politicians and the US military. Such a clear-eyed view of war can create anti-war sentiments, which are bad for the war business. For this reason, photojournalists are are often accused of being the “real enemy.” They bring home what death really looks like. And it is hard to take.

As La Rochefoucauld put it, “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.”  

There are other realities that most of us cannot look at steadily for fear our souls will be scorched. In the chapter below, excerpted from his book “Vietnam and Other Fantasies,“ Bruce Franklin describes in the most matter-of-fact language — horror. Physical and conceptual. But, because of the dizzying distance of his aerial viewpoint, you may be more fascinated than repelled.

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Bruce Franklin is considered one of America’s leading cultural historians. He is the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies (Emeritus) at Rutgers University, Newark. In addition to the book mentioned above, Franklin is the author of numerous other books, including War Stars: Superweapon and the American Imagination (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008), Prison Writings in 20th Century America (Foreword by Tom Wicker) (Penguin Books, 1998), Future Perfect: 19th Century American Science Fiction (Rutgers University Press, 1995), The Wake of the Gods: Melville’s Mythology (Stanford University Press, 1963), M.I.A., or Mythmaking in America (Lawrence Hill & Co.,1992), The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America (Shearwater, 2008). Franklin, with three others, edited Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War (Grove Press, 1995).

WhoWhatWhy Introduction by Milicent Cranor

The following excerpt is Chapter One, From Realism to Virtual Reality: Images of America’s Wars. Reprinted by permission from the publisher from Vietnam and Other American Fantasies. Copyright © 2000 by H. Bruce Franklin and published by the University of Massachusetts Press.

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The industrial revolution was only about one century old when modern technological warfare burst upon the world in the US Civil War. Of course during that century human progress had already been manifested in the continually increasing deadliness and range of weapons, not to mention other potential military benefits of industrial capitalism. But it was the Civil War that actually demonstrated industrialism’s ability to produce carnage and devastation on an unprecedented scale, thus foreshadowing a future more and more dominated by what we have come to call technowar.

Immense armies were now transported by railroad, coordinated by telegraph, and equipped with an ever-evolving arsenal of mass-produced weapons designed by scientists and engineers. The new machines of war — such as the repeating rifle, the primitive machine gun, the submarine, and the steam-powered ironclad warship — were forged by other machines. Industrial organization was essential not only in the factories where the war machines were manufactured but also on the battlefields and waters where these machines destroyed one another and slaughtered people.

‘‘Let him who wishes to know what war is look at this series of illustrations. These wrecks of manhood thrown together in careless heaps or ranged in ghastly rows for burial were alive but yesterday.’’

Prior to the Civil War, visual images of America’s wars were, almost without exception, expressions of romanticism and nationalism. Paintings, lithographs, woodcuts, and statues displayed a glorious saga of thrilling American heroism from the Revolution through the Mexican War. Drawing on their imagination, artists could picture action-filled scenes of heroic events, such as that great icon of American nationalism, Emmanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. (The most highly charged symbols in this oil painting by that German romantic are pure fiction: the Stars and Stripes was not carried into battle until the nineteenth century, Washington would hardly have been standing upright in a tiny storm-tossed boat, and there were no ice chunks in the river that night.)

Literature, however, was the only art form capable of projecting the action of warfare as temporal flow and movement. Using words as a medium, writers had few limitations on how they chose to paint this action, and their visions had long covered a wide spectrum. One of the Civil War’s most distinctively modern images was expressed by Herman Melville in his poem ‘‘A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight.’’ Melville sees the triumph of ‘‘plain mechanic power’’ placing war ‘‘Where War belongs. Among the trades and artisans,’’ depriving it of  ‘‘passion’’: ‘‘all went on by crank, / Pivot, and screw, / And calculations of caloric.’’ Since ‘‘warriors / Are now but operatives,’’ he hopes that ‘‘War’s made / Less grand than Peace.’’

“The Strange Spell That Dwells in Dead Men’s Eyes”

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The most profoundly deglamorizing images of the Civil War, however, were produced not by literature but directly by technology itself. The industrial processes and scientific knowledge that created technowar had also brought forth a new means of perceiving its devastation. Industrial chemicals, manufactured metal plates, lenses, mirrors, bellows, and actuating mechanisms — all were essential to the new art and craft of photography. Thus the Civil War was the first truly modern war not only in how it was fought but also in how it was imaged. Images of warfare introduced by photography now threatened to undermine or even replace the romantic images of warfare projected by earlier visual arts.

Scores of commercial photographers, seeking authenticity and profits, followed the Union armies into battle. Although evidently more than a million photographs of the Civil War were taken, hardly any show actual combat or other exciting action typical of the earlier paintings. The photographers’ need to stay close to their cumbersome horse-drawn laboratory wagons usually kept them from the thick of battle, and the collodion wet-plate process, which demanded long exposures, forced them to focus on scenes of stillness rather than action.

Among all human subjects, those who stayed most perfectly still for the camera were the dead. Hence Civil War photography, dominated by images of death, inaugurated a grim, profoundly anti romantic realism. Perhaps the most widely reproduced photo from the war, Timothy O’Sullivan’s ‘‘A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg,’’ is filled with the corpses of Confederate soldiers, rotting after lying two days in the rain. Stripped of their shoes and with their pockets turned inside out, the bodies stretch into the distance beyond the central figure, whose mouth gapes gruesomely.

‘‘A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg,’’ 1863
Photo credit: Timothy O’Sullivan

The first of such new images of war were displayed for sale to the public by Mathew Brady at his Broadway gallery in October 1862. Brady titled his show ‘‘The Dead of Antietam.’’ The New York Times responded with an awed editorial:

The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the Dead at Antietam, but we fancy they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare… were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement….

Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it. At the door of his gallery hangs a little placard, ‘‘The Dead of Antietam.’’ Crowds of people are constantly going up the stairs; follow them, and you find them bending over photographic views of that fearful battle-field, taken immediately after the action…. You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men’s eyes.

Oliver Wendell Holmes went further in explicating the meaning of the exhibition, which gave ‘‘some conception of what a repulsive, brutal, sickening, hideous thing it is, this dashing together of two frantic mobs to which we give the name of armies.’’ Here, he wrote, was the reality of war: ‘‘Let him who wishes to know what war is look at this series of illustrations. These wrecks of manhood thrown together in careless heaps or ranged in ghastly rows for burial were alive but yesterday.’’

Yet three decades after the end of the Civil War, the surging forces of militarism and imperialism were reimaging the conflict as a glorious episode in America’s history. The disgust, shame, guilt, and deep national divisions that had continued after this war — just like those a century later that continued after the Vietnam War — were being buried under an avalanche of jingoist culture, the equivalent of contemporary Rainbowism, even down to the cult of muscularity promulgated by Teddy Roosevelt.

It was in this historical context that Stephen Crane used realism, then flourishing as a literary mode, to assault just such treacherous views of war. As Amy Kaplan has shown, The Red Badge of Courage, generally viewed as the great classic novel of the Civil War, can be read much more meaningfully as Crane’s response to the romantic militarism that was attempting to erase from the nation’s memory the horrifying lessons taught by the war’s realities. Crane, not subject to the technological limitations of the slow black and white photographs that had brought home glimpses of the war’s sordid repulsiveness, was able to portray the animal frenzy that masqueraded as heroic combat and even to add color and tiny moving details to his pictures of the dead:

‘‘The corpse was dressed in a uniform that once had been blue but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was opened. Its red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the grey skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of a bundle along the upper lip.’’

Other literary reactions to the new militarism looked even farther backward to project images of a future dominated by war. Melville’s Billy Budd, completed in 1891, envisions this triumph of war in the aftermath of the American Revolution on the aptly named British warship HMS Bellipotent, where the best of humanity is hanged by the logic of war, the common people are turned into automatons ‘‘dispersed to the places allotted them when not at the guns,’’ and the final image is of a sterile, lifeless, inorganic mass of ‘‘smooth white marble.’’

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in 1889, Mark Twain recapitulates the development of industrial capitalism and extrapolates its future in a vision of apocalyptic technowar. Hank Morgan and his young disciples of technowar have run ‘‘secret wires’’ to dynamite deposits under all their ‘‘vast factories, mills, workshops, magazines, etc.’’ and connected them to a single command button so that nothing can stop them ‘‘when we want to blow up our civilization.’’ When Hank does initiate this instantaneous push-button war, ‘‘in that explosion all our noble civilization-factories went up in the air and disappeared from the earth’’ (476).

Beyond an electrified fence, the techno-warriors have prepared a forty-foot-wide belt of land mines. The first wave of thousands of knights triggers a twentieth-century-style explosion:

‘‘As to destruction of life, it was amazing. Moreover, it was beyond estimate. Of course we could not count the dead, because they did not exist as individuals, but merely as homogeneous protoplasm, with alloys of iron and buttons’’(478).

After Hank and his boys trap the rest of the feudal army inside their electric fence, Hank electrocutes the first batch, a flood is released on the survivors, and the boys man machine guns that ‘‘vomit death’’ into their ranks: ‘‘Within ten short minutes after we had opened fire, armed resistance was totally annihilated….. Twenty-five thousand men lay dead around us’’ (486).

That number of dead exactly matches the total casualties in America’s costliest day of war, the battle of Antietam, and thus recalls Brady’s exhibition, ‘‘The Dead of Antietam.’’ Twain’s vision is even more horrific, for the victors themselves are conquered by ‘‘the poisonous air bred by those dead thousands’’(487). All that remains of this first experiment in industrialized warfare is a desolate landscape pockmarked by craters and covered with unburied rotting corpses.

Twain’s vision of the future implicit in industrial capitalism began to materialize in the First World War, when armies slaughtered one another on an unprecedented scale, sections of Europe were turned into a wasteland, and weapons of mass destruction first seemed capable of actually destroying civilization. Meanwhile, the scientific, engineering, and organizational progress that had produced the modern machine gun, long-range artillery, poison gas, and fleets of submarines and warplanes had also created a new image-making technology that broke through the limits of still photography. Just as the Civil War was the first to be extensively photographed, the War to End All Wars was the first to be extensively imaged in motion pictures.

WWI, Film and Propaganda

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World War I of course generated millions of still photographs, many showing scenes at least as ghastly as the corpse-strewn battlefields of the Civil War, and now there was also authentic documentary film of live action. But for various reasons the most influential photographic images from World War I, though realistic in appearance, displayed not reality but fantasy. Filmmakers who wished to record actual combat were severely restricted by the various governments and military authorities. At the same time, powerful forces were making a historic discovery: the tremendous potential of movies for propaganda and for profits. The hallmark image-making of the twentieth century had arrived.

In the United States, the most important photographic images were movies designed to inflame the nation, first to enter the war, and then to wage it with unquestioning zeal. Probably the most influential was The Battle Cry of Peace, a 1915 smash hit that played a crucial role in rousing the public to war against Germany by showing realistic scenes of the invasion and devastation of America by a rapacious Germanic army.

Once the United States entered the war, the American public got to view an endless series of feature films, such as To Hell with the Kaiser, The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, and The Claws of the Hun, each outdoing its predecessor in picturing German bestiality. Erich von Stroheim’s career began with his portrayal of the archetypal sadistic German officer in films such as The Unbeliever and Heart of Humanity, where in his lust to rape innocent young women he murders anyone who gets in the way, even the crying baby of one intended victim. This genre is surveyed by Larry Wayne Ward, who describes the 1918 Warner Brothers hit My Four Years in Germany, which opens with a title card that tells the audience they are seeing ‘‘Fact Not Fiction’’:

After the brutal conquest of Belgium, German troops are shown slaughtering innocent refugees and tormenting prisoners of war. Near the end of the film one of the German officials boasts that ‘‘America Won’t Fight,’’ a title which dissolves into newsreel footage of President Wilson and marching American soldiers. Soon American troops are seen fighting their way across the European battlefields. As he bayonets another German soldier, a young American doughboy turns to his companions and says, ‘‘I promised Dad I’d get six.’’

Before the end of World War I, the motion picture had already proved to be a more effective vehicle for romanticizing and popularizing war than the antebellum school of heroic painting which had been partly debunked by Civil War photography. Indeed, the audiences that thronged to My Four Years in Germany frequently burned effigies of the kaiser outside the theaters and in some cases turned into angry mobs that had to be dispersed by police.

Romanticizing War Machines

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To restore the glamour of preindustrial war, however, it would not be sufficient to glorify just the men fighting on the ground or even the aviators supposedly dueling like medieval knights high above the battlefield. What was necessary to reverse Melville’s ‘‘utilitarian’’ view of industrial warfare was to romanticize the machines of war themselves.

The airplane was potentially an ideal vehicle for this romance. But photographic technology would have to go a bit further to bring home the thrills generated by destruction from the sky, because it needed to be seen from the sky, not from the ground, where its reality was anything but glamorous. The central figure in America’s romance with warplanes, as I have discussed at length in War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, was Billy Mitchell, who also showed America and the world how to integrate media imagery with technowar.

From the aircraft’s perspective, even the most grotesque slaughter it inflicts is sufficiently removed so that it can be imaged aesthetically.

In 1921 Mitchell staged a historic event, using bombers to sink captured German warships and turning the action into a media bonanza. His goal was to hit the American public with immediate nationwide images of the airplane’s triumph over the warship. The audacity of this enterprise in 1921 was remarkable. There were no satellites to relay images, and no television; in fact, the first experimental radio broadcast station had begun operation only in November 1920.

Back in 1919, Mitchell had given the young photographer George Goddard his own laboratory, where, with assistance from Eastman Kodak, Goddard developed high-resolution aerial photography. As soon as Mitchell won the opportunity to bomb ships, he put Goddard in command of a key unit: a team of aerial photographers provided with eighteen airplanes and a dirigible. Mitchell’s instructions were unambiguous: ‘‘I want newsreels of those sinking ships in every theater in the country, just as soon as we can get ’em there.’’

This demanded more than mere picture-taking. With his flair for public relations, Mitchell explained to Goddard: ‘‘Most of all I need you to handle the newsreel and movie people. They’re temperamental, and we’ve got to get all we can out of them.’’ Goddard solved unprecedented logistical problems, flying the film to Bolling Field in the District of Columbia for pickup by the newsreel people, who would take it to New York for development and national distribution. The sinking of each ship, artfully filmed by relays of Goddard’s planes, was screened the very next day in big-city theaters across the country.

This spectacular media coup implanted potent images of the warplane in the public mind. Mitchell himself became a national hero overnight as millions watched the death throes of great warships on newsreel screens. He was a prophet. The battleship was doomed. The airplane would rule the world. And America was now much closer to the 1990s’ media conception of the Gulf War than to Melville’s ‘‘Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight.’’

Melville’s vision of technowar as lacking ‘‘passion’’ was becoming antiquated, for what could be more thrilling — even erotic — than aerial war machines? The evidence is strewn throughout modern American culture: the warplane models assembled by millions of boys and young men during World War II; the thousands of magazines and books filled with glossy photographs of warplanes that some find as stimulating as those in ‘‘men’s’’ magazines; and Hollywood’s own warplane romances, such as Top Gun, one of the most popular movies of the 1980s, or its 1955 progenitor Strategic Air Command, in which Jimmy Stewart’s response to his first sight of a B-47 nuclear bomber is, ‘‘She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’’

Not just humans are targets to be erased by the bombing; even trees become the enemy. Anyone in the unit who has qualms about this genocide and ecocide is defined — in a revealing term — as a ‘‘smudge,’’ thereby becoming something else to be eliminated.

One of the airplane’s great advantages as a vehicle of romance is its distance from its victims. From the aircraft’s perspective, even the most grotesque slaughter it inflicts is sufficiently removed so that it can be imaged aesthetically. The aesthetics of aerial bombing in World War II were prefigured in 1937 by Mussolini’s son Vittorio, whose ecstatic experience of bombing undefended Ethiopian villages was expressed in his simile of his victims ‘‘bursting out like a rose after I had landed a bomb in the middle of them.’’ These aesthetics were consummated at the end of World War II by the mushroom clouds that rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bracketed by these images, the aerial bombing of World War II has been most insightfully explored in Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, a bombardier with sixty combat missions. The novel envisions the political and cultural triumph of fascism through the very means used to defeat it militarily. The turning point in Heller’s work is the annihilation of an insignificant anti-fascist Italian mountain village; this event allows fascist forces, embodied by US Air Corps officers, to gain total control. The sole purpose of the American bombing of the village is image-making.

General Peckem, the power-mad officer who designs the raid, privately admits that bombing this ‘‘tiny undefended village, reducing the whole community to rubble’’ is ‘‘entirely unnecessary,’’ but it will allow him to extend his power over the bombing squadrons. He has convinced them that he will measure their success by ‘‘a neat aerial photograph’’ of their ‘‘bomb pattern — a term I dreamed up,’’ he confides, that ‘‘means nothing.’’ The crews are then briefed on the purpose of their raid: ‘‘Colonel Cathcart wants to come out of this mission with a good clean aerial photograph he won’t be ashamed to send through channels. Don’t forget that General Peckem will be here for the full briefing,and you know how he feels about bomb patterns.’’

Of course, pictures of bomb patterns were not the most influential American photographic image-making in World War II. The still photos published in Life magazine alone could be the subject of several dissertations, and World War II feature movies about strategic bombing have been discussed at length, by me and many others. Indeed, in 1945 one might have wondered how the camera could possibly play a more important role in war.

The answer came in Vietnam, the first war to be televised directly into tens of millions of homes. TV’s glimpses of the war’s reality were so horrendous and so influential that these images have been scapegoated as one of the main causes of the United States’ defeat. Indeed, the Civil War still photographs of corpses seem tame compared to the Vietnam War’s on-screen killings, as well as live action footage of the bulldozing of human carcasses into mass graves, the napalming of children, and the ravaging of villages by American soldiers.

Appalling as these public images were, however, few had meanings as loathsome as those of the pictures that serve as the central metaphor of Stephen Wright’s novel Meditations in Green. The hero of the novel has the same job that the author had in Vietnam: he works as a photo analyst in an intelligence unit whose mission is to aid the genocidal bombing, the torture and assassination program labeled Operation Phoenix, and Operation Ranch Hand (the ecocidal defoliation campaign using the toxic herbicides Agent Orange, Agent White, Agent Blue, and Agent Purple).

The official name for his job is ‘‘image interpreter.’’ He scrutinizes reconnaissance films to find evidence of life so that it can be eliminated. Not just humans are targets to be erased by the bombing; even trees become the enemy. Anyone in the unit who has qualms about this genocide and ecocide is defined — in a revealing term — as a ‘‘smudge,’’ thereby becoming something else to be eliminated.

The perfect image, it is thus implied, should have nothing left of the human or the natural. From the air, the unit’s own base looks like ‘‘a concentration camp or a movie lot’’ (199). The climax of the novel occurs when the base is devastated by an enemy attack intercut with scenes from Night of the Living Dead, that ghoulish 1968 vision of America which is being screened during the attack as entertainment for the American torturers, bombers, and image interpreters.

One of the most shocking, influential, and enduring single images from the Vietnam War exploded into the consciousness of millions of Americans in February 1968 when they actually watched, within the comfort of their own homes, as the chief of the Saigon national police executed a manacled NLF* prisoner. [*National Liberation Front, correct term for ‘‘Viet Cong,’’ a derogatory epithet roughly translated as ‘‘Viet Commies.’’ The NLF, though Communist-led, was a broad coalition of forces opposed to US and US-backed forces in the southern half of Vietnam.]

In a perfectly framed sequence, the notorious General Nguyen Ngoc Loan unholsters a snub-nosed revolver and places its muzzle to the prisoner’s right temple. The prisoner’s head jolts, a sudden spurt of blood gushes straight out of his right temple, and he collapses in death.

General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, head of South Vietnam’s police and intelligence, executing a prisoner in 1968.
Photo credit: Eddie Adams

The next morning, newspaper readers were confronted with AP photographer Eddie Adams’s potent stills of the execution. The grim ironies of the scene were accentuated by the cultural significance of the weapon itself, a revolver, a somewhat archaic handgun symbolic of the American West.

Conning the Public

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Precisely one decade later, this image, with its roles now reversed, was transmuted into the dominant metaphor of a lavishly financed Hollywood production crucial to reimaging the history of the Vietnam War: The Deer Hunter. After being designated the best English-language film of 1978 by the New York Film Critics Circle, this celluloid displacement of reality with illusion was sanctified by four Academy Awards, capped by Best Picture — an award presented appropriately enough by John Wayne, the World War II draft dodger who received a Congressional Gold Medal for playing a warrior hero in the movies. The Deer Hunter succeeded not only in reversing key images of the war but also in helping to canonize US prisoners of war as the most significant symbols of American manhood for the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond.

The re-imaging was blatant, though most critics at the time seemed oblivious to it. The basic technique was to take images of the war that had become deeply embedded in America’s consciousness and change them into their opposites. For example, in the film’s first scene in Vietnam, a uniformed soldier throws a grenade into an underground village shelter harboring women and children, and then with his automatic rifle mows down a woman and her baby.

Although the scene resembles the familiar TV sequence of GIs in Vietnamese villages, as well as Life’s photographs of the My Lai massacre, the soldier turns out to be not American but North Vietnamese. He is then killed by a lone guerrilla — who is not a ‘‘Viet Cong’’ but our Special Forces hero, played by Robert De Niro.

Later, when two men plummet from a helicopter, the images replicate a tele-photographic sequence once seen by millions of Americans that showed a Vietnamese prisoner being hurled from an American helicopter to make other prisoners talk; but in the movie the falling men are American POWs attempting to escape their murderous North Vietnamese captors.

In The Deer Hunter (1978), General Loan’s revolver becomes a North Vietnamese officer’s revolver, and his NLF prisoner is replaced by US prisoners forced to play Russian roulette.

The structuring metaphor of the film is the game of Russian roulette the sadistic Asian communist guards force their prisoners to play. The crucial torture scene consists of sequence after sequence of images replicating and replacing that infamous historical sequence in which General Loan placed a revolver to the right temple of his NLF prisoner and killed him with a single shot.

In the movie the American captives are kept in tiger cages, another image that reverses reality; the actual tiger cages, also overseen by General Loan, were used by the Saigon government to torture thousands of Vietnamese political prisoners. The movie shows American prisoner after prisoner being hauled out of the tiger cages and forced by the demonic North Vietnamese officer in charge, who always stands to the prisoner’s right and our left, to place a revolver to his own right temple. Then the image is framed to eliminate the connection between the prisoner’s body and the arm holding the revolver, thus bringing the image closer to the famous execution image. One sequence even replicates the blood spurting out of the victim’s right temple.

P.O.W.: The Escape (1986) transforms General Loan’s execution of an NLF prisoner into a North Vietnamese prison commander’s murder of a US prisoner.

The Deer Hunter’s manipulation of this particular image to reverse the roles of victim and victimizer was used again and again by other vehicles of the militarization of American culture in the 1980s, from movies to comic books. Take, for example, P.O.W.: The Escape, an overtly militaristic 1986 POW rescue movie inspired by Rambo and starring David Carradine as superhero. The bestiality of the Asian communists is here embodied by a North Vietnamese prison camp commander who executes an American prisoner with a revolver shot to the right temple in a tableau modeled even more precisely than The Deer Hunter ’s on the original execution of the NLF prisoner in Saigon. Then, just in case viewers missed it, this scene is replayed later as the movie’s only flashback.

The brazen reversal of this image was a spectacular success, as I discovered while giving lectures about it on college campuses in 1992. I would begin by projecting a slide of the original AP photo. Then I would ask, ‘‘How many people here are familiar with this image?’’ Almost every hand would go up. Then I would ask, ‘‘What is this a picture of?’’ Almost invariably, at least three fourths of those who had raised their hands would declare that it was a picture of a ‘‘a North Vietnamese officer’’ or ‘‘a communist officer’’ executing ‘‘a civilian’’ or ‘‘a prisoner’’ or ‘‘a South Vietnamese.’’

Shooting the Messenger

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Meanwhile, however, the militarization of American culture was going even further in manipulating the original image of that high South Vietnamese official executing an unarmed captive, shifting the role of the most heartless shooters from North Vietnamese communists to the photographers themselves. For example, the cover story of the November 1988 issue of the popular comic book The ’Nam portrays the photojournalists, both still photographers and TV cameramen, as the real enemies because they had placed the image on the ‘‘front page of every newspaper in the states!’’

Cover story of the November 1988 issue of The ‘Nam glorifies General Loan and makes the photographer in the villain.

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The ‘Nam images the photographer as the shooter and the camera as the most destructive weapon.

The cover literally reverses the original image by showing the execution scene from a position behind the participants. This offers a frontal view of the photographer, whose deadly camera conceals his face and occupies the exact center of the picture. The prisoner appears merely as an arm, a shoulder, and a sliver of a body on the left. The only face shown belongs to the chief of the security police, who displays the righteous — even heroic — indignation that has led him to carry out this justifiable revenge against the treacherous actions of the ‘‘Viet Cong’’ pictured in the story. The climactic image is a full page in which the execution scene appears as a reflection in the gigantic lens of the camera above the leering mouth of the photographer, from which comes a bubble with his greedy words, ‘‘Keep shooting! Just keep shooting!’’ ‘‘Shooting’’ a picture here has become synonymous with murder and treason.

In the next panel, two GIs register their shock — not at the execution, but at a TV cameraman focusing on the dead body: ‘‘Front page of every newspaper in the States!’’ ‘‘Geez… ’’ One can hardly imagine a more complete reversal of the acclaim accorded to those Civil War photographers for bringing the reality of war and death home to the American people.

G.I.s spell out The ‘Nam’s message about photographs and TV

The logic of this comic book militarism is inescapable: photographers should be allowed to show the public only what the military deems suitable. It is the logic that has been put into practice for each of America’s wars since Vietnam. Nonmilitary photographers and indeed all journalists were simply banished from the entire war zone during the 1983 US invasion of Grenada. Partly as a result of this exclusion, the major media accepted a pool system for the 1989 invasion of Panama — and meekly went along with the military’s keeping even these selected journalists confined to a US base throughout most of the conflict.

Attempting to report directly on the action, a Spanish photographer was killed and a British journalist wounded when caught in ‘‘friendly’’ cross fire between US soldiers removing them from the scene and a US armored personnel carrier.

The almost complete absence of photographic images was quite convenient for the Grenada and Panama invasions, which were carried out so swiftly and with such minimal military risk that the government did not bother to seek prior congressional or public approval. And for the first several days after US troops had been dispatched to confront Iraq in August 1990, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney refused to allow journalists to accompany them.

The Pentagon seemed to be operating under the belief that photographic and televised images had helped bring about the US defeat in Vietnam. But for the Gulf War, with its long build up until Washington launched its assault in January, its potential for significant casualties, and its intended international and domestic political purposes, some effective images had to be engineered.

To control these images, the US government set up pools of selected reporters and photographers, confined them to certain locations, required them to have military escorts when gathering news, established stringent guidelines limiting what could be reported or photographed, and subjected all written copy, photographs, and videotape to strict censorship.

Most of those admitted to the pools represented the same newspapers and TV networks that were simultaneously mounting a major campaign to build support for the war. Journalists were forced to depend on military briefings, where they were often fed deliberately falsified information. Immediately after the ground offensive began, all press briefings and pool reports were indefinitely suspended.

In a most revealing negation of the achievement of Civil War photography, with its shocking disclosure of the reality of death, the Pentagon banned the press entirely from Dover Air Force Base during the arrival of the bodies of those killed in the war. Responding to an ACLU legal argument that it was attempting to shield the public from disturbing images, the Pentagon replied that it was merely protecting the privacy of grieving relatives.

Although the media were largely denied access to the battlefields, the Gulf War nevertheless gained the reputation of the first ‘‘real-time’’ television war, and the images projected into American homes helped to incite the most passionate war fever since World War II. These screened images ranged from the most traditional to the most innovative modes of picturing America’s wars.

Even the antiquated icon of the heroic commanding general, missing from public consciousness for about forty years, was given new life. Though hardly as striking a figure as the commander in Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware or the posed picture of General Douglas MacArthur returning to the Philippines during World War II, a public idol took shape in the corpulent form of General Norman Schwarzkopf in his fatigues, boots, and jaunty cap.

The preeminent public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, working closely with the governments of Kuwait and the United States, staged a brilliant propaganda campaign including thirty video releases distributed free to television stations. Its most audacious and successful concoction was an elaborate but entirely phony scenario of Iraqi soldiers dumping Kuwaiti babies out of hospital incubators, a story first told to the Congressional Human Rights hearings (which Hill and Knowlton helped to organize) by an unidentified ‘‘eyewitness’’ (actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States).

But the most potent images combined techniques pioneered by Billy Mitchell with General Peckem’s quest for aerial photos of perfect bomb patterns, the medium of television, and the technological capabilities of the weapons themselves. After all, since one of the main goals of the war-makers was to create the impression of a ‘‘clean’’ techno war — a war almost devoid of human suffering and death, conducted with surgical precision by wondrous mechanisms — why not project the war from the point of view of the weapons?

And so the most thrilling images were transmitted directly by the laser guidance systems of missiles and by those brilliant creations, ‘‘smart’’ bombs. Fascinated, tens of millions of excited Americans stared at their screens, sharing the experience of these missiles and bombs unerringly guided by the wonders of American technology to a target identified by a narrator as an important military installation. A generation raised in video arcades and on Nintendo could hardly be more satisfied.

The target got closer and closer, larger and larger. And then everything ended with the explosion. There were no bloated human bodies, as in the photographs of the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg. There was none of the agony of the burned and wounded glimpsed on television relays from Vietnam. There was just nothing at all. In this magnificent triumph of technowar, America’s images of its wars had seemingly reached perfection.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from British 55th Division gas casualties (Thomas Keith Aitken / Wikimedia).

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