Remembering the best television show of 1991
>>-->The Gulf-War of 1991, the mini-series
Editors' note: This piece was written in the form of a letter to the director of the radio station in munich - it was translated and broadcast as part of a radio play about the gulf war - under the title, A LETTER FROM THE HOME FRONT
You ask what the Gulf-War meant to us here in America, back in 1991. Well, for us on the home front, as the saying goes, the Gulf-War was pure entertainment. You see, it was made for television, and that is how we experienced it, as a television program, played twenty-four hours a day. However, it was not the usual mini-series, but rather a maxi-series that lasted one hundred days. It had all the elements of a good soap opera: first-rate actors of both sexes, beautiful costumes and desert decor, high drama, suspense, emotional moments, sentimentality, even humor, and of course a happy ending. And like all good American television programs, it was regularly interrupted by commercials. After all, it is not because America was at war that the American people stopped drinking beer, buying cars, using deodorant or shampoo, taking pain killers, being constipated, making love.
Let me tell you what we saw, but also what we did not see on television. What was particularly interesting about the Gulf-War is that it was not only pure entertainment especially created for television, but in fact it was the first Postmodern War being shown on television while it was being fought on the battlefield. In other words, it was a war being fought in the present tense and described simultaneously to the viewers in the present tense from many different places and different angles, all at the same time. That is the essence of Postmodernism: simultaneity and discontinuity. You see, previous wars were always retold afterwards, after they happened, after the battles had taken place, after the dead had been counted, after the destruction had been assessed, retold in the past tense by those who participated in the war. All previous wars were replayed after the victory or after the defeat [depending which side you were on], but this war was not re-presented, it was presented, and as such it could be edited and even manipulated self-reflexively while being played, and that too is Postmodern.
The fact that the Gulf-War Television Show was being played twenty-four hours a day in America is also interesting, because it was a program that the entire family could watch, the grown-ups as well as the children. And indeed children were not only allowed, but encouraged to watch the war because it was very educational [it had a lot of geography and ethnicity in it] and, of course, it was a patriotic thing to do.
Since it was a family war, no violence, no blood, no extreme destruction, no dead bodies, no obscene situations, and obviously no sex could be shown. However, the Gulf-War was not rated [like most Hollywood movies are in America], but had it been, it would probably have received a PG-13 rating. After all, it was a good war, a necessary war, a moral war. A war of liberation. The good guys [the Americans and their allies] were going to push the bad guys [Saddam Hussein's brutal invading troops] out of Kuwait back into their own country, and in the process teach a lesson to that madman, that fanatic, that Hitler-like dictator, that evil man. That's what this war was all about. It was a lesson in morality and decency. Therefore, a war that could be shown to the entire family, and besides it had beautiful exotic scenery and costumes especially designed for this occasion.
But what did we really see? To tell the truth, we saw nothing. We saw expert commentators from the various television stations around the world talking into microphones about the war while standing in front of buildings that appeared to be genuine Middle-East constructions. But for all we know, these buildings may have been fake Hollywood decors, just as the native Arab costumes may have been fake. Or else we watched military experts standing in front of maps of the Middle-East explaining in advance how the battles would be fought on the ground and in the air. We really never saw the war itself, we never saw dead bodies - at least no dead good guys, though quite a few dead bad guys were shown, otherwise it would not have been a realistic drama, and television needs realism.
The Gulf-War was a war spoken into microphones and shown on maps. As such it was truly like a Postmodern work of fiction - a performance made of words and images. Of course, in order to convince the viewers that the war was real, that it was really going on, tanks racing across the desert, giant planes taking off from secret air bases, navy ships roaming the water of the gulf, and many soldiers were seen digging holes in the desert sand as they practiced for the ultimate confrontation and final assault. The soldiers digging holes in the sand must have been Hollywood extras. It was a well produced show. Had Steven Spielberg directed it would have made even more money than it did.
The producers, President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, with the moral and financial support of the Congress of the United States and of its rich allied co-producers [Germany, Japan, and of course Hollywood] put together a fabulous show, which cost billions of dollars. But it was the stage director on the battlefield, General Norman Schwarzkopf, who stole the show. He played a magnificent role. He was the star of the show. [George C. Scott Patton eat your heart out]. They must have paid him millions in Hollywood for this fine performance. As for the other actors, the soldiers, they were very good and quite professional, particularly when being interviewed by the media. They were so calm, so self-assured, deliberate, convinced of the righteousness of their mission. And they looked terrific in their brand new garb made for Desert-Storm action, as it was appropriately called.
The uniforms were extremely attractive, especially when worn by the female-soldiers, for there were women in the Gulf-War, and these women looked so sexy in their well-tailored military pants, tight mini-skirts or walking shorts.
Incidentally you may not know this, but because the war ended so quickly, and many people who didn't have time to watch it or watch the whole thing twenty-four hours a day regretted that it was over so fast, the Gulf-War was made available for replay on video cassette from CNN International for $24.95. And let me tell you, it is fun to watch that war again. It was such a good war. I bought the cassette and when there is nothing interesting on TV, my wife and I replay the Gulf-War. We can't wait for the sequel.
I should also mention that when the Gulf-War ended, in the malls all over America clothing stores were selling Desert-Storm uniforms at reduced rates because too many of these were manufactured in anticipation of a much longer war. All the Yuppie lawyers and businessmen, in California especially, started wearing Desert-Storm uniforms to go to their office. And even more interesting, though this was not made public, and not advertised on T.V. or in magazines, one could buy the body-bags that were never used during the war. More than 50,000 were made in advance of the possible dead bodies that would have to be shipped back home to America. These very useful body-bags could be bought cheap on the black-market. I tried to get one to use it as a sleeping bag when I go camping. But they were all gone.
It is a fact that there were very few dead, at least on our side [the side of the good guys - The Patriots, as some of their weapons were called]. However, nobody really knows how many people [soldiers and civilians] were killed on the side of the enemy [the bad guys - The Scuds, as their lousy missiles were called]. The reason for that is because it is a well known fact that Iraquis always lie about everything, whereas Americans always tell the truth. By the way it is interesting to note that the side of the good guys, who supposedly always tell the truth about how many good guys were killed or how many good planes were shot down, use words like patriots or smart-bombs to refer to their weapons, whereas the bad guys use only ugly words like scuds or dumb-bombs to refer to their weapons.
I said that the Gulf-War was made for television, and so for us back home, the war was but a set of images - exotic images which were never frightening or disturbing since they were made for the whole family to watch. The producers of this maxi-series carefully selected or edited or even manipulated those images to make sure that only the decent side of the war would be seen so that the young and the old would not be disturbed or offended. The news was so carefully managed that reporters were not allowed on the battlefield, instead they were briefed twice a day by charming, attractive quasi-military personnel with excellent television presence and manners. And that's how it should be on television. Especially since there is always too much violence and too much sex being shown. As a result, everyone was exhilarated by the efficiency of the good guys, and amused by the clumsiness of the bad guys whose missiles kept missing their targets - except when they fell on Israel, but that was just a side-show, a sub-plot of lesser importance, especially since the Israelis were politely asked to refrain from interfering with the main plot, and they did refrain while swallowing their pride and their anger behind their gas masks.
It is in this sense that we, in America, really saw nothing of that war, nothing but inoffensive images. No, that is not quite true, there were a few images disturbing enough, harrowing enough to bring a lump to the throat of the viewers and perhaps even tears to their eyes. As it should be with such spectacles. These images were not of dead soldiers or of suffering civilians caught in the war, they were images which inadvertently managed not to be deleted from the program, even though they did not directly relate to the military activities.
Let me give you a couple of stunning examples. For instance, the image of birds, seabirds covered with oil trying to climb out of the viscous water of the gulf in which Saddam Hussein had spilled millions of gallons of crude oil - symbolic oil, of course. There was something so sad, so pathetic, so tragic about those poor birds blackened by oil trying to extricate themselves from the dark spoiled water. These birds didn't even know they were on television, caught in the midst of the great stupidity of human war games.
Or even better, and certainly the highpoint, the climax of the whole television show, that striking image that came to us, not during a bombardment but during a concert, in Tel Aviv.
Those of us who were concerned about the fate and the role of Israel in this war, were deeply moved by that amazing and unexpected image. We admired the restraint of the Israelis in not responding to the missile attacks from Iraq - though deep inside many of us wished that the Israeli Air Force would finally take off and bomb Saddam's hideout to hell. What a splendid ending it would have been for this perfect war. But the Israelis controlled themselves and endured these attacks and the fear that came with these, the fear that perhaps these scuds would bring lethal gas to kill all the Jews in Israel. The word gas alone was sufficient to put an ancestral and mythical fear in the minds of all the Israelis, but also in the minds of all the Jews in the world watching the Gulf-War on television.
Well, one evening [and that is the amazing moment I am referring to], even though the war was raging in the Middle-East, the great violinist Isaac Stern was giving a concert in Tel Aviv. After all, even during a war, culture must go on. There was a lot of Kultur going on in Nazi Germany while the European Jews were being exterminated. Anyway, during the concert sirens began to scream announcing a missile attack from Iraq. Immediately, everyone in the auditorium reached for the gas mask they all carried, except the members of the orchestra who had left theirs in the dressing room, and therefore quickly rushed out backstage. Isaac Stern stood there alone. He stopped playing for a moment as he watched the people before him adjust their gas masks. He did not have a gas mask with him, and therefore he could have left the stage with the rest of the orchestra. Instead, he stood there alone on the brightly lit stage and shrugged his shoulders, and when everyone in the audience was properly masked, he started playing again all alone. I do not remember what he was playing. I think it was Mendelssohn. The music was magnificent, but perhaps more magnificent, more glorious, and what gave the Gulf-War its final seal of humanity was Isaac Stern's shrug of his shoulders as he started playing again. It was certainly the most profound and meaningful gesture of that entire television show. I interpreted that gesture to mean: Ah let those scuds kill me, I should have been dead anyway a long time ago!
Or perhaps that gesture simply meant that Isaac Stern, like all good performers, realized that the show must go on.