War as a Sporting Event
Issue #63, April 2003
In 1970 I published an article on the Apollo moon shot in which I compared the television presentation of that occasion to the airing of a sporting event. I called the essay "The Moral Equivalent of War?", adding a question mark to the title of one of William James's essays from the turn of the twentieth century. In my article I explored the issue of how the mediated presentation of such events as Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon gave Americans the satisfaction that used to come with winning battles or wars, or at the slightly lower level, backing a World Series winner or a Wimbledon champion.
At that time television had already become the major conduit for our absorption of public events. I recall my then-wife and me taking turns typing my Ph.D. thesis in late November 1963 while sitting in front of our black-and-white television set during the days following John Kennedy's assassination. We watched Jack Ruby shoot a startled Lee Harvey Oswald live on screen, saw the caisson with the Presidential coffin rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, and saw little John-John Kennedy salute as it rolled by, with his elegant mother standing next to him, symbolizing the end of Camelot. These are some of the iconic images we all retain from that particular historical moment, even those who were not alive then. In the following decade we got used to watching the war in Vietnam being projected into our living rooms via taped transmissions of live action. The war came home to us with all the power of a feature film or television documentary, and the moon shot occurred during the middle of that experience.
In the years since then we have gotten used to following a particular type of ritual during moments of heightened national consciousness and crisis. At such moments we turn on our television sets so that we can participate personally and intensely in the mediated events of those days. Recall, for instance, the first war in Iraq, the saga of Desert Storm, directed by President Bush the Elder. By this time television had morphed into a fully technicolor medium and was available to us not only on the major networks but on CNN, a cable station totally "devoted" to "the news." We watched the development of such media personalities as announcers Bernard Shaw and Wolf Blitzer as well as generals Colin Powell (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Norman Schwartzkopf (director of the ground war). We watched some live action but also much computer simulation, including "smart bombs" that could enter the windows of buildings on direction. We found out later that the actual bombs (as opposed to the simulated ones) never did have such accuracy and that many of them went astray and killed civilians. We saw the simulated disabling of huge numbers of Iraqi tanks — well over half of them, as a matter of mediated fact — but later, we learned that the confirmed number was closer to twenty than to fifty per cent.
Nonetheless, watching a simulated war was satisfying, because it gave us a strong sense of American superiority, and that made it easy to support the action. It's always easier, after all, to support a winning team. That's why the Yankees and Braves fill their stadiums year after year. Desert Storm (the mediated version) was a carefully managed war game. It created a setting in which the good troops from the then-coalition battled an evil dictator whom we had previously supported during the Cold War when he attacked Iran — our previous enemy that had kidnapped Americans, held them for ransom, and were being supported by our Cold War rival, the Soviet Union.
How much are we captives of the media that we watch so obsessively during times of crisis? Through how many repetitions did each of us watch the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse into piles of dust and rubble after being struck by jet airliners on September 11, 2001? For this viewer those moving images will forever be the ones I retain of an event that has, in effect, changed the way many Americans have come to see the world. Those falling towers have also provided the rationale for sending our troops to Iraq.
The current war is the first one that has been fully presented as live, along with hidden microphones, "embedded" reporters, and instant replays. It is an audience-participation war in the fullest sense. Briefings by actual generals abound, as well as television interviews with retired ones. There is, in fact, more analysis than direct war footage, because exploding bombs, machine gun bursts, and rolling tanks make little sense without explanation. It is possible to watch a football or basketball game with the sound muted and still know what is going on; but bombs exploding over Baghdad do not explain themselves, and those images of red and orange fire clouds would give us little more than an aesthetic frisson without the mediation of announcers and analysts.
This kind of war coverage has relied increasingly on the ways that television has learned to cover sporting events. Roone Arledge, the late guru behind Monday Night Football, is more the inspiration behind this war than Clausewitz or Wolfowitz. Football games and tennis matches both have play-by-play announcers and "color" announcers, or analysts. The analysts are primarily former players, similar in background and function to the retired generals and colonels who tell us how to watch the war. The "embedded" reporters of the war are like the announcers who are placed on the field, or by the tennis court, or in the crowd, giving us a sense of the experience "from the inside" by talking to the military men and women; by taking us inside the war rooms, the tanks, the armored personnel carriers; and by interviewing nervous soldiers on the eve of action or injured survivors. Does all this sound familiar?
Certain well-known public figures have emerged as media personalities — for instance, former NATO Commander General Wesley Clark, who is now running for President, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who is visibly running the war. It is nonetheless comforting to have reporters we are used to from earlier major television events, men like the familiar, but grayer, Wolf Blitzer, who has become the Al Michaels of mediated wars, or Aaron Brown, whose soothing voice (reminiscent of Vin Scully) helped us get through the trauma of 9/11. We have women announcers in the studio balancing out the military women who are serving at or near the front lines, women like Judy Woodruff of CNN or Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC, who, like Pam Shriver in tennis or Bonnie Bernstein of Monday Night Football, serve to remind us that the media are committed to gender diversity.
There is also money to be made by televising the war. For the first few days the three major cable news networks eschewed advertising, giving us the appearance that they were donating their public services gratis. The war, we thought, might be over in just a week, given what our "shock-and-awe" tactics were designed to do; so a few days would not be much of a commercial sacrifice for the networks to make. By the time we realized that the war might last longer than we expected, the networks were showing commercials once again, and the war had moved from being something of a lark — a bit like fireworks on the Fourth of July — to being like a nagging toothache that could be soothed only by watching it constantly. The networks could hardly mind, however, because televised war creates a massive audience, and massive audiences raise the rates that can be charged to sponsors. It isn't just the construction companies chosen to rebuild Iraq that will profit from the war. The media will as well. Even the New York Times has established a new section called "A Nation at War" that will increase the paper's circulation and therefore its advertising revenues. It has recently been reported, by the way, that attendance at the movies has dropped by around twenty per cent when compared to this time last year. Those lost viewers are no doubt sitting before their television sets, representing a gain for the networks and their commercial sponsors.
The popular justification for putting the war on television in such a comprehensive way is no doubt that it is done in the democratic service of a better-informed citizenry. And it is no doubt true that we do know more about the war on a day-to-day basis than we have ever known before. But for many people whom I have talked to the saturated presentation of Operation Enduring Freedom has actually increased their sense of helplessness. If that outcome creates a generation of people who hate the very idea of war, the current experience might turn out to be a good thing. But for the government, which is the war's largest corporate sponsor, this mediated presentation actually creates a rare opportunity for it to manipulate public opinion. The networks give our national leaders constant air time to defend their policies, appeal to patriotic instincts, and reassure everyone that not only is the war going well but that our country's intentions are honorable and that we will prevail over Evil. Announcers toe the party line, and those who don't — like Peter Arnett — quickly find employment elsewhere. The American public is being presented with an evangelical civics lesson, not only daily but hourly. All the principal figures are accumulating greater clout. Granted, the administration is taking a big political risk. If the war goes badly, Bush the Younger might well become, like his father, a one-term president. But what if the war goes well? Not only will he win a second term (by election this time), but most of his colleagues will return with him, stronger and more recognized than ever, and a Republican agenda that includes excessive tax cuts, environmental irresponsibility, and bans on abortions will be adopted by Congress in a mood of patriotic fervor. Think about what Compassionate Conservatism will look like from 2005 to 2009.
These matters aside, however, are we better informed than we were before? Is massive information and analysis a means to better understanding and responsible civic action? Or is it really a more efficient way to become indoctrinated, turning us more passive in the face of governmental actions undertaken on the basis of an ideology for which a majority of Americans public did not vote?
As Herbert Marcuse pointed out long ago in One-Dimensional Man, we are all implicated in the actions of an organized society, capitalist or otherwise. How, short of becoming expatriates or hermits, can we manage to live in such a mediated environment and behave responsibly? I have no easy answers to these questions. But early in my recent obsessive war-watching I tried to face this issue, when like many people I started to lose sleep and began feeling disoriented and confused. I started to limit myself to thirty minutes a day of television war coverage and turned to reading about the war in the Times. This retreat into an older medium and away from the metaphor of sport has distanced me to some extent from the kind of saturation that deadens the mind. While the Times is still a product of our society and reflects the ideology of power, I feel that I am no longer living at the mercy of information so overwhelming that it threatens to turn me into an automaton. It may be that we can do nothing to change the policies that lie behind this juggernaut, but at least we can refuse to legitimate the game. It may be that the media have turned war into a spectator sport, but that doesn't mean we have to watch it.
Michael Hoffman recently retired from the English Department of University of California-Davis.
Credit: Image from archives of PM magazine, 1944.