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The Gulf War TV Super Bowl

CNN has created a "Showdown with Iraq" logo for its coverage -- reminiscent of the title "Showdown in the Gulf" used by CBS for Desert Storm updates seven years earlier -- suggesting that this casting of the current conflict with Iraq as a Hollywood western is quite familiar.
Jim Castonguay

Issue #35, November 1997

Desert Storm: The Sequel

When Saddam Hussein notified the United Nations earlier this month — in response to continued sanctions against his country — that American weapons inspectors had to leave Iraq and that Iraqi forces would shoot down American U-2 reconnaissance planes, the networks quickly dusted off their military analysts, Gulf War graphics, and Desert Storm rhetoric for what continues to be a remarkable display of TV deja vu. CNN has created a "Showdown with Iraq" logo for its coverage — reminiscent of the title "Showdown in the Gulf" used by CBS for Desert Storm updates seven years earlier — suggesting that this casting of the current conflict with Iraq as a Hollywood western is quite familiar. Indeed, during the Gulf War the standoff, pistols-at-dawn mentality ensured that cultural events like the Super Bowl would not be canceled during wartime so that Americans could display their collective patriotism to Saddam and other would-be terrorists/bullies who were out to destroy the world and wreck everyone's good time ("Saddam Sacks Super Bowl" worried Advertising Age). It is not surprising that President Bush encouraged the NFL and ABC to proceed with the game, since this wimp-turned-warrior had already described the Gulf War as his Super Bowl (and was counting on mobilizing the massive Super Bowl TV audience).

As the centennial observance of the 1898 Spanish-American War fast approaches, it becomes even more important that the 1990-91 neo-imperialist adventure known as "Operation Desert Storm" be recognized as yet another chapter in a long and bad historical novel of American frontierism — one that includes not only Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders but the more recent Cold War and a much older Crusade for a different New World Order. And while historical distance may revise the Gulf War text, at the time of this writing Gulf War commanders continue to be valorized and Operations Desert Shield, Sword, and Storm are still consistently presented as just and successful endeavors in opposition to the morally and strategically misguided failure called "Vietnam." In the end, the Gulf War was less about forgetting history (as some have argued), than it was an ambivalent attempt to create a new history (which Bush explicitly presented as the founding of a New World Order) while also insisting that we remember — not only the lessons from Vietnam and the mistakes of anti-War movement but also the ethics of a just and honorable World War II. This therapeutic process was translated into Gulf War propaganda, like the Super Bowl half-time show discussed below, and into the literal overkill of Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

What the U.S. public does remember from the Persian Gulf War is a just and successful military operation with few casualties — a sanitized, quickie technowar in which laser-guided missiles destroyed buildings not bodies. In his October 2, 1997, letter to the UN Security Council, however, Ramsey Clark offers the sobering reminder that U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq "have now killed more than 750,000 human beings, perhaps twice that many, the great majority, infants, children, older persons and those who suffered serious chronic illnesses." During the Gulf War, the sanitized media coverage became complicit in the killing by adopting an uncritical, self-censored position toward the conflict which facilitated the slaughter of Iraqis and the destruction of Iraq's infrastructure (including the leveling of the historic city of Baghdad).

President Bush provided the definitive conclusion to the Gulf War TV miniseries "Operation Desert Storm" when he announced in March of 1991 that "by God, we've finally kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all." Continued revelations that our smart technology was much dumber than we thought and the increased public awareness of Gulf War Syndrome/Illness might suggest that George Bush's therapeutic tale of the Gulf may yet be significantly revised. But the Gulf War TV show has already survived the images of suffering Kurds shown shortly after the war and recurring criticisms that the president ended the war too soon by leaving Saddam Hussein alive and in power.

As it becomes more and more apparent that the media and the Clinton administration have once again embarked on an unyielding march toward aggressive action against Iraq, it becomes especially timely — indeed crucial — that we revisit the original production of the Gulf War. We need to examine the ways in which it constructed not only the instant history of the war but also a desire for violence. In the case of the Gulf War Super Bowl, it is football's generic conventions and its mode of reception — which socializes us in different ways than the evening news — that facilitated the uncritical reception of the Bush administration's propaganda.

Super Bowl XXV

During the Gulf War the commentary of military and football analysts — and the methods deployed to illustrate and explain sports and the war — became almost indistinguishable. During ABC's broadcast of Super Bowl XXV, an important part of the rhetorical strategy was to turn the event into much more than a game in order to justify playing the contest. Indeed, the Super Bowl and its viewers became important — even essential — participants in the war effort. To be sure, the Super Bowl is already not just another football game, and the usual hype and relentless references to football history (which is a television or televisual history) mark its cultural significance. It is particularly important that Super Bowl XXV took place on January 27, 1991 — just days after the beginning of U.S.-led coalition bombing. Consequently, the American public was immersed in a culture of fear and anxiety, unsure about the possibility of a long war with high U.S. casualties, waiting for chemical weapon attacks from Iraq's mobile scud launchers, intimidated by Saddam Hussein's elite "Republican Guard," air force, and vast army, and — in the ultimate invocation of a cold war logic — terrified of Saddam's possible nuclear weapon technology.

Figure 1

The "Silver Anniversary Super Bowl" began with an establishing shot of the entire stadium and, as Whitney Houston performed her rendition of the national anthem, there were several shots of flag-and-sign-waving fans. There were also dissolves to soldiers on the field, including a direct address close-up of an African-American marine and tracking shots of several rows of enlisted men and women on the field holding the flags of various coalition countries. Houston's performance — which immediately became a hit record and made her an instant homefront hero — was punctuated by a fly-over of F-14s and an extreme long shot of the stadium accompanied by the graphic of the Super Bowl XXV logo/shield. In a case of intertextual deja vu, a less spectacular version of this mise-en-scene and rhetoric appeared in a special issue of People magazine on Gulf War heroes: a story on Whitney Houston and her Super Bowl performance ran opposite a color advertisement for a pewter sculpture of an F-14 Tomcat. The story points out that the Star Spangled Banner has been "dutifully performed at sporting events since World War II" and then notes that "Houston's 'Star Spangled Banner' was the first to hit the pop charts since Jose Feliciano's 1968 World Series rendition." The explicit references to World War II and the year that marked the turning point in U.S. public opinion against the war in Vietnam are symptomatic of the larger attempt during the Gulf War to return to a just war mentality in the name of "kicking the Vietnam Syndrome" (as WW II veteran George Bush so baldly put it).

The Super Bowl's raison d'etre became participating in the war effort by doing a performative duty for the troops in collective support of the U.S. government. The fact that both team's colors were red, white and blue contributed to the already ubiquitous presence of those colors in the form of the many U.S. flags which were purchased at the event. In addition, many fans brought to the game homemade red, white, and blue posters announcing "America's Best Citizens Support our G.I.s," "God Bless America," and "Go USA," literally signs of support for the war. From the outset of the contest the garb and paraphernalia which fans normally bring to the Super Bowl in support of a football team were usurped by "higher" allegiances to God, country, and the troops. Thus the symbolic performance of the crowd was an important component of the television event and, like the larger media coverage of the war, meticulously orchestrated. More interesting for my purposes, the fans in the stadium were no longer just supporting a football team, but became Gulf War fanatics, cheering on "our side" and the "coalition team." Later, during the half-time show, individual fans held up colored cards at the appropriate moment in order to form a huge red, white, and blue Super Bowl XXV shield (resembling both a U.S. flag and the icon of Operation Desert Shield) that could be seen only on television — thanks to the bird's eye/camera view from the Good Year blimp. Thus the stadium crowd was incorporated into the spectacle of the half time show, literally performing their collective duty for the troops, the war, George Bush, ABC, the NFL, and the home TV viewer. The conscious participation of Super Bowl fans is analogous to other media-sponsored displays (e.g., human flag forming and "USA rallies") intended to simulate a unified U.S. body politic and alleviate historical insecurities during the war. At the same time, this excessive spectacle must be viewed as part of a larger attempt to redeem the apparatus and institution of television, which, according to the military and popular memory, contributed to losing the Vietnam war in American living rooms. Consequently, while the spectacle of the stadium experience of the Super Bowl is important to the construction of societal memory, these "live" and "spontaneous" collective practices were also transformed into a symbolic ritual for hundreds of millions of Gulf War telespectators.

Figure 2 During the first commercial break during the Super Bowl XXV, Diet Pepsi launched its "You got the right one, baby" ad campaign featuring Ray Charles and the soon-to-be celebrity "Uh Huh Girls" as his back up singers. One of the commercials shows an African tribe, masses of cheering Asians, worshipping Eastern Buddhists, and Geisha "girls" singing the "Uh-huh" song and doing the "Uh-huh" dance. By suggesting that inside these non-Western inhabitants of the global village reside cola drinking Americans dancing and singing to get out, Pepsi partakes in the larger ethos of giddy neo-imperialism present in Gulf War popular culture (exemplified by the photograph of a Kuwaiti man kissing an American flag which appeared on the front page of USA Today celebrating the "liberation of Kuwait").

Leading up to the U.N. deadline, the "diet cola wars" began to take on new connotations, reaching a fever pitch during Super Bowl week when both Coca Cola and Pepsi canceled some of their prepared commercial promotions. The trade journals dubbed this "bait and ditch non-event advertising," a new technique that Coke took too far but Pepsi would negotiate perfectly. During the first half, Coca-Cola scrolled the following up the screen as a male voice spoke the text: "Prior to the Middle East Crisis, Coca-Cola scheduled a Super Bowl Promotion, which will be aired later. However, we also want to recognize what is truly important: our men and women serving in the Persian Gulf. Today on your behalf, The Coca Cola Company donates $1 million to the U.S.O." Coke's rhetorical strategy (in essence advertising that it was not advertising) proved ineffective, since they failed to capitalize on the unmitigated celebration of global consumerism and Americanism (ironically most embodied by their product). Indeed, Coca Cola's aesthetically bland commercials were, in the end, the most blatant reminder of the seriousness of war (and television's conventions) in the Super Bowl flow. As we would see later, Coke was taking the war more seriously than the actual troops in the Middle East, who were enjoying the game on TV and (much to the dismay of Coca Cola executives) drinking cans of Pepsi. The following week Coke was officially pronounced the loser when Advertising Age's editorial staff declared that "Coke made the wrong move baby."

Figure 3

In the end Pepsi's ad "campaign" elevated the "Uh-huh" girls to celebrity status (albeit short-lived) and, like the images of singer Whitney Houston, these performances represented a major component of the abridged American Dream for many African-Americans: to become successful performers in the entertainment industry. The two other components of the African-American Dream — professional sports and the more realistic option of the military — are also ubiquitous in the Super Bowl mise-en-scene. In the case of the Gulf War TV Super Bowl, the performers and entertainers (e.g., the "warriors" on the football (battle)field and the children paraded onto the Disney stage during half-time) were mostly people of color. Like the troops fighting in the Gulf War "theater" who were killing in the interest of establishing the global New World Order, the immediate beneficiaries of these performances were the white men whose economic and political interests these performances served. The televised Super Bowl thus unwittingly reflected the demography of U.S. soldiers who, left with few economic and institutional alternatives, were coerced into fighting on the front lines in the Middle East.

The "half-time show" was prefaced by another ABC news update from Peter Jennings behind the helm of the ABC new desk in New York, telling the viewer that Saddam Hussein had delivered on his threat to use "the Oil weapon ... [a]nd now the most significant U.S. attack of the last 24 hours has been to turn the oil off ... using laser guided weapons ... to seal the pipes." The first two news segments, "The Gulf War: The Strike" and "The Gulf War: The Clean Up" explain that many of the techniques and companies being employed to clean-up the spill were first used after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. While the reality is that the relentless bombing by the U.S. was responsible for the vast majority of oil damage in the Gulf, this report even goes so far as to suggest that Exxon's record oil spill was a positive event in light of the Gulf War. NBC practiced a similar deception when its parent company General Electric — which was involved in designing and/or building almost every major weapon used to destroy Iraq and kill its people — continued to insist in its wartime commercials that it was "bring[ing] good things to life."

In the next segment, "The Gulf War: The Bombing," we see a Marine major with an array of mines in hand and others displayed in the sand before a group soldiers elaborating on Saddam Hussein's arsenal: "This ain't the war to be out there playin' Rambo! The guy knows what he's doin'! He likes land mines!". Accompanied by reaction shots of young U.S. soldiers visibly shaken by the major's words, Jennings' voice-over explains that "only a tiny fraction of American soldiers have any combat experience, [so] the major paints it as real as he can." The major continues shouting: "If you find one of these [mines] you're gonna win it! You're gonna eat about 14 pounds of explosives! They're not gonna find your shoes! They aren't gonna find nothin'! [They'll just] see a little red mist there!"

Figure 5

This segment highlights the insecurities and anxieties about the impending ground war and how the inexperienced U.S. troops will perform in the battlefield. As if tailored to highlight anxieties present in the news stories, Super Bowl XXV was the closest in Super Bowl history (the final score was 20-19) as the Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood missed a last second field goal that would have won the game. This is precisely the type of outcome to the ground war — failed performance under fire — feared by the U.S. and present throughout the Super Bowl broadcast. And while press reports tried to accentuate the positive, claiming that both teams had performed marvelously, the missed kick takes on increased significance in light of the discourse over the impending ground war and speculation over whether or not our Patriots missiles were "intercepting" SCUDs or if our inexperienced troops might miss the Iraqi butts they were supposedly going to kick. The final "news" segment during the half-time break is reserved for the Super Bowl itself: "And just before we get back to the game," says Jennings, "an answer to one of the more obvious questions. Yes, men and women in the war zone have been able to see the first half." We cut to a shot of Whitney Houston beginning her performance of the "Star Spangled Banner" with the logo "The Gulf War: Super Bowl." This blatant self-promotion by ABC and the NFL historicizes the Super Bowl even before it is only half-over, raising its newsworthy status to that of bombing updates and environmental damage caused by actual events of the war. Within the context of the larger rhetoric of "support the troops," the supposedly overwhelming public support for military aggression, and the patriotic display orchestrated by the NFL and aestheticized by ABC, the stage was set for instantly documenting that the Super Bowl was an essential morale booster. ABC thus presents the Super Bowl as performing an indispensable USO-like function for the troops who were enjoying the game along with the home TV viewer. The high production values and seamless unfolding of the news reports about our first half entertainment serve to construct an illusory sense of live history in the making — a feeling that the home viewer is doing his/her part in couch potato support for the war effort.

Figure 6 ABC's Judd Rose begins the report by noting that "It began with the national anthem dedicated to the troops in the Persian Gulf." These remarks are accompanied by a close-up of a soldier with tears streaming down his face, shots of soldiers drinking cans of Pepsi and watching the game enthusiastically on television, and testimonies from soldiers about how much the game meant to them. The only woman soldier watching the game claims that "Saddam has a history of hittin' us right in the middle of when we're doing somethin' good (laughs)." In response to the reporter's question, "what happens if [a SCUD attack] happens?," she says, "Oh, we'll put our [gas] masks on and hopefully be able to keep watchin' if it's not too bad," suggesting not only how heretically disrespectful a SCUD attack would be on the Holy Day of the West, Super Bowl Sunday, but also pointing to the religious conviction of the Super Bowl spectator who is willing risk her life to watch the game. The reporter concludes that "there were concerns this week that playing the Super Bowl in the shadow of war seems frivolous, but if anything it meant more to the troops here — a glimpse of home before heading on to the front." A Sports Illustrated article reinforced this take on the Super Bowl, quoting one soldier remarking that, "[w]e were here for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's. Now we're here for the Super Bowl" — a further testament to the significance of the Super Bowl in U.S. culture, placing it along side national holidays and adding explicit religious overtones to the ritual. Of course, when CNN's "hotel warriors" broadcast the outbreak of the war live over an audio feed, it was immediately aligned with the most patriotic of U.S. holidays as John Holloman, Bernard Shaw, and Peter Arnett literally "oohed" and "ahhed" at the awesome spectacle of anti-aircraft tracer fire and the explosions of U.S. bombs. When both Holloman and Shaw described the bombing as resembling the "fireworks finale on the fourth of July at the base of the Washington monument," replete "with red and white flashes" of tracer fire, George Bush — who scheduled the beginning of the bombing for prime time TV viewing (or listening) — no doubt agreed that we were indeed witnessing the historic rebirth of a nation and the launching of a revolutionary New World Order.

The Sports Illustrated piece also reports that the Defense Department estimated that only 10% to 15% of the U.S. forces in the Gulf region could potentially see the game live, making the half-time segment yet another a piece of misleading propaganda (for both ABC and President Bush). When one takes into consideration that most of the men and women in the Gulf were working twelve to eighteen hours days and fearing for their lives given the impending ground war, the reality is that few troops had any desire to watch the Super Bowl. Such facts notwithstanding, after the report of the troops enjoying and appreciating the first-half, we return to a smiling Jennings looking off-screen right at his monitor. He concludes that we have "a small reason to smile today. It's a little after 4 O'clock in the morning in Saudi Arabia. That's our brief news report, we'll go back to the game in Tampa ... after this ..."

If the Gulf War Super Bowl seems like an isolated moment in recent U.S. history, witness the the brief but intense media blitz surrounding the recent "Promise Keepers" rally in Washington, D.C. Replete with images of football stadiums filled with men praying, sobbing, and kneeling before huge video screens (all under the direction of their spiritual coach Bill McCartney) — the Promise Keepers provides us with another striking example of the conflation of a football stadium experience with right-wing politics, religion, and the military. The uniform-like outfits of the leaders (and their past careers in sports and the military), as well as the ubiquitous use of military language (e.g., "spiritual warfare") and the participation of sports figures in the stadium rallies, further point to the connection between the Promise Keepers and these other institutions. P.K. guru/coach McCartney launched the movement during Operations Desert Shield, Sword, and Storm — aided by the hyper-patriarchal climate of a militarized U.S. culture — when in 1990 he left his job as head football coach at the University of Colorado to begin his own crusade to "take back the nation" for Christ with his "Godly army."

One of most interesting aspects of the TV coverage of the Promise Keepers rally was the way in which the "political" was consistently presented by the media in opposition to the "spiritual" or "religious," thus allowing P.K. spokesmen and spokeswomen to dismiss criticisms of their movement on the grounds that critics were wrongly "politicizing" what was in actuality a "purely religious" nation/family/father-building event. As The Nation observed over a year ago in October 1996, "[T]he political significance of Promise Keepers has eluded most of the media coverage lavished upon its stadium extravaganzas, which are bedazzling and often emotionally affecting for the reporters who cover them. Last February, McCartney was named "Person of the Week" by ABC News, a signal of the generally positive attitude toward the Promise Keepers in the secular media, which no doubt will persist ... . Friendly reporting has been encouraged by the superficially uncontroversial subject matter of most Promise Keeper rallies."

The recent Washington rally suggests that this right-wing movement continues to masquerade as a kinder, gentler, spiritualized masculinity divorced from political agendas. In the case of the Gulf War Super Bowl, the genre of sports programming — and the stadium experience of football in particular — enabled George Bush and ABC to turn the game into a "bedazzling and often emotionally affecting" piece of political propaganda under the guise of the less controversial act of "supporting the troops." While this affective spectacle is already apparent in Whitney Houston's performance, it became even more excessive during the stadium half-time show.

During the Gulf War protesting U.S. policy became equated with not supporting the troops, which ignores the major reason for opposing the war in the first place: to prevent troops being sent to the Gulf or to bring them back sooner and alive. This "support the troops" strategy benefited from the false yet apparently accepted claim that the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam due to a lack of support on the home front.

Figure 8a

After a reminder from our local anchor to watch his "live homefront reports from the Middle East tonight," we return to Brent Musburger who explains, "while you were away, Walt Disney world and 2,000 children entertained the crowd ... [with] a stirring tribute to our men and women stationed in the Persian Gulf." We cut to Seth Horton, a young, blond boy dressed in a red, white, and blue football jersey who dedicated the song "Wind Beneath My Wings (You are my Hero)," "[to] the real heroes in the Middle East protecting freedom for all of us kids." As he begins to sing, we dissolve to a montage of smiling and waving troops in the Middle East (one woman soldier is holding a pink heart-shaped pillow and a man gives the thumbs up sign). In addition, hundreds of young children with a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds with parents serving in the Persian Gulf were paraded on to the field wearing yellow ribbons and carrying U.S. flags (invoking the myth of the great American melting pot, the global family of nations, and the allied coalition). Meanwhile, the stadium crowd, which had erupted into a deafening roar, forms a red, white, and blue flag-like Super Bowl shield across the stands.

During an instrumental break, the narrator announces, "Ladies and Gentlemen. The President of the United States," and we dissolve to a pre-recorded message from George and Barbara Bush delivered from the White House on a couch in front of a fire place and book case. As the music from the stadium performance continues for (melo)dramatic impact, the President and First Lady address the global village.

Figure 8bPRESIDENT BUSH: Good evening from the White House to everyone in the sunshine state and around the world enjoying this wonderful game.

BARBARA BUSH: What a pleasure it is to say hello to all the young people on the field tonight. Looking at you it's easy to see why America can count on a bright and hopeful future.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well that's right. And you make us all very proud. But today we should recognize the men and women in our armed forces. Far away from home, they protect freedom in the Persian Gulf and around the world.

Figure 8c A lone trumpet in the stadium can be heard playing "America the Beautiful" over the president's "message," which continues to refer to the troops and their "mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters ... the true champions of our country." While the camera dissolves to several close-ups of racially diverse children in front of the Disney Castle, the president concludes: "God Bless you all, and God Bless all freedom loving people around the world." The field is now entirely filled with American flags being waved by the cast of thousands of children and young adults on the field and, as the music's crescendo reaches a fever pitch, a flock of white doves are released from the front gate of the Castle. While the chorus belts out the words "AMERICA! AMERICA! AMERICA!," there is a final dissolve to the original extreme long shot which reveals that the on-field participants have formed the letters "USA." As the deafening roar of the crowd fades out, Brent Musberger voice-over concludes: "Dawn is now breaking over the Persian Gulf and some of our fighting men and women have been watching this Super Bowl throughout the night, and our hearts go out to them. Now for the second half..."

Figure 8d

In the end, this half-time spectacle clearly demonstrates that during wartime culture the Super Bowl became a whole new ball game — an official spectacle of nationalist propaganda made possible through a televisual conflation of football and war, news and entertainment, politics and sports, history and the present. Overall, the Super Bowl broadcast was much like the television coverage of the war in general — sanitized, packaged, and stylistically polished — creating a euphoric feeling of patriotic nationalism grounded in the U.S. public's ambivalence toward the American military and other insecure collective memories. Like the U.S. news media during the Gulf War, Super Bowl athletes, fans, and the home TV audience functioned as cheerleaders for the U.S. military and the Bush administration's policies. In addition to the structural complicity among the media, the military, and the oil industry (e.g., top executives at the major networks also sit on the boards of big oil companies), the Gulf War TV Super Bowl also revealed to an unprecedented degree the existence of an industrial-military-sports-media complex.

Jim Castonguay is a doctoral candidate in the Modern Studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he is completing a dissertation on Spanish-American War films, Gulf War TV, and representations of Bosnia on the Web. He can be reached at

Copyright © 1997 by Jim Castonguay. All rights reserved.