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Gulf War Press Mobilization

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Taken By Storm: The Media, Public Policy, and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Gulf War

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The Gulf War: The Bush Administration and Pentagon’s Mobilization of the Press to Achieve Favorable American Public Opinion
The Gulf War: The Bush Administration and Pentagon’s Mobilization of the Press to Achieve Favorable American Public Opinion
by Bryan Hayes


The most important new weapons of war are lightweight television cameras and television satellites. The new rules of warfare concern the way they are used nowadays.
-- Ben J. Wattenburg

Since World War II wars have been defined by a definitive image. The raising of the American flag by U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima or children running from an American assault in Vietnam has left memorable images in the minds of Americans for seven decades. In the Gulf War of 1991 the image of Iraqi soldiers falling to their knees to kiss the hands of their U.S. Marine captors was the defining image of that war. The photo signified the finest qualities of American character; control, restraint, and a confidence in the rightness of the American cause. For the men and women who served the cause, it was a celebrated rebuttal to those who predicted tragedy for the Americans and the coalition forces at the hand of the world’s fourth largest Army.

The Persian Gulf War was a victory on many fronts. A historic battle was won on the battlefront, but a more substantial battle was won in the minds and hearts of the American people. State and Defense Department officials believed the United States military defeat in Vietnam resulted from critical and inaccurate media reports of activities in theater. At home, sympathetic media coverage of the anti-war activities contributed to a growing number of dissenters during the conflict and unfortunate attitudes regarding American soldiers, sailors, and marines occupied in the struggle. Thus, the key objective during the Gulf War was to win the home front. By utilizing the media as a resourceful informant, the Bush administration and the American military revitalized the military’s image as the predominant military power in the world, authorizing the United States the capability to achieve the country’s national objectives during the military campaign.

The Politics of Persuasion

It is essential to outline the national goals of the United States from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait throughout the Gulf War. In a democratic society, national interests is what a majority, after discussion and debate, decides are its legitimate long-term interests in relation to the outside world. These national interests lay the foundation for the goals the populace wishes to achieve. Regardless of political affiliation, two points can always be agreed upon in American culture in considering foreign relations discussions. First, the will to be secure in our borders is paramount. The absence of threat at home or abroad is a consistent concern commonly agreed upon by the American community. The second item which breeds agreement is the need for a World Order. Foreign interests can have effects that hurt, influence, or disturb the majority of citizens living in the United States. A prevalent example is the Iranian Revolution in 1979. It is in the United States interest to influence and heal conflicts which arise outside her borders to sustain a World Order in which law abiding citizens are free to prosper.

On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein, without cause or provocation, invaded the tiny country of Kuwait and disrupted American security and World Order in the Middle East. The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait was a difficult and urgent dilemma for U.S. planners. Following the invasion, Iraqi forces appeared to be massing for possible further offensive operations into Saudi Arabia. By August 6, eleven Iraqi divisions were in or deploying to Kuwait. Intelligence reports indicated Iraqi units were being positioned along the Saudi border.[1] Far exceeding operational requirements, Iraq had more than enough forces to launch an immediate invasion into Saudi Arabia. After months of deploying coalition forces to Saudi Arabia to stall any advance of the Iraqi army, President George H.W. Bush, addressed the nation on January 16, 1991, affirming the goals set by the United States and approved by the United Nations resolutions: “Our objectives are clear: Saddam Hussein’s forces will leave Kuwait. The legitimate government of Kuwait will be restored to its rightful place and Kuwait will once again be free.”

The key element to victory in Kuwait was winning the minds of the American people. One month before the Iraqi invasion, Americans were preoccupied with domestic issues; drugs, crime, state of the economy, and federal budget deficits. [2] Sending troops in the Middle Eastern theater for a possible war was not talked about around the water coolers at American businesses. In order for any military action to be successful, the American public was going to have to approve the campaign. The administration was not concerned with Congress in regards to the offensive. The Democratic opposition in the fall of 1990 agreed in the decision to send the troops to Kuwait, but was critical of the administration in taking any offensive actions. However, enough congressional democrats supported the Gulf War Resolution in January, 1991 to enable the legislation to pass. In the early stages of planning, the administration and the pentagon’s focus was on the undivided attention of mobilizing public support through the media. In this regard, the administration leveraged the media for political purposes in unprecedented means. Planners knew this was going to be a difficult task. This war was the first prime time, twenty-four hour, color commentary war with public relations briefings from the commanders in charge.

The principal objective of the Bush administration was to shape the debate to maximize its freedom of action and to build support for any military action. This “strategic political communication” encompasses the creation, distribution, control, use, processing, and effects of information as a political resource. [3] This strategy was perfected through the use of image and news management. A constant theme prior to military action was the successful metaphors of Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. Many Americans were not familiar with Saddam Hussein, but most Americans can identify Hitler and the atrocities of World War II. To control the news organizations, the Pentagon effectively used media pools in order to preserve its political legitimacy. The Pentagon wanted to avoid at all costs the same relationship it experienced with the media during Vietnam. Censorship was not an option because of the public relations failures of the Vietnam conflict.

Fractured Relationship of Media & Military

In order to appreciate how skillfully the administration managed the media during the war, it is imperative that a short history of the military and the media be revisited.

The manipulation of information being released to the American public originated after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The service chiefs decided that to divulge the extent of the disaster would be unacceptable to the public. Thus, the chiefs employed censorship among the media and press corps. Shortly after the attack, Secretary of State Frank Knox held a press conference and stated the USS Arizona was the only loss in the assault. It was not until after the war that the public was informed of the five battleships lost at Pearl Harbor. [4]

Vietnam established an environment that would affect the relationship between the military and the media for years to come. This marked the beginning of a new era in combat coverage leaving the pentagon unprepared to manage news reports. Technology would render censorship an ineffective method of controlling exposure, allowing Vietnam to be the first war brought into American living rooms via television.

In 1960 matters concerning the press and the military were calm. At that time most articles written concentrated on the Communist threat in East Asia and greater need for American involvement. The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations wanted to keep U.S. involvement as quiet as possible. American officials stated to the press that deception was necessary in order to stop the communists. Administrators appealed to the correspondents’ sense of patriotism not to file reports that would damage American interests. However, these appeals failed. The administration discovered that appealing to the patriotic ideas that worked in World War II and Korea was not going to be effective in Vietnam.

In 1962 interest in Vietnam escalated immensely. Many reports stated that U.S. involvement was more than just an advising role. Richard Hughes reported in the New York Times in March, 1962 that U.S. involvement “has already past the point where aid can be distinguished from involvement.” Political and Military leaders attempted to counter press reports by attacking their competence. Memorandums categorized correspondents as “inexperienced”, “unsophisticated”, and their reporting as “irresponsible”, and “sensationalized.” [5]

Correspondents were trying to tell the story, but the American public was receiving an inaccurate picture of the situation. A 1967 Gallup Poll revealed that 50% of Americans did not know what Vietnam was all about. The public started to realize their perception of Vietnam was not accurate until the 1968 My Lai incident. This incident involved the deaths of between 90 and 130 unarmed and non Viet Cong Vietnamese on March 16, 1968. [6] The conflict had a great effect on the relationship between the pentagon and the media. Aggressive reporting informed a callous public about the futility of the conflict’s strategy- a strategy that ignored the need for public support. [7]

After Vietnam, the relationship was characterized by mistrust. This mistrust in every endeavor of the two institutions would continue for some time. This strained relationship between the U.S. military and the media reached a climax in 1983 following the assault on the Caribbean island of Grenada, when the media were excluded from the planning and execution of that mission for the first 48 hours. In the 1989 invasion of Panama, the press was alerted, but deployed too late, and upon arriving was sequestered in a briefing room and missed the invasion. Secrecy was a prime consideration, but insufficient planning to accommodate journalists on this mission led to continued mistrust.

Operational Security v. Freedom of Information

The nature of the military and the press’s trade are naturally in conflict. The military is trained to win. Winning requires stamina, strength, skill, courage, and sacrifice. The media is trained to report. Reporting must avoid secrecy and must also report cowardice, errors, weakness, and agony, all of which discourage the public. The military’s position on this conflict is the press should cover military operations, but what it airs and prints should not impair national security or endanger troops. The media’s position is that the American people must be informed of what is happening on the battlefield, and there must be reporters in place to see what is going on. The media agrees they should protect national security, but they want to do it their way. The military has learned through experience that some members of the press do not always know what will impair operational security or endanger the troops. Likewise, some reporters try to question troop leaders in the heat of a fight and others draw unwarranted conclusions because they do not know or understand what is going on. Those unfamiliar with the military can create problems by exposing troop movement or positions, or by filing stories that will be helpful to American adversaries. [8]

Inevitably, media freedom was an issue the military and the Bush administration had to address. The need to protect operations against the press’ counterarguments of first amendment rights was central to the security of forces and the need to tell the story of the Gulf War. The media was there to stay and it was healthy for the American military to be exposed through the media to the public.

Desert Storm clearly demonstrated to what extent the media and the military would converge during times of conflict. The operation illustrated the need for clear guidance on how to best incorporate media into a military operation. In 1985 the Defense Secretary established the DOD National Media Pool, a civilian news element consisting of approximately 16 correspondents chosen from various news agencies with national appeal. The Press Pool’s mission was to cover the operation from the initial stages until open coverage could be allowed by the Pentagon. The Press Pool was still in place when U.S. forces deployed to Saudi Arabia in August, 1990. The objective of the DOD’s media policy was to ensure the media were on site to cover key events in the military campaign.

As the operation evolved it was obvious the Press Pool was inadequate to handle the number of media personnel in the country. The day after the Iraqi’s invaded Kuwait, there were no western correspondents in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s visa laws made it difficult for correspondents to enter the country. King Faud only permitted reporters in Saudi Arabia if the American military escorted them into the country. Therefore the press pool was the only vehicle to get the media into Saudi Arabia. [9] By December, the press pool consisted of 800 correspondents and just before the ground war in January the number had matured to 1600 reporters. [10]

According to Pete Williams, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, ground rules were established to ensure operational security and the safety of coalition forces were protected. The first ground rule was that no details of future operations could be disclosed. Second, there was to be no reporting on troop strength or locations of those troops. Third, specific information on downed aircraft or naval assets participating in search and rescue maneuvers would not be reported. Finally, the media could not report on operational weaknesses that could be used against coalition forces. [11] In addition to the Press Pool, the Pentagon created a Security Review System (SRS). The SRS was created in order to guarantee reporters did not break the ground rules set forth by the Pentagon. Any reports written by correspondents had to be reviewed by the Public Affairs Officer at the lowest level. Upon approval the report could be filed. If a problem was recognized the report was sent up the Chain of Command, ultimately to the Pentagon Public Affairs Office. The editor of the news agency was required for consultation and the story could run if the editor found no violation of the rules established by the SRS. The military had no say, but this was an effective system devised by the Pentagon because it allowed the military to see any report which might cause distractions to operational security requirements and safety concerns to the coalition forces. During the war, 1352 reports were developed, and only 5 submitted for review in Washington. Four reports were quickly cleared. Only one of the reports was discarded because it involved intelligence capabilities on the battlefield. [12] The difference between the use of these ground rules and similar ones in Vietnam was that in Vietnam, the press was its own sensor. Once a story came out in Vietnam it was too late to rectify issues regarding operational security or the endangerment of troops.

Despite this exceedingly effective system of assuring the safety of the troops and preserving operational security requirements, the media disapproved of how the military managed their correspondents. Regardless of overwhelming public support the media complained of the following issues. First, the media was displeased with the Pool System. The reporters believed the pool system served to direct them in their reporting, therefore controlling what they reported. The Pentagon made significant improvements over censorship, but short of unfettered access to the battle commands, the press corps was not going to be satisfied. Second, they thought there were too many ground rules and guidelines, official escorts, limited access to information, and little availability to file sources. The process was too lengthy and their reports for print were too late; in other words the news was stale. Tom Englehardt sums up the attitude of the media, writing “no well known media company was willing to join more marginal publications like The Nation and Village Voice…in their legal challenge to Pentagon censorship policies.” [13] This is an interesting view considering the Pentagon was not practicing the censorship tactics of Vietnam. Unfortunately for the American press they do not understand, or choose to neglect the safety of the forces on the ground or at sea. Lieutenant General Thomas W. Kelley was accurate in his assessment of the press during the war. Kelley writes the American press will always accuse the military of secrecy and conspiracy. [14] Secrecy will always be part of military operations because it is vital and valid. In American society the press constantly searches for conspiracies. In spending their time searching for conspiracies they are attempting to make the news instead of reporting the news as it unfolds. Unfortunately, this does a great disservice to the men and women in the battlefield theater by not revealing the truth concerning their triumphs and struggles in battle.

Despite the media’s complaints about the military’s management of the press, the American public believed coverage of the war was excellent. Polls verify how effective the military was in controlling the media during the war. A Newsweek poll found that 59% felt better about the media after the war. Likewise, an ABC/Washington Post found that 88% surveyed said the military gained respect. [15]

War and Imagery

War is the major political event that inspires public interest and emotion. People care about war because it personally affects their lives. Not only is the public affected in political terms, but neighbors and family members are sent to foreign lands for the cause of freedom for all people, which bring the war home in personal terms.

As stated previously, to win the war the Pentagon would have to win the war at home, contradictory to the failures of the administrations in Vietnam. The political justifications of the war were expressed in the analogies centering on the persons of Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. This was a clever move on the administration. Americans overwhelmingly agreed the aggression of Saddam Hussein needed to be checked, and equating him to Hitler was a logical persuasion to the American public. Public support became a major asset to the President. Comparisons of the two began a month before the Iraqi invasion, and the administration used the media in promoting Saddam’s image. Just as the case with Hitler, analogies were made in which diplomatic relations were not possible with Saddam. Hitler broke his pact with Russia shortly before the German invasion eastward and that was compared to Saddam not recognizing and abiding by the United Nations sanctions.

The administration took the stance this was a conflict of good versus evil, the same themes utilized against Hitler and the Japanese during World War II. Prior to the invasion, Americans were not aware of Saddam except for his war with Iran. Even though the United States had supported Saddam in that war, the administration had to cast him as evil as Hitler in order to gain public support. The comparison worked, as it became conventional political thought to send troops to the Gulf to stop Saddam’s advance. Between August 2 and January 15 the Washington Post and New York Times published 228 stories, editorials, or columns, which invoked the Hussein-Hitler analogy. [16] President Bush was the single greatest source for the analogy in this period, as appealing to the image of Saddam as Hitler became a daily occurrence. There was no articulate opposition to the policy of sending U.S. forces to the region, and most importantly Democratic leaders supported the policy. [17] Any Democratic criticism failed to undermine any public support for Bush’s strategy.

The President decided to capture on the positive results and sent additional troops to the region. These reinforcements were critical because it turned the defensive pose into an offensive stance. This could not have been done without the vast support of the American people. Any Democratic opposition consisted of calls to use more diplomacy or economic sanctions rather than force. Significantly, no important Democratic spokesman urged the President to withdraw forces from Kuwait. The Democratic criticism failed to undermine any public support for the policy. The majority of the public affirmed that it was right to send troops to the Gulf. This was a testament to the power of the administration to mobilize public opinion through the mass media.

This was a reversal from the ruin of Vietnam. Today we hear terms such as “exit strategy” utilized during conflicts. This stems from the Vietnam era where there was no exit strategy. In fact, there appeared to be no military strategy at all. In Desert Storm, American and coalition commanders predicted up to 50,000 casualties for the coalition forces. [18] Commanders also predicted the use of chemical warfare by the Iraqis and the possibility of Saddam striving to induce Israel into the war. [19] With these concerns, the coalition commanders, led by General Schwarzkopf, Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command developed a strategy of annihilation for a quick and decisive end to the war. This strategy would play out on televisions across America.

For more than two weeks CNN provided the only American reporting from Iraq. CNN's coverage of the Gulf War was unique and completely redefined live satellite television news. The Gulf War opened the possibility that new forms of war and diplomacy were being born. "Television imagery transmitted by satellite," wrote one observer "is irrevocably altering the ways governments deal with each other, just as it makes traditional diplomacy all but obsolete in times of crisis. . . . Instant access from the battlefield to the conference table and back again has enormous political implications both good and bad." [20] The TV coverage of the Gulf War created a phenomenon that has come to be termed "CNN war."

The “stars” of the vast television coverage drastically improved the military’s image from the disasters of Vietnam. General Schwarzkopf became an immediate celebrity on the strength of his briefings in Riyadh. In Newsweek’s March 1991 edition, a Poll confirmed that 93% had a favorable opinion of the desert storm commander. General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, personified expanding opportunities for African-Americans in uniform. President Bush enjoyed approval ratings of 89% at the end of the war. [21] Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, said in a Newsweek interview that the generals were “a media consultant’s dream”, and the brass “had all the qualities that our politicians ought to have; they were plain spoken, quietly confident, and they got the job done.”

Technology played a vital role in the coverage of the war and the war itself by globalizing the news process of the war. Technological developments allowed television networks to broadcast live from deep within enemy territory. The duel between Saddam Hussein's Scud ballistic missiles and President Bush's Patriot missiles created an interactive dialogue of images, which incorporated precisely a credible news organization. As the war unfolded questions were asked about the dramatic initial panic: did the Scuds carry chemical warheads? Then the diplomatic crisis took center stage: would Israel retaliate and split Bush's fragile, carefully crafted Gulf coalition? Saddam started a war of imagery with the gas masks and frantic reporters. The coalition countered with its own captivating imagery: the Patriot in action. The world watched the TV debut of the "missile that hits a missile.” One after another of Iraq's Scuds was visibly destroyed by the spectacular Patriot interceptors: coalition high-tech dominating Saddam's crude terror weapon. The Patriots helped keep the Israeli war machine out of the Gulf War, and thus the coalition held together. Only a handful of Arab nations expressed any support for Iraq's Scud campaign; most condemned Saddam's attacks on his Saudi brothers. Hussein lost the dialogue of images. The political and psychological consequences of images of the Patriot and Scud dueling in the desert night skies provide a classic example of strategic communications in the twenty-four hour news cycle.

Marines in the Gulf, headed by a former Public Affairs Officer, Lieutenant General Walter Boomer, went out of their way to be open and to assist the press, which contributed to exceptionally positive press coverage. Scott Simon of National Public Radio reported (in an interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation, October 1993) that several members of the press were fully briefed before the ground offensive that the Marine amphibious landing was an allied deception. The Marines briefed the press to prevent them from inadvertently blowing the story by naively covering it. The members of the press, sworn to secrecy, maintained the security of the deception, and supported it with continued press coverage of the practice Marine landings. Further, the Marines seemed to have fully incorporated the press in their Gulf War campaign of information supremacy. A Marine Corps representative, speaking at the MIT Symposium, argued that the press coverage acted as a Marine Corps "force multiplier" by keeping Marines motivated and keeping US and world opinion firmly behind the Marines.

The military was more than accommodating to the media during the buildup and the war itself. One of the concerns of the news organizations in the Pentagon press corps was they did not have enough staff in the Persian Gulf to cover the hostilities. On January 17, one day after the bombing began a USAF C-141 Cargo plane with 126 news media personnel on board left Andrews Air Force Base. [22] The fact that senior military commanders dedicated one cargo plane to the job of transporting another 126 journalists to Saudi Arabia demonstrated the military’s commitment to take reporters to the scene of the action so they could tell the story to American people.


The Bush administration and the Pentagon did an admirable job in utilizing the media to accomplish national goals in the Gulf War. During the troop build-up, the President used effective methods in presenting Saddam as the Evil tyrant worthy of such company as Adolf Hitler. The administration effectively used growing public support to turn the defensive posture into the offensive prose when it was clear Saddam had no intention of leaving Kuwait. Once the war started the administration and the pentagon brilliantly employed the media to maintain public support and achieve the goals the nation had set forth after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm attracted more than 1600 reporters, who covered 539,000 troops. [23] The media had enormous influence in forming U.S. public perception. All the imagery built up to the daily scenes across American televisions of Iraqi soldiers kneeling at the feet of American soldiers and marines. This was the first major American war to be covered by news media able to broadcast reports instantaneously to the world, including the enemy.

The press arrangements were a good faith effort on the part of the military to be as fair as possible to a large number of reporters on the battlefield, to get as many reporters as possible out with troops during a highly mobile, modern ground war, and to allow as much freedom as possible, while still preventing the enemy from knowing precisely the nature of coalition plans. The Pentagon learned the lessons from Vietnam and devised a well conceived plan to accommodate the media and tell the story to the American people. The national interest of the United States was to expel Saddam Hussein and his forces from Kuwait, thus attempting to stabilize tensions in the region. The mission of Desert Storm and the buildup of forces were successful because of the campaign of the Bush administration and the Pentagon to secure overwhelming public support for the foreign policy initiatives concerning Iraq.

There was a lesson learned in the discovery about the CNN war that policymakers and military commanders, and those that inform them should examine. All concerned must communicate the goals of policies and the objectives of military operations clearly and simply enough so that the widest of audiences can envision the ways and the means being used to reach those goals. This understanding starts with the President, descends to the most junior soldier, and then reaches to the average citizen. The operational ways and means must be clear and simple so individuals can understand how they personally are being affected. The policy goals and motives for the operation need to be equally clear and simple, but also compelling, so that citizens and allies alike will want to be a part of these operations, while our adversaries will feel powerless to escape the inevitable outcome if they oppose our goals. If commanders draw these pictures and convey this strategic understanding, they should have little fear of video on the battlefields or print in the papers of future CNN wars.
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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2010 Bryan Hayes.

Written by Bryan Hayes. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bryan Hayes at:

About the author:
Bryan T. Hayes is originally from Stone Mountain, Georgia. He will graduate with a Masters in Military Studies from American Military University in 2010. He has served in the U.S. Navy for 12 years, currently assigned toCommander Strike Force Training Atlantic. He has deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom while assigned to Mobile Expeditionary Security Squadron Two. His academic passion is PAC theater operations in World War II. After earning his Masters, he hopes to obtain an adjunct faculty position teaching in an online setting.

Published online: 1/24/2010.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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