George Bush Sr. gloated after the success of the Gulf War that America “had kicked ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ once and for all.” Bush’s statement reflects the inextricable connection that is shared between Iraq and Vietnam. A connection that has a lot of historical significance embedded within it.
The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was perceived as a disaster. The US spent billions of dollars, 58,000 American soldiers were killed, many more were injured and for the first time in history America had lost a war. Vietnam left a black mark on America that ingrained weakness and shame into American society, culture and politics throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. This mark was labelled by President Reagan in 1980 as ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. Reagan was concerned that the aftershock of Vietnam had caused a type of illness that had made America powerless to act in a menacing and uncertain post-Vietnam world.
Throughout history bloody wars between nations have taken place and there has always been winners and losers. Why then is America’s loss in Vietnam so well remembered?
Vietnam: The “First Television War “
There was a unique factor exclusive to the Vietnam War that amplified and dramatized the devastation to such an extent that the horror and shame became instilled in people’s minds for decades to come. This powerful entity was the ‘television.’ TV became a new addition to American homes in the early sixties which was coincidently around the same time as President Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965. The timing of ‘war’ and ‘television’ combined led to what was famously remembered as ‘The First Television War.’ Reporters were given free access to the battle-field and as a result the public for the first time became a participant in almost every phase of war. The consequences of this were devastating.
Vietnam was initially portrayed as the “good fight”. However, as the war dragged on and more negative images and reports from the battlefield began to surface through televisions people started to doubt the purpose and progress of the war. The consequences of blood, death and despair streaming into American living rooms damaged public opinion at home and soldier’s morale on the battle-field. The influence was so strong it caused President Nixon to declare that the American military’s “worst enemy seems to be the press.” The media with its overload of emotion provoking images forged a strong negative memory in the minds of Americans. It was this this inability to forget that made America weak and led President Reagan to diagnose the nation as suffering from the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’.
“The Gulf War” (1990-91)
The Gulf War was the first major conflict abroad since Vietnam. However, before America could “free Kuwait” in 1990 George Bush Sr. had a battle to win at home. The unforgettable memory of Vietnam was still limiting American foreign policy and influencing the American people’s desire to get involved abroad. The war acted as a catalyst that revived the dormant memories of the past. Once again “Vietnam” was all over the newspapers and television and the American people weren’t pleased.
How did George Bush Sr. conquer the memory of Vietnam and get America to support a war in Iraq?
Bush strategically used the media to his advantage to sway people in favour of war. He achieved this firstly by rallying support in America through the demonization of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi soldiers. Comparisons between Hussein and Hitler and fabricated stories of Iraqi atrocities dominated American news. It effectively created enough desire amongst the American public to stop the perceived “evil” and it seemed war was the only option available to achieve this. The most famous and significant example of manufactured consent was the “baby story” where it was popularly reported that Iraqi soldiers had entered a Kuwaiti hospital and removed hundreds of new born babies from incubators and threw them onto the floor to die. This was later proven completely untrue, however the American public believed it at the time and supported a “just” war to stop horrible acts like this happening again.
Bush had gotten into Iraq and he wasn’t going to let anything like Vietnam happen again. He didn’t allow the press any opportunity to harm the war effort. He imposed strict restrictions and censorship.
The military controlled the media’s movements far more tightly than it did in Vietnam. They were given virtually no access to soldiers in the battle-field and made much more dependent on official briefers and experts at military organised briefings. The result back in America was the image of a “good” and “clean” war dominated by awesome technology and special effects, a stark contrast to the bloody disaster in Vietnam.
Vietnam was a lesson for America. Like anything being done for the first time, unforeseen mistakes were made. The ability for Americans at home to see the blood and despair of a war through a television proved to be a powerful influence on support for the war and consequently for troop morale on the battlefield. “Vietnam Syndrome” and “The Media” shared an inextricable relationship. The media during the Vietnam War helped to create this syndrome through its ability to be remembered and provoke emotions and then ironically, it was used as the vital tool to finally “kick Vietnam Syndrome once and for all” in 1991. However this was not an entirely true statement. The memory of Vietnam is still very much alive today in America. It is commonly used in the media and in debates over policy as a comparison or warning in relation to current or future U.S foreign interventions, such as the current war in Afghanistan.
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Hallin, D. (1986). The “Uncensored War.” The Media and Vietnam. (University of California Press).
Macarthur, j. (1992). Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. (Hill and Wang)