War on television has been the subject of both fictional accounts and extensive, often compelling, news coverage. War and other bellicose activities have inspired television documentaries, docudramas, dramatic series and situation comedies. Fictional accounts of war and documentary accounts of historical wars, however, are not discussed in this article that focuses instead on televised coverage of contemporary warfare and related military actions.
The first noteworthy war to occur in the television age was the Korean War (1950-53). Television was, of course, in its infancy as a mass medium at the time and, as a consequence, the Korean conflict is not widely thought of as a televised war. Not only did relatively few viewers have access to television sets, but, because satellite technology was unavailable, television film had to be transported by air to broadcasters. By the time such film arrived its immediacy was much diminished; often, therefore, newspapers and radio remained the media of choice. Nonetheless, in August 1950, a CBS television news announcer reported an infantry landing as it was in-progress, and the controversy caused by this possible security breach reflects conflicts that would long continue between military authorities waging war and television reporters covering that warfare.
In some national contexts, concern about security has sometimes led to formal legal censorship of television war coverage, although, as frequently, physical or technological obstacles inherent to television broadcasting from theaters of war or erected by military personnel at the scene of a conflict served the same censorship purpose. Debates about censorship raged during many of the post-War European military campaigns to maintain control over the many colonies that would eventually achieve national independence. Informal censorship was frequent, however, as when during the 1956 Suez expedition British media were requested to refrain from reporting certain information, but were not forced to do so under penalty of law.
Television coverage also inspired controversy during the Vietnam War (1962-1975). Despite clear evidence that the war effort was less than successful in objective terms, popular opinion and much expert military opinion regard the Vietnam War as one that could have been won on the battlefield but was lost in the living room (where viewers watched their television sets). Reporters who covered the war in the early 1960s remember, however, that most of that early coverage was laudatory and that, in the words of Bernard Kalb who would later join the Cable News Network (CNN), there was "an awful of lot of jingoism...on the part of the press in which it celebrated the American involvement in Vietnam." Methodical scholarly accounts of televised coverage also uniformly discover that television coverage was inclined overall to highlight positive aspects of the Vietnam War and that viewers exposed to the most televised coverage were also most inclined to view the military favorably. Nevertheless, domestic social schisms blamed on the Vietnam War and the war's ultimate failure to sustain a non-Communist regime in Vietnam are often blamed on television and other media.
Whether the public turned against the Vietnam War because television, in particular, and the media, in general, presented it unfavorably, or whether the public turned against the war because media accurately depicted its horrors and television did so most graphically remains an open and hotly contested question in the public debate. There is, however, no historic evidence to prove that a graphic portrayal of war disinclines a viewing public to engage in a war. Some critics suggest that the opposite may be the case when a public considers a war justified and is exposed to images of its side enduring great suffering.
Despite a less than definitive understanding of television coverage and its impact on popular support for war efforts, military strategists began to integrate domestic public relations strategy and overall military strategy during the Vietnam War. As the war progressed, military analysts continued to debate whether it was appropriate for the military to attempt to influence civilian public policy through such efforts. Within military circles and in the wake of the Vietnam War, most such debates were left behind and media relations strategies went far beyond censorship and toward a full-fledged engagement (some say co-optation) of televised media.
During 1976 naval conflicts between Britain and Iceland over fishing rights, strategies to influence televised coverage were used by the Icelandic side to depict Britain as the aggressive party, while the British Navy still even refused to allow television crews on its ships. As late as the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War, during which Britain successfully regained control of the South Atlantic islands that Argentina's military government had invaded, British military strategists had yet to develop a comprehensive media strategy. Although, the British Navy did allow television and other media personnel to travel aboard its ships to the geographically isolated Falklands/Malvinas Islands, the British did not control the content of the war coverage by systematically influencing television media.
The following year when the United States invaded Grenada, concerns regarding less than favorable television coverage prompted military planners to exclude civilian in favor of military television camera crews. Sensitivity to unfavorable television coverage was heightened at this time by the deaths of 230 U.S. Marine and 50 French peacekeepers in a bomb attack during operations in Beirut. But in 1989, when the U.S. invaded Panama, the exclusion of civilian television crews was not possible and thanks to satellite technology and round-the-clock CNN coverage, television viewers were able to watch the progress of military operations with much immediacy. As had been the case during the early Vietnam War, the television media was generally inclined to stress the salutary aspects of the Panama Invasion, and U.S. military planners also did a more effective job of controlling the public perception of the invasion.
The short-lived nature of the Panama, Grenada, and Falklands/Malvinas operations may have also forestalled adverse public reactions among the civilian populations who watched their governments wage war on television. Some argue that television coverage makes short-lived military engagements more likely. Yet, despite many short-lived military endeavors, long-term warfare is still possible in the television age. Still, some observers suggest that lack of widely available independent television coverage is what makes long-term warfare palatable to the international community in contemporary times. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), for example, received often negligible international television coverage. Yet, the recent Civil Wars in former Yugoslavia (1991-?) have continued at varying levels of intensity despite often extensive international coverage. Other extended or particularly brutal border conflicts, terrorist campaigns, coups d'état, civil wars and genocidal endeavors have also received sometimes varying levels of television coverage. Such latter-day wars have been waged in Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Chad, Chechnya, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Georgia, Guatemala, Liberia, Nigeria, Peru, Rwanda, the Sudan, Yemen and in other places far too numerous to mention.
Both the 1992 U.S.-led occupation of Somalia and the 1994 U.S.-led occupation of Haiti may have, however, failed to create much domestic opposition because of their short-duration. The 1992 Somalia operation did, nonetheless, feature one of the most surreal interactions between military personnel and television film crews. This occurred when the first U.S. occupation forces landing on Somali beaches at night found their landings illuminated by the television lights of international news organizations. Criticism of the security risk this illumination entailed harks back to similar criticism of the 1950 CBS report on the infantry landing in Korea.
By far the most noteworthy recent interaction between military and television was occasioned not by a localized conflict but by U.S.-led, internationally sponsored 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. In the aftermath of this war, television and other media were criticized for having failed to provide a balanced and complete account of the war. Some critics, most notably Douglass Kellner in the The Persian Gulf TV War, argue that television and other media failed to provide a balanced and complete account of the war because the corporate owners of commercial networks felt it was not in their business interest to do so. Other critics suggest that television coverage simply reflects popular prejudices. To a great extent, however, during the actual war, as in previous wars, the various national media had to rely on the military forces for access to events and for access to their broadcast networks. According to the Wall Street Journal's John Fialka, the importance of military cooperation is seen in this: that U.S. Marines, despite their smaller role in the war, received more U.S. news coverage than the U.S. Army, in part, because U.S. Marines were more dedicated to opening the lines of communication between reporters in their operations area and the reporters' news organizations back home. Overall, however, British television coverage-benefiting from access policies put in place after the Falklands/Malvinas War-featured the timeliest reports on front-line action. The British military forces were the only ones to allow satellite up-links near the front lines.
Military cooperation with the media also made possible the most notable television innovation during the 1991 Gulf War. This was the access broadcast television had to the closed-circuit video images that emanated from camera-equipped high-tech weaponry directed against Iraqi targets. Thanks to this access, television viewers were literally able to see from the viewpoint of missiles and other weapons as these bore down on Iraqi civilian and military targets-mostly vehicles, buildings and other inanimate infrastructure. Significantly, also according to the Journal's Fialka, videotape from cameras mounted on U.S. Army Apache helicopter-gunships "showing Iraqi soldiers being mowed down by the gunship's Gatling gun" were seen by a Los Angeles Times reporter but were suppressed thereafter and made unavailable for television broadcast.
Trejo Delarbe argues that sophisticated efforts to control television coverage were also attempted by Mexico's Zapatista Army of National Liberation during its (1994-) uprising against the central government--a particularly well-televised war in contrast to many listed above. Such efforts to control televised imagery have, indeed, been attempted as part of other military actions, guerrilla movements and terrorist campaigns, but a military's having actual control of the point-of-view of televised imagery is a phenomenon thus far almost unique to the Gulf War.
Indeed, lack of control sometimes seems to work in unexpected ways. This has often seemed to b the case in the present conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It has not been uncommon to see military actions from multiple perspectives, interviews with political and military leaders from all factions, human interest stories from within every combat zone, and analyses of the aftermath of battles and shelling from civilian as well as combatant or diplomatic points of view. And when a particularly bloody mortar attack on Sarajevo came at a time of tense diplomatic activity-apparent diplomatic failure to reach a settlement of the conflict-televised images and stories seemed to provide justification for increased military action by NATO forces in an attempt to force the parties to the settlement table.
In spite of such apparently random and opportunistic events that often define warfare, the control of televised imagery is, nevertheless, a logical consequence of military planners' increasing willingness to control the media relations aspects of warfare as if exercising this control were just another aspect of military strategy. Moreover, the ability to control televised imagery is also a consequence of the evolution of military technology. Far from the contentious early days, when most military organizations considered television coverage a mere nuisance or a possible security risk, cutting-edge military planners today use many aspects of television to prosecute wars or to prepare for them. As writers for Wired point out, today television technology is used to provide military personnel in training with images of war conditions or maneuvers and the next step in military technological development is said to include "virtual warfare". During such warfare military personnel will be safely ensconced at distant locations as televised imagery and other telemetry allows them to direct weaponry against remote targets. Such a prospect may well signify that, as media guru Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1968, "television war (will have) meant the end of the dichotomy between civilian and military."