Long after the war machines are stilled and killing grounds revert to tourist haunts, some of the most enduring images and sounds of the Persian Gulf conflict may well linger in the debris of popular culture.
By the start of the aerial assault on Iraq last week, many of America’s organs of pop culture already were geared for war. For six months, Saddam Hussein has been vilified by novelty songs on the radio and effigies burned at shopping centers and crushed at sports truck rallies. Disc jockeys have led blood bank drives and yellow ribbon campaigns. Before the first 2,000-pound bomb was even dropped on Baghdad, a Hollywood studio finished filming its own version of Operation Desert Shield.
Vivid fragments of war songs, movie battle scenes and home-front humor and slogans have shaped American attitudes toward war from the Revolution forward.
--The First World War’s legacy included “Over There,” the first modern propaganda campaign and the brief renaming of the German-sounding “hamburger” as “Salisbury steak.”
--The Second World War honed popular culture into a propaganda weapon, injected phrases like “victory gardens” and “blackouts” into the dictionary and spawned an entire genre of war films.
--The Vietnam War, the first rock ‘n’ roll conflict, is still fought 25 years later in stage-prop rice paddies on film and television, its Big Chill-era songs pricking at baby boom memories.
The imprint that the Persian Gulf War leaves on contemporary culture will likely depend, as it has in wars past, on the conflict’s duration and the depth of its popular support. What promises to be different this time, social critics say, is the ability of tastemakers to respond almost instantly to subtle changes in the public psyche.
“The impact of technology is the new card that hasn’t been played yet,” said culture critic Christopher Lasch. “It will heighten the air of unreality and keep pace with every shift in our mood.”
In the first week of fighting, radio and television moved quickly to tailor the tone and content of programming to fit America’s dawning awareness of the gravity of war. Radio personalities who had ridiculed Iraqis in rock parodies like “Who’ll Stop Hussein” suddenly muted their broadcasts. A planned installment of ABC’s new “Under Cover” spy drama, which had featured a Persian Gulf story-line the week before, was scuttled.
At the same time, the war spilled into the most obscure crevices of pop culture. Pro wrestling villain Sgt. Slaughter raised his despised profile with fans of the genre by signing up with an Iraqi manager. Said a World Wrestling Federation spokesman: “We feel we can serve a broader purpose if, in the midst of some terrible times for this country, people can get a smile on their faces by seeing Sgt. Slaughter get the . . . beaten out of him.”
A Maryland software company released “F-15 Eagle,” a Gulf-based video war game. A computer bulletin board in the New York suburb of White Plains has become a veritable town hall, where hackers from around the country sign on to feud over the war by megabytes. In San Diego, fans cheered a professional “monster truck” driver as he steered Bigfoot, a 12,000-pound modified Ford pickup, over a car containing a Saddam Hussein dummy. The truck returned to obliterate the dummy’s head.
Television has scatter-shot a round of gulf-era words into public usage, achieving in a week what the Vietnam War took a decade to accomplish. Military-speak like “chaf,” “sortie” and “collateral damage” are fast becoming this generation’s versions of “body count,” “frag” and “friendly fire.”
“It’s not like it was in Vietnam, where the war just sneaked up on us,” said Indianapolis disc jockey Tom Griswold. His own “Bob and Tom” morning radio show grew “a shade more serious” after his station took the listener pulse with informal phone surveys and music request hours. “We can change as they change,” Griswold said.
As the fighting continues, entertainment programmers and pop culture entrepreneurs may have to put these hair-trigger capabilities to good use as they confront thorny questions about how far they should go in doing the government’s bidding and exploiting the public’s preoccupation with war.
“A true wartime culture like we had in World War II will take a while to develop,” said Lasch, author of “The Culture of Narcissism.”
“But I think our society’s increased awareness of how the media and government works,” he added, “will make it harder for it to grow unconsciously, the way it did in World War II.”
For now, many of the country’s tastemakers have backed the war effort. Others have taken what Griswold calls the “bland route,” hesitant to act until the war plays itself out further.
Signs that the country’s pop culture scene would back gulf involvement crystalized soon after President Bush decided last August to send U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia. Radio moved fastest to milk the bellicose new mood.
Morning drive-time personalities, who scour current events for their raunchy parodies, had a field day. In Los Angeles, in Indianapolis, in Cleveland, disc jockeys punned Hussein’s name--Madman Insane, Insane Hussein--and retrofitted new lyrics to hoary pop tunes: “Iraqity-Yak,” “I am Iraq,” “Rock Around Iraq Tonight.”
“In 20 years of writing about radio, I’ve never seen such an immediate response,” said James Duncan, editor and publisher of American Radio, an industry newsletter. “It was like wildfire.”
Television has been almost as reactive. Iraq and Hussein became staples of Tonight Show monologues. “Late Night with David Letterman” listed “to impress Jodie Foster” as one of “Saddam Hussein’s Top 10 reasons for invading Kuwait.” The jokes stopped only for one night, the evening of the first air assault, when NBC canceled both broadcasts, deeming them “inappropriate to air.”
Humorist Harry Shearer, who has his own radio program, wonders whether talk show hosts “are pretty bewildered about where to go next. The cliche that war is no laughing matter holds just as true among comedians.”
Today’s war fever may be the next decade’s folklore. Told and retold through pop culture’s prism, the heroics of soldiers and the heartbreak of those left behind have taken on the burnished mantle of mythology. The Revolution produced “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and deified George Washington. The War of 1812 gave the country its national anthem and made a cult figure of Andrew Jackson. The Civil War brought “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the stark, enduring photographs of Matthew Brady.
Contemporary culture’s embrace of the Gulf War may find its closest echoes in World War II, at least in these early days. In the week after Pearl Harbor was bombed, tunesmiths were already churning out anti-Japanese ditties--"We’re Going to Fight A Fellow Who Is Yellow” and “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap"--that went far beyond the mild racism that has cropped up in the wildest of the current Saddam Hussein parodies.
A fully realized wartime culture grew from those first strains of jingoism. Its songs--"Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” “The Remember Pearl Harbor March"--were steeped in martial lingo. Its films--"Desert Victory,” “Bataan"--were made strictly to boost morale. The radio, film and recording industries marched in lock-step behind the war effort.
“In wartime, the various outlets of popular culture behaved almost entirely as if they were creatures of their governments,” critic Paul Fussell wrote in “Wartime,” an account of that war’s social behavior.
Some contemporary critics warn that unblinking public support for the war will again make cheerleaders of the nation’s popular culture organs. One example cited is the dehumanization of Iraqis in jokes and song parodies. Another is the stampede by hundreds of radio and television stations to donate more than 2,000 hours of taped programs to the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service’s Sunland headquarters to be played for U.S. troops.
“My concern would be that we may get to the point where no opinions will be uttered if they vary at all from public sympathy for the war,” said Fussell, who now lives in London--where BBC officials concerned about Britain’s own war effort recently advised stations against playing 67 “questionable” songs.
Radio stations like Indianapolis’ WFBQ have worked directly with the government to develop special broadcasts to boost morale among troops and hometown relatives. And celebrities, ranging from the cast of “Knots Landing” to several unidentified Los Angeles newscasters, have filmed emotional tributes to military personnel--recalling the home-front roles played during World War II by Hollywood stars like Carole Lombard.
Defenders insist these are sincere gestures of support for those fighting in the gulf--and not necessarily for the war itself. “They came to us, we didn’t go to them,” said Air Force Col. Richard Fuller, who oversees the Armed Forces network’s use of donated programs and tributes.
Major film studios have yet to follow their actors’ leads. But several smaller studios are readying action films based on the war. The furthest along the pipeline appears to be 21st Century Films’ “Operation Desert Shield,” a title that may well be altered to mirror the war operation’s name change to “Desert Storm.”
Producer Menahem Golan first called the film, “Seals,” based on the exploits of Navy commandos in a vaguely Iran-like nation. But another studio beat him to the theme and title, and when U.S. forces were airlifted to Saudi Arabia, Golan ordered his writers to fit the script to the new crisis.
The film, starring Rob Lowe, is finished shooting. “The final act may have to be changed,” allowed Golan, who denies exploiting the war. “All the studios are developing their own war scripts. It’s just that no one else talks about them.”
Serious War Films
Film industry observers expect that “serious” war films will not appear for another 18 months--the usual period it takes for a movie to appear. A similar lag stalled film production in the first months of World War II. Studios may also hold off films until they have a better take on the war’s progress--and the way it is playing out on the home front.
“A quick war would benefit programming,” said Alex Ben Block, special issues editor of the Hollywood Reporter. “It would mean lots of heroic stories to tell. Television could jump on it, with movies of the week and mini-series, in as little as six weeks. But a long war? Are film studios prepared to commit $30 million to projects when they’re uncertain of how the country will accept them? I doubt it.”
Caution or outright support for the war among entertainment executives and artists may explain why anti-war voices have been virtually absent from the nation’s pop culture outlets. Artists opposed to the Vietnam War took to the airwaves in the late 1960s as disillusioned youths took to the streets in protest. Record charts were littered with explicit peace-message songs like “Sky Pilot” and “War.” FM radio, once the province of neglected classical music stations, became the province of underground disc jockeys. Hollywood rushed out student protest films like “Strawberry Statement” and “RPM” long before producing its first Vietnam War movies.
Yet despite daily protests in recent weeks by a well-organized, though shrunken peace movement, few anti-war voices have emerged. The most daring stance so far has been taken by songwriter Randy Newman (“I Love L.A,” “Short People”) in his cynical “Lines in the Sand,” sung as if by the government’s architects of war: We old men will guide you/Though we won’t be there beside you/We wish you well.
A group of young musicians has also joined to record an updated version of John Lennon’s vintage anthem “Give Peace a Chance,” played regularly since its premiere on MTV, the rock video network. But even that song is cautiously described by Elliot Mintz, a spokesman for Lennon’s estate, as “not an anti-war song or a protest song . . . it’s just a pro-peace song.” When he approached a number of “top artists” about appearing in an updated version of the anthem, Mintz said he was told by their agents that “now would not be a good time for them to participate.”
If Americans grow weary of war, some social critics predict that producers of popular culture may decide to sit the war out. Christopher Lasch points to the Korean War as a similar conflict where “the government tried to restore a status quo that was overturned. That war turned out to be very difficult to settle and its aims kept escalating.”
When it finally ended in 1953, said Lasch, “the American people simply wanted to forget about it.” The few shards of pop culture left behind, some obscure blues songs and battle films, were soon forgotten.
Hints of that delicate ambivalence can be heard in the ruminations of cartoonist Matt Groening, the creative wizard behind “The Simpsons” television show. Articulate in his personal opposition to the Gulf War, Groening is hesitant about using his characters to take sides.
Even without Groening’s authorization, his popular brat, “Bart Simpson,” has been claimed by hawks and doves alike. Bart raises a two-fingered peace salute on anti-war buttons and locks Saddam Hussein in a chokehold on pro-war T-shirts. Groening has turned down requests by Air Force pilots in the gulf who want to copy Bart’s face on the fuselages of their bombers.
Caught in the middle, the cartoonist chooses his words carefully, as if wanting to bare his feelings without doing harm to the creatures of his imagination.
“Bart Simpson,” he said warily, “is against the war--until he’s old enough to start one.”