«You have to understand war in order to understand our culture»

An interview with media scholar Daniel C. Hallin about media coverage of the Iraq war and comparisons with Vietnam.

More than spec­i­fic events like Abu Ghraib, it is the growing rea­li­sa­tion over time of the cost of the war that ero­des Ame­ri­can pub­lic sup­port for the war in Iraq, accor­ding to media scho­lar Dani­el C. Hal­lin. In this inter­view, the aut­hor of the influ­en­ti­al book The “Uncen­so­red War” – The Media and Viet­nam discus­ses the media cover­age of the Iraq war and compa­ri­sons with the Viet­nam War.

Dani­el C. Hal­lin is Pro­fes­sor and Chair at the Depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Cali­for­nia San Diego. Hal­lin has over the last 25 years con­ducted exten­si­ve rese­arch on war and the media. In his major con­tri­bu­tion to the field, The “Uncen­so­red War”, he addres­ses the issue of the media’s role in the for­ma­tion of pub­lic opi­nion of the war, the jour­na­li­s­tic repor­ting of the war, as well as the ques­tion of the so-cal­led “Viet­nam Syn­dro­me”. This is a term that accor­ding to Hal­lin was created by pro­po­nents of a more aggres­si­ve for­eign poli­cy to refer to the relu­ctan­ce of Ame­ri­cans, after Viet­nam, to con­sent to the exer­ci­se of mili­ta­ry power abroad — the con­cern being that inter­ven­tion in for­eign con­flicts could lead to «anot­her Viet­nam.»

Hal­lin has also stu­died the media cover­age of the Gulf War. His most recent con­tri­bu­tion to the field of war and media stu­dies, the article «The Media and War», reflected cri­ti­cal­ly on the sta­te of the media and war rese­arch field.

This inter­view took place at the Uni­ver­sity of Cali­for­nia San Diego in late Novem­ber 2007. Alt­hough Hallin’s rese­arch focus over the past 10 years has not been on war and the media, but rat­her on com­pa­ra­ti­ve media stu­dies, this inter­view offe­red an opport­u­ni­ty for an aftert­hought from a media scho­lar highly know­ledge­ab­le about media cover­age of war and its effects on pub­lic opi­nion.

Hel­le Sjø­v­aag (HS): Much of the rese­arch on the media-mili­ta­ry rela­tion­ship in times of war has focu­sed on mili­ta­ry con­trol of the media. As you yours­elf have emp­ha­sised in your book The “Uncen­so­red War” — The Media and Viet­nam, jour­na­lists expe­ri­en­ced an unpre­ce­den­ted amount of free­dom during the Viet­nam War — a level of free­dom that we have per­haps not seen sin­ce. Con­se­quent­ly, rese­arch on US media cover­age of the wars sin­ce the 1980s onwards has focu­sed much atten­tion on mili­ta­ry rest­ric­tions on jour­na­lists repor­ting war. How­e­ver, in compa­ring the media-mili­ta­ry rela­tion­ship during the Gulf War in 1991 with the Iraq War, scholars seem to sug­gest the mili­ta­ry is loo­sening its tight con­trol of the media. Do you see a trend toward a more peace­ful coexist­en­ce betwe­en the media and the mili­ta­ry, or do you think there’s still a lot of con­flict the­re?

Dani­el C. Hal­lin (DH): I think the­re is more peace­ful coexist­en­ce. Up until the first Gulf War, the tendency was, at least in the US, for more rest­ric­tion. After the first Gulf War I think that the mili­ta­ry kind of redis­covered that the media is not neces­sa­ri­ly dama­ging to their inte­rests — that actual­ly it can be in their inte­rest to have media cover­age. I remem­ber going to a con­fe­ren­ce after the first Gulf War whe­re all of the press offi­cers — the head press offi­cers for the dif­fe­rent mili­ta­ry ser­vices – were the­re. The press offi­cer for the army was com­pla­i­ning that the mari­nes had sto­len all the glory becau­se he could not get the army offi­cers to allow the jour­na­lists to go out with the tro­ops — but the mari­nes would allow them and so the mari­nes sto­le the glory. So, redis­cove­ring the fact that when you allow the jour­na­lists along, most of the pub­li­city you are going to get is favourab­le. And it could in fact be in your inte­rests to have press cover­age. Then with the Iraq War, the poli­cy of embed­ding gave the jour­na­lists way more access than they had had in [the Gulf]. And now of cour­se this has become an unpo­pu­lar war and so the­re are ten­sions, but I do not actual­ly think the ten­sions are ter­rib­ly sharp right now. I do not think that the­re is a lot of hos­ti­li­ty in the mili­ta­ry. The­re are com­pla­ints that the cover­age is too neg­a­ti­ve but it does not seem like par­ti­cu­lar­ly a lot of hos­ti­li­ty and not a lot of con­flict eit­her.

HS: Mili­ta­ry rest­ric­tions on jour­na­lists have usu­al­ly inspi­red loud com­pla­ints from the press corps. How loud­ly are they com­pla­i­ning of rest­ric­tions in their cover­age of the cur­rent war in Iraq?

DH: The jour­na­lists are not par­ti­cu­lar­ly com­pla­i­ning right now. The jour­na­lists com­plain a lot more in the US about the Whi­te House — and this is actual­ly stan­dard. This was true about Viet­nam also — that it was not the mili­ta­ry that impo­sed rest­ric­tions on the jour­na­lists when the­re were rest­ric­tions, it was the civi­li­an lea­dership in the Whi­te House, and this has been true again this time — that the grea­test rest­ric­tions come from them, not the mili­ta­ry.

Photo showing prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq.

Photo taken by US Army Cpl. Gra­ner in Abu Ghraib pri­son, Iraq Oct. 24, 2003. The detai­nee «Gus» is being pul­led from his cell by sol­di­er PFC Eng­land as a form of inti­mi­da­tion. (Cap­tion source: salon.com. On copy­right: Pic­tu­res taken by U.S. mili­ta­ry per­son­nel on duty are ineli­gib­le for copy­right, unless the pho­to­gra­pher success­fully claims that the pho­to­graphs were not taken as part of his or her offi­ci­al duties. The pho­to­gra­phers of the Abu Ghraib pri­so­ner abuse pho­tos have not made this claim, and have in fact denied it under oath. (source: Wiki­me­dia Com­mons).

HS: The Iraq War has been com­pared to the Viet­nam War on more points than one. When look­ing at the cover­age of the two wars, we might see a few simi­la­ri­ties. One simi­larity is per­haps that the media cover­age of the two wars has been cha­rac­teri­sed by what you might call “sig­ni­fi­cant events”, such as the My Lai story and the cover­age of the Tet Offen­si­ve in Viet­nam, and the Abu Ghraib story during the cur­rent Iraq War. How impor­tant do you think these “sig­ni­fi­cant events” are in chan­ging pub­lic opi­nion of war?

DH: I do not think that by them­sel­ves they are sig­ni­fi­cant. If you look at the trend line in pub­lic opi­nion I think that you will see that in Iraq, just the same as Viet­nam, the­re are not very many bends in the cur­ves — not like sud­den­ly the­re is an event and all of a sud­den pub­lic sup­port drops after that event. What it usu­al­ly is is a gra­du­al decline. The Tet Offen­si­ve did not pro­du­ce any sig­ni­fi­cant wrink­les in the trend lines in pub­lic opi­nion real­ly. That is not to say it was not impor­tant, becau­se the­re was a lot of very sig­ni­fi­cant discus­sion and poli­tics that was focu­sed around it. And simi­lar­ly with Abu Ghraib — I think obvious­ly Abu Ghraib had an impor­tant role to play in the decline of sup­port for the war but it did not real­ly dra­ma­ti­cal­ly chan­ge pub­lic opi­nion by itself. I think the most impor­tant thing is just like Viet­nam — it is time that mat­ters, and the fact that the war con­ti­nues on and the casu­al­ty rate con­ti­nues on. It beco­mes more and more evi­dent that it is not going to end soon, and that is what ero­des pub­lic opi­nion more than any par­ti­cu­lar event.

HS: Is the­re a fati­gue that sets into the pub­lic opi­nion?

DH: The­re is fati­gue, yes, and a kind of growing rea­li­sa­tion about the cost of the war, and the fact that it is not as simp­le as the lea­ders said. Things like Abu Ghraib, or My Lai — peop­le have a way of expla­i­ning those things away. They say that “peop­le got what they deserved”, or they do not real­ly belie­ve that it hap­pe­ned — a lot of peop­le do not. But it beco­mes har­der and har­der to explain away — the fact that the war just drags on. That is har­der to deny than some of these other things.

HS: One of the other compa­ri­sons we can make betwe­en the Iraq War and the Viet­nam War con­cerns the growth in one par­ti­cu­lar medi­um. In par­ti­cu­lar, tele­vi­sion estab­lis­hed itself firm­ly as a poli­ti­cal for­ce during the Viet­nam years. Do you see some paral­lels here to the role of the Inter­net in the cover­age of the Iraq War and the war in Afgha­ni­stan?

Vietnam war: Viet Cong dead after an attack on the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut Air Base (photo: SP5 Edgar Price Pictorial A.V. Plt. 69th Sig. Bn. (A)

Viet­nam war: Viet Cong dead after an attack on the peri­me­ter of Tan Son Nhut Air Base (photo: SP5 Edgar Price Pic­to­ri­al A.V. Plt. 69th Sig. Bn. (A) (photo: Wiki­me­dia Com­mons/ The Viet­nam Cen­ter and Archive.)

DH: Well yes. In a lot of ways I think that what hap­pe­ned with Iraq is the same as what hap­pe­ned with Viet­nam. The­re are some dif­fe­ren­ces. One of them has to do with digi­tal media tech­no­lo­gy. I think that that is real­ly impor­tant — that the pic­tu­res of Abu Ghraib were taken by sol­di­ers with digi­tal came­ras. Wit­hout those pic­tu­res it never would have been a story. I think one of the ways in which it is har­der for the mili­ta­ry to con­trol the cir­cu­la­tion of ima­ges has to do with that digi­tal tech­no­lo­gy and the fact that the­re are sol­di­ers with came­ras who are taking these pic­tu­res. So the most neg­a­ti­ve ima­ges of the Ame­ri­can mili­ta­ry are not created by jour­na­lists — they are created by sol­di­ers, and then they are cir­cu­lated in this way. So digi­tal tech­no­lo­gy is impor­tant in that way — and not just the Inter­net, but also just the came­ras them­sel­ves.

Anot­her thing is that the media are more glo­ba­lised now than they were, and this is related to the Inter­net. But you have these other pro­vi­ders of infor­ma­tion — Al Jaze­era is the most impor­tant, but you also have the web­si­tes that are main­tai­ned by the mili­tant groups and so on, and they cir­cu­la­te ima­ges too. So the flow of ima­ges is less totally mono­po­lised by the big Western news agen­cies than it once was. With Abu Ghraib I think the­re are two things that are real­ly impor­tant. The story of how it beca­me such a big story – it part­ly has to do with Sey­mour Hersh [the jour­na­list who bro­ke the story], it part­ly has to do with who­e­ver leaked those pic­tu­res to the media, but it is also true that even when the pic­tu­res were first shown, it was not qui­te such a big story in the Uni­ted Sta­tes until Pre­si­dent Bush was for­ced to com­ment on it. And the rea­son he was for­ced to com­ment on it is becau­se the pic­tu­res were also cir­cu­la­ting in the Arab world. The­re was a big reac­tion in Arab pub­lic opi­nion, and he felt it was neces­sa­ry to com­ment on that. So that fact that the­re are these other flows of infor­ma­tion besi­des the ones invol­ving Western media — it is not pure­ly natio­nal, it is a glo­bal flow of infor­ma­tion. And Bush has to respond to that.

HS: You wro­te an article in Poli­ti­cal Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in 1993 cal­led “Agon and Ritu­al — The Gulf War as Popu­lar Cul­tu­re”, together with Todd Git­lin at Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity. The article cha­rac­te­ri­ses the story of the Gulf War as highly ritua­li­s­tic story, fram­ed rat­her roman­ti­cal­ly in a simi­lar nar­ra­ti­ve frame as the Second World War. The article also discus­ses the long term effect of media cover­age, and you con­clu­ded by sug­ge­s­ting that “next time around” it would be easi­er to mount sup­port for going to war. Look­ing at the build-up to the Iraq War — do you think this was the case?

DH: I think that was pro­bab­ly true, but the­re was anot­her factor – which was the after­math of Sep­tem­ber 11th, that made it pret­ty easy for Bush to send Ame­ri­can tro­ops to war. So it is true that in the peri­od after Viet­nam it beca­me for a peri­od much more dif­fi­cult for the Pre­si­dent to com­mit tro­ops to com­bat, becau­se the­re was a lot of sus­pi­cion of get­ting involved in war. And I do think that the Gulf War rever­sed the so-cal­led Viet­nam Syn­dro­me to some extent, but then on top of that you had Sep­tem­ber 11th, which real­ly pushed that into the back­ground. Now of cour­se, things are dif­fe­rent again.

HS: Would you say that the media’s build up to the Iraq War was less exten­si­ve as the build-up to the Gulf War?

DH: I guess it should be said that in both cases the­re was a lot of cover­age, and the­re was sig­ni­fi­cant oppo­sition in both cases. But I cer­tain­ly think that the expe­ri­en­ce of the Gulf War made it easi­er for peop­le to ima­gi­ne that you could have a short success­ful war, and that you were not neces­sa­ri­ly going to just get into anot­her Viet­nam. I think that the fact that the Democrats held back from cri­ti­ci­sing the Pre­si­dent — they were wil­ling to vote to go along — I think that has to do with the Gulf War, and the fact that that was seen as a success­ful war, and they thought that that might be what was going to hap­pen again. They did not want to be on the wrong side of a popu­lar war.

HS: In the article “The Media and War”, that you wro­te in the book Inter­na­tio­nal Media Rese­arch, you dia­gno­sed the sta­te of rese­arch on war and the media — poin­ting to some of the aspects whe­re more rese­arch was nee­ded, par­ti­cu­lar­ly cal­ling for a grea­ter inte­gra­tion of the field and broa­der ques­tions such as soci­al theory, his­to­ri­cal back­ground and so on. You also argued that the­re should be more rese­arch on war as cul­tu­re. How do you think the field of war and media rese­arch has evolved in the last 10 years?

DH: Well, the­re is a lot more lite­ra­tu­re now. The argu­ment that I made about the absen­ce of rese­arch about war and cul­tu­re — I think the­re is a lot of new work on war and cul­tu­re, not all of which I have read. I see more and more refe­ren­ces to that. I mean, we are in a time of war again whe­re this is a real­ly inter­e­s­ting sub­ject so peop­le are star­ting to work on it much more inten­sive­ly. And we are back into a situa­tion whe­re — if you belie­ve our lea­ders — we are going to be in per­pe­tu­al war for a long time. So it seems very obvious that the cul­tu­re — our cul­tu­re — is in some way a cul­tu­re of war. You have to under­stand war in order to under­stand our cul­tu­re.

Hal­lin, Dani­el C. (1986) The “Uncen­so­red War” – The Media and Viet­nam, Uni­ver­sity of Cali­for­nia Press, Ber­ke­ley Cali­for­nia
Hal­lin, Dani­el C. and Git­lin, Todd (1993) “Agon and Ritu­al – The Gulf War as Popu­lar Cul­tu­re”, Poli­ti­cal Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Fall 1993
Hal­lin, Dani­el C. (1997) “The Media and War”, in Cor­ner, John; Schle­sin­ger, Phi­lip and Sil­ver­stone, Roger (eds.) Inter­na­tio­nal Media Rese­arch – A Cri­ti­cal Sur­vey, Rout­led­ge, Lon­don, New York
Hal­lin, Dani­el C. and Man­ci­ni, Paolo (2004) Compa­ring Media Sys­tems – Three Models of Media and Poli­tics, Cam­brid­ge Uni­ver­sity Press, Cam­brid­ge

Hel­le Sjø­v­aag is a rese­arch fel­low at the Depart­ment of Media Scien­ce and the Depart­ment of Infor­ma­tion Scien­ce, The Uni­ver­sity of Ber­gen.



bu Ghra




  1. I did­n’t want this war.
    I just wan­ted to have a good time.

    now that we are in it
    I want US to win.
    and I real­ly don’t care what I have to do
    to get US the­re.

    Do you read these Jiha­di web­si­tes?
    I would bet you don’t.
    Well i do.
    and they hate the Euro­peans
    more then hate the US.
    They at least respect US
    and you guys well…

    let’s put it this way

    good luck

    you need to under­stand Mus­lim poli­tiks
    and radi­cal Islam to under­stand
    why Eur­poe is such deep trouble.

  2. islam isn’t RADICAL.….
    but you’­re not under­stand.…
    go.… islam.….

  3. stop war.….……
    I want peace

  4. […] Under­stand War to Under­stand our Cul­tu­re”, Inter­view with Dani­el C. Hal­lin, Vox Pub­li­ca, [Online] https://voxpublica.no/2008/01/you-have-to-understand-war-in-order-to-understand-our-culture/, (accessed […]

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