“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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