We all remember the television images of the Gulf War.
The pilots flashing the "thumbs up" sign as their jets soared skyward. The video-game smart bombs, streaking across the screen like errant Pac-men, striking and consuming their targets. And the display of roaring rockets that splashed a brilliant line of flame over the night horizon.
Ed Griffin's recollections go far beyond these star-spangled photo ops. He remembers the bodies.
Unlike most Americans, who watched the so-called "clean war" from armchairs, Griffin--a transplanted Arizonan and amateur filmmaker--got his hands and psyche dirty viewing the aftermath of the conflict close up.
The movie he made of his trip to Baghdad in March 1991 paints a vivid portrait of the death and destruction that took place on the receiving end of the bombing runs, and raises disturbing questions about government public relations packaging of the war.
While Griffin's 12-minute "video essay," Lines in the Sand, isn't movie-theatre material, it is getting a lot of attention in the nation's halls of education. Billed as a classroom "discussion starter," more than 1,400 copies of the video--and an accompanying study guide--have been sold to schools and colleges, where it has been hailed as an ideal way to teach students to question what they are told by "official" sources.
"The war was a lot different than what we all saw on TV," says Griffin, an activist who spent much of the 1980s in Arizona, working with Central American refugees and helping unionize farmworkers. He went to Baghdad just as the war was ending as part of an American pacifist delegation out to document "the human cost of battle." Now living in Syracuse, New York, he spends his time preaching the virtues of Lines and encouraging people to reevaluate their rosy memories of the Gulf War.
"After watching the surreal video war on television, people need to understand the human impact, and that what they were allowed to see by the U.S. government was only a part of the story," he says.
"They need to see that human beings, and a lot of them, died in the war. It wasn't a sterile conflict."
Interweaving footage from Vietnam and Panama with Griffin's video recorded at the ruins of a Baghdad bomb shelter, the movie is anything but sterile. Filmed in the style of the award-winning The Panama Deception (from which several scenes are borrowed), Lines pulls no punches. The film's more explicit segments feature pictures of the charred, stiff bodies of Iraqis killed in an allied bomb attack, their shattered limbs protruding at grotesque angles. One sequence mingles the image of a dead child on a gurney with a blood-soaked girl being lifted from concrete wreckage.
Despite the movie's sometimes graphic nature, Peter Wirth, Griffin's partner in producing the video, says even elementary-school educators are allowing the film in their classrooms. Lines, Griffin and Wirth stress, is not just shock celluloid, a 90s substitute for old, gross-out, driver's education films like Red Asphalt. They insist that the gruesome scenes are actually quite brief and serve to underscore the adage that truth is the first casualty of war.
"Educators see what is in the video as the truth; it's real life," Wirth says. "Unlike the government, who kept people from seeing the truth during the war, school administrators aren't censoring it a second time. War is dirty, and if we are going to fight one, people should be able to see the dirt in all its Technicolor glory."
Critics evidently agree. Lines premiäred at the London Film Festival last year, and has been collecting kudos from educators ever since. Trade publications such as Video Librarian have given it four stars, and it appears it is becoming part of the standard curriculum for teaching students about the war.
Arizona State University professor emeritus Roger Axford, who has shown the video to groups of students, says the film is a "powerful force."
"The students had a lot of questions," he says. "It is an excellent way to get discussion going about the censorship [the government] was involved in over there."
Griffin and Wirth begin the video with the thesis that the 43 days of bombardment and 100 hours of ground combat that was the Gulf War "drove the ghost of Vietnam from the American political landscape."
The military, they say, blamed the media for the turbulent opposition that developed during the 1960s to the war in Vietnam. When the invasion of Panama in 1989--and then the Gulf War in 1991--became necessary, military leaders were determined not to allow the press once again to spoil the show.
Lines asserts that in both Panama and the Gulf, the military launched two offensives--one against the enemy and another against news organizations. While reporters in Vietnam were allowed almost unlimited access to military operations, those in the Gulf were kept symbolically bound and gagged at a press center far removed from the action, where they were forced to survive on pabulum fed to them by military spokespersons.
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This hamstringing of the media gave the military a virtual monopoly on information coming out of the Gulf, and allowed it--through the use of carefully staged, dramatic scenes designed to impress Americans with U.S. bravery and technological might--to drive up public opinion in support of the war. Poll numbers, which show approval of American involvement in the Gulf increased dramatically after the rockets' red glare began to appear on TV, seem to support the theory.
"Modern wars aren't won on the battlefield," Griffin says. "They are won on TV. And this truism isn't lost on our military leaders."
Indeed, the military did prove itself to be the four-star general of spin-doctoring during the war, deluging viewers with accounts of dazzling technological successes. Although many of the "triumphs" turned out to be red herrings (the smart bombs weren't really that smart, more Scuds survived than thought and the vaunted Patriot missiles missed many more Scuds than they hit), by the time the truth was out, so were the troops.
It was all part of a very "carefully scripted war," Griffin says. "It was kind of a national therapy session. It made everyone feel better about the exercise of national power. But of course, what everyone needs to realize is that the 'clean' war they saw on CNN is illusory.
"No war is that clean."
Can't beat those ratings, though.