American public opinion of the wars in Viet Nam and Iraq have shown similar trends according to various Gallup polls, with American dissatisfaction growing as the wars progressed. Of those thinking it was a mistake to send troops to the respective countries at quarterly intervals during the wars, Americans today are more likely to claim the action a mistake when compared to the same calender points of conflict during Viet Nam. In fact, 66% of those polled this month by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation state that they are against the war in Iraq. But while the citizenry is even more opposed to the Iraq war than at the same point relative to Viet Nam, there is little of the public outrage that marked the earlier conflict. One rarely hears of demonstrations, protest marches, and college campuses in anarchy. The Hangover asks why.
While there are many similarities between US actions in Viet Nam and Iraq, the difference in publicly displayed opposition to the wars is clear. The lack of protest spilling into the streets can be explained several factors, the foremost being a significant difference in media coverage. (The importance of the lack of a selective service draft will be discussed in a subsequent post.)
The Hangover grew up in the ’60’s and ’70’s. The nightly news often consisted of photos and film of American soldiers, something that we do see today. However, during the Viet Nam conflict, shots of struggling, wounded, and dead Americans were not uncommon. They became a standard aspect of television and print news reports, as did pictures of flag-covered coffins returning to the country. These images provoked a visceral reaction with the public. Vice President Hubert Humphrey noted:
“… This is the first war in this
nation’s history that has been fought
on television were the actors are real.
Where, in the quiet of your living room
of your home, or your dormitory, or
wherever you may be, these cruel, ugly
dirty facts of life and death in war
and pain and suffering come right to you;
and it isn’t Hollywood acting. I’ve had
letters from mothers that have seen their
boys shotdown in battle …”
It’s one thing to read of soldiers killed by a roadside bomb. It’s quite another to actually see the results in color on your 50-inch high definition Sony. But that’s not happening. Despite the instantaneous capabilities of current media technologies, the grisly, all-too-real aspects of the war in Iraq are not being presented to the American public. The images of battle we were given in the ’60’s and ’70’s were less sanitized, more graphic, and as a result, more disturbing. It is clear that they spawned action. The Viet Nam war was something tangible and awful, seen on a daily basis. Current reporting often makes Iraq seem like a far-away concept or a policy for debate. That allows the conflict to continue.
It is interesting to note that the source of the Humphrey quote is a 1984 paper presented by Marine Major Cass D. Howell titled, “Television Coverage of the Viet Nam War and it’s Implications for Future Conflicts.” Howell contends that television coverage inhibited the military’s operational effectiveness in Viet Nam by stirring public opinion against the war. Although Howell’s main concerns point to a liberal media bias, he does recognize the importance of the content of shown footage:
“Not only is the amount of coverage selected for
broadcast a critical factor in molding the news, but the
type of news selected is of equal importance. Television is
essentially an action medium and strongly favors combat
scenes over a dry recitation of facts and figures. In
Vietnam this came to be called “shooting bloody,” a
preference for footage of dramatic engagements, even though
they were often irrelevent or uncharacteristic of the total
At the beginning of the Iraq conflict, we were shown “shock and awe” tapes of missiles and fighters lighting up the skies over Baghdad. In film terms, those were “long” shots; they did not reveal human damage–more Space Invaders than the Normandy of “Saving Private Ryan.” There is a twisted framework involved when violent, gore-filled war footage can win an Academy Award, but is deemed unfit for our television, print, or even Internet news. It causes The Hangover to question just how free our free press is.
Major Howell concludes his report by advocating that post-Viet Nam wars need “Freedom from the Press.” The television camera is a deterrent to victory and that unlimited media (television) access will cause America to “suffer.” While The Hangover doesn’t necessarily agree with the restrictions Howell would place on reporting, he does make a thoughtful, valid argument. Using the coverage of Iraq as evidence (certainly more facts and figures than anything else), it is not just lonesome bloggers who have read his work. Those in power have heeded the Major’s analysis.
Although reporters are now embedded with troops in Iraq, less hard news results. War correspondents have complained of restricted access, lack of individual mobility, and an empathy and connection with their troops, which George Wilson of the National Journal said made him feel like “a willing propagandist.” Although a few firefights have made it onto American television, the overall coverage is nothing like what was produced in Viet Nam. And that is the main reason our soldiers are still facing fire in a desert country in the midst of a civil war.
Physical civil unrest in opposition to the Viet Nam war became a part of everyday life in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It was what brought our presence there to an end. President Richard Nixon stated:
The will to fight the war in Viet Nam was eroded by public opinion that had turned into collective action. Resistance was more than a letter to the editor, a post on a blog, or a sigh when reading the morning paper. It was a hands-on, in-the-street “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!“ Human nature might just dictate that Americans need to see twisted bodies, bleeding soldiers, and spilled guts before opposition to Iraq evolves into something that can affect policy. It’s unforunate that our news media won’t provide those images for us–whether allowed to or not.