Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War

by John R. MacArthur

Now updated with a new preface that examines the current conflict in Iraq, this brilliant work of investigative reporting reveals the government’s assault on the constitutional freedoms of the American media during Operation Desert Storm. John R. MacArthur’s engaging and provocative account is as essential and alarming today as when the first paperback edition was published ten years ago.


  • Paperback: 318 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; Updated edition (May 26, 2004)


Harper’s Magazine publisher John Macarthur has delivered an excellent piece of journalism on journalism, or at least, on war journalism. Macarthur’s “Second Front”, subtitled “Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War”, provides a well written and easy to read, quick to read survey of the issues surrounding the media’s virtual enlistment into Gulf War 1. Dedicated, amongst others to the great “left Jeffersonian” writer Walter Karp, the book definitely shows a Karp like attention to clear thinking and clear unencumbered writing.

Six chapters and an afterword penned in 1993 take the reader through the whole field. The “pool” system is examined. Modelled on British experience in the Falklands, it tended to control and co-opt reporters, turning the media’s normally competitive instincts into a form of mild self censorship designed to “not rock the boat” and maintain the almighty privilege of “access.” In prisons this is called the “trustee” system! Macarthur shows how news management preceeded once Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm, and how once the dust settled, how major media organisations, perhaps flushed with Victory themselves, failed to respond to restrictive regime they had just been exposed to. Although naturally beyond the scope of Macarthur’s 1993 book, this “lost opportunity” to seek correction after Gulf War 1 perhaps better explains the weakness of the media in the subsequent dozen or so years than most theories mooted more recently.

There are two stand out chapters. One dealing with the wholly fabricated story of Iraqis allegedly stealing Kuwaiti baby incubator cribs is told in full detail. This story will surely be a textbook case of the worst kind of wartime propaganda for decades to come. Despite 24 hour television channels and satellite coverage, we haven’t learned anything since the days of Lord Bryce and the alleged massacre of Belgian civilians by the Huns. Indeed Lord Bryce would presumably consider late 20th century / early 21st century moderns a more gullible audience. Macarthur’s summary of this story is thus a useful resource. The 2002 Niger Yellowcake fiasco seems to me like the one true offspring of those Kuwaiti cribs. Macarthur played a major role in revealing this hokum to the world. It was his January 1992 New York Times op-ed piece that first told the story, winning for Macarthur a number of journalism awards in the process. This chapter is perhaps the definitive book version. Macarthur is perhaps overly humble in his narrative, he doesn’t mention his own role in exposing the story. What he does mention, but not as thoroughly covered as the incubators, is the story of the now historically vindicated Russian commercial satellite pictures, known to all the major TV networks at the time, that showed that Pentagon “estimates” of the number of Iraqi troops and tanks waiting poised on the other side of the Saudi border were vastly exaggerated.

Another excellent chapter focuses on the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Here Macarthur debunks the myth that accused the media of losing the Vietnam War. In contrast the overwhelming majority of reporters sympathised with Washington’s war goals and even “radical critics” like Halberstam, were really mouthpieces for “the young Turks” of the Army and CIA. The Turks felt Westmoreland’s West Point strategy was stodgy and lost initiative to the Vietcong, they favoured new tactics to win the same objectives. Throwing one’s lot in with the loyal opposition hardly makes one a defeatist. The media did however turn against the war but late and for the most part the public and much of Congress was ahead of them by that stage. Still the myth of media defeatism in Vietnam became a raison d’etre for the military’s desire for enhanced media management post-Vietnam. Macarthur doesn’t say this, but the whole phantom menace of Vietnam Syndrome may merely represent just another example of the mundane sins of blame shifting and “killing the messenger of bad news.” For a wider discussion of “Vietnam Syndrome” and the whole “Lessons from ‘Nam” debate I’d refer the reader to Earl C. Ravenal’s “Never Again” which attempts a taxonomy of the rival lessons mooted by different teachers.

I would recommend John Macrthur’s “Second Front” be read along with foreign policy academic Robert W. Tucker’s “The Imperial Temptation: The New World Order and America’s Purpose” for anyone trying to understand Gulf War 1 and how this set the stage for America’s current middle east quagmire. Both books have the advantage of being written before 9-11 and hence their lessons and logic strike me as deeper and less influenced by or less distorted by one tragic (but preventable) event. In short, the lesson I read from both these books read together, is that the apparently cheap and easy victory in Gulf War 1 was a grand illusion. An illusion partly fed by a media unwilling to criticize and a public, blinded by victory, and unwilling to listen to bad news. And that illusion has come back to demand repayment with interest. With the recent death of Bin Laden one wonders if the similar mistakes will be repeated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *