13 November 2006
Steven Heller
Steven Heller

An analysis of 1991 anti-Gulf War expressions delves into the ideological positions evidenced in the multiple forms of graphic resistance and gives rise to a sharp reflection on the current, complex political framework.

Why was there such a paucity of effective anti-war dissent during the Gulf War? Every modern war has had critics, but some have been more vocal and/or visual than others for reasons owing to the context in which wars are fought. America's first dedicated antiwar movement was triggered by the unpopular Spanish American war in 1898. Almost two decades later, a boisterous peace movement protested possible American involvement in the First World War, though it was ultimately suppressed by the government. A revived American peace movement was launched before World War II yet it dissipated following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbour. In the wake of the "Good War," as Studs Turkel calls the fight against Fascism, the Korean War (America's first official war against Communism) generated little dissent back home. Well organized antiwar activity was scarce throughout the 1950s and early 1960s when an initial group of military advisors were sent into Laos and the American Marines invaded the Dominican Republic.

As the world's policemen, the American military had license to engage overt and covert operations wherever Communists posed a threat. It wasn't until 1966, almost five years after John F. Kennedy committed advisors to Vietnam and when Lyndon Baines Johnson escalated the number of American combat troops there (making middleclass boys subject to the draft), that the most powerful antiwar movement in the history of the United States began to take hold. A massive, grassroots propaganda effort which involved the efforts of artists, cartoonists and designers (both professional and amateur) created posters, fliers and buttons of all descriptions.

A generation born in the 1920s and 1930s accepted the paradigm of a "Good War." Similarly, those born in the 1940s and 1950s saw the Vietnam War as the paradigm of imperialism and folly. The former were convinced that "Might Makes Right," the latter, argued "Make Love Not War." World War II and Vietnam were so influential in moulding mass behaviour regarding both blind acceptance, on one hand, and unremitting scepticism, on the other, of government leaders and policies, it should come as no shock that response to the Gulf War is a curious merging of these two behavioural models. The reaction by former antiwar advocates to the Gulf War was a kind of paralysis because the issues were confused between a just fight against an evil dictator, Saddam Hussein, and a misguided adventure to make the world safe for petrodollars. Many one-time antiwar activists, though sceptical of America's mission, were uncertain of their positions in the face of persuasive government assurances that this, like World War II, was a "just" war.

Before examining why there was such a dearth of antiwar expression it is important to briefly review the events. Saddam Hussein invaded and conquered Kuwait. President George Bush convinced the United Nations to impose sanctions as troops and materials were sent to the Gulf. Everyone waited while sanctions failed. Hussein became further entrenched in Kuwait. An ultimatum was made and ignored. The air war began. The air war continued for a month with limited allied casualties. A ground war was threatened. Another ultimatum was ignored. The ground war began and ended in only a few days with minimum casualties. Had the war continued, and the body bags came home in numbers, an antiwar protest would have certainly grown more vocal, but it didn't. Moreover, Desert Shield, Storm and Thunder, were brilliantly coordinated PR coups, much like a desert tornado blinding observers and sucking the wind out of most dissenters.

The storm came and went so quickly that antiwar activists had little chance to formulate aggressive opposition. But more fundamental, since video tape and photographs of war's carnage were prohibited from the scene, the negative images so necessary in mounting a successful antiwar propaganda offensive did not materialize. Without the evidence of allied troops suffering more than sun blisters from the sweltering desert heat, the Gulf War, though serious, appeared like a beach manoeuvre. The most memorable image from the war showed the skies of Baghdad during a night time air raid aglow with fireflies - Desert Storm was not just clean, it was meticulously sanitized.

The opposition was totally silent. A few voices could be faintly heard and some antiwar imagery seen. Among the earliest and most poignant of the protests was a march by a few thousand high school students in New York City, many of whom were arrested along the route on truancy charges. It is ironic that these kids, some of them children of children of the sixties, were less confused about America's war policy than their parents who had once unquestioningly protested the Vietnam War. But this was not Vietnam, and the change in context made it harder for traditional "peaceniks" to target the enemy. During the Vietnam War, the President, congressmen, generals and the troops were reviled as instruments of abusive power, not as pawns in a geopolitical game. Conversely, Desert Storm troops were universally praised from the outset for being the heroes of a correct policy.

So what can an anti-war propagandist do when the politicians and generals are stars, the combatants are heroes, and the battles are sanitized? And what can one say when the despot under attack is guilty of torturing the vanquished in a land that he's invaded?

For most, the answer was nothing. "I wanted to see what sanctions would accomplish," said a former anti-Vietnam War activist who once made scores of posters for peace groups. "By the time CNN broadcast the air war I was too confused to do much of anything, except voice my concern for the safety of our troops." For a stalwart minority, however, still very much conditioned by the memory of Vietnam, the only answer was to add their voice to what they hoped would grow, as it did in the sixties, into a boisterous chorus of dissent. But the early nineties were not the sixties, and the Gulf, as Bush said repeatedly, was not Vietnam. The voices of those who argued against Saddam Hussein were considerably louder than the few dissenters in the wilderness.

One of those faint choruses was organized by singer Lenny Kravitz and Sean Lennon (son of John) in a We Are The World-styled video on which a variety of musicians (M.C. Hammer, Peter Gabriel, Cindy Lauper, and others) sing reinterpreted lyrics to John Lennon s song "Give Peace a Chance." The images in both song and picture emphasized the virtue of peace while tiptoeing around the hot political issues over which the war was actually being fought. It was, however, a needed counterpoint to "We Care," a well-meaning music video organized and produced, not in support of the war per se, but to give succour to the troops in the Gulf (who, remember, were not the enemy). The Kravitz/Lennon collaboration (along with the documentary of the video production) was the only significant evidence of dissent in the mass media even if it was not aired as frequently as its popular counterpart.

Similarly, it was hard to find either publications or graphic material voicing opposition to the war. Among the noteworthy, Steven Kroninger's re-adaptation of the famous James Montgomery Flagg "I Want You" poster, stridently points out the other crises that "Bush's war" had so cleverly obfuscated: the economy, crime, drugs, etcetera. Since it was one of the few acerbic commentaries on the war, it could be found hanging in many of the art directors' offices to whom Kroninger mailed it at his own expense. However, despite the line on the poster that grants permission to non-profit organizations to reproduce the poster "as they see fit," Kroninger's contribution barely opened an eyelid of those that one critic says were "sleepwalking through the war."

Having such tight news and image management made antiwar sentiment seem nostalgic and reactionary. A commentator on national TV argued, "How can one be opposed to this war if one doesn't have the facts?" This statement might better be amended to say, "How can one wage an antiwar campaign without evidence of any real horror?" Though it can be argued that war of any kind goes against human values, it was nevertheless a problem for artists and graphic designers who were forced to dredge up timeworn images such as skulls, gas masks and bayonets, to make their points.

While the brutality of war hasn't fundamentally changed in millennia, people have come to accept horror in larger doses forcing up the necessary antidotal dosage. The brilliant graphic images created to fight the Vietnam War virus were not effective enough in this context because they seemed like clich s. As an example, David Lance Goines printed and self-distributed a silk-screened poster with the title, "N0-WAR" emblazoned in blood red type. The poster showing a muscular torso with his hands holding a skull which was printed in the muted dark and olive greens of army camouflage, is an aesthetic tour de force, but nevertheless shows how frustrating it was for artists and designers to grapple with the specific issue of war in the Gulf. Likewise, Lanny Sommese produced two antiwar images, drawn in a loose linear style suggesting the immediacy of his response. One shows a globe with the Mid-East speared by a bayonet and the word "NO" scrawled on the top, the other shows a soldier in a gas mask plaintively asking "WHY?" Both are poignant, but effective? Next to Time and Newsweek's war maps and heroic coverage Sommese's posters seem trivial.

During the Vietnam War, anti-war posters and publications were plentiful. During the short Desert Storm campaign hardly anything appeared in national publications that could be construed as emblems of dissent, save for a remarkable illustration by Sue Coe in, of all places, Entertainment Weekly. Like Sommese, Coe used the timeworn image of gas masked troops marching en mass like cannon fodder to Armageddon, but given the context in which her image appeared it had more resonance than similar attempts. Coe also produced, at personal expense, anti-Gulf War buttons to offset the plethora of yellow ribbon and flag badges being sold in great quantity, but few wore them. In a few issues of the Village Voice devoted to the war, illustrators with strong antiwar images were given an outlet, but little else was done other than an occasional editorial cartoon. One syndicated comic strip was, however, quite acerbic. Bill Griffith's Zippy has his pin-head protagonist question the necessity of war in sequences with titles like, "Ziplomacy," "Blood and Quicksand," and "Is It Over Yet?" A send up of his own motto: "Are We Having Fun Yet." By including himself as a character in this series of strips, Griffith honestly questioned his own complex feelings: "In this war there are no good guys." Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, also addressed the war in one panel of his Life in Hell syndicated strip which admitted, "It's difficult to be funny about war."

Griffith and Groening had national distribution, but many comic strip artists with antiwar passions did not have access to similar outlets or audiences. A few, however, were published in the two issues of War News, edited by Warren Hinckel. In the tradition of the Sixties underground press, War News was published as an alternative to what Hinckel, the former San Francisco Examiner columnist, perceived as dangerously distorted news coverage. However, since few Western news sources other than Peter Arnet in Baghdad were offering any alternative coverage, much of War News' content was, in fact, critique and comment. "Underground commix" artists, many of whom were veterans of the Vietnam War protests, provided the visual satire including RAW editor Art Spiegelman, who was its art consultant. Months after war's end, the comic magazine World War III, devoted almost its entire issue to anti-war protest. These strips, motivated by real frustration, seemed like shrill cries in the wake of post-Desert Storm victory celebrations.

Desert Storm was admittedly a tough war to protest because the government mustered its might on two fronts, at home and abroad. The Desert campaign was not just to free Kuwait but to expunge Vietnam from America s memory. Yellow ribbons outnumbered peace signs during this war, showing that the government learned one Vietnam-era lesson well: By not getting stuck in the quagmire it could win a war and defeat an anti-war movement.

About this article
Published in Design Literacy (continued), Allworth Press, New York, 1999.

This article was first published in tipoGrafica 55 and is reprinted with permission. For information please contact:

About the author

Steven Heller is the Art Director at The New York Times and head of the MFA Department of Design at the School of Visual Arts, New York. In addition, Mr. Heller is Editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design. He has written and edited many works on graphic design.