How We Talk, How We Play, Changed Because of the War WAR IN THE GULF

March 10, 1991|By Jean Marbella

Faster than a speeding F-15, more powerfully than a Scud missile, the Persian Gulf war made its mark on popular culture. Here's a look of how our fashion, music, language and activities were shaped by the war.

WAR TALK

The technological bent of the war will no doubt be reflected in its lasting legacy on the language. There were no "Charlies" or "Kilroys" in this war, but rather "smart bombs," "humvees" and other colloquialisms for U.S. weaponry.

Indeed, within the first days of fighting, military terms like "sortie" and "collateral damage" began tripping easily off civilian tongues. And even the technophobic could converse about Warthogs and Sidewinders and other whimsically named killing machines.

But mostly, it was the nearly onomatopoeic Scud that tickled everyone's fancy -- that miserably inaccurate Iraqi missile became the choice reference to describe any plodding failure, while the "Scudbuster" Patriot missile crews became America's favorite home team.

Saddam Hussein also gave Americans a linguistic gift -- "mother of all" -- to describe the be-all and end-all of anything, from his own "mother of all battles" to David Letterman's "mother of all McDonalds" (where he speculated the defeated Saddam may now find work).

A SONG IN OUR HEARTS

The soundtrack to the gulf war fell somewhere between the anti-war anthems that dominated the Vietnam War and the upbeat, patriotic songs of earlier wars.

While a remake of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" got air time, so did patriotic anthems such as Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." And the old faithful "Star-Spangled Banner," as recorded by Whitney Houston for the Super Bowl, proved so popular, she released it as a single and video.

But an attempt to give the war its own "We Are the World"-type anthem came out too late to capitalize on the gulf crisis. "Voices That Care," featuring such noted "singers" as Kevin Costner and Magic Johnson, was released the day after the cease-fire.

So, in the end, the song that perhaps best captured the mood was actually written five years before -- "From a Distance," sung by Bette Midler, which earned a Grammy for songwriter Julie Gold. While generically against any war, it is more contemplative than angry and more one-world humane than one-country political. As such, it became among the most frequently requested songs on radio by soldiers in the Persian Gulf and folks back home.

ON OUR SLEEVES

T-shirts, which seem to have replaced the telegram for sending messages, proliferated quickly before and during the war. Patriotic slogans, such as "Red, white and blue -- these colors don't run," and comic ones, such as "I'd fly a thousand miles for a camel," were popular, as were flag and camouflage designs.

Yellow ribbons bedecked everything from buildings to lapels. And first lady Barbara Bush started another fashion trend by wearing an Operation Desert Shield bracelet. Among the bracelets available were ones reminiscent of the POW/MIA bands of the Vietnam era.

The decorations with the most staying power, however, are likely to be the patriotic tattoos that became popular with soldiers shipping out and those who stayed at home.

WAR GAMES

Playing soldier became more than child's play as board games for adults, such as "Gulf Strike" and "A Line in the Sand," sold briskly. Scale models of the fighters, bombers and tanks used in this war were also big sellers.

And for those who really wanted to feel close to the front lines, gas masks had their moment of fame among those who felt the need to guard against the Iraqi chemical attack that never came.

Just in case the line between sports and war wasn't blurred enough, Topps came out with trading cards featuring major figures, such as Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, and weapons of the war.

SOUL MATES

Finding God in a foxhole is nothing new, but in this war He was everywhere on the home front as well. Churches and temples reported an influx of worshipers, and the nation's leaders frequently asked for our prayers.

Even the president turned to religion during this time -- he invited Billy Graham to the White House the night he decided to fire the opening salvos of the war.

God was not just on the fighting side, though, as many major denominations came out against the war, and some individual churches and religious groups supported anti-war activities.

And this perhaps was the first "self-help" war -- Americans turned to that increasingly pervasive "church," the support group. Even before the first shot was fired, support groups had been organized for families, friends, children -- and even those who wanted support for their anti-war stance.

INFORMATION, PLEASE

"Get me audio!" may never replace "get me rewrite!" -- but during these 43 days, many viewers became glued to their television sets for instantaneous, if sometimes erroneous, coverage of the war. One psychologist even dubbed it "CNN Syndrome."

SCREEN STARS

Stars rose among those making the news as well as those covering it.

Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, impressed many with his dry and commanding presence.

The bearish Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, leader of the Desert Storm forces, seemed the ultimate post-Vietnam kind of military leader -- both a tough fighter and a deep thinker.

Although the media lost favor with the public -- which took the Pentagon's side in the struggle over censorship -- TV did generate its own set of stars.

The CNN crew of Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman perhaps turned in its best performance on opening night when their word pictures from Baghdad drew comparisons to Edward Murrow's reporting on the bombing of London.

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