No more yellow ribbons: 43-day war barely skimmed surface of collective memory

DOES ANYONE REMEMBER THE PERSIAN GULF WAR?

January 16, 1992|By Randi Henderson

The yellow ribbons, those few that remain in view, are faded and tattered.

The red, white and blue flag-emblazoned T-shirts are stuffed in the back of the closet, forgotten ornaments of another era.

Does anyone remember the Persian Gulf War?

A year ago today the war began, a war that would be played out live on television. Suddenly everyone was talking about Scuds and sorties and collateral damage. People succumbed to "CNN syndrome," remaining glued to their TVs, unwilling to miss a moment. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin L. Powell became instant heroes, Saddam Hussein instant enemy, and the "mother of all battles" fodder for comedians coast to coast.

"Today's war fever may be the next decade's folklore," speculated one newspaper pundit.

Well, guess again.

"I sold hundreds of Desert Storm T-shirts during the war," said Jake Barsch, owner of J. C.'s, a novelty store in the Toll gate Mall in Bel Air. "Today I'd have trouble giving them away. We won and it was over. I ordered 12 dozen victory T-shirts and I sold four."

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and an unrelenting economic recession foremost in our thoughts, the 43-day Persian Gulf War has faded to a distant memory. Its symbols have become historic curiosities rather than icons of contemporary popular culture.

"We thought the war would be a cure-all, that it would make the world a safer place, that it would help the economy," said Gerald Celente, director of the Socio-Economic Research Institute, a Rhinebeck, N.Y., company that tracks national trends. "But any impact it had was just fleeting. It built up our emotions but it didn't change the situation around us."

Last June -- just four months after the end of the war -- 47 percent of Americans surveyed in a public opinion poll said that the president's leadership in the war would have no influence on their vote in the '92 election. And his personal popularity has plummeted from 89 percent approval at the height of the war euphoria to just 46 percent in a Gallup poll published earlier this week.

"It's as if nothing had happened, no one remembers it," said Christopher Lasch, University of Rochester historian and culture-watcher. "This war had all the staying power of the latest episode of 'L.A. Law.' "

Actually, those with year-long memories know that plenty did happen that had the potential to worm its way into pop culture. The yellow ribbons, of course, were ubiquitous, as were the T-shirts proclaiming support for the troops and the war. Gulf war trading cards became a hot item in some circles. A few weeks after it happened, some may not have been able to recall who played in the 1991 Superbowl, but they remembered well Whitney Houston's stirring rendition of the national anthem, dedicated to our forces in the gulf.

And there was an almost immediate penetration of world events into the arts and media beyond news reporting. NBC correspondent Arthur Kent, the so-called "Scud stud," became a sex symbol for his times. The inspirational -- albeit hardly pro-war -- song "From A Distance" by Julie Gold, became an anthem of sorts and won a Grammy. The radio airwaves were suffused with irreverent anti-Iraq doggerel.

But then the war ended and only a brief surge of interest in welcome-home parades in the ensuing months captured public fancy. One made-for-TV movie, ABC's "Heroes of Desert Storm," attracted poor ratings and thumbs-down from the critics when it was aired in October.

And as for the future? "I think the gulf war would be the kiss of death for a TV project," said Lisa deMoraes, senior television reporter for the Hollywood Reporter, which covers the entertainment industry.

Literature and motion pictures often require years of gestation, so it is too early to judge whether Desert Storm will be reflected in books and on the silver screen. According to Andrea King, senior film writer for the Hollywood Reporter, only one film treatment of the war is in the works. And pop culture analysts express doubts that the gulf war will ever produce its own "Apocalypse Now" or "Platoon."

"The whole thing grew up so fast and disappeared so fast that it really didn't have time to work its way below the surface into culture," said Ray Browne, chairman of the popular culture division at Bowling Green University. "These were 15-minute heroes. It takes awhile for a movement and a strong tide of feeling to develop among the populace and it didn't happen in this case."

And with current economic conditions and the downsizing of the military, some of yesterday's heroes are on today's unemployment lines, a fact that doesn't sit too well with Pat Lazenby, a Brooklyn Park woman who plastered yellow ribbons all over her house and yard last year and still has a few displayed.

"I don't want to forget," said Ms. Lazenby, who has three nephews who were in the war. "It's just like a fire -- when the fire's out you stop thinking about it. But so many of our boys coming home don't have jobs, they're losing their homes. I really think this country should be treating them better, and not forgetting so quickly what they risked."

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