My brother joined the Navy in late 1989. By mid 1990 he was stationed on the U.S.S. San Jacinto. Within weeks of reporting for duty on the San Jac, he was on his way to the Middle East in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the United States’ response to that, Operation Desert Shield.
It’s hard to imagine it given the ForeverWar, but this was all novel at the time. Vietnam was a generation in the past. The United States’ operations in Grenada and Panama didn’t seem real. A decade and change of rebuilding American Military pride — played out mostly in Hollywood and via the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan — was finally gonna pay off.
Documentaries about the Gulf War tend to show a lot of video of President Bush giving resolute speeches over solemn music and basic file footage of military deployments, but that doesn’t capture the domestic mood from late 1990 and early 1991. Actually, it was sort of a party.
There was that Hank Williams Jr. song — parodied so perfectly by Mr. Show in the Blow up The Moon sketch — but there was also merch. Posters. T-shirts. Perhaps most famously, trading cards. It was like a sporting event, not unlike the run-up to the Olympics. Actually, it was more like the run-up to the Super Bowl.
I had almost forgotten how crazy that aspect of it all was until last weekend. That’s when I found this while cleaning out my storage unit:
That’s from January 1991, just before the shooting started. Read those headlines. It’s like a sports magazine. Maybe more like a pro wrestling magazine, actually. Publications about toys or video games are less over-the-top than this.
The articles inside are a bit less sensationalistic than the cover suggests. They run down each military branch’s equipment. Types of ships, planes, tanks. It’s all stuff you could probably get from reference books with a paragraph or two to the effect of “Saddam doesn’t know what he’s in for!” appended.
The magazine was put out by a company called Harris Publications, which was known mostly for horror comics, guitar magazines, auto magazines, and “Guns and Ammo”-style knockoffs. This entire magazine — which I’m guessing lasted exactly one issue — was entirely written by only one man: Patrick F. Rogers.
According to Rogers’ bio inside the front cover, he was a retired Army field artillery officer who, at the time of publication, was working as “an Advanced Systems Engineer for a major U.S. aerospace company.” The company is not named. Rogers also had recently authored a novel entitled “War God,” which was “a techno-thriller of the struggle for control of a revolutionary new gamma laser weapon launched into orbit.” It currently has six ratings and zero reviews on Goodreads.
Most of the things I found in my storage unit went back into Rubbermaid containers and are sitting in my garage. I’ve kept the magazine out for the past week, however, trying to figure out where it came from. It’s certainly not mine. I do have a lot of my brother’s things in my storage unit, including a lot of stuff from his Navy days, but he wouldn’t have bought this magazine. He was on a ship in the Red Sea when it came out, making that pretty much impossible. The more I think about it, I’m pretty sure my dad bought it.
My dad was, for the obvious reason of his son being in a war zone, obsessed with war news in those days. He had CNN on 24/7 and read a lot more news magazines and newspapers than he usually would at the time. But there was another level to it too. Yes, he worried some like any father would, but I think he was taken in with America’s video game understanding of war at the time just like everyone else. I can almost picture him at Wal-Mart or the grocery store, walking by the magazine rack, seeing this and grabbing it. I can see him looking at that front cover, feeling some odd mixture of pride for his son, pride for his own military service, pride for his country, and a basic desire to snag a keepsake of what he knew he and my brother would always remember and making the impulse buy.
As I look at it now I am reminded of my feelings at the time. I spent a lot of late 1990 and early 1991 rather worried. I wasn’t some radical anti-establishment kind of kid, but I wasn’t as taken in by Rambo and Top Gun as a lot of my friends and a lot of the nation was either. I was the weird 16-year-old kid who watched “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter,” read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut and then, as now, believed that wars were bad ideas even if the experts believed they would not be hard to win. This particular war was, in the event, pretty easy to win, and the Patrick F. Rogerses of the world and all of the other cheerleaders for war ended up feeling vindicated by the spring.
The Gulf War, however, was not at as bloodless as CNN and the publishers of these kinds of quickie magazines chose to portray it. Read about the “Highway of Death” and the manner in which the war was sanitized for popular consumption in the United States if you want to despair some. It was a sanitization which made George W. Bush’s job a lot easier 12 years later when he decided to launch the ForeverWar. I don’t remember magazines like this one coming out in 2003, but I suppose pro-war propaganda had become more refined in the interim.
Anyway, it’s not every day when you come across magazines touting “AMERICA’S AWESOME FIREPOWER: THE MOST DEVASTATING WAR MACHINE EVER!” Magazines with covers which scan hotter than a porn mag come on. Magazines which remind us that, though we like to portray ourselves as the good guys, haven’t been for a very long time.