Placebo Defense:

The Rhetoric of Patriot Missile Accuracy in the 1991 Persian Gulf War

by Gordon R. Mitchell

Published in The Quarterly Journal of Speech (May 2000), pp. 121-45



During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the apparent success of the Patriot missile defense system served as the official centerpiece of a rhetorical campaign to portray Operation Desert Storm as an unprecedented mission ushering in a new era of American military dominance based on technological superiority. Post-war disclosures have not only cast serious doubt on Patriot’s wartime performance, but have also exposed a widespread program of strategic deception employed by Pentagon officials to protect the fiction of Patriot’s Gulf War wizardry. This essay explains how Gulf War audiences were misled, assesses the rhetorical windfall flowing from perceived Patriot effectiveness, and criticizes the Pentagon’s campaign of strategic deception as normatively bankrupt.

KEYWORDS: Patriot, Gulf War, deception, postmodernism, rhetoric of science. This essay is derived from a doctoral dissertation directed by G. Thomas Goodnight.



--ABC News Anchor Sam Donaldson, 1991

Defenses against tactical ballistic missile defenses work and save lives. The effectiveness of the Patriot system was proved under combat conditions.[2]

--Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, 1991

It is difficult to imagine a better validation of President Bush’s redirection of SDI and continued approach to our negotiations with the Soviet Union (sic) than the clear lessons of the Gulf War.[3]

--SDIO Director Henry Cooper, 1991

On his hospital deathbed one day in late 1990, Lee Atwater reached underneath the covers and pulled out a crumpled envelope, which he passed to Secretary of State James Baker. As a GOP loyalist and strategic architect of George Bush’s devastating "Willie Horton" victory over Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election, the dying Atwater wanted to make sure that before passing away, he would leave the GOP with a winning strategy for victory in 1992. "I have a plan," Atwater told his bedside visitor, Secretary of State Baker; "if Georgie blows it, open this. This is the surefire, ultimate election winner." Months later, with Bush reeling in the polls, Baker opened the envelope to discover Atwater’s plan: a Hollywood-style video war, starring the U.S. armed forces, modeled after the Super Bowl. Acting on Atwater’s suggestion, the Bush Administration secretly hired a Hollywood producer and director, cast Saddam Hussein in the role of Hitler, secured world sponsors, and staged the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

This was the plot of Larry Beinhart’s 1993 novel American Hero, which the author ostensibly labeled as a "work of fiction." However, Beinhart clouded the status of his book by prefacing it with the following statement: "There are those who feel that fact and fiction are significantly less distinguishable than they used to seem to be" (ii). Beinhart teased readers further by including in the final chapter of the book a list of 39 factual "anomalies," many supported by citations from legitimate news sources that cast doubt on the official story of the Gulf War. "[I]t’s legitimate to regard the official story about why and how [the Gulf War] happened as a hypothesis, an unproved theory," wrote Beinhart in the final chapter, "just as many, many people regard the official story of the assassination of John F. Kennedy as flawed" (387).

Why would Publisher’s Weekly state that "the best tribute one can pay the book is that, wacky as the thesis seems, it makes more sense than the actual war itself"? And why would Krikus Reviews laud Beinhart’s book as "gorgeously plausible," seconding critic Carl Hiassen’s suggestion that "American Hero could, in fact, be a ‘brilliantly disguised documentary?’" (qtd. in Beinhart, 402). With such hints of plausibility, these reviewers reflected a deep public suspicion regarding the true status of the Gulf War. Did the Gulf War really take place? French writer Jean Baudrillard expressed his skepticism in a series of articles which appeared before, during, and after the war. Baudrillard suggested that the Gulf War was a mass exercise in postmodern simulation, more virtual reality video game than traditional military conflict, in which "[o]ur strategic site [was] the television screen" ("The Reality Gulf" 25).

While Baudrillard’s bold suggestion may strain credulity, there is no denying that the 1991 Gulf War was a tightly scripted, smoothly orchestrated, and well-edited affair, with the United States military setting down exact deadlines and timetables to demarcate discrete phases of the conflict and dictate the flow of events. This was no easy task, given the numerous layers of uncertainty lurking in the war environment. The factor which most seriously threatened to disrupt the American-mandated script was Iraq’s nightly Scud missile attacks on Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Scud attacks, which began January 18, 1991 and continued throughout the war, exacted a heavy psychological toll on the Israeli civilian population and generated anxiety-ridden calls for Israeli Defense Force (IDF) retaliation against Iraq. Knowing that such retaliation would complicate the war plan by widening the conflict and alienating key members of the U.N. coalition, American military planners sought feverishly to dissuade the IDF from attacking Iraq.

The U.S. attempted to accomplish this rhetorical task in part by providing Israel with Patriot ballistic missile defense batteries. It was hoped that Patriot defense, by neutralizing the Scud threat to Israeli cities, would calm frayed Israeli nerves and help stave off calls for IDF intervention against Iraq. The strategy worked; nightly video clips of the Patriot in action had "a magical effect on the public’s perception of events" (Postol, "Lessons" 119). Network news reporters enhanced the effect by providing dramatic, real-time commentary of Patriot missiles apparently foiling Scud attacks.

The claim of Patriot’s Gulf War accuracy has become a staple in the rhetorical strategies utilized by military officials and civilian missile defense advocates in public debate. During the Gulf War, the claim of Patriot accuracy was used by military officials to assert narrative control over the flow of events and thereby preserve the "narrative fidelity" of a triumphant victory script.[4] After the war, the claim of Patriot accuracy was used by opportunistic military hawks to justify massive post-war jackpots for the high-tech weapons contractors that had engineered the arsenal of "smart" weapons used in the Gulf War.

However, in late 1991, the Army’s assertion of nearly unqualified Patriot success was called into question. A group of MIT physicists, led by Professor Theodore A. Postol, closely scrutinized the video evidence of Patriot-Scud engagements, and found the Army’s claims of Patriot accuracy unfounded. When Postol attempted to publish his findings, missile defense advocates resorted to severe tactics, including attempts at post-publication classification, intimidation, and reliance on secrecy as an epistemic club in public debates over Patriot accuracy (Anderson, "Classification"; Postol, "Improper"). Eventual publication of Postol’s article triggered a debate that still lingers on to this day, even after U.S. military officials have conceded that Patriot’s Gulf War accuracy was inflated during the war and after several congressional investigations have issued findings supporting Postol’s argument that Patriot successes shown on television were based more in illusion than fact.[5] In this article, I engage the controversy over Patriot’s Gulf War accuracy, linking an assessment of the rhetorical dynamics of official claims offered during the war with an analysis of the post-war dispute regarding Patriot’s performance. As a rhetorical phenomenon, the fiction of Patriot’s near-perfect Gulf War record deserves close critical scrutiny. Part one of this piece starts out by explaining why such scrutiny is justified given the importance of the issue, then moves on to consider how analysis of the discourse surrounding claims of Patriot accuracy can be pursued using a theoreteical approach grounded in rhetorical criticism. Part two moves on to explore how the U.S. military, working closely with the media, constructed a hyperreal rhetorical frame during the Gulf War that enabled military officials to anesthetize the viewing audience with images of "surgical strikes" and "clean hits." President George Bush moved adroitly through this rhetorical frame; part three features an explanation of how Bush set down the script for the Gulf War by taking advantage of the hyperreality that presented the war as a remote control video game to television viewers. The discussion will then give way in part four to analysis of the post-war controversy over Patriot accuracy, and the extreme measures taken by military officials to clamp down on debate over Patriot accuracy will be brought into high relief. In the fifth and final part of this piece, the focus returns to the themes established earlier in the paper, with attention shifting to assessment of the consequences resulting from strategic deception on Patriot missile accuracy. With an understanding of strategic deception’s potentially odious consequences well established, it will then be time to turn, in the conclusion, to a reflection on the need for vigilant skepticism and dogged crititicm by citizens to counter such episodes of strategic deception in the future.

Toward rhetorical understanding of the controversy

As a rhetorical phenomenon, the fiction of Patriot’s near-perfect Gulf War record deserves close critical scrutiny, given that such a fiction worked to persuade millions of television viewers worldwide that during the conflict, America’s high-tech ingenuity was foiling Iraq’s terrifying Scud attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia, when in fact, the Patriot system probably contributed to civilian casualties more than it reduced them. Contextualized as the centerpiece of a systematic Gulf War deception campaign, the Pentagon’s scheme to manufacture and protect the impression of Patriot success also demands attention as a national security issue, since the hidden costs of Gulf War strategic deception may soon come home to roost in future military conflicts.

The dispute over Patriot missile accuracy poses a challenge to traditional approaches of rhetorical criticism, since Gulf War discourse unfolded in a curious communicative space, a carefully constructed and masterfully managed hyperreality. Understanding, explaining and criticizing communicative events that take place in such a space requires a broad and flexible theoretical repertoire of theoretical concepts that can support close reading of key texts as well as inform analysis of the power relations and media constructions enabling the "manufacture of consent" (see Herman and Chomsky) for the official narrative version of events presented in these texts. In the remainder of this section, I highlight the key theoretical notions that can inform this type of rhetorical analysis.

When Farrell describes the way rhetorical practice works as a "generator" of "social knowledge," he is referring to the phenomenon by which the employment of certain rhetorical strategies, in addition to having local persuasive effects, also shapes the normative expectations which govern subsequent discourse (see Farrell, Norms; "Knowledge"). Public controversies are the sites where this process unfolds, as prevailing public opinions ("social knowledge") can be fleshed out, contested, and revised in the course of public argument (see Goodnight, "Controversy"). The generative function of rhetorical practice ensures that the results of these public arguments establish social precedents governing future controversies. This theoretical framework is particularly appropriate for analysis of Gulf War rhetoric, since planning for the next war "proceeds according to the experience of the last war ... And when the next war is upon us, the discursive and political strategies through which it will be interpreted, narrated, and rationalized will likely resemble those associated with Desert Shield-cum-Storm" (Campbell 14).

Will a replay of the 1991 Persian Gulf War be possible the next time American forces find themselves in a similar conflict scenario? Later in this essay, I turn to the metaphor of the placebo to show that when one thinks of strategic deception on Patriot missile accuracy as a kind of placebo treatment, a clever trick conducted for therapeutic effect, it becomes evident that the strategy of wartime strategic deception on missile defense may not be sustainable over time. Just as patients who lose trust in their doctors, the "social knowledge" of world audiences is likely to shift toward skepticism of official American declarations as military officials generate distrust by repeating cycles of deception, disclosure and detraction. This argument parallels a strategy of criticism pursued by Goodnight and Farrell in their investigation of the "accidental" rhetoric surrounding the near-nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. By uncovering "visions of the public" embedded within the crisis rhetoric of nuclear power experts and politicians, Goodnight and Farrell showed how such rhetoric constructed citizens as hapless spectators, vulnerable to manipulation by scientific experts in a cyclical pattern of technical breakdown and imminent catastrophe (see Farrell and Goodnight). In this essay, I utilize a similar strategy of criticism, rooting out the normative presuppositions embedded in various schemes of strategic deception, then evaluating the consequences of solidifying such normative commitments through generative rhetorical practice.

Because the dominant Gulf War narrative unfolded in a hyperreal backdrop where virtual reality media images structured popular opinions, it is important that any analysis of Gulf War rhetoric be grounded in understanding of the semiotic destablizations and dislocations that make up the so-called "postmodern condition" (Lyotard). In his critical analysis of the Gulf War, Baudrillard drew from his central theoretical concepts of "hyperreality" and "simulation,"[6] to advance the bold thesis that "[w]ar itself has entered a definitive crisis" ("The Reality Gulf" 25). The Gulf War, wrote Baudrillard, "is unreal, war without the symptoms of war, a form of war which means never needing to face up to war, which enables war to be ‘perceived’ from deep within a darkroom" ("The Reality Gulf" 25).

While Baudrillard’s theoretical treatment of the Gulf War highlights important aspects of the conflict that must be considered in any complete rhetorical account of the dispute over Patriot missile accuracy, it is also essential to recognize that his breezy approach also has limitations. In the context of the Gulf War, the bizarre postmodern carnival described by Baudrillard was not a pre-given or inevitable feature of the reality, but a constructed feature, manufactured in large part by a military research apparatus invested heavily in advanced communication technology, and also in part by political and military leaders who positioned themselves as exclusive information sources. Overzealous commitment to the idea of an unavoidable postmodern "condition" risks reifying hyperreality as an essentially pre-given phenomena. This perspective obscures the fact that hyperreality is often constructed strategically to achieve particular rhetorical objectives. Just as the contingent choices made by rhetors can be subjected to critique, constructed hyperreal communicative frames can also be challenged on a normative basis.

A theoretical approach that is grounded in both rhetorical theory and an understanding of the so-called "postmodern condition" is necessary to explain the complex dynamics at play in the Gulf War discourse on Patriot missile accuracy. The previous section has provided a sketch of the theoretical commitments that inform the approach to rhetorical criticism that I take in this piece. In the next section, I will begin to put this approach to work in an exploration of the factors that combined to render the Gulf War a hyperreal event.

Welcome to Nintendo Warfare

For U.N. coalition soldiers, the battlefield experience of the Gulf War recalled childhood visits to the video arcade. In the first 38 days of the conflict, coalition fighter pilots made bombing runs in the dead of night, using infrared vision and computerized navigation aids to make their way through the desert and to their targets, "not real locations but map coordinates displayed on a VDU" (Woolley 193). Alienated from the direct reality of the battlefield, there was little to distinguish the coalition pilots’ experience from training runs made in simulation machines. "Shells burst in silence; explosions have no source," wrote Robert Fisk during the war. "A fighter-bomber will attack a distant target, bathe the terrain in fire and twist away in the sky without the slightest sound" (19).

During the brief ground phase in the final five days of the conflict, soldiers on the desert floor also engaged the enemy in virtual reality warfare; "troop movements were formations of pixels in computer-enhanced, false-colour satellite images" (Woolley 193). American M1-A1 tanks tracked and locked onto their remote targets from afar, then delivered precision-guided munitions from distances of up to 3,300 yards (Shukman 171). Operation Desert Storm represented a new kind of warfare, a "Nintendo War," (McBride 36) with strategy and tactics plotted on computer screens and executed on remote video displays.[7]

Front-line fighting reports contained eerie echoes of a major theme of Beinhart’s novel, that the war was scripted on the model of the Super Bowl. A chief warrant officer for the 82nd Airborne announced the onset of hostilities with the remark "[i]t’s time to quit the pre-game show" (qtd. in Gugliotta and Murphy A27). A pilot returning from one of the first bombing runs over Baghdad exclaimed "[w]e’ve scored a touchdown and no one was home!" (qtd. in Points 19). Another pilot warned against early optimism, cautioning "[w]e had one good morning. You sting ‘em quick, you’re winning 7-0, but it’s not over" (qtd. in Shenon A10).

While coalition soldiers were remote spectators to the damage wrought by their high-tech weapons, the surreal nature of Gulf War placed the world audience in a perceptual position even further removed from the direct action. Because the media relied heavily on military-furnished remote video for their reports, the hyperreal experience of the battlefield was transferred to civilian television viewers. "... [J]ust as the military found itself located in video hyperspace for the conduct of the war," wrote Campbell, "the media found itself a coproducer of this virtual reality" (16). Images recorded from the nose cone of smart bombs as they homed in on ground targets were replayed again and again on television. "These images literally took the TV viewers into a new high-tech cyberspace, a realm of experience with which many viewers were already familiar through video and computer games" (Kellner 157). The University of Oklahoma student who announced "I’m gonna pop some popcorn and watch the war" (qtd. in McBride 59) captured the sense of political numbness created by mass exposure to the hyperreal press pool media images of gee-whiz weapon gadgets performing trick after trick. As bedazzled television viewers witnessed this virtual reality video warfare presented as live news, the technological phantasmagoria lolled the world citizenry into a sense of suspended postmodern vertigo.

The dramatic video clips of Patriots making apparent intercepts of incoming Scuds were buttressed by official military statements certifying Patriot accuracy.[8] The long string of official statements maintaining Patriot accuracy supplied in military press briefings (see Hildreth 31-76), coupled with other propaganda measures,[9] conditioned members of the press to expect, perceive and report Patriot proficiency. Such reporting "shaped the public perception of Patriot’s high level of effectiveness in the Gulf War" (Hildreth, "Evaluation" 23).

The media’s pro-Patriot orientation came through in shaded descriptions of Patriots and Scuds. Richard Blystone of CNN described the Scud as "a quarter-ton of concentrated hatred," while USA Today described Patriot as "three inches longer than a Cadillac Sedan de Ville." NBC’s Tom Brokaw called Patriot "the missile that put the Iraqi Scud in its place" (qtd. in Naureckas 33-4). There was even evidence of the media’s infatuation with Patriot in the lobby of the main media hotel in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where "We Love You" was scrawled on the side of a model Patriot missile (Shukman 103).

Favorable media coverage of Patriot and other high-tech weapons systems (such as smart bombs, sea-launched cruise missiles and stealth fighters) in the Gulf War was, to a large extent, guaranteed because of the lack of contrary information available to journalists. Subject to strict military guidelines that kept non-combatants away from the vast majority of military action, nearly all reporters were forced to cover the war from remote hotels in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Dependent on official military "press pool" briefings for information, these reporters had no choice but to pass along the military’s official accounts as authoritative news. "I guess you could call it censorship by lack of access," said Walter Porges, an ABC News vice president (qtd. in Fialka 6). With even limited press pool access tied to good behavior, most reporters willingly submitted to the military’s guidelines and restrictions. As Australian journalist McKenzie Wark noted at the time, "in going in to battle with each other for ratings, the media happily surrender to the demands placed on them by the military machine" (7).

Transformed from adversarial watchdogs into military public relations agents,[10] many journalists even lost sight of their status as independent agents during the Gulf War. "We have sort of become adjuncts for the government," one correspondent reflected (qtd. in Naureckas 29). Commentary and reaction from U.S. media sources operating at home reflected a similar partisanship; skeptics of the war effort were vilified frequently as unpatriotic. For example, editor Joe Reedy of the Kutztown, Pennsylvania Patriot was fired for writing an anti-war editorial for the newspaper (see Mahan 14-15). This instance was typical of a general pattern of exclusion which kept oppositional voices and critical perspectives out of print and off the air during the war.[11]

Patriot’s Rhetorical Role as Scudbusting Hero

With oppositional voices largely sedated by the military’s pomo pyrotechnics, President George Bush took center stage and assumed command of the Gulf War’s public discourse. Accordingly, there is no better text to anchor a a rhetorical analysis of Patriot’s role in the Gulf War than Bush’s February 15, 1991 mid-war address to workers at the Raytheon plant in Andover, Massachusetts (hereafter "Raytheon address"). During his visit to the plant, President Bush inspected the assembly line that produced the Patriot air and missile defense system, and sat in a model of the Engagement Control System, the command post for Patriot missile batteries. Following the tour, he proceeded to the fabrications building where at 1:45 p.m., he delivered a nationally televised address. "And look," Bush began, "I view it as an honor to be here, to come to Raytheon, the home of the men and women who build the Scudbusters" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 148). Indeed, Bush’s presence at the Raytheon plant was a testament to the importance of the Patriot missile as a rhetorical lever in the administration’s unfolding Gulf War narrative.

With Bush in the director’s chair, the war was framed as a "clear case of good versus evil" (qtd. in Woodward 343). Invoking a "political discourse of moral certitude" (Campbell 17), Bush likened Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler, tagging the Iraqi leader as a "brutal dictator ... without regard for human decency" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 149-50). The model script here was World War II, the last "unambiguously ‘good war’ in U.S. memory" (Campbell 21; McBride 46). "We have such a clear moral case," said Bush; "[I]t’s that big. It’s that important. Nothing like this since World War II. Nothing of this moral importance since World War II" (qtd. in Woodward 343).

While the discourse of moral certitude which framed the allied campaign in World War II received reinforcement from the genuine democratic heritage of nations threatened by Nazi Germany, the lukewarm democratic traditions of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia complicated Bush’s attempts to paint the Gulf War as a similar epic struggle of good versus evil. Bush dealt with this rhetorical obstacle by counterposing demonization of the enemy with celebration of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the rescuing state. This strategy permitted Bush to use the war as an occasion to trumpet the awesome technological powers of the United States, offering up such prowess as an alternative symbol of progress and democracy to oppose the depraved image of Saddam Hussein.[12]

In the Raytheon address, Bush told the triumphant story of Patriot, weaving the tale into the larger structure of the basic organizing themes of official Gulf War discourse: the United States was firmly in control of the flow of events, and the U.S. military’s overwhelming technological edge provided the key advantage for coalition fighters. These themes were reinforced by news reporting that largely echoed Bush’s narrative, a narrative that persisted long after Iraq’s surrender to buoy a dizzying new round of post-war spending hikes for high-tech weaponry. By exploring these key themes in a bit more detail, the rest of this section will elucidate the rhetorical dynamics involved in strategic deception on Patriot missile accuracy. In turn, I will explain how Bush’s rhetoric enabled him to seize script control, show the ways in which Bush cast Patriot’s performance as a referendum on the broader fortunes of missile defense, and then assess the level of post-war momentum for BMD projects generated by inflated claims of Patriot accuracy.

Script control

Perhaps the most crucial of the themes advanced in Bush’s Raytheon address was script control. For Bush, it was absolutely essential that the United States dictate the sequence and timing of events in the war. The original January 15, 1991 deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait provided the initial temporal guidelines for the war script, and in the Raytheon address, Bush stated that "we’re going to continue to fight this war on our terms, on our timetable, until our objectives are met" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 150). Bush was determined to maintain full temporal control over the flow of events, elevating the struggle over the war’s timetable to the status of an intense personal struggle with Saddam Hussein. "[W]e will control the timing of this engagement, not Saddam Hussein," declared Bush ("Remarks to Raytheon" 150).

Maintaining script control in this rhetorical situation was a difficult task because of the inherent uncertainties and levels of contingency built into the unpredictable war environment. In the face of this uncertainty, President Bush relied heavily upon the claim of Patriot missile accuracy to maintain control over the unfolding storyline. Bush cited the Patriot as a key tool in protecting coalition script control, since as instruments of psychological warfare, Iraq’s Scud missiles clearly possessed the capability to disrupt the flow of events; "... when you go home at night, you can say with pride that the success of Patriot is one important reason why Operation Desert Storm is on course and on schedule," said Bush ("Remarks to Raytheon" 150). Asking the audience to "imagine what course this war would have taken without the Patriot" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 150), Bush calculated that the audience would complete the enthymeme with any number of a variety of doomsday scenarios: gas attacks and mass civilian casualties, Arab escalation, or disintegration of the U.N. coalition. In the minds of the audience, Bush anticipated that these were all thinkable nightmare scenarios that might unfold with Saddam Hussein scripting the action.

With control over the script firmly established, Bush could cast coalition soldiers in the role of proactive saviors, initiators of carefully planned and sequenced maneuvers that forced Iraq to react passively to the coalition-mandated agenda. Saddam Hussein’s bids to interfere with this process by altering the course of events were nullified before they could even materialize; his offer to withdraw from Kuwait, issued on the very morning of Bush’s Raytheon address, was declared by the President "dead on arrival" ("Exchange" 149). Responding to reporters earlier in the day, Bush labeled Hussein’s peace offer a "cruel ploy ... it’s totally unacceptable to everybody" ("Exchange" 148).[13] Like a Hollywood director hewing tightly to a chiseled production timeline, Bush brushed aside potential derailments, sternly declaring "[t]he war is going on schedule" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 149).

The BMD referendum

To underline the theme of American superiority running through the Raytheon address, Bush pointed to the example of the Patriot missile as a condensation symbol for American ingenuity, technical achievement and personal accomplishment through hard work. In Bush’s formulation, the manufacture of the Patriot was an unvarnished American success story, replete with a dramatic beginning (the heroic effort of Raytheon employees to rush the system into production in time for the war),[14] and a stirring climax ["Patriot is 41 for 42: 42 Scuds engaged, 41 intercepted!" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 150)]. Too often we hear about how "our kids, our children, our schools fall short," Bush mused; "I think it’s about time that we took note of the success stories, of the way the brave young men and women who man the Patriot stations perform such complex tasks with unerring accuracy" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 149, emphasis added).

Sitting in an Engagement Control System inside the Raytheon plant, Bush said he was impressed with Patriot’s "split-second accuracy" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 149). For Bush, this impression extended beyond mere appreciation for technical achievement; in his eyes, the remarkable phenomenon of Patriot represented accomplishment on a personal, human level. "Patriot works, and not just because of the high-tech wizardry," Bush declared; "Patriot works because of patriots like you" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 149).

Turning his attention to the military aspects of Patriot performance in the battlefield, Bush stated that his intention in the Raytheon address was to pay tribute not only to the "high tech workers like yourself" who built Patriot but also the "highly skilled servicemen and women who operate Patriot in the field" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 149). As highest of the "high tech" weapon systems on display during the Gulf War, Patriot was touted as paradigmatic of a new form of advanced warfare, in which technical sophistication promised to be the sine qua non of military superiority. Speaking while standing next to the Raytheon assembly line, Bush offered a vision: "[W]e are witnessing a revolution in modern warfare, a revolution that will shape the way that we defend ourselves for decades to come" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 149).

One of the most important themes growing out of this new military paradigm was the citation of Patriot’s Gulf War performance as validating evidence for the general concept of ballistic missile defense. For years, critics have asserted that antimissile defenses don’t work, Bush told the audience of Patriot employees; "They were wrong, and you were right. Thank God you were right ... " ("Remarks to Raytheon" 149). Patriot’s effectiveness in intercepting Scuds, Bush asserted, was "proof positive that missile defense works" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 150). In the first-ever test of a missile defense system under actual wartime conditions, Bush intimated that Patriot had passed with flying colors.

In Bush’s view, it was appropriate to count Patriot’s performance as a significant breakthrough, an event fundamentally altering the nature of the public debate over missile defense. Missile defense critics said "results from the test range wouldn’t stand up under battlefield conditions," Bush said. "You knew they were wrong, those critics, all along. And now the world knows it, too" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 150). With their incredible engineering feat, Bush suggested that Raytheon employees had demonstrated to the world that it was now realistic to assume that ballistic missiles could be neutralized by defensive systems. "Because of you, the world now knows that we can count on missile defenses," Bush said ("Remarks to Raytheon" 150). Echoing a line of argumentation developed by Ronald Reagan nearly eight years before, Bush argued that the Patriot system had allowed the people of Saudi Arabia and Israel to receive material protection against ballistic missiles, transcending the thin and ephemeral guarantee of deterrence. "Thank God," Bush said, the people of Israel and Saudi Arabia had "more to protect their lives than some abstract theory of deterrence. Thank God for the Patriot missile. Thank God for that missile" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 150).

Bush’s laudatory tributes to the Patriot missile, and his overall narrative framework for the war, resonated against the backdrop of daily news reports. The stream of video footage of high-tech U.S. weapons in action lent support to Bush’s suggestion that the Gulf War was a harbinger of a new military era in which the American technological edge would bring unquestioned battlefield superiority. Such footage, ubiquitous on nightly television reports, endowed officials "with power as well as credibility, providing an aura of veracity to whatever claims they would make, which were seemingly grounded in technological omnipotence and evidence too compelling to doubt" (Kellner 157).

Post-war BMD momentum

Following the war, many commentators picked up on and extended the key themes developed in Bush’s Raytheon address: Good had prevailed against evil, the United States had demonstrated its unsurpassed technological capability, Patriot had performed flawlessly, and the concept of missile defense had been dramatically validated. Echoing Bush’s suggestion that Patriot was the cornerstone of the United States’ new high-tech military revolution, Representative Frank Horton stated, "[t]here was one system that almost overnight became a symbol of America’s technological superiority ... that system was the Patriot" (5). Testifying before the House Appropriations Committee, Henry Cooper, Director of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, said "[i]t is difficult to imagine a better validation of President Bush’s redirection of SDI and continued approach to our negotiations with the Soviet Union than the clear lessons of the recent Gulf War" (qtd. in Hildreth 74). In a similar vein, Lieutenant General Charles Horner suggested that "[n]o one should underestimate the value of the Patriot system in this war ... In the historical analysis and studies of this war, Patriot will be one of the key systems which influenced the outcome" (qtd. in Stein, Letter 215).

These positions received support from a parade of rosy expert assessments of Patriot’s wartime performance, each of them corroborating Bush’s exuberant wartime assertions of Patriot effectiveness. On March 13, 1991, Major General Richard Beltson said Patriot units were "receiving world-wide recognition for their unprecedented success in Operation Desert Storm" (qtd. in Hildreth 74). Less than a week later, General Carl Vuono, Chief of Staff of the Army, said "[t]he now world-famous Patriot PAC-2 missile ... has achieved spectacular results" (qtd. in Hildreth 75). Conservative commentators such as the Heritage Foundation’s Baker Spring reveled in the celebration of American high-tech weaponry: "The early days of the war against Iraq confirm that high-technology weapons are America’s trump card against Saddam Hussein," wrote Spring in February, 1991; "No weapon used so far in Operation Desert Storm has performed so surprisingly well as has the Patriot missile system ... " (1-2). Amidst this bullish chorus of praise, Raytheon, Inc., manufacturer of the Patriot missile defense system, saw its stock jump $5 a share (Charles 39).

These appeals eventually led to new rounds of massive congressional spending on missile defense. "After the war, policymakers throughout the Government continued to assess Patriot as a highly effective missile defense system," wrote Steven Hildreth; "This support helped justify budget requests for additional improvements in the Patriot system, funding increases in the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and plans to proceed with a limited strategic missile defense of the United States" (23).

Controversy over Patriot Accuracy

Several months after the cessation of hostilities in the Persian Gulf, MIT scholars Ted Postol and George Lewis became interested in the issue of Patriot’s Gulf War performance when Lewis noticed that by replaying television video clips in slow motion, allegedly successful Patriot intercepts of Scuds appeared to be misses (see Fig 1). Postol, Lewis and other MIT researchers found similar things in nearly all the Patriot-Scud encounters captured on video that they could find. Most of this footage was publicly available in promotional videos packaged in red, white and blue boxes that contained triumphant commentary of announcers touting the awesome technological prowess of the U.S. military. As Postol described one typical video, in hyping Patriot’s contribution to the war effort, the audio track would declare "‘never before has a system worked so well’ ... and then on video, they’d show you two Patriot-Scud engagements where the Patriot missed by half a kilometer. We’re not talking about small misses. Enormous distance misses" (Interview).[15]

The MIT researchers supplemented this video research with analysis of wartime ground damage reports published in Israeli newspapers. If Patriot was truly effective in neutralizing Scuds, one would have expected that the amount of damage done by incoming Scuds, substantial in the first five days of the conflict, would have been reduced markedly in the period following deployment of Patriot. However, ground damage reports did not reflect such a mitigation; reported damage was in fact greater when Israel was being shielded by Patriot. During the period of defense, the number of apartments reported damaged tripled, and the number of reported injuries increased by almost 50 percent per Scud attack (Postol, "Lessons" 145).[16]

There are a number of factors which may have accounted for the increase in ground damage during Patriot deployment. First, Patriot interceptors that missed their Scud targets could have fallen to earth and caused damage on their own. Given that each Scud launch was met by at least two or three Patriot interceptors, even with a 100% Scud neutralization rate for each Scud launched by Iraq, several loose Patriots were likely to sail past their targets and dive to the ground (see Fig 2). "In cases where the Patriot interceptor still contains burning rocket propellant and hits this ground at a small elevation level," wrote Postol, "this may cause greater ground damage than the impact of an intact Scud" ("Lessons" 146). Thus, "significant damage from a small number of Patriot impacts could have measurably added to the total net ground damage during the period of Patriot defense operations" (Postol, "Lessons" 150).[17] Second, partial Patriot intercepts may have cut Scuds into various large pieces which fell in multiple locations, causing damage at several different sites.[18] Third, the most lethal Scud attack of the entire war took place under Patriot protection; 28 American soldiers were killed and 98 wounded when a Patriot computer software error prevented it from tracking and engaging an incoming Scud (see Hughes, "Tracking Software" 26; Marshall 1347; Postol, "Optical Evidence" 142-3).

Postol et al.’s analysis of video evidence and scrutiny of ground damage reports challenged fundamentally one of the most widely held lessons of the Gulf War, i.e. that Patriot did an impeccable job of, in President Bush’s words, "Scud-busting."[19] As Postol reflected incredulously, "[a]pparently most people, no everyone, I guess, who saw this on television, everyone just didn’t realize what they were seeing" (Interview). How could such a massive audience have been misled in this way? Common sense would dictate that missile defense interceptors take out their targets by smashing into them directly. However, Patriot interceptors are designed to fly to the neighborhood of a targeted incoming ballistic missile, self-detonate, and scatter a stream of lethal metal debris in the path of the enemy target. It is likely that many viewers of Patriot-Scud engagements interpreted these interceptor self-detonations as direct hits on Scuds.[20]. However, Postol et al.’s video analysis shows that in many engagements, the Patriot interceptor was either behind, or not even "in the neighborhood" of the incoming Scud at the time of self-detonation, and that the resultant spray of debris did little or nothing to alter the trajectory of incoming Scuds. Lacking a sophisticated technical understanding of BMD intercept dynamics, the Gulf War television audience was not in a position to make such detailed discriminations in real time, and was instead forced to rely on scripted interpretations provided by U.S. military officials.

Initial escalation of the dispute over Patriot’s Gulf War accuracy soon brought national media attention to Postol’s claims, and with the controversy spilling over into public debates about post-Gulf War missile defense, a number of government agencies conducted investigations designed to ferret out the truth and clear the air. These investigations were difficult in that they required analysts to assess the quality of the government’s official classified information and compare it to the publicly available data cited by Postol, without disclosing any of the classified information in the process.

In one of these investigations, members of the House Government Operations Committee traveled to Hunstville, Alabama in 1992, seeking to evaluate the Army’s data showing Patriot accuracy in a classified briefing at the Army Missile Command. "[The Army’s presentation] was appalling," said a source cited in Inside the Pentagon; "The Army was defensive and very reluctant to answer questions. Their methodology for scoring Patriot kills is scandalous" ("Rep. Conyers" 14). Inside the Army reported that "Congressional experts were uniform in their opinion that the analysis was totally inadequate" (MacFarland 1).

In classified interviews with the Patriot system manager, the General Accounting Office found similar serious weaknesses in the quality of the Army’s data. GAO investigator Richard Davis discovered that the Army "scorecard" data (which initially indicated an 80%/50% Patriot success rate in Saudi Arabia and Israel respectively), were largely based on probable kill indications from Patriot computer guidance systems (Davis; U.S. GAO, "Material," "Operation Desert Storm: Data"; Conyers, "The Patriot Myth"). The Patriot system manager told GAO that he was "not surprised" that investigators were turning up evidence of Patriot failure that contradicted this guidance system data (Davis). In the GAO’s investigation of Patriot’s system manager, investigators learned that the guidance system data "was not intended to be used as an analysis of Patriot’s performance. [The system manager] said it was intended as a tool to keep himself and others at the Air Defense School abreast of events in the Gulf; therefore, he made no attempt to analyze the data" (Davis 78).[21]

Indeed, the informality of the scorecard (also referred to as "spreadsheet") data was evident to GAO. Its investigators found that "the spreadsheet was actually an inaccurate summary of information obtained through telephone calls to various units in the Gulf, Army staff offices in the Pentagon, or the Patriot project office" (Davis 78). Investigators also found "many gaps and inconsistencies" in the scoresheets and supporting records.[22] Congressional Research Service investigators found other weaknesses in the Army’s scorecard data. Much of the Army’s data turned out to be based on "Patriot unit reports of Scud engagements," i.e. shot-by-shot accounts of whether or not the soldiers in the Patriot command centers believed they had successfully intercepted Scuds.[23] However, such evidence was found to be of dubious value given the public statements made during the war downgrading the ability of human "after action" reports to assess Scud-Patriot engagements accurately (see Hildreth 27).

Scrutiny of the Army’s classified evidence produced other evidentiary anomalies. The classified BRL study, cited by Raytheon as being produced by a "team" of Israeli experts (Stein, Letter 9), turned out to be the work of a lone BRL engineer who visited Saudi Arabia for 5 days in February 1991 and 19 days in March 1991, inspecting the sites of Scud-Patriot impactage "days or weeks after an impact when craters had often been filled and missile debris removed" (Davis 78). Further, GAO found that the BRL study only contained data for about one-third of the Saudi engagements, although it had been cited by the Army for all engagements (Davis 78).

The overall assessment provided by congressional investigators was that the quality of the Army’s classified evidence showing Patriot Gulf War effectiveness was poor: "[T]he data that would be needed to conclusively demonstrate how well the Patriot performed during Operation Desert Storm does not exist and there is no way to conclusively tell how many targets the Patriot killed or failed to kill" (U.S. GAO, "Operation Desert Storm: Data" 4). While the initial official assessment of Patriot’s effectiveness was that the system successfully intercepted 80% of Scuds fired at Saudi Arabia and 50% of Scuds fired at Israel (see Drolet), a panel of senior Army officials downgraded this assessment by 10% during congressional testimony, responding to charges by the GAO that the Army’s "original assessments ... just could not be supported by the data that they said they used to come up with that assessment" (qtd. in Morrison 1028). Further, under questioning, Brig. Gen. Robert A. Drolet, author of the Army’s official assessment of Patriot effectiveness, stated that the service had a "high degree of confidence" in only 40% of the kills. In a further retreat, Drolet qualified that all the Army meant by "successful intercept" was that "a Patriot and Scud had passed in the sky" (qtd. in Morrison 1028; see also Bond 64), not that the Scud had necessarily been disabled by the encounter. Despite admitting that its initial assessments of Patriot accuracy were invalid, the Army has stalled further attempts to clarify Patriot’s Gulf War record by continuing to not disclose its classified evidence and resisting calls for arbitration by an independent scientific panel, such as the American Physical Society (see Chandler, "No Letup" 28).

A Tough Placebo to Swallow

Despite the long string of skeptical official reports casting doubt on Patriot’s Gulf War effectiveness, a robust public promotion campaign for Patriot continues to this day. Domestically, advocates of a Star Wars-style national missile defense still point to Patriot as a shining example of empirical missile defense success.[24] Internationally, Patriot sales have been brisk, with Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, South Korea and Taiwan all recently buying systems (Sanger 4; "Raytheon Awarded" B4).[25] Since the Gulf War, Raytheon has generated $2.4 billion in foreign sales ("Raytheon Awarded" B4).[26]

This remarkable success in marketing Patriot to foreign customers has been in part due to the ability of missile defense advocates to maintain the narrative fidelity of the triumphant story of Patriot’s Gulf War accuracy, even in the wake of serious criticism. Missile defense advocates have extended the line of argumentation set down by President George Bush in his 1991 Raytheon address, employing various rhetorical strategies to keep the credibility of the story intact. During the Gulf War, military officials manufactured the factual support for the story with tight media control and deft exploitation of video evidence. After the war, military officials defended the claim of Patriot accuracy by utilizing secrecy as an epistemic club in public argumentation, attributing scientific objectivity to unfounded secret claims, and harassing scientific opponents with security clearance investigations.

In short, the Patriot missile success story has been built on a foundation of strategic deception. Where Livermore researchers rigged X-Ray laser and HOE experiments to generate the false perception of Star Wars feasibility in the 1980s (see Broad; Woodruff), in the 1990s, Army officials manufactured the illusion of Patriot effectiveness by rigging the reporting and interpretation of a large scale high-tech experiment in military performance, the Gulf War.

Was this deception justified? When attempting to make normative judgments regarding this question, it is difficult to overlook the fact that strategic deception did appear to bear substantial fruit during the war. Missile defense advocates have emphasized that because perceived Patriot effectiveness had a beneficial calming effect on traumatized Israeli civilians, Israeli defense officials were better able to resist public pressure to intervene against Iraq (Horton; Stein, "Patriot ATBM").[27] "Both critics and advocates believe the use of Patriot was an important psychological and political factor during the Gulf War" (Feuerwerger 584; see also Chandler, "Sorting Out" 25). Even Postol acknowledged the benefits of this deception; speaking of the fiction of Patriot effectiveness during the Gulf War, Postol said "... since war is both a physical and a psychological phenomenon, it had an important political leverage that was useful" (Interview). "During the war," Postol explained, "I think there was a good argument for not revealing the fact that the [Patriot] system was not functioning" (Interview).

In this final section, I dwell on the issues related to this "placebo effect," and weave discussion of the justification for strategic deception through four topics that highlight pitfalls that attach to the strategy of strategic deception: the dilemma of diminishing returns that comes from constant reliance on placebo strategies, the dangers of self-deception, the ways deception can distort budget appropriations for the military, and finally the way in which codified strategic deception saps the vitality of democratic public spheres of discussion.

The dilemmas of placebo defense

One serious limitation on wartime strategic deception as a rhetorical strategy is that the benefits of such a strategy are likely to diminish over time. Arguing against an increase in Patriot funding on the floor of Congress, Representative Atkins invoked the instructive metaphor of a medical placebo to explain the value of Patriot; "[T]he primary benefit of Patriot is a political and psychological one, which I would say militarily is like a placebo" (Atkins 214).[28] The difficulty this metaphor raises is of course the fact that placebos lose much of their effectiveness when patients become aware of the fact that they do not contain real medicine; placebos depend largely on deception to achieve their effects. When the fiction of the placebo is exposed, the psychological efficacy of the remedy is eroded. Speaking of the psychological and political role of Patriot in a similar vein, Marvin Feuerwerger, senior strategic fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote, "[g]iven the lessons that the Israeli and other publics may have drawn from the Gulf War experience, no one can guarantee that Patriot or similar systems will be able to perform a similar role in the future" (Feuerwerger 584). While strategic deception of enemies in wartime may be justified as a component of military doctrine, when such a strategy is extended to allied publics, the resultant skepticism may very well render such an approach unsustainable.[29]

This "placebo" explanation suggests that when installed as a routine doctrine in wartime missile defense advocacy, strategic deception may pay diminishing returns. If the United States becomes known around the world as a military power that inflates its claims of missile defense accuracy in wartime for the purpose of achieving political and psychological objectives, this reputation is likely to impede efforts to replicate the experience of the Gulf War. In overlooking this pitfall, defenders of strategic deception ignore the generative function of rhetorical practice (see Farrell, "Knowledge"). The employment of certain rhetorical strategies, in addition to having local persuasive effects, also shapes the normative expectations which govern subsequent discourse.

In several recent foreign policy crises, there has been palpable evidence that the disclosure of Patriot deception has shaped audience expectations in the manner suggested by the placebo hypothesis. For example, evidence suggests that allied audiences in Israel and South Korea have been skeptical of U.S. claims of missile defense effectiveness when U.S. diplomats attempted to ship Patriot missile batteries to these threatened states as symbolic security blankets (see Kuttler; Rudge; Sanger). The skepticism about claims of missile defense effectiveness expressed by U.S. military allies in these two post-Gulf War scenarios was due likely in part to the dissipation of strategic deception’s placebo-like qualities. Ironically, the generative rhetorical effects of Gulf War strategic deception appear to have undermined the trust of world audiences in the U.S. as a reliable source of information on its own missile defense capabilities. While the perception of Patriot effectiveness in the Gulf War may have been a useful fiction, it may very well have been a one trick pony; the difficulty involved in repeating the experience in subsequent rhetorical situations indicates that wartime strategic deception seems to have entailed a serious hidden cost: the erosion of U.S. international missile defense credibility.

The placebo metaphor suggests that the benefits of wartime strategic deception on missile defense can only be realized consistently if world audiences maintain confidence in the U.S. military as a source of reliable scientific information. Like the patient who loses trust in her doctor upon learning that all the doctor has in her medicine cabinet is salt tablets, such audiences are likely to question official American declarations when they are advanced in a pattern of repeated cycles of deception, disclosure and detraction. Thus, the credibility of wartime deception is in part inextricably tied to effective post-war cover-up. This dynamic partially explains the investment of the U.S. military in preserving the fiction of Patriot’s Gulf War effectiveness, even after the cessation of hostilities. Although the eventual publication of some critical views on Patriot’s Gulf War performance shows that the postwar deception program has not been completely effective, it has had sufficient traction to fundamentally alter the trajectory of public dialogue on missile defense in this country and abroad.

To accomplish this task, missile defense advocates have employed a multifaceted strategy to distort the content of public debate on missile defense. By relying heavily on the classification system to shield their data from scrutiny in the field of open argumentation, they have precluded detailed public comparison of competing evidence[30] and protected their data from the rigors of scientific peer review. By overstating the level of Patriot effectiveness, advocates have infused false information into public debate.[31] By intimidating critics holding security clearances, advocates have chilled discursive contributions to the debate from the most qualified professional scientists.[32] By declining to submit their arguments for objective review by an independent panel,[33] and by ‘burying’ an independent congressional evaluation of the technical controversy, advocates have further restricted the flow of critical evaluative commentary on Patriot’s Gulf War performance.[34]

The dangers of self-deception

There are several negative consequences which flow from this distorted public understanding of Patriot effectiveness. Deliberately manufactured misconceptions about Patriot’s capabilities may one day jeopardiz unnecessarily the lives of U.S. soldiers in future crises. "... [S]oldiers’ lives could be unnecessarily endangered if they are deployed in future conflicts based on optimistic assessments of the Patriot’s capabilities," said Postol; "They may depend on destroying nine out of ten enemy missiles, as the Army now claims, when the actual capabilities are closer to one in ten, if that" ("Improper" 229). "If American soldiers think that they can depend on Patriot battalions destroying nine out of ten enemy missiles, when the actual defense capability may be closer to one out of 50, it would be a disaster" argued Conyers; "If we know that, but refuse to admit it, then the offense is criminal" ("The Patriot Myth" 2-3).

Distortions introduced into the public debate over Patriot’s Gulf War accuracy may also filter down to the level of tactical battlefield decision-making. "[N]ational defense preparedness and the lives of U.S. soldiers in future conflicts may well depend on contingency plans that assume a certain level of Patriot effectiveness against SSBMs (short-range ballistic missile) attacks" (Hildreth 24). If these assumptions are based on figures that have been inflated deliberately, the intelligence capabilities of battlefield commanders will be compromised. Counting on Patriot effectiveness, field strategists may undervalue the ballistic missile threats faced by troops in certain target areas. Instead of providing the safest possible routes of travel for troops, such flawed deployment patterns issued by misinformed platoon leaders may lead soldiers directly into the line of attack.[35]

Deception and the military budget

The controversy over Patriot’s Gulf War effectiveness has also had ramifications far beyond the context of missile defense. With Patriot as the centerpiece of the new U.S. high-tech war machine, its performance in the Gulf was linked to the wider fortunes and prospects of America’s revolutionary new military, with its first trial run in the Gulf War.[36] Accordingly, the widespread perception of Patriot’s wartime effectiveness was a major factor driving support for maintaining high military budgets in the threat-reduced post-Cold War milieu. As sociologists McLauchlan and Hooks argued, this phenomenon was one key element in the translation of the post-Cold War "peace dividend" into a post-Gulf War "war dividend" (766-767).

The lingering fiction of Patriot’s Gulf War effectiveness thus appears to have had substantive impacts on American military spending patterns. When Bush established in his Raytheon address that Patriot was the pivotal weapon system in the U.S.’s new high-tech arsenal, he paved the way for defense contractors and military planners to cash in on perceived Patriot effectiveness at budget appropriations time.[37] In recent budget cycles, their extraordinary successes have reversed the momentum of the Cold War peace dividend and triggered a new round of conventional arms spending.[38] Apart from the issue of whether such defense spending patterns are appropriate in the current international threat environment, the fact that these spending decisions were made with flawed data is a matter of serious concern.[39]

The public sphere under assault

When appraising the costs and benefits of post-Gulf War strategic deception on Patriot, it is important not to overlook the fact that the rhetorical campaign of missile defense advocates in this case represented a full-scale assault on the public sphere as a legitimate site for open discussion of military issues. While this country has long excused such practices under emergency wartime conditions, when efforts to muzzle critical voices and neutralize the public’s argumentative competence become routine peacetime practices, warning flags go up announcing the erosion of the government’s commitment to democratic decision-making. As another cost of post-Gulf War strategic deception on Patriot, this unraveling of the democratic fabric can be appreciated more fully by understanding the dynamics and ramifications of missile defense advocates’ techniques of blocking open discussion in the public sphere.

By protecting the Pentagon’s internal data on Patriot’s performance behind the curtain of classification, missile defense advocates evaded minimum burdens of proof in argumentative discourse and created leverage for specious attacks against Patriot critics. While such moves may have been legitimate if the government could have demonstrated that disclosure of the information on Patriot would have constituted, in the words of the Supreme Court, a "grave, direct and immediate" harm to national security, no such justification was ever provided, even in the face of repeated official calls for declassification.

In fact, persons with security clearances who were in positions to evaluate the secret data found little reason to keep such information under wraps. "I received [a] classified briefing on this system," said Representative Stephen Neal; "And I, frankly, can see nothing in that classified briefing that should not be made public" (96). In the case of the controversy over Patriot’s Gulf War performance, the government’s reliance on the classification system to shield its data from public scrutiny appeared to be a clear example of classification abuse, since the unclassified evidence actually turned out to be superior in quality to the data kept secret by the government. "[T]here is absolutely no need for classified information to be used in the public debate [on Patriot]," said Postol; "I think the amount of data, and the kind of data that we have is actually better than any of the classified data that was collected by the U.S. Army" (Postol, Interview).[40] Further, because the precise details of the Patriot system were deducible from public sources, information about Patriot’s design was not "protectable," and hence not an appropriate candidate for classification (Postol, "Improper" 47). As one commentator put it, the "toothpaste was already out of the tube" (qtd. in Weiner 16), yet the Army continued to protect its data from scrutiny.

The Army’s classification strategy also skewed public debate on Patriot by shifting the burden of proof to critics and placing those who dared to challenge official statements of Patriot effectiveness under suspicion for violation of secrecy rules. This placement of security clearance holders under permanent discursive review for all contributions to public debate puts the government in the position of gatekeeper of all public comments made by a huge population of technically knowledgeable sources. With this "check with us first" policy, the government vastly exceeded its legitimate authority over information control in the post-Gulf War controversy over Patriot performance; "... security procedures and the rules for enforcing protection of classified information have been stretched to include suppression of alternative thought, not to mention rights of speech guaranteed under the first amendment," Postol stated ("Improper" 46).

There are disturbing normative commitments that undergird these rhetorical strategies employed to defend the fiction of Patriot’s Gulf War accuracy. When military officials muzzle public argumentation through intimidation and deliberately limit public competence through abuse of the classification system, the space for intelligent and engaged citizen deliberation is systematically rolled back. Although the short-term windfalls flowing from manipulative rhetorical practices such as these may be tempting, it is important to bear in mind the broader normative issues at stake in such instances. Each time missile defense officials resort to strategic deception as a rhetorical maneuver, they reproduce citizen passivity, ignorance and alienation in the process.


In his 1993 book American Hero, novelist Larry Beinhart suggested provocatively that the Gulf War was rigged by the GOP and Hollywood to improve President Bush’s chances in the 1992 election. While most readers are likely to find Beinhart’s hypothesis far-fetched, this article has shown that one major aspect of the war, perceived as factual at the time, has turned out to be fictional. There is no evidence to prove that the Patriot missile defense system knocked out 41 of 42 Scuds during the war, as President Bush claimed in his February 15, 1991 address to employees of the Raytheon Corporation. After perusing the remarkable accumulation of evidence challenging the government’s official position that Patriot performed flawlessly, the reader may begin to entertain Baudrillardean doubts about whether or not the Gulf War really "took place" as advertised.

What should one do with the conclusion that Patriot missiles were not nearly as accurate as initially claimed during the Gulf War, and what should one make of the realization that the U.S. military systematically employs strategic deception as a public relations tool to press its case for missile defense? Some readers who staunchly oppose missile defense will probably find the story of strategic deception on Patriot missile accuracy to be a scandalous tale involving abuses of power, and will respond to these questions with a sense of outrage. Given that missile defense programs steeped in secrecy have a proven track record of failure, missile defense proponents would also do well to aproach these questions with serious concern. If missile defense work "remains exempt from meaningful congressional oversight, there is every reason to expect that new projects will careen out of control and their handlers will fabricate evidence to keep them afloat" (Mitchell 23). Hopefully, there is also a third audience, including proponents and opponents of missile defense, whose members embrace government accountability, citizen empowerment, and democratic decision-making as important normative principles worth defending.

It is my hope that readers from this overlapping third audience will treat the story of strategic deception on missile defense accuracy in the Gulf War as a call to action. Given the durability of strategic deception as a staple of missile defense advocacy, it should be expected that we will see the patterns of argumentation analyzed in this piece resurfacing in future contexts. "Whatever path is taken now," suggests Romm, "history indicates that in the coming decades proposals for missile defense will re-emerge" (21). Like gullible and forgetful diners who keep ordering the mystery soup after a long series of unsavory surprises, will American citizens keep writing blank checks to bankroll such secret and exotic missile defense projects in the future?

If citizens choose to assume a more skeptical posture and insist on the importance of open public debate on missile defense matters, they will need to find ways of resisting the massive institutional inertia that has already gathered behind Patriot and other BMD systems. This is no easy task, especially because institutions have learned to utilize postmodernism as a rhetorical strategy, constructing hyperreal communicative spaces that facilitate top-down control of public discussion and anesthetize the citizenry with fantastically absorbing television images. An understanding of the ways that military officials employ hyperreality to bolster schemes of strategic deception in public argument is a crucial resource that can inform such projects of resistance. My analysis of the controversy over Patriot missile accuracy in the Gulf War is offered here as one example of how it is possible to explicate and challenge strategic deception on missile defense advocacy. It is hoped that there is value in this analysis as an exemplar of rhetorical criticism that is grounded in textual artifacts of public controversies, yet is aware of the complex semiotic destabilizations brought about by hyperreal experiences in the postmodern age.


(1) Donaldson used this term to describe a Patriot-Scud engagement over Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on January 26, 1991 (Ryan 9).

(2) Cheney made this statement in testimony to Congress on February 21, 1991 (15).

(3) Cooper made this statement in testimony to Congress on April 17, 1991 (613).

(4) In advancing a framework for understanding argumentation from a narrative perspective, Fisher developed the critical tools of "narrative coherence," i.e. how well a story hangs together, and "narrative fidelity," i.e. how well a story fits with external events (see Fisher). The concept of narrative fidelity is especially useful here to elucidate the synergistic connections between textual artifacts and contextual background phenomena such as video clips of high-tech weaponry working its magic on CNN.

(5) Ultimately, congressional investigations were performed by the General Accounting Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the House Committee on Government Oversight. In the latter hearings, Brig. Gen. Robert Drolet conceded under intense questioning that the military’s initial estimates of Patriot’s Gulf War accuracy were inflated. For further discussion, see section four of this essay.

(6) See Baudrillard, "Simulacrum," Simulations. The allegory which Baudrillard cites to exemplify the essence of the concepts of hyperreality and simulation is a Borges short story in which cartographers set out to make a map of their empire so accurate that it covers exactly the space of the mapped territory. In this instance, "simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreality" (Baudrillard, "Simulacrum" 166).

(7) The Nintendo aspects of the battlefield experience were heightened by the rapidity of the Iraqi retreat: "In some cases American GIs were alarmed that the collapse of the Iraqi front lines was proceeding at such a pace that they would not have the opportunity to ‘get into the fun’ of combat" (McBride 58).

(8) For example, in a Riyadh press conference on January 30, 1991, General Norman Schwartzkopf, commander-in-chief of the U.S. forces in Desert Storm announced that up to that point in the war, "of 33 [Scuds] engaged, there have been 33 destroyed" (qtd. in Conyers, "The Patriot Myth" 4). Testifying to Congress, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney stated on February 21, 1991, "Patriot missiles have demonstrated the technical efficacy and strategic importance of missile defense" (15).

(9) "... [T]he Patriot batteries in Saudi Arabia were displayed conspicuously to the press, the military’s version of the Potemkin village the Russian czars used to build to impress foreign visitors" (Gordon and Trainor 64).

(10) As former Reagan press aide Michael Deaver remarked during the war, "if you were going to hire a public relations firm to do the media relations for an international event, it couldn’t be done any better than this is being done" (qtd. in Naureckas 30). This sentiment was echoed by one SDI official, who said "[i]f someone had asked me to go out and execute an advertising campaign to get the point across to the American people and the rest of the world ... I could not have done it any better than the television has done" (qtd. in Reiss 187).

(11) A survey conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that of 878 on-air sources used by ABC, CBS and NBC in the first two weeks of the war, only one was a representative of a national peace organization. In contrast, seven players from the Super Bowl were interviewed for their perspective on the war (qtd. in Naureckas, 35).

(12) This strategy is reflective of a broader tendency of rhetors to graft bipolar Cold War categories of discourse onto contemporary political discussion, substituting outlaw "rogue" states for the menace of the Soviet Union in hostile argumentation (see Bjork; Pike, "Star Wars").

(13) Bush’s attempts to bend over backwards to discredit the legitimacy of the new Iraqi peace offer caused him to assume some curious rhetorical contortions. In an exchange with reporters, he said the members of the coalition rejected the offer "because there wasn’t anything new or significant" ("Exchange" 148). But in the address to Raytheon employees just an hour later, he stated that the peace offer was a "cruel hoax" because it contained significant new elements: "Saddam Hussein has added several new conditions" ("Remarks to Raytheon" 148).

(14) Because the Army only had three PAC-2 Patriot missiles in its inventory in the first week in August, a crash program was undertaken to increase production (see Gordon and Trainor 64).

(15) Postol et al. examined more than 140 video tapes, covering 31 Scud-Patriot engagements.

(16) The report cited by Postol, published in a Tel Aviv newspaper, stated that 13 uncontested Scuds damaged 2,698 apartments and injured 115 people while attacks involving 11 Scuds after Patriot was deployed damaged 7,778 apartments, wounded 168 and resulted in at least one death (see Hughes, "Success" 90). Because of the lack of official ground damage reports, Postol notes that there is uncertainty built into the damage assessments published in Israeli newspapers. Thus, "while it is not possible to draw any detailed conclusions from this data, it is clear that at this time there is no publicly available evidence to support claims that ground-damage and injuries in Israel were lowered as a consequence of Patriot defense operations" (Postol, "Lessons" 145). See also Conyers, "The Patriot Myth" 8-10.

(17) "All told, four Patriot missiles struck Israeli ground during the war. It turns out in those missiles the ‘safe and arm’ mechanism, which is responsible for self-destruct, was defective. The path of some of the Patriot missiles is clearly visible in ABC TV video recordings" (Pedatzur 120). "The number of Patriots that fell on defended territory causing direct casualties and extra damage has not been accurately counted, but one witness saw four Patriots hit Tel Aviv in one night" (Cockburn 17).

(18) This hypothesis is supported by the fact that "after only ten days of war, Israel reported that about 1,000 dwellings had been damaged in missile attacks and about four or five buildings would have to be demolished" (Morgan and Lardner A27).

(19) This was President Bush’s phrase used in the Raytheon address. See Bush, "Remarks to Raytheon" 148.

(20) As GAO investigator Richard Davis explained it during 1992 Congressional hearings on Patriot performance, "... this is the layman’s (sic) definition or explanation. When the Patriot system engages an incoming missile, the Scud in this particular case, it doesn’t run into it. It was a proximity-type explosion. When you saw the explosion on the television, CNN or whatever, you were probably seeing the Patriot exploding. And when the Patriot explodes, it displaces fragments, and these fragments are supposed to knock out the incoming missile ..." (98).

(21) "The Chief Engineer said that Patriot’s fuze can sense its target and detonate up to six times the required miss distance, resulting in an extremely low or no probability of kill. However, the system would still record a kill" (United States, GAO, "Operation Desert Storm: Data" 7).

(22) "For example, there were several instances in which Patriot operators reported destroying more Scud warheads than there were missiles launched" (Davis 78).

(23) "... the Army’s assessment of Patriot effectiveness relies heavily on human after-action reports" (Hildreth, "Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation" 27).

(24) As John Pike recently observed, "... as is well known, Patriot, rather than being virtually perfect, failed for precisely the reasons that critics of missile defense said that active defense was going to be leaky all along, mainly, it had a hard time dealing with the inadvertent countermeasures of tank fragments, and the software reliability proved to be a fatal flaw in the system. Unfortunately, there are an impressive array of institutional forces that are driving American policy in a direction of ignoring all of the true lessons that we should have learned from Operation Desert Storm" ("Star Wars").

(25) On the day that Raytheon announced inking of the $600 million Patriot deal to Taiwan, the company’s stock jumped 37.5 cents ("Raytheon Awarded" 2).

(26) Italy, The United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom have also expressed interest in Patriot after the Gulf War (Hughes, "Saudi Order" 38).

(27) It now appears that the Israeli government was aware of Patriot’s poor performance in the unfolding Gulf War, but kept their conclusions under wraps for fear that publication of such information would inflame hysteria among Israeli citizens (see Pedatzur).

(28) The term placebo is "the first person singular of the future indicative of the Latin verb placere ‘to please’" (Schonauer 78). In medical terms the placebo is defined as "a therapeutic procedure ... which is given deliberately to have an effect, or ... which unknowingly has an effect on a patient, symptom, disease, or syndrome, but which is objectively without specific activity for the condition being treated" (Shapiro, "A Historic" 57).

(29) Consistent with this hypothesis, some ethical theorists have posited that full public appreciation of the widespread use of deceptive placebos in medical treatment would result in a diminution of the effectiveness of all medical treatment, as public confidence in the medical establishment would decline (see Bok ; Cabot),

(30) "The Army’s claims of Patriot effectiveness in Desert Storm are classified, as is most of the material supporting its claims. This complicates debate over details" (Hildreth 25). "[T]he U.S. Army has thus far not declassified the best data in its possession, including its shot-by-shot assessments and the correlations of those assessments with damage reports. It would be extremely interesting to compare the reports of damage on a nightly basis to see whether more damage was produced on nights when the Army claimed Scuds were not intercepted than on those nights when it claimed success" (Feuerwerger 587).

(31) "We now know that the public and the Congress were misled by definitive statements of success issued by administration officials and representatives of Raytheon, the Patriot’s prime contractor, during and after the war. The high office of the individuals who made such statements, including President George Bush and General Norman Schwartzkopf, commander of the Desert Storm forces, added to these claims’ credibility and acceptance" (Conyers, Response to Letter 3).

(32) As Postol recounted, "[a] series of events following my April 1991 testimony and publication of my article in the Winter issue of International Security suggest that inappropriate attempts have been made to silence the debate over Patriot’s Gulf War performance. Among these events was an investigation by Defense Investigative Services (DIS) following an effort by the Army to classify my Winter 1991/92 article after its publication" ("Reply" 240). See also Weiner 1.

(33) The Army and Raytheon spurned the proposal by the American Physical Society to conduct an objective review (see Chandler, "Sorting" 27).

(34) As Representative John Conyers, chairperson of the House Committee on Government Operations, recounted efforts of Raytheon and GOP missile defense advocates to impede publication of the Committee’s final report evaluating Patriot’s Gulf War effectiveness, "Mr. Horton sought, in his own words, to ‘bury’ a Committee report on the performance of the Patriot missile. The Raytheon Company mounted a ferocious lobbying campaign against the report in the last few days of the 102nd Congress" (Response to Letter 29).

(35) This danger parallels the phenomenon of doctor "self deception" in placebo medical treatment. As one participant explained in a 1946 conference on placebo use, "[i]f deception is involved in the case of the pure placebo, it applies to only one person, namely the patient, for the physician knows that the agent is devoid of all but psychotherapeutic properties. But when we use [an impure placebo] there is the danger of deceiving two people ... The doctor may come to think that the agent has potency when, in fact, it has none. The danger is real" (qtd. in "Conferences" 1726).

(36) In the euphoric aftermath of the war, military hawks and defense contractors recognized "the opportunity to revive the political capital of a cold war arsenal" (McLauchlan and Hooks), and in the process reverse the tide of receding defense appropriations that had taken place since 1989. Based on the widespread accounts of technological triumph in Operation Desert Storm, "subsequent Pentagon procurement budgets invested heavily in these extremely costly weapons systems, with nearly $60 billion allocated to ‘smart bombs’ alone ... Procurement costs for weapons systems loaded with dazzling experimental technologies of untested reliability are a major factor in keeping defense budgets close to cold-war levels in a world where no other global superpower threatens American security in the way the Soviet Union used to" ("Get Smarter").

(37) The perceived effectiveness of Patriot’s Gulf War performance led to a groundswell of budget support for a variety of ground-based kinetic-kill missile defense systems such as Extended Range Intercept Technology (ERINT), THAAD, Arrow, Ground Based Interceptor (GBI), and Endoatmospheric/Exoatmospheric Interceptor (E2I) (Kiernan 80-82). "Practically every new antitactical missile program from Arrow to Extended Range Intercept Technology (ERINT) envisions Patriot as part of the overall architecture in terms of ground-based sensors and fire control systems" (Hughes, "Success" 90).

(38) As the GAO noted in their study of the effectiveness of so-called "smart" weapons in the Persian Gulf War: "The performance of aircraft and their munitions, cruise missiles, and other air campaign systems in Desert Storm continues to be relevant today as the basis for significant procurement and force sizing decisions. For example, the Department of Defense (DOD) Report on the Bottom-Up Review (BUR) explicitly cited the effectiveness of advanced weapons used in Desert Storm--including laser-guided bombs (LGBs) and stealth aircraft--as shaping the BUR recommendations on weapons procurement" (U.S. GAO, "Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation" 1).

(39) In addition to calling Patriot’s Gulf War accuracy into doubt, in 1996 the GAO filed a report that questioned the performance of virtually all the highly touted "smart weapons" deployed during the Gulf War. GAO investigators found that "smart bombs," which had been credited widely with facilitating the effectiveness of the air war, were not only used infrequently (less than 1/4 of the tonnage delivered by air), but when used, were often rendered ineffective by clouds, rain, fog, smoke, and high humidity. In the final assessment, only 8 percent of the delivered munitions tonnage was guided, but the cost of such weapons represented 84 percent of the total munitions cost. As the GAO researchers explained in the summary of their report, "Desert Storm demonstrated that many systems incorporating complex or advanced technologies require specific operating conditions to operate effectively. These conditions, however, were not consistently encountered in Desert Storm and cannot be assumed in future contingencies. Lastly, many of DOD’s and manufacturers’ postwar claims about weapon system performance--particularly the F-117, TLAM, and laser-guided bombs--were overstated, misleading, or inconsistent with the best data ..." (U.S. GAO, "Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation" 4-5).

(40) Some contended that Postol’s evidence was superior merely on the grounds that it was not classified. Daniel Fisher of Harvard University, member of an American Physical Society review panel which offered to provide an objective assessment of the controversy over Patriot’s Gulf War accuracy, said that the fact that Postol’s evidence was subjected to peer review warrants giving it more epistemic weight than Raytheon/Army evidence, which has not been subject to peer review because of its classified status (see Chandler, "No Letup" 28).




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