War propaganda fuses international and domestic processes in communicating one or more nations as the “Other,” as worthy en masse of death and mutilation. During the twentieth century, as examples from Britain, Germany, and the US indicate, domestic as well as international media propaganda became essential for planning and engaging effectively in combat against other countries. In World War I, governments employed verbal and visual strategies that effectively influenced mass public opinion in favor of war. Since then, technological media developments and advances in communication design have been employed to promote positive attitudes toward war, albeit with varying effectiveness. Terms such as Spublic diplomacy, media campaign, information management, “stagecraft,” spin, and even “militainment” have also been deployed to characterize everevolving propaganda strategies. War propaganda to boost “Us” and dehumanize “Them” is also, however, the target of ongoing public scrutiny and challenge.
Language, The Uses Of History, And The Unavoidability Of Violence
Over the decades, even in the face of significant public opposition, elected officials and military planners have called for and waged war. Convincing the public that war is necessary, that all diplomatic means have been exhausted, and that the call to military action justifies the inevitable loss of life in its wake requires well-planned media campaigns. And during war, problems with battlefield logistics, military misconduct, and casualty figures can all corrode what has been referred to since World War I as “home-front morale.”
Wartime rhetoric includes linguistic and visual strategies that either obscure the human costs or present the loss of human life as acceptable. Phrases such as “smart bombs” assure that only military targets will be destroyed; the identification of images of dead and wounded civilians as “enemy propaganda” denies their reality; and “collateral damage” presents human destruction as a legitimate and inevitable by-product.
When historical frameworks are used to shape news of war, certain war events may be turned, very questionably, into transferable reference points, yet others may stay untouched, almost untouchable. Many US news media equated the 9/11 terrorist attacks with the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack that drove the US into World War II. Historical references to the danger of appeasing Hitler (in the renowned 1938 Munich summit) placed Afghanistan, Iraq, even Iran, within the context of the “Good Fight” of World War II. Yet during the build-up to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, no mention was made in US news media of the standard brutalities of actual military interventions, to well-documented massacres by US troops such as No Gun Ri in the Korean War and My Lai in the Vietnam War, or to the fact the US was forced to withdraw from Vietnam.
War rhetoric nurtures fear and hatred, rendering reasoned discussion less compelling. Society generally punishes unlawful violent behavior, so that mobilizing collective hatred of an enemy requires blocking out peacetime inhibitions. In promoting state-sanctioned violence the enemy’s actions must be defined as so far outside the bounds of tolerance that negotiation is absurd. War must appear to be the only defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. The demonized enemy is no longer recognizably human, and can be killed with impunity. Such narratives of exclusion provide the necessary psychopolitical context for war.
World War I And The Birth Of Modern War Propaganda
The cognitive, linguistic, and visual communication strategies that fueled World War I were designed in a variety of ways. In conjunction with censorship, the repetition of carefully designed messages helped fuel the public’s fear and hatred, and to drag out the conflict over four years, with many millions of dead and maimed.
The linguistic and conceptual devices used almost a century ago are still recognizable today. Ambiguity must be eliminated, replaced by definitive assertions. The world is divided between “our civilized way of life” and “their barbarism.” A simple binary of good and evil facilitates mass consensus. War propaganda asserts that conflict is caused by the inherent evil of the enemy, not by historical injustices, failed diplomacy, competition for economic resources, or global inequities.
During World War I, stories of the brutality of the German “Hun” predominated in Britain and France. Official documents featured atrocity narratives of malevolent German soldiers carting away young women and bayoneting babies. Posters selling war bonds and recruiting troops, first in the UK and then in the US, depicted German soldiers as brutes, with ape-like stature, often hunched over the defenseless and innocent victims who lay at their feet. The visceral fury evoked by this sub-human, club-wielding image became indispensable in overcoming much of the public’s strong resistance to war.
In the years between World Wars I and II, many researchers became interested in the nature of information, as opposed to propaganda. As Europe lay devastated in the wake of a death toll of 8 million, the values of skepticism and independent thought were rearticulated. American scholars and many in the media industries were troubled by propaganda’s efficacy. Even some of its practitioners would later question its damaging legacy for the democratic process.
War propaganda, some proposed, challenges the foundations of democratic governance by substituting government secrecy, and the repetition of officially sanctioned points of view, for accurate information and uninhibited public dialogue. Under these discursive controls, citizens cannot freely determine their own policies. If a public could be so uniformly swayed, held under a totalizing atmosphere, convinced to accept a conflict that most were privately convinced should stop, how could democracy remain a historical force for good? How would governments be kept accountable?
As these debates continued, the Third Reich emerged from the ashes of World War I. The Nazis now became the masters of war propaganda, evident in films such as Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. Her film depicted a God-like Hitler descending from the heavens, and images of mass enthusiasm for authoritarian rule at the Nuremberg rallies. The 1939 invasion of Poland was shown in Nazi documentary film as justified by provocations to the then German population of Poland and by the genetic inferiority of Slavs, and was to have concluded in a mere three weeks with tiny loss of German lives. War propaganda facilitated the acquiescence of the German population in Hitler’s regime. In the US meanwhile, the experience of World War I made the public skeptical about backing another war, so that there propaganda creation became institutionalized in the US military (and continued to evolve with each new war).
New War Propaganda Formats: “Militainment,” Stagecraft, And Video Games
Recently a hybrid format that blurs the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, referred to as “militainment,” has been employed by the US media and military to represent war. Militainment and “stagecraft” are attempts to control the meanings of war through fictional formatting, information management, and media choreography.
After September 11, 2001, Pentagon officials met with Hollywood producers and directors and requested they join the fight against terrorism. They collaborated on such films as Behind Enemy Lines, a story validating unilateral US military action, and ABC’s Profiles from the Front Lines, a “reality show” about the Afghanistan war. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer made Profiles for ABC’s entertainment division with full US military cooperation, even while news reporters were denied independent battlefield access. Media coverage of Iraq’s invasion was largely foreshadowed by Profiles. Iraq also became the first war to be televised in real time with embedded journalists providing live video-phone dispatches. These compelling images featured brave soldiers fighting, but almost no images of death, injury, or bereavement.
By the twenty-first century, the defining moments in the reporting of war in the US were increasingly stage-managed by Pentagon and White House public relations professionals. A leading illustration was when President George W. Bush declared an end to “major combat operations” in Iraq. Dressed in a military flight suit in a fighter jet cockpit, the president landed on aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, and in front of a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” announced the Iraq invasion over.
The White House said the jet fighter was necessary because the carrier was too far out to sea to be reached by helicopter. In fact, a few columnists and alternative news sources reported that the ship was so close to land that it had to be turned around to prevent television cameras from catching the San Diego coastline in the background. More importantly, the invasion of Iraq only began a long and devastating occupation.
Newer technologies also tie the media industries to the Pentagon in what has been called by a number of scholars the “military–entertainment complex.” During the 1990s, new-media designers joined with US Department of Defense engineers to trade expertise in cutting-edge digital technologies. These multipurpose protocols have been used to create news graphics and video games, are used as components of military weaponry, and are also key training and recruiting tools. On July 4, 2002, America’s Army, the first video game created by the military, was offered free to download off the Internet. Players are positioned as first-person shooters, and after basic training, the advanced “marksmanship” was so realistic that the computer screen moved in time to the digital soldier’s breathing under fire. The online actors were patterned after the actions of real soldiers. “From a propaganda perspective the Army has seemingly hit the jackpot. (And the Army readily admits the games are a propaganda device)” (Morris 2002).
The ongoing merger between the entertainment industry and the military, together with the use of sophisticated media stagecraft by the government, has raised serious issues for the media’s wartime role. People rely on news media to report war’s impact, but the shift to turning war into entertainment may well lessen their ability to feel alarm, or compassion for those who die in wars carried out in their name.
War Propaganda Under Scrutiny
There are countless examples, however, of opposition to war propaganda over the past century and beyond. Two twenty-first-century US examples follow. Patrick Tillman, an iconic football player who had enlisted in the US Army after the 9/11 massacres, was a 2004 “friendly fire” victim in Afghanistan. The army, however, claimed Tillman was killed by enemy gunfire as he strove to help some ambushed soldiers, and awarded him a Silver Star. Only an agonizingly slow army investigation finally revealed that military officials had systematically misled Tillman’s family and the public.
Private Jessica Lynch, injured and briefly separated from her unit, was helped back to safety by Iraqi medical personnel. Military press releases claimed that on capture, she fought bravely but was shot and stabbed by enemy forces, and was only saved by a crack commando unit storming the hospital. Mainstream US media trumpeted the daring raid, but a BBC report concluded the rescue had been staged, with the green night-footage produced by the military’s own combat camera. The BBC noted the raid’s fictional aspects, and the influence of both reality and action movies, not least Jerry Bruckheimer’s Profiles.
In both cases, the military fabricated exciting stories at difficult points during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to garner public support for war. The stories illustrate the ways in which fictional narratives are now embedded within military practice, as the representations of war become central to war itself. But the cases also illustrate increasing public awareness of propaganda strategies. US Representative Henry Waxman’s 2007 Congressional hearing, entitled “Misleading Information on the Battlefield,” invited Jessica Lynch and Kevin Tillman, Patrick Tillman’s brother, to provide evidence to legislators investigating the reach of Pentagon information management. Their critical testimonies drew considerable mainstream media attention.
As researchers, First Amendment scholars, Congressional investigators, and journalists probe the war propaganda strategies employed during the early years of the twenty-first century, more will be understood about the trend to merge military and media operations. While perception management and conflict operations have become more closely united, the loss of public support for the American war in Iraq shows the limits of even the most powerful propaganda. It remains to be seen whether the US public, or other publics in similar situations, will benefit from media support to help remember the painful counternarratives of constructing the Other before belligerencies are allowed to begin; and further, to understand that while entertainment and fictions facilitate the prosecution of war, they offer no exit strategy from the bitter realities of escalating violence.
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- Boggs, C., & Pollard T. (2006). The Hollywood war machine: U.S. militarism and popular culture. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
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- Lasswell, H. D. (1927). Propaganda techniques in the World War. New York: Keagan, Paul, Trench.
- Morris, C. (2002). Your tax dollars at play. At http://money.cnn.com/2002/05/31/commentary/ game_over/column_gaming. Accessed September 28, 2007.
- Rampton, S., & Stauber, J. (2006). The best war ever: Lies, damned lies, and the mess in Iraq. New York: Penguin.
- Solomon, N. (2005). War made easy: How presidents and pundits keep spinning us to death. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.
- Sproule, J. M. (1997). Propaganda and democracy: The American experience of media and mass persuasion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.