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Propaganda at War - Mass Media, Propaganda and Censorship

"Wartime propaganda attempts to make people adjust to abnormal conditions, and adapt their priorities and moral standards to accommodate the needs of war. To achieve this, propagandists have often represented warfare by using conventional visual codes already established in mass culture. Thus, recruitment posters have often been designed to look like advertisements or movie posters" (Clark 103).

You Write What You're Told, Micah Wright Mad magazine poster of Gulf Wars, Episode II

The integration of war propaganda into the texture of existing mass media and popular culture allows it to announce a new mobilization of society and troops against an enemy--real or imagined--without destabilizing the status quo too radically. In other words, propagandists have to convey the sense that they are still in control, even if a new enemy of the people has emerged. War propaganda seen through the lens of popluar culture such as movies, ads, and magazine articles makes "war seem familiar and at the same time [glamorizes] it by exploiting the habits of fantasy and desire generated by mass entertainment" (103)

Showing the human casualties of war are rare in pro-war propaganda, and for good reason: no one wants to be reminded of this cost while being recruited or cajoled into joining the war effort. "This filtering sought to create an impression that was positive enough to encourage further recruitment, while showing just enough of the soldiers' hardship to maintain commitment in the domestic war effort" (112). The depiction of human suffering during war has largely been reserved for anti-war campaigns.

Osama Bin Laden Wants You to Invade Iraq

Propaganda during war is usually carried out in conjunction with a comprehensive attempt to censor dissenting opinion. For example, during the Second World War, the U.S. public was bombarded with pro-war messages through posters, newsreels, and photographs in the press. "The newspapers and magazines were supplied with thousands of photographs from war correspondents and combat photographers, but before reaching the press these were vetted by a process of censorship which filtered out photographs of a wide variety of 'unsuitable' topics. It was this process which transformed the documentary evidence into propaganda" (111). It was widely regarded as the responsibility of the press to support the war effort "rather than report it accurately."

With the advent of television, war propaganda and reporting went through a considerable evolution from the Korean War, to Vietnam, to the Oil Wars in the Middle East. Many have claimed that the relative freedom of journalists to report on the Vietnam War turned public opinion against the administration of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Never again! Beginning with the Gulf War (1991), news coverage of international conflicts to domestic audiences was strictly censored and shaped by the military in a series of press conferences and news releases.Shock and Awe Means Mass Murder of Iraqi Civilians "Surgical bombing" and "collateral damage" were euphemisms describing tremendous infrastructure damage and dead civilians, and illustrated with remote aerial shots devoid of human casualties. During the War on Iraq, embedded journalists were required to report only what their military chaperones throught suitable, and any news stories or images broadcast on CNN--if not censored by the Pentagon--went through a rigorous process of "analysis." A new style of television coverage--"Happy Talk"--emerged during the Vietnam War to place the disturbing news of conflict into a convivial atmosphere of newsroom banter, pundit speculation, and bracketing stories about the weather, sports, or human interest. As Clark comments, "This style reduces any potential sense of critical disruption in social affairs by integrating disturbing pictures and information within a contrived atmosphere of normality" (117).

In 2003, this "rigorous censorship" is certainly true for most of the mainstream media, but--as the numerous links below demonstrate--the internet has become a rich repository for satirical and subversive alternate visions. With the US-UK campaign against Iraq, we are seeing a unique form of resistance: not so much on the streets as through the electronic networks of the internet. In an ironic twist, many of the anti-war posters and playing cards deconstruct the symbolic coding of previous war propaganda to convey another message, but which is still animated by a sense of patriotism. The question thus becomes, "Whose patriotism are we fighting for?" As Clark suggests, "[A] conception of national culture features as the symbolic territory defended in war" (103).

Total War

Man With a Purpose. Join the RCAF

As the first "total war," the First World War required the mobilization not just of armies but of whole populations to become active in the war effort. As well as convincing those on the home front of the necessity of war, a different kind of propaganda was directed at the enemy, often through leaflets and newspaper articles: "Those who can be reached by paper can also be reached by bombs" (115). Eventually, radio became a powerful propaganda medium because it ignored national borders (much like the internet). "Tokyo Rose" was a team of twelve women whose broadcasts on Japanese radio were intended to make American troops homesick and lonely. However, during WWI the newsreel (developed by Charles Pathé in France) was one of the most successful media in mobilizing public opinion: "Because the newsreel's coming of age coincided with the outbreak of war, the link between movie news and propaganda was firmly established from the outset" (104). The mixture of visual realism and blatant mythologizing in many WWI propaganda newsreels by the British, Russians, and Germans was a genuine cinematic innovation that would later evolve into the WW II "documentaries" of John Grierson at the National Film Board of Canada.

British propaganda during WW I set a new benchmark that inspired the fascist and socialist regimes during the 1930s and 40s, and essentially gave birth to the public relations industry in the United States after 1919. It was clear that large numbers of civilians could be mobilized for a massive war effort through persuasive techniques derived from the emerging disciplines of behavioral psychology and social sciences. In turn, techniques "developed by the one-party regimes of the Third Reich, fascist Italy and the Soviet Union, where projects of social engineering had become a part of daily life, were readily borrowed by propagandists in the democratic nations" (105). We see the result of this trade in persuasion in the "image-conscious politics of the television age" (105).

Canadian Red Cross Poster

Posters using a direct address to the audience (Your Country Needs You, UK, 1914; I Want You for the U.S. Army, 1917) reposition the citizen spectator as a person who has responsibilities and duties to the state. These images command our attention by finger-pointing, direct gaze, and an authoritarian father figure. It seems symbolic that this Canadian Red Cross poster substitutes the male authority figure with a woman, but the direct address and soulful gaze exert the same pressures on the individual citizen to cooperate voluntarily with the war effort.

The Double-Edged Sword of Wartime Propaganda

Images of women and children established the connection between national security and homes, between duty to country and duty to family. Many of these images trade on the stereotype of masculinity as protective and aggressive, while femininity is passive and in need of defence. In other contexts, however, women signify the nuturing mother willing to contribute her sons to the war effort, or work in the factories. "Such images may also seek to exploit the maternal authority over young men (many young recruits would still be living with their parents). Here a notion of the motherland blends national and filial duties, as well as representing the family as the underlying force of stability in troubled times" (108). As Clark points out, posters showing women in the factories had to tread a fine line between traditional and modern roles for women. One technique was to enhance the femininity of women as factory workers and encode the notion that this levelling of social hierarchies was temporary, "for the duration."

The National Security Agency resurrects the loose lips sink ships campaign and others like it in a new series of posters instructing military and security agency personnel to be especially careful with important military data.

In the classic war propaganda campaigns of the 20th C., women as victims of rape often symbolize the brutality of the enemy as well as the despoiling of the motherland's culture and harmony. Ironically, however, women are sometimes portrayed as potential traitors or unwitting accomplices by virtue of their supposed tendency to gossip. Through this cultural stereotyping, an atmosphere of suspicion is created and domestic surveillance becomes embedded into the national consciousness as one of the justified costs of war.

"It is estimated that approximately 300,000 Africans were killed in the First World War." Just as the recruitment of women into the war effort had to equivocate to maintain traditional social relations, encouraging people of colour to rally to the defense of the state must negotiate the delicate balance between patriotism abroad and exploitation at home, or in the colony. Propaganda designed to recruit people of colour--or demonize the enemy--tends to remind the victims of racial policies of their oppression. In Canada, this dynamic was most evident in the resistance of French-Canadians to being recruited into a war to save the British Empire.


Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial generated considerable controversy because it refuses to celebrate the causes of war, and instead provides a place of grief, contemplation, and self-reflection. "Like an anti-monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial creates an alternative to the didactic monologue articulated by traditional built symbols of national identity. A general decline in the tradition of the political public monument reflects a wider dissolution of the idea that "the public" is a unitary category coterminous with "the people" in a national sense" (121). The propaganda campaigns of the 20th C., especially those concerning war, have contributed to a growing understanding that the people are not always the same as the nation, and that history is contested territory.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Maya Lin

As the proliferation of anti-war propaganda on the internet demonstrates, the propaganda campaigns of the 20th C. have had some unintended consequences in raising the consciousness of citizens regarding their sense of duty to the state. Increasing awareness of gender roles and human rights, of the state's ability to shape messages, of the instability of history as a record of events--all eventually become foregrounded by propaganda. As new media like the internet emerge and the methods of propagandists begin to leak into the mainstream, it is predictable that new methods of censorship and control will emerge in times of crisis. Without censorship and the exploitation of mass media, the propaganda of war faces a hard sell. In the meantime, do you want to play a game of Oh Hell with my new deck of Operation Iraqi Freedom Action Cards?

Propaganda at War Links

Help Me Find and Kill Terrorist Agitators, Micah Wright

Parody and Anti-War Posters

War Posters and Propaganda

I Want Out

Hey! They're Bombing Us. Micah Wright

Political Posters

Canadian War Posters