War Propaganda Essay

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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 ‘public diplomacy,’ media campaign, information management, ‘stagecraft,’ spin, and even ‘militainment’ have also been deployed to characterize ever-evolving propaganda strategies.

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 Historical references to the danger of appeasing Hitler (in the infamous 1938 Munich summit) placed Afghanistan, Iraq, even Iran, within the context of the ‘Good Fight’ of World War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 psycho-political context for war.

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. The Third Reich, emerged from the ashes of World War I, brought new and even more effective forms of war propaganda to live.

New hybrid formats blur the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction; the latter, referred to as ‘militainment,’ being 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 9/11, 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.


  1. Andersen, R. (2006). A century of media, a century of war. New York: Peter Lang.
  2. Brewer, S. (2011). Why America fights: Patriotism and war propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Knightly, P. (2002). The first casualty: The war correspondent as hero and myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  4. Lasswell, H. D. (1927). Propaganda techniques in the World War. London: Keagan, Paul, Trench.
  5. Rampton, S. & Stauber, J. (2006). The best war ever: Lies, damned lies, and the mess in Iraq. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  6. Welch, D. & Fox, J. (eds.) (2012). Justifying war: Propaganda, politics and the modern age. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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