Use of Propaganda in the Iraq War

When most people think about propaganda, they think about the enormous public relations campaigns that were waged by Hitler and Stalin in the 1930’s. Since nothing comparable to the posters produced at that time is used in our society today, many believe

propaganda is no longer an issue. Although other modern-day mediums are used, propaganda is still present and equally effective in our everyday lives as we are currently deep into the War in Iraq. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis suggests that propaganda has six techniques that are used to strategically warp the thoughts of the American public about the widespread nature of the often political issue at hand. The use of these techniques is evident in the propaganda of World War I, World War II and in the propaganda of today’s War in Iraq. In this paper, I will show the effectiveness of these six techniques through examples of propaganda used in the world wars of our past and the war of which we are currently involved.

The first technique used in propaganda is the idea of name-calling. The name-calling technique links a person, or idea, to a negative symbol (Propaganda Critic Online, name calling). The propagandist who uses this technique hopes that the audience will reject the person or the idea on the basis of the negative symbol, instead looking at the available evidence. Some of the most obvious types of name-calling that is used involve bad names. Some examples of these names include the terms Commie, Fascist, Pig, Yuppie, Bum, Queer and Terrorist. A more subtle form of name-calling that often possesses a negative emotional charge is names that involve carefully selected words or phrases. Those who oppose budget cuts may characterize fiscally conservative politicians as “stingy.” Supporters might prefer to describe them as “thrifty.” Both words refer to the same behavior, but they have very different connotations.

One example of the name-calling technique is the WWI propaganda poster titled Destroy This Mad Brute. The poster, one of most vicious and hate-filled posters of WWI, depicts a German soldier as a “long fanged, open mouthed primate striding onto America’s shores” cradling a white woman (Ross, 251). Another adjective could have been used to describe the German soldier, but the word brute was strategically used. The word brute means somebody who is very cruel, ruthless or insensitive (Websters Dictionary). It can also mean an animal other than a human. The image with the text instills urgency and the need to fight to destroy these ruthless animals that are carrying away our helpless women. The negative connotation is effective in fulfilling the objective of the poster and getting men to enlist in the US Army.

The second technique in propaganda is the idea of glittering generalities. Glittering generalities are very dangerous when used in propaganda, because they mean different things to different people and they can be used in different ways (Propaganda Critic Online, glittering generalities). This is not a criticism of these words, as we understand them. It is a criticism of the uses to which propagandists put the cherished words and beliefs of unsuspecting people. For example, when someone talks about democracy, we immediately think of our own definite ideas about democracy. We think about the ideas that we learned at home, at school and in church. Our first and natural reaction is to assume that the speaker is using the word in our context and that he believes as we do on this subject. This in turn lowers our ‘sales resistance’ and makes us far less suspicious than we ought to be when the speaker begins telling us the things ‘ the United States must do to preserve democracy’ (Snow, 124). The glittering generality is, in short, name-calling in reverse. While name-calling seeks to make us form a judgment to reject and condemn without examining the evidence, the glittering generality device seeks to make us approve and accept without examining the evidence. While we become familiar with the glittering generality device it is important for the viewer of the propaganda to keep in mind what was said about the name calling technique.

An excellent example of this technique can be seen in the poster titled End Global Terror. The poster was created in 2001 soon after 9/11 and suddenly we found ourselves taken back in time to the age of the propaganda posters. Different people can interpret the text on the poster in different ways. With all of the events surrounding 9/11, the context of the word ‘terror’ was changing with every event that was occurring. Previous experiences of ‘terror’ that someone from the 1940’s experienced with WWII would lead to a different idea of the word then someone from my generation who really hasn’t seen a war first hand. The generality of the word ‘global’ again implies that different people will have different perceptions of the word. What part of the globe would one consider? Were some Americans so narrow minded to initially think only of America with the term? If you lost someone in the attacks of 9/11, does your depiction of the world ‘global’ change? Considering the previous questions, the poster could have been depicted by many different people with many different perceptions of the text used in the poster.

The third technique is the use of euphemisms. When propagandists use glittering generalities and name-calling symbols, they are attempting to arouse their audience with vivid, emotionally suggestive words. In certain situations, however, the propagandist attempts to pacify the audience in order to make “unpleasant reality more pleasant and acceptable” (Propaganda Critic Online, euphemisms). This is often accomplished by using words that are bland and euphemistic. Since war is particularly unpleasant, military communication is full of euphemisms. In the 1940’s, America changed the name of the War Department to the Department of Defense. Under the Reagan Administration, the MX-Missile was renamed “The Peacekeeper.” During times of war words like “collateral damage” and “liquidation” were used instead of “murder.” All of the changes and synonyms that area used make the impression of the war more pleasant for the audience. The term “shell shocked” was used to describe the trauma that the veterans of WWI and the term “combat fatigue” was later used in WWII to characterize the same condition. Both terms convey the horrors of battle as one can practically hear the shells exploding overhead. Both descriptions also still convey the discomforts of war. In the wake of the Vietnam War, people referred to “post traumatic stress disorder”: a phrase that is completely disconnected from the reality of war altogether.

Another current poster that is powerful and a great example of a euphemism has an image of a dead Iraqi civilian with text saying, “5000 ‘Liberated’… and counting”. The word ‘liberated’ is used to characterize the United States actions in Iraq as our army is over seas to unshackle the Iraqis from their controlling government. In our actions to ‘liberate’ thousands of civilians are being killed. Through this poster the word “liberate” is seen as equivalent to death.

The fourth technique is the use of the transfer device. Within the transfer device, symbols are constantly used. The cross represents the Christian Church. The flag represents the nation. Cartoons like Uncle Sam represent a consensus of public opinion. Symbols like these often stir the emotions of the audience. The transfer device is used both for and against causes and ideas. When a political activist closes her speech with a public prayer, she is attempting to transfer religious prestige to the ideas that she is advocating (Snow, 247). The point that is made about the transfer device is that an idea or program that is linked to such topics as Medicine, Science, Democracy, or Christianity should not be accepted or simply rejected because the topics are often credible.

A poster from WWII used the patriotic symbol of the American flag to remind citizens of their obligation to the nation and to promote unity between races during the war. With the American flag in the background, two men, one black and one white, are working on an airplane. As they work together to fix the plane for the use in the war, as the poster states, ‘United We Win.’ Although there were still strong negative feelings against blacks at the time, the American flag in the poster had the ability to calm and encourage races to work together for the good of the war. The flag was effective in transferring its patriotic symbol to Americans being Americans, joined by the stars and stripes of fabric not separated by color of skin.

The fifth technique is the idea of the bandwagon. With the aid of all the other propaganda devices, the artifices of flattery are used to harness the fears and hatreds, prejudices and biases, convictions and ideals common to a group (Propaganda Critic, bandwagon). With this said, emotion that is felt is made to push and pull us as members of a group onto a bandwagon. The basic theme of the bandwagon appeal is the common “everyone else is doing it, and so should you” theme. However, as the IPA points out, “there is never quite as much of a rush to climb onto the bandwagon as the propagandist tries to make up think there is” (Propaganda Critic).

The best example of the bandwagon technique can be seen in the famous Rosie the Riveter propaganda posters. During WWII women were recruited to work in the manufacturing plants, which produced munitions and material because the men who typically would work those jobs were fighting in the war (Gavine, 129). Rosie is now considered a feminist icon in the US and a herald of women’s economic power to come. In a workman’s shirt and her hair pulled back by a red bandanna, Rosie is ready to work. With her arm at an angle and then text coming from her mouth, “we can do it!” she can be depicted as either showing her strength encouraging women to join in the work force. Because of the strong character that Rosie was, she made it easy for women to break the traditional norms of society at the time and work for their men in the factories.
The sixth and final technique is the use of fear.

When a propagandist warns members of her audience that disaster will result if they do not follow a particular course of action, they are using the fear appeal. By playing on the audience’s deep-seated fears, practitioners of this technique hope to redirect attention away from the qualities of a particular proposal and toward steps that can be taken to reduce the fear (Propaganda Critic, fear). There are four elements to a successful fear appeal. The steps being a threat, a specific recommendation about how the audience should behave, audience perception that the recommendation will be effective in addressing the threat, and audience perception that they are capable of performing the recommended behavior. When fear appeals do not include all four elements, they are likely to fail. In contemporary politics, the fear-appeal continues to be widespread and used often.

Adolf Hitler was a master in effective use of the fear technique. Hitler used this tactic often to rally the emotions of the German people to support his Arian-dominant belief system and denigrate other races and religions. Through the use of fear he was able to persuade Nazi Germany and its collaborators to murder approximately six million Jews (Propaganda Critic, Hitler). The holocaust would not have been possible without Hitler’s use of the fear technique in his propaganda campaigns.

“The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might, and the Republic is in danger. Yes – danger from within and without. We need law and order! Without it our nation cannot survive.” – Adolf Hitler, 1932

Since the end of the World War II, social psychologists and communication scholars have been conducting empirical studies in order to learn more about the effectiveness of fear appeals (Propaganda Critic, appeals of fear). Some have criticized the conceptualization of the studies, and others have found fault with the experimental methods. The general conclusions, however, are worth considering, if not accepting. Fear appeals are more likely to succeed in changing behavior if they contain specific recommendations for reducing the threat that the audience believes are both effective and doable. Hitler’s speeches to Nazi Germans did just that. His words were strong and persuasive with the specific recommendation that reducing the threat of Jews was to kill them.

Propaganda is a certain type of message presentation directly aimed at manipulating the opinions or behavior of people, rather than impartially providing information. The six techniques discussed in this paper have been shown to be effective across many generations. The analysis of the use of propaganda in World War I, World War II and the War in Iraq has helped to illustrate the use of these six techniques and their relative effectiveness to accomplish the users’ objectives. A review of these specific techniques and new understanding of the effectiveness of the propaganda, illustrates the power of propaganda to manipulate the feelings, sentiments and beliefs of the target audience.

Braybon, Gail. Women Workers in the First World War. New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981.

Gavin, Lettie. American Women in World War 1: They also served. Colorado: University press of Colorado, 1997.

Propaganda Critic. Ed. Institute For Propaganda Analysis. 1998. 24 November. 2006

Propaganda. Ed. Wikipedia: The Free Encylopedia. 2006. 3 December. 2006

Ross, Stewart Halsey. Propaganda for War: How the United States Was Conditioned to Fight the Great War of 1914-1918. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc, 1996.

Smith, Angela K. The Second Battle Field: Women, Modernism, and the First World War. New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc, 1988.

Snow, Nancy. Selling America’s Culture to the World. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.
Rosie the Riveter. Ed. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 2006. 3 December. 2006

Websters Dictionary Online. Defination of brute. 2006. 5 December. 2006.