Powerful Images, Images of Power

If I go just a little bit wider, I'm sure my boot will fit...

If I go just a little bit wider, I'm sure my boot will fit...

What are the most memorable images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? The “crucifix” picture from Abu Ghraib? Bush standing in front of the “Mission Accomplished” banner, aviator’s codpiece recently removed? Or maybe the image we weren’t supposed to see: flag-draped coffins sitting in rows of three on board a transport plane? coffins

The first wasn’t created as propaganda, though it certainly became that for anti-American forces in the Muslim world. The second was propaganda of a sort, but its creators never realized with what ironic venom it would come back to bite its subject in the ass. And the last, when it emerged, served as a sort of propaganda for those who opposed the Iraq war – or at least the secrecy surrounding it.

Two of those images were mentioned the other night by Victor Margolin, as he introduced a talk on Axis and Allied propaganda during World War II. Margolin has a background in design and film and is the editor of Propaganda: The Art of Persuasion. Margolin’s presentation at Columbia College focused on the visual propaganda of WWII. In general, he argued, the iconic propaganda of the past, with a few powerful, defining images, doesn’t have a modern equal since television and the Internet have replaced posters as the main method of distributing propaganda.

Propaganda the word tends to have negative connotations. I think a lot of folks see it as a synonym for lies, and we don’t like to think our governments are manipulating us through false words and image. But propaganda simply aims to create a desired attitude or action in a particular audience and can be based on fact, though heavily tinged with emotion. The Allies used it to good effect during the war (I suppose the Nazis did too, from their perspective). Wartime messages exhorted folks at the home front to work hard and not talk about military actions. The propaganda also demonized the enemy, recalling real atrocities but also falling back on ethnic/racial stereotypes, especially with the Japanese.

An image Margolin used

An image Margolin used

Margolin presented examples of propaganda posters, as well as newspaper cartoons and a few images from Disney shorts. Oh yeah, everybody got into the act, including Bugs Bunny and Dr. Seuss. On the German side, the propaganda started long before the war. Back in Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote about the value of propaganda, and he used it through the 30s to promote his calls for Aryan dominance and anti-Semitic views. Margolin showed a few stills from the classic propaganda film Triumph of the Will and examples of the German’s flair for the theatrical at their rallies – the power of art to create horror as easily as it captures beauty or stirs profound thoughts.

Interestingly, both sides turned to masters of persuasion to create their propaganda posters: advertising artists and writers. In retrospect, it seems creepy that anti-Semitism was sold just like soap or cereal, and patriotism became just another commodity. With the latter, I suppose that’s still true today.

And maybe one he should have...

And maybe one he should have...

With his examples, Margolin left out, to my mind, the two most famous U.S. propaganda images: Rosie the Riveter saying “We Can Do It” and the “Lose Lips Sink Ships” campaign (though he did have variations on that). And no “Buy War Bonds.” What was interesting, though, was seeing propaganda from the other countries on both sides. The British use understated cartoons to suggest people should not talk about sensitive war information. The Russians harkened back to their stirring defeat of Napoleon in 1812. The Japanese dropped leaflets to Australian troops suggesting that Americans were screwing their wives back in Australia while the Aussies fought in New Guinea.

What, no "Rotsa Ruck" faux Japanese?

What, no "Rotsa Ruck" faux Japanese?

The presentation led me to a few thoughts: We like to think of WWII as the last “good” war for our side – clear-cut evil enemy and clear-cut victory. Yet I’m always struck by two things from the war that the country took some time to address – the internment of tens of thousands of innocent U.S. citizens who happened to be Japanese, and the segregation of the armed forces.

Goosebumps, I tell ya

Goosebumps, I tell ya

I also remembered a class on film propaganda I took in college. We saw Triumph of the Will and some of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. We also watched Casablanca. Yes, of course the love story is there, but when you look for it, you can see the film as brilliant wartime propaganda: Rick, the isolationist American, drawn in to help the Allies because it’s the right thing to do. The Germans are suitably evil, and the French are…well, French. But I gotta tell you, I can’t watch the scene in the bar, when everyone  starts to sing “La Marseillaise,” without breaking into goose bumps.

That was one of Margolin’s points too: not all propaganda comes from the government. I suppose that was made clear after 9/11 when news channels were trying to out-Americanize each other with flags and such in their graphics. Yeah, we might not have posters getting out the message, but the propaganda is still there. Today, though, I think we have lost our innocence about the righteousness of all the messages we are fed. At least I hope so.


~ by mburgan on February 6, 2009.

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