The Propaganda of War

“Anyone who has ever looked into the glazed eyes of a dying solider on the battlefield will think hard before starting a war.” — Otto Von Bismarck, first chancellor of Germany, 1867

We have to keep asking. There has to be an answer. Why is it so easy to fool the majority of humankind into war? Why is it that facts can be so clear, history so painfully capable of predicting the inevitable outcome, and so many still buy it?

As a nation, as a world, we watched as Gaza was blown apart. More than 2,000 innocent people (many of them children or elderly) were killed, and an area the size of a mid-sized American city was devastated. Put knee-jerk political ideology aside and ask yourself: Were the “official” reasons for this invasion any different from the decades-old reasoning we’ve heard before — over and over? Did death and destruction work then? Do they work now?

And how did this narrative play out in the western world? Did the suffering of innocents resonate enough to challenge the now masterfully branded talking point: Israel has a right to defend itself?

What about the atrocities in Saudi Arabia, where reporting on two dozen beheadings barely made it to the back pages? The same goes for the news about scores who died at the hands of warring factions in Iraq. Somalia. Nigeria. And on and on.

The list is long. The pain and suffering are deep.

But the United States and its allies are not systematically bombing across the globe to stamp out terrorism and keep the western world safe from those Islamic extremists.

Only Syria and Iraq, the country America destroyed not long ago under the same guise, have earned that intervention.

And why? What justification did our leaders make?

It was the beheadings of American journalists that our leaders used to persuade a previously disengaged public that Islamic State should be attacked. After all, bombings were good — and beheadings were bad.

They were so good at propagandizing this moment that support grew, virtually overnight, and President Barack Obama got his green light to bomb in Syria.

Unique to here and now?

Briefly, as we were analyzing these unfolding events and asking how the public could so easily be fooled back into war, it felt as though we were in a unique time in history. After all, this is the Data Age: The ability to challenge our leaders’ avowals with facts is merely a few keystrokes away.

Not so. How little things have changed. How easy it is to catch an unsuspecting public with its collective guard down and propagandize it into war. How easy it is to repackage failed reasoning.

Mark Twain wrote, in 1916: “… the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.”

Albert Einstein, also pained over the prospect of blindly going to war, wrote: “…senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name patriotism — how passionately I hate them! How vile and despicable war seems to me! I would rather be hacked to pieces than take part in such an abominable business.”

We could go on. The list of great minds reflecting on the thinly veiled reasons for going to war that are so easily gobbled up by the public is long indeed. But their wisdom was no match for the power of war propaganda — knavery as old as the earliest battles.

Those in power controlled the messaging then as they do now. A precious few have always decided which portraits, descriptions and images of what war looks and feels like we get to see.

This more subtle propaganda shows, without us having to give much thought, who are the good guys are and who are the bad.


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