Calvin College began its War Awareness Week on Monday with a lecture by Communications professor Randall Bytwerk. Some may know Bytwek as the primary person behind an excellent online resource of Nazi and East German propaganda known as the German Propaganda Archive.
Bytwerk began his talk by making the claim that it is surprisingly easy to get people to support war. He said it was particularly easy before modern means of communications, since country leaders rarely had to convince the public on the necessity of war. This has changed in the past hundred years with the advent of radio, TV, the Internet, video, and cell phones. Propaganda comes into play when leaders have to figure out ways to persuade the public to go to war.
The speaker said this is always easier if a country is attacked, but sometimes the belief that a country is being attacked isn’t always clear. Bytwerk gave the example of how the Germans claimed that Poland started WWII and even staged an attack by having German soldiers dress up as Polish troops. He also gave the example of what is called the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, where the US claimed the North Vietnamese attacked one of its naval ships. With the Gulf of Tonkin, Bytwerk said it wasn’t so clear as to what happened, even though declassified US government documents make it pretty clear that this was a fabricated incident used by the Johnson administration in order to escalate the US military campaign in Southeast Asia. The speaker also mentioned the WMD rationale for the US invasion of Iraq, but provided no examples or sources to support his claim.
Professor Bytwerk exclusively used media examples from World War II to support his position on the use of war propaganda. He began by showing part of the Frank Capra series “Why We Fight.” Bytwek said that part of what made that series so effective was its ability to demonize the enemy. Next, he showed a clip from Nazi propaganda on the demonizing of Jews in a German newsreel. Bytwerk stated that what the US was doing during WWII was almost on a par with what the Nazis were doing. He supported this claim by showing an example of a cartoon that aired on US television that demonized the Japanese. Cartoons like this are just one example of how much media was produced in the US that depicted the Japanese in negative ways. In fact, the racist depiction of Japanese was much more dramatic than the depictions of Germans, a point that often gets overlooked in discussions about WWII.
Another technique of war propaganda is to present your country as absolutely right, which quite often means that God is always on “our side.” The speaker said that when things went well for the Germans early on, they didn’t need to emphasize their “rightness,” but when the Germans invaded Russia the war got bogged down. It was at this point that the Nazis began producing more media that showed the importance of the need to keep fighting. He used an example from Nazi propaganda that showed the Germans bombing military targets, while the US and British military bombs German civilians. Bytwerk says the Allied forces did the same thing during WWII and showed the audience a clip from a British film called “Mrs. Miniver.” This movie was about British families who lost loved ones during WWII. The film’s most powerful scene is at a funeral of British civilians killed by the Nazis and the minister proclaims from the pulpit, “all Brits are fighting the war, a war for freedom.” Bytwerk said that Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels raved about this film and used it as a model for effective propaganda.
Next, the speaker looked at what countries do when they are not winning the war. He said they would say things like “If we lose, things will be worse.” The Nazis during the end of the war started showing news footage of dead Germans with the narrator saying this is the result of “Roosevelt’s Christian soldiers.” The more contemporary example is the argument, “if we don’t stop the terrorists over there, we will have another 9/11 here.”
Professor Bytwerk concluded by stating that he wished he had a solution to dealing with war propaganda, but suggested that the other speakers this week would probably provide some answers. The question and answer session was short, but focused exclusively on what is currently happening in the US, particularly with the US government’s use of propaganda in leading the country into war against Iraq. Bytwerk kind of defended the US news media for their role in not questioning the government’s point of view and said that the public needs to seek out other perspectives and sources of information.
Mediamouse.org asked him about his thoughts on the responsibility of US media in holding the government accountable or even demanding that they seek out other sources of information so that the public can make a more informed decision about such critical issues as war. His response again was somewhat in defense of the news media and individual journalists, as he said they need to think about “job security.”
This kind of a response omits the fact that there has been a significant investigation into the role of the news media as it relates to the US war in Iraq. The Center for Public Integrity documented the 935 false claims made by US officials in the months leading up to the war in a report titled “Iraq: The War Card.” The Center for Media and Democracy has also documented how the Pentagon recruited former Generals to be “experts” on network media, and even in the Grand Rapids media. Moreover, the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) has conducted several investigations into TV and newspaper reporting on the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, finding that the media often echoes to the government’s position.