Propaganda in War Reporting on the U.S. War in Iraq

By: David Vidal


The word “propaganda” comes from the Vatican.  The phrase “congregatio de propaganda fide” (The congregation for the propagation of the faith) was used to support the catholic faith in response to the Protestant Reformation (Labash, 20 Dec, 2001).  Propaganda is everywhere and has been around for a long time.  Every newspaper, magazine, news channel, radio station, advertisement, or any other types of mass media contain elements of propaganda.  Propaganda is often given a negative connotation due to its history of power and control; as in the Hitler’s regime, but in reality the definition is very simple.  According to Webster’s College Dictionary, propaganda is “information or ideas methodically spread to promote or injure a cause, movement, nation etc, and the deliberate spread of such information or ideas”.  Whether the reader of a media source agrees or disagrees with the content, the purpose of the media is to convey one way to look at a particular situation or idea.

            Sometimes, propaganda results in no important change on the reader’s ideals or morals, like the coverage of a popular new restaurant.  The topic does not have much effect because it is not powerful enough to significantly change a society.  The light heartedness of the topic blinds a person to the fact that they are still reading a source of propaganda making people not realize how common propaganda truly is.  More powerful events, however, such as propaganda in the media coverage of a war can having a lasting effect on an individual and may result in changing the way society views the war.  Propaganda’s influence on public opinion can be the difference between winning and loosing a war.  In his book “munitions of the Mind,” Dr. Philip Taylor explained the significance of propaganda in war media coverage.  “Propaganda itself is neither sinister nor evil.  It is really no more than the organization of methods designed to persuade people to think and behave in a certain way, and in wartime that usually means getting them to fight or to support the fight” (Labash, 20 Dec, 2001).  Wartime propaganda is so important that it can often be used as a weapon because of the power that comes with public support.  The ability to win public support can be just as important as the ability to fight the war.



Wartime propaganda has been a major influence in many, if not all, of the major wars.  One of the first known uses of war propaganda was by Alexander the Great.  After being forced to retreat in a battle Alexander the Great realized that it would be a disadvantage to show he was weak and had to retreat.  He overcame this problem by using propaganda to intimidate the opposing army.  Alexander’s army made oversized armor and helmets and left them behind as they retreated.  His intent was that the opposing army would be intimidated and not pursue his army because the oversized armor made Alexander’s army look like giants (Labash, 20 Dec, 2001).

Another occurrence of wartime propaganda occurred in Vietnam where Americans would kidnap and blindfold Vietnamese fisherman.  Then the Americans would take them to an island and tell them that it was part of a resistance group called “The Sacred Sword of the Patriot League.”  The fishermen were then returned back to the main land where they would spread rumors of the fake resistance group.  The result was the Vietnamese concentrating their efforts to destroy a nonexistent group (Labash, 20 Dec, 2001).

One of the most well-known propaganda experts in war history was Adolf Hitler.  Hitler’s use of war propaganda resulted in convincing his country of the National Socialism ideals, which ultimately resulted in the Holocaust and the extermination of Jews.  In 1945 Hitler wrote a political statement describing his dislike of the Jewish people and asking that after his death people continue to stay strong in their beliefs.  “It is untrue that I or anyone else in Germany wanted war in 1939. It was wanted and provoked solely by international statesmen either of Jewish origin or working for Jewish interests.”  Hitler finished off his political testament stating “Above all, I enjoin the government and the people to uphold the race laws to the limit and to resist mercilessly the prisoner of all nations, international Jewry” (Hitler, 1945).  Hitler’s use of propaganda in spreading his beliefs of National Socialism and his dislike of the Jews resulted in the support of the his army and country and the breakout of World War II.  Propaganda posters, such as the one below, were all around Germany.  The text in the poster below says "Führer, we will follow you” and was used to gain support of the German people.


In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler dedicated an entire section to the discussion of war propaganda.  He described the purpose of war propaganda was to support Germany in the war and bring help bring victory.  Hitler had the power to use propaganda as a tool that he could use for the control of the masses.  His use of propaganda caused a movement against the Jewish people, which eventually led to the holocaust and the extermination of millions of Jewish people.  Hitler described his idea of propaganda in his autobiography Mein Kampf:

“The function of propaganda is, for example, not to weigh and ponder the rights of different people, but exclusively to emphasize the one right which it has set out to argue for. Its task is not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favors the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly” (Hitler, chap V1).

            Propaganda was so important to Hitler and Hitler’s effort that he assigned a man named Dr. Joseph Goebbels to the official position of “National Propaganda Leader”.  In a collection of writings from 1939 to 1942 Hanz Schwarz Von Beck described Dr. Goebbels a very good speaker and journalist who continually updated the people on the state of the war making light of the mistakes of the enemy and the power of Germany (Beck 1).  When asked about propaganda Dr. Goebbels answered "Propaganda? Certainly! Good propaganda for a good cause!" We make propaganda not in the pay of forces or men in the background; rather we make propaganda for our own honest convictions. We advertise for our own ideal, and therefore we fight using all good means to make good propaganda to win the soul of our people" (Fritzsche, 1934).  Dr. Goebbels perceived propaganda as an honest tool, which brings the people together for their country. 

Dr. Goebbel, with his speaking skills and power, was able to convince Germany of Hitler’s National Socialism and he was looked upon as a leader of the country.  Eugen Hadamovsky, a German radio announcer described Dr. Goebbels as a German hero.  "Under the brilliant leadership of Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the master of political propaganda, the neglected weapon of German politics became a creative art” (Fritzsche, 1934).  With the support that Dr. Goebbels had from the media it is no surprise that his use of propaganda lead to changing Germany’s view of the Jewish people.


            Dr. Goebbels did not stop at just promoting National Socialism, he continued his successful propaganda campaign during the war effort in order to keep the government support from the German people.  In a 1939 article given to the German people Dr. Goebbels gave a response to the criticisms that the Americans were giving the Germans.  It was propaganda articles like this that blinded the German people to the eventual destruction that resulted from National Socialism.  In his article Dr. Goebbels wrote:

“The American press takes particular pleasure in criticizing Germany on grounds of humanitarianism, civilization, human rights and culture. It has every right to do so. Its humanity is shown by lynchings. Its civilization is shown in economic and political scandals that stink to high heaven. Its human rights are displayed by eleven or twelve million unemployed, who apparently chose to be so. And its culture exists only because it is always borrowing from the older European nations. Such a nation is certainly justified in sneering at ancient Europe, whose nations and peoples looked back on centuries, even millennia of cultural achievements even before America was discovered.

The American press replies to our complaints by saying that they have nothing against Germany, only against National Socialism. That is a poor excuse. National Socialism today is Germany's guiding political idea and worldview. The entire German nation affirms it. To criticize National Socialism today therefore means to criticize the entire German nation” (Goebbels, 1939).

            Propaganda has been used in wars throughout history and will continue to be a major tool in the future struggles.  Without all the facts propaganda articles like Dr. Goebbels anti-American article can turn an entire country against another.  Today, propaganda is seen in a different light because of the increased mobility of the media.  The media is now embedded directly in the combat of the war giving the people a near first hand view of what is happening.



            Today, in the war on Iraq, propaganda is more apparent then ever due to the number of media sources embedded in the war.  More than 600 Journalists are in military units reporting on the progress of the war (Maass, 20 Mar, 2003).  Peter Maass wrote an article for the New Republic magazine describing a set-up event where almost 100 journalists filmed British tanks rolling up in a V formation and soldiers running to attack.  The purpose of the media event was to “bolster support back home” however Maass couldn’t help but see right through the V formation “money shot” and look at the event as propaganda (Maass, 20 Mar, 2003).  After the event Maass spoke with Colonel Chris Vernon, the spokesman for the British military, who stated, “We’re showing what we’ve got, and we would like the message to get out to the people and to the regime of Iraq” (Maass, 20 Mar, 2003).  This planned out event to effects Iraq’s government is propaganda at its best.

            Another obvious example of propaganda in the war on Iraq is the United State’s dropping of leaflets and radio broadcasts all over Iraq.  These leaflets and broadcasts put blame on Saddam for the suffering of the people of Iraq.  They also tell people not to fight, to go home, and not to attack the coalition forces.  The propaganda has the purpose of minimizing casualties.  Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, explained that one problem is that the people of Iraq don’t trust the U.S. and that they "blame the U.S. as much for their suffering in the past 10 years as they do Saddam" (Tyson, 30 Jan, 2003).  The use of propaganda is very complicated.  The people of Iraq have propaganda messages coming from all different sources making it difficult to know which one is correct.  The effort to collectively change peoples opinions is not an easy game and comes down to a psychological war as much as a war of fighting.


            Another aspect of war propaganda in Iraq that complicates the war is the media’s reporting.  Media sources, like CNN, have grown to so influential on public opinion that they can force the different parties at war to focus on certain issues by raising public awareness of the issue.  This has become to be known as “the CNN effect” (Maass, 20 Mar, 2003).  Governments can’t ignore issues that the public has strong opinions about.  With the media now imbedded in the war and getting real time footage, the government can’t tell the media what the government wants the people to focus on.  The media choosing an event to focus on can change public opinion and force governments to do something about it.  As Colonel Chris Vernon put it, “ War is not just tanks and armor.  It’s also psychological.  Hearts and minds.  The other guy’s move is affected by what he sees happening or thinks is happening.  I think the American defense secretary has a very good understanding of it.  He has read the books.  He said warfare is psychological.  Spot on.  Not many politicians get that” (Mass, 20 Mar, 2003).

            With all of the propaganda and psychological aspects involved in a war it is sometimes hard to believe what we read in the mass media.  Walt Whitman once wrote “the real war will never get in the books” (Lears, 28 Aug, 2002).  Whitman’s statement makes one wonder what is the “real” war and does anyone have knowledge of the real war?  Certainly everyone must have some bias due to the plethora of media information out there taking one side or another.  Most of the media sources we read have a natural and, one could argue, unavoidable bias.  For example the media embedded in the troops in Iraq have probably gone through a survival course by the U.S. army, and because they are traveling with U.S. troops the troops are protecting them, feeding them and living with them.  Peter Maas, after witnessing the British tank propaganda event, wrote “the coup de grace to our withering claim of neutrality—with the prospect of selected outlets being given privileged and controlled access so they can participate in a deadly game of psychological warfare aimed at toppling an enemy regime, the case for journalistic independence is becoming awfully difficult to sustain” (Maass, 20 Mar, 2003).

            The use of propaganda also exists within a government or regime.  Recently the historian Zachary Shore published a study describing the terror within Hitler’s regime.  Officials within the regime used propaganda when conveying information up the chain of command.  Information would only pass on if it would impress Hitler.  This had a negative effect on Hitler, because he would not see the whole picture of the war (Greene, 25 Mar, 2003).  The same may be true for Saddam’s regime.  Saddam’s regime, like Hitler’s, also terrifies people under him.  Many Iraq people have been killed and many of those were close to Saddam for example Saddam’s son, Uday, shot Saddam’s half brother Watban and killed Watban’s son (Greene, 25 Mar, 2003).  The terror throughout the regime could result in uses of propaganda to make higher officials happy to avoid getting killed.  This hurts the regime because information may not be accurately passed on to Saddam himself.



            Often the media claims that the purpose of the media is to offer a non-biased view of current events.  This is nearly impossible to achieve because every bit of writing takes some angle on an issue.  Johann Galtung, a professor of peace studies, is studying how the media plays a role in the violence and misery around the world.  He focused on some of the things that media sources do that causes them to take one side or another which often results in convincing the public of the same view.  Galtung laid out 12 of the main things that the media does wrong when reporting violence.  When reading media sources about the war in Iraq it is easy to pick out these flaws for example the third point on the list “Manicheanisms” is everywhere in U.S. mass media including the above pamphlet dropped over Iraq.  Saddam is looked upon as the “evil” dictator while the U.S. is coming in to free Iraq from the evil.

l. “Decontextualizing violence:  focusing on the irrational without looking at the reasons for unresolved conflicts and polarization.

2. Dualism:  reducing the number of parties in a conflict to two, when often more are involved. Stories that just focus on internal developments often ignore such outside or "external" forces as foreign governments and transnational companies.

3. Manicheanism:  portraying one side as good and demonizing the other as "evil."

4. Armageddon:  presenting violence as inevitable, omitting alternatives.

5. Focusing on individual acts of violence while avoiding structural causes, like poverty, government neglect and military or police repression.

6. Confusion:  focusing only on the conflict arena (i.e., the battlefield or location of violent incidents) but not on the forces and factors that influence the violence.

7. Excluding and omitting the bereaved, thus never explaining why there are acts of revenge and spirals of violence.

8. Failure to explore the causes of escalation and the impact of media coverage itself.

9. Failure to explore the goals of outside interventionists, especially big powers.

l0. Failure to explore peace proposals and offer images of peaceful outcomes.

11. Confusing cease-fires and negotiations with actual peace.

12. Omitting reconciliation:  conflicts tend to reemerge if attention is not paid to efforts to heal fractured societies. When news about attempts to resolve conflicts are absent, fatalism is reinforced. That can help engender even more violence, when people have no images or information about possible peaceful outcomes and the promise of healing.”

                                                (source: Schechter, 18 July, 2001)


The mistakes of the media often change the public opinion of the people of the U.S.  It is interesting to look back to the beginning of the war on Iraq and realize that the original reason that the U.S. went to war was for the protection of the U.S.  The U.S. government and the U.S. media reported that we were going to War because of the threat of biological weapons being produced in Iraq.  Noam Chomsky, a famous linguistics professor at MIT, explained to frontline magazine “Now if people genuinely believe that Iraq has carried out major terrorist attacks against the United States and is planning to do so again, people will support the war. “It is a truly spectacular achievement of propaganda” (Kennedy, 17 April, 2003).  The focus in the media, however, changed after the war started.  Eventually the war became an effort to free Iraq. 

In 1997 a group of journalists, students, and media experts got together and discussed issues journalism.   Included in their writings was an outline of how the media prepares the country for war.  The media first prepares the country by bring up issues of poverty and dictatorship such as the case with Saddam.  In the “justification stage” the media calls for urgency such as in the case of protecting the U.S. from the Iraq biological weapons.  The implementation stage is similar to the control that the media has over the public view of the war on Iraq, and the aftermath is already being portrayed by the media starting to not focus on the war as much as in the beginning.

“The Preliminary Stage - during which the country concerned comes to the news, portrayed as a cause for "mounting concern" because of poverty/dictatorship/anarchy;

The Justification Stage - during which big news is produced to lend urgency to the case for armed intervention to bring about a rapid restitution of "normality";

The Implementation Stage - when pooling and censorship provide control of coverage;

The Aftermath - during which normality is portrayed as returning to the region, before it once again drops down the news agenda.”

                                                (Source: The Peace Journalism Option, 1997)


            Adolf Hitler once stated “all that matters is propaganda” (Labash, 20 Dec, 2001).  This may not have been state literally but when it comes down to it if someone can control public opinion then they have all the power.  A government cannot have power if it does not have the support of the public.  In order to gain support of the public propaganda is used to promote the government and the ideals behind it.  The issues concerning propaganda are complex and numerous but it is known that propaganda can be one of the main weapons used in psychological warfare and can significantly affect the outcome of a war.  Propaganda can influence people to believe a certain ideology whether that ideology is right or wrong.  Hopefully future uses of propaganda will serve to limit fighting and be used to avoid wars rather than starting wars and promote hate as in Hitler’s regime.












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