Propaganda and War
While colloquially the term propaganda often has negative connotations, in this paper it is not used as something inherently good or evil but as a “description of style, function and political content,” as Nicholas O’Shaughnessy put it.1 Literature used in this paper employ the term a similar way. Further, O’Shaughnessy states
Propaganda is viewed as a form of coercion without the appearance of coercion: its purpose is ‘the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour (sic) to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist’.2
Propaganda is an indispensable tool for opinion-building and decision making in our societies. Still, this obviously does not mean there is no such thing as evil or unethical propaganda. Based on research on a number of previous U.S. wars, David Altheide introduced the concept of War Programming, a sequence of activities that are being conducted for every new war in the same order.3 War Programming isn’t consciously conducted, but it describes recurring communication patterns during wars. The relationship between propaganda and the United States’ wars, especially recent wars, for example, is perhaps best explained within the concept of war programming.Notes
Summarizing the propaganda campaign leading to the Iraq War, Altheide writes: “[It] consisted of numerous messages about Iraq’s stockpile of WMD, Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorists, and the likelihood that terrorists would use such weapons against the United States.”4 Then he adds that it was also aided by not presenting some things to the public and management of information.5
Preparation of the audiences was conducted by inducing fear – fear was a “key aspect of the framing of the Iraq War.”6 Today it is common knowledge that even at the time there was little reason for anyone to fear what the media made people fear. Much like the weapons of mass destruction issue was used to prepare audiences for the Iraq war, this article aims to show the U.S. government picked up on the oppression of women to prepare audiences for the war in Afghanistan.
Propaganda and the War in Afghanistan
Generally, U.S. propaganda for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq finds a crucial moment in the 9/11 terror attacks. However, as Joanne Esch points out, it wasn’t really the terror attacks that laid the foundation for war.7 More importantly it was the response to the attacks and
the social willingness for that response, which was not an inevitable consequence of the attacks, [which] was made possible through a shared, mythologized understanding of the significance of 9/11.8
Propaganda broadcast to “provide significance and legitimize policy in the context of the ‘War on Terror’”, Esch argues, was rooted in myths.9 The primary myths she names in that context are American Exceptionalism and Civilization versus Barbarism. The former refers to the idea of the U.S. as a “chosen” nation with a “mission”, and in conducting this mission the nation represents the good in the world.10 Civilization vs. Barbarism is an outgrowth of this representation of good in the world, essentially favoring “cultural or civilizational explanations for conflict over political or economic ones.”11
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government lost no time framing the events accordingly. The same day President Bush referred to the attacks as “attacks on our country” and a “national tragedy,” emphasizing the national ownership of the tragedy.12 Even though the many victims of other nationalities were acknowledged, “official rhetoric overwhelmingly depicted Americans as a special, united people suffering a uniquely obscene tragedy.”13
Humanitarianism and Women’s Rights Enter the Picture
Less than one month after 9/11, U.S. and British forces started to attack targets in Afghanistan. As Fatima Ayub and Sari Kouvo point out, from the beginning the military intervention was “not constructed as a humanitarian intervention, but conceived as an act of self-defence”.14 This is an important distinction for two reasons primarily. First, it would have been inappropriate to describe it differently considering how closely the war was started after 9/11, and the Bush administration’s policy declarations and rhetoric up to that point which framed Afghanistan as a security threat rather than as a humanitarian problem. Second, the war was started with “no clear strategies for long-term stabilization, state-building or development,”15 indicating that little thought was spent on humanitarian efforts.
Even though the intervention was clearly not humanitarian and “precious little thought has been dedicated to actually addressing past and present violations and abuses of human rights and to promoting accountability,” U.S. propaganda embraced the language of humanitarianism.16
Roughly, the 7-step cycle of activities can be summarized as: reportage and visual reports on the previous war; an anticipation and preparation phase; the media coverage of the war; reflections on the war and its media coverage after its end. In the end the past war is seen negatively, but inevitably phase one starts again, and people forget the helpful lessons learned (D. Altheide and J. N. Grimes. War Programming: The Propaganda Project and the Iraq War. The Sociological Quarterly 46 (2005): 622).
Phase two, the anticipation and preparation phase, serves an important purpose that needs to be emphasized here: “preparing the audiences for the impending war.” In this phase the government and the media build up public support for the coming war with propagandist methods. Altheide has no doubt that, for example, the “planning and selling of the war with Iraq was a successful propaganda campaign.” He also posits that “the mass media play an integral part in the support of war (D. Altheide and J. N. Grimes. War Programming: The Propaganda Project and the Iraq War. The Sociological Quarterly 46 (2005): 636).”
1Nicholas O’Shaughnessy. “The Death and Life of Propaganda.” Journal of Public Affairs 9, no. 9999 (2010): 6.
3D. Altheide and J. N. Grimes. “War Programming: The Propaganda Project and the Iraq War.” The Sociological Quarterly 46 (2005): 622.
7Joanne Esch. „Legitimizing the ‘War on Terror’: Political Myth in Official-Level Rhetoric.” Political Psychology 31, no. 3 (2010): 365.
14F. Ayub and S. Kouvo. “Rightening the Course? Humanitarian Intervention, the War on Terror and the Future of Afghanistan.” International Affairs 84, no. 4 (2008): 641.
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