Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda from the Philippines to Iraq

Article excerpt

* Why America Fights: Patriotism and War Propaganda From the Philippines to Iraq. Susan A. Brewer. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009. 352 pp. $29.95 hbk.

Susan Brewer's book on the press during wartime is a worthy companion to Philip Knightley's classic 1975 The First Casualty, wliich showed that the media willingly and even gratefully swallow wartime propaganda from their own side. Likewise, Brewer shows this wartime propaganda in the making. As in sausagemaking and lawmaking, citizen consumers don't really want to know how their government's propaganda is made. To make sure they don't, government propagandists keep the "fog of war" particularly dense on the home front. Brewer shows how the United States has used increasingly sophisticated propaganda techniques in six wars to bolster public support even as the reasons for fighting the wars often became less and less clear.

This book's ties to Knightley's book are clear. Brewer's introduction starts with the same quotation from U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson in 1917: "The first casualty when war comes is truth." But Brewer goes much deeper with impressive research (forty-six pages of notes, bibliography, and primary sources), strong organization, and clear writing. Brewer, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, has an earlier book examining British propaganda in the United States during World War ?. Tltis book is a strong addition to the literature.

Brewer's argument is clear: In wartime, citizens cannot trust the government. She supports this premise with many examples of evasions, exaggerations, omissions, and lies from U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Government officials get so skilled at this subterfuge that they themselves believe what they are saying in the face of contradicting reality. When challenged, one official replied, "We create our own reality."

Brewer's most important accomplishment is to show how wartime administrations do create new realities to bolster national spirit through propaganda. The goal of wartime propaganda is, of course, not to inform but to persuade. In America's wars, Brewer says, the goal is to persuade the public that, "America's global ambitions and democratic tradition are one and the same."

As she points out, good slogans (the basic currency of advertising, branding and propaganda) help - "To make the world safe for democracy," and "To lead the free world." America's war against Filipinos fighting for independence was a "Divine Mission" to "bring Christian civilization to our little brown brothers," President William McKinley explained. Good images are vital, too. World War I posters put General John "Black Jack" Pershing on a horse to lead the "Crusade" against Germany. A World War II poster has American troops accompanied by ghostly images of Revolutionary soldiers from Valley Forge. White House public relations people put President George W. Bush on an aircraft carrier under a "Mission Accomplished" banner, as his Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, talked openly about government's role in "perception management" during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The book's paper jacket, a World War II poster, shows Uncle Sam standing tall with a six-shooter firmly strapped to his hip.

Brewer begins each chapter with two quotations, one from a government source and one from a critic who disbelieves, doubts, or just admits he does not know what is going on. …