Academic journal article Independent Review

Why We Fight: A Study of U.S. Government War-Making Propaganda

Academic journal article Independent Review

Why We Fight: A Study of U.S. Government War-Making Propaganda

Article excerpt

Propaganda in Support of War

In this paper, we examine the extent to which officials within the U.S. government employ propaganda to influence the American public's opinion regarding going to war. We begin with a definition of propaganda as "the deliberate attempt to persuade people to think and behave in a desired war (Taylor 1995, 6, emphasis in original), to which we add, "using means that involve either selective information or outright deception." We concentrate primarily on the public statements or actions of the president, secretary of defense, and high-ranking members of the military, though we also allow for the products of various other agencies insofar as they relate to foreign policy.

In wartime, the U.S. government might engage in legitimate propaganda to influence the behavior of foreign people and governments. Such propaganda may attempt to convince the members of opposing armies to give up or to encourage citizens of belligerent governments to press their governments to end the war. (1) However, our focus in this paper is on propaganda intended to mislead Americans. Our main finding is that in the three wars we examine, the U.S. government has systematically misinformed Americans about various aspects of the war, all with the goal of persuading them to support the initiation or conduct of the war or both. A reasonable case can be made that in all three instances the misinformation caused Americans to be more supportive of the war than the)' would otherwise have been.

Politicians leverage an information asymmetry when they engage in propaganda. We seek to identify characteristics of scenarios in which such asymmetries are more likely to exist and citizens are more susceptible to propaganda.

Scholars, military science theorists, and career officers who attend the armed services' staff colleges routinely cite the "will of the American people" as the strategic center of gravity for U.S. conflicts during the period after World War II (Schmader 1993; Von Wald 1995; Kasupski 2000; Upchurch 2009; Boylan 2015). (2) General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2001 to 2004, stated, "The will of the American people to carry on the war on terror prevents the enemy from meeting its objective; it is the enemy's center of gravity" (quoted in Garamone 2006). According to U.S. military doctrine, a belligerent's center of gravity is "the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act" (U.S. Department of Defense 2002, 29; see also Clausewitz 2009, 144). Thus, in those instances when the will of the people is one's own center of gravity, for a military intervention to succeed the national will must be protected from attack or subversion. For example, because the U.S. government enjoyed massive technological superiority against North Vietnam, one reason the intervention there ended in strategic failure may have been that the American public simply lost its will to support the fight (Gelb 1972; Mandelbaum 1982; Summers 1995). An important lesson that political leaders and some military leaders seem to have drawn from the Vietnam experience is that they need to cultivate the public's willingness to fight and then jealously protect that willingness from harm.

For example, General Creighton Abrams was chief of staff of the army immediately following the Vietnam War and oversaw the enormous reorganization of the army's active and reserve elements. He purposely placed a large proportion of necessary combat power in the reserves in order to ensure that "they're not taking us to war again without calling up the reserves" (quoted in Sorley 1991,45). A member of his staff confirmed that "General Abrams hoped this would correct one of the major deficiencies of the American involvement in the Vietnam War--the commitment of the army to sustained combat without explicit support of the American people as expressed by their representatives in Congress" (quoted in Sorley 1991, 46). …

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