Winning Hearts and Minds – The Art Of Propaganda Is As Old As War Itself

Paul Revere’s famous 1770 engraving of the so-called Boston Massacre was more fiction than fact, but the image helped build support for rebellion five years later.

An all out ground war in Gaza seems inevitable in the coming days following a week’s worth of punitive air strikes against Palestinians by Israeli aircraft. The raids are a response to a surge of Hamas rocket attacks on civilian areas inside Israel in recent days. As the IDF masses troops on the edge of Gaza for a possible ground assault, both factions are already waging war in an all-too-familiar 21st Century theatre of operations – the realm of public opinion. Hamas and Israel each understand the importance of the news media in modern warfare and both are taking to the airwaves to win the hearts and minds of the international community. While these sorts of propaganda offensives are a common feature of warfare in the Information Age, spin and PR are hardly new. In fact, propaganda is nearly as old as war itself. Here are some examples.

Ancient Spin
One of the earliest references to what we now call propaganda comes to use from Ancient India. The political treatise known as the Arthashastra was written in the 4th Century BCE as a sort of handbook on statesmanship by the scribe Chanakya (aka Kautilya), a senior minister in the Maurya Empire. Within its pages lie all sorts of advice for a ruler on, among other things, how to wage a “silent war” or Gudayuddha against an opponent. Tactics discussed include using both spies and diplomats to willfully spread misinformation and false rumours about an opposing ruler among other royalty, government officials or entire populations. Phony messengers could also be sent to an enemy camp bearing details of fictitious defeats, surrenders or civil wars on the home front — all intended to demoralize an opposing general’s troops. [1] Rumours suggesting the enemy commander is in fact a traitor, withholding supplies from the men or a coward could sow discord or even mutiny. The book also recommends using positive rumours (albeit bogus ones) to lift the spirit of one’s own soldiers. Hearsay floated on the eve of battle embellishing or fabricating a victory on a distant front, or even the death of an enemy general might compel the rank and file to fight harder. [2]

Caesar’s Historic Fiction
The Romans also knew the military and political value of a good news story. Julius Caesar’s famous Commentaries are the general and future ruler of Rome’s supposedly ‘fair and balanced’ coverage of his wars in Gaul, as well as the invasions of Britain and Germany. While the stated objective of the Commentaries was  to provide a written record of the various campaigns, it was also intended to bolster the conqueror’s image among ordinary Romans as a heroic figure worthy of rule. To that end, the ambitious would-be ruler penned the entire book in Latin, the language of the masses, rather than the customary Greek, which was used for most scholarly works of the day. [3] Caesar even wrote the eight volumes in the third person to lend credibility to the prose while dispelling any impression that the entire work might somehow be self–serving. The sequel to the Commentaries was Caesar’s self-aggrandizing account of his part in the civil war that pitted him against Pompey Magnus for control of the republic. It would be useful in winning support for his regime. Later rulers of Rome would borrow a page from Caesar and employ the media of the day to shape the public’s perception of reality. When in the 2nd Century, the emperor Trajan wanted to justify his war of aggression and extermination against the wealthy Dacian civilization in modern-day southeastern Europe, he supposedly had the artists who carved the monument depict Rome’s enemies in the worst possible light. According to the Terry Jones’ 2006 book Barbarians, rather than portraying the Dacians as the peaceable, non-threatening and even culturally advanced people that they were, Trajan’s column makes them out to be treacherous savages well-deserving of a punitive military expedition at the hands of the Roman Legions. In fact, the official Roman line on the Dacians remained unchallenged throughout history until modern archeologists discovered evidence to the contrary.

Spain’s loss to England in 1588 was an unmitigated defeat, yet spin doctors for King Phillip II would widely report the encounter as a victory for the Armada.

Hearts and Minds (and Souls)
The 16th Century Spanish, like Trajan, were keen to paint their adversaries in England as the enemies of civilization itself. Continually on the look out for ways to win political support throughout Europe for their war against Elizabeth I, King Phillip II had his diplomats continually spin the struggle in Spain’s favour by exaggerating any of his force’s victories, while minimizing any suggestion of English success. Even after the Armada was scattered and all but destroyed in 1588, the Spanish monarch pulled out all the stops to portray his utter defeat as a victory for the Catholic cause. Sir Walter Raleigh couldn’t contain his disgust at this re-writing of history. [It’s] no marvel that the Spaniards should seek by false and slanderous pamphlets, advisories and letters to cover their own loss,” he wrote. “[They published] in sundry languages in print, great victories in words, which they pleaded to have obtained against this realm, and spread the same in a most false sort over all parts of France, Italy, and elsewhere.” [4] To be fair, Phillip wasn’t doing anything other defenders of the faith weren’t doing already. In fact, the term ‘propaganda’ itself comes from this era. In fact, to win hearts and minds during the Protestant Reformation, the Church itself founded it’s own College of Propaganda expressly for the propagation of the faith. [5]

Jane McCrae was a Tory sympathizer who likely died from an American bullet, but Patriot propagandists created the image of the 25 year old as a victim of British and native depravity.

Patriot Games
Britain found itself again on the losing side of the war for public opinion two centuries later, this time in the years leading up to and during the American War of Independence. When on the night of March 5, 1770 a small group of British troops panicked and fired into a hostile mob of Bostonians killing five, the Patriot “media” ran with the story, depicting it as slaughter of innocents at the hands of colonial oppressors. The Sons of Liberty deftly leveraged the fiasco, using it to help fan the flames of rebellion. Later, in the second year of the war, the Continentals would make use of another tragedy to further their cause yet again. When the 25-year-old daughter of a New York settler, Jane McCrea, was supposedly murdered by tribal warriors attached to the army of British general John Burgoyne, American propagandists made full use of the incident to paint the red coats and their native allies as bloodthirsty brutes. [6] The story was told and retold. Popular variations of the tale splashed across contemporary news sheets suggested that McCrae was just one of scores of colonists murdered by warriors that day, while others lamented that the young woman was as beautiful as Helen of Troy and as virtuous as St. Augustine of Hippo. In reality, a contemporary who knew McCrea described her as “an honest country girl” with neither “great beauty nor accomplishments”. It also was reveled later that McCrae was actually from a Tory family and that it was likely that the young woman was actually felled by an American scout’s musket ball, not a native’s tomahawk. [7] None of that mattered, for at the time, the Patriots had an innocent martyr.

The Bulgarian Martyresses, a famous painting that enflamed Russian public opinion against the Turks.

Sex Sells
Lessons like these weren’t lost on the British. In the following century, imperialists, traders and politicians eager to extend their reach throughout the world would concoct all manner of tales involving lurid depredations committed against whites at the hands of dark skinned savages. Most often, these stories were planted to arouse public support at home for foreign wars of conquest. Fleet Street was only too happy to print the outrageous allegations, which were eagerly received by the masses. True or not, they made for exciting reading. One popular species of fabrication was that of “war rape”. In one such story, Sepoys rebelling against their masters of the East India Company supposedly set upon 47 teenaged and pre-adolescent English girls in Delhi raping them mercilessly. The tall tale, which was later condemned as an utter falsehood, was dutifully reported in 1857 by The Times of London. [8] The story helped excite support for the heavy-handed suppression of the Indian Mutiny. Twenty years later, Russian propagandists would use similar stories to foment moral outrage against the Ottoman Empire. Tales of Turkish troops ravaging Bulgarian women would build support within Russia for a war of conquest. The famous painting, The Bulgarian Martyresses immortalized these atrocities and helped justify Russia’s designs on swaths of the Ottoman Empire.[9]

By the 20th Century, the emergence of the mass and electronic media would create the over arching need for governments to hone and perfect the art of propaganda and public relations. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and the United States, among others, all became experts at tailoring messages to sway public opinion. All would employ permanent standing armies of spin doctors and public affairs officers. Today propaganda is ever-present in our media-saturated environment, leveraged by corporations, advocacy groups and governments as well as militaries and even terrorists. For these latter two in particular, the airwaves have become just another battlefield on which to fight – with the press release and the sound byte becoming just as potent weapons as the artillery shell or the guided missile.

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2 comments for “Winning Hearts and Minds – The Art Of Propaganda Is As Old As War Itself

  1. 20 November, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Another interesting peek into history and war… The “Patriot Games” write up caused me to reflect in the conceptual truth you describe. The Jessica Lynch story…as well as the sad end for another soldier KIA by friendly fire. I am not alluding to either story as to being right or wrong…but without such propaganda, perhaps the outcome of WWII may have been different. By 1945, Americans themselves were growing tired of the costs of world war.

    • 20 November, 2012 at 12:30 pm

      At least for the 20th Century, propaganda has become such a central feature of war (and politics) that a thorough examination of the topic could fill several books. I tried to pic a few highlights from the distant pass that were lesser known (at least to me) and compile them in a brief story. I feel as if I’m only scratching the surface. Your WW2 reference brings up an interesting dichotomy however — citizens in a democracy expect honesty and transparency from their government. Propaganda often requires the use of covering up unpleasant truths and fabricating outright lies though. How do those two ideas co-exist? Hmmm.

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