“Keep right on lying to me. That’s what I want you to do”
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms
Every war starts as one, but becomes two; the one the soldiers fight and the one the civilians watch. “The first casualty of war is truth” said an American senator in 1917, but was only partly right. In reality, governments use the truth when it suits their interests. It is ambivalence they consider unacceptable.
George Roeder, in his great book The Censored War (Yale University Press, 1993), gives us an insight to such not-so-arbitrary receiving of information from the front by the public.
As necessary it is to present any war as a defense war against a threatening, murderous enemy, it is also necessary to hide the atrocities of the front, and the efforts of the government have to appear heroic without ambivalence. The actions of the domestic army have to be spotless, clean and fair.
The Second World War, the just war, was no exception. From the moment America was involved in the conflict, the mechanisms of propaganda that were used in the Great War were pulled up with the same ease as the American citizens learnt to hate their compatriots of Japanese descent after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
During the American involvement in the First World War the government banned any publication of photographs of dead Americans. But because everyone remembered those efforts to control the flow of information, they were now guarded against similar efforts of controlling what they can and cannot see and think.
Behind the line, those who mostly asked for a more complete image of what exactly was happening were the families of those who were sent to fight. Before the end of the first year of their involvement, an American poll showed that most citizens would rather have honesty on the side of the government and that they didn’t want to “be treated as infants”, but as participants in the common effort.
Nevertheless, the American government thought that the retained images would be more likely to cause skepticism to the public, if released, than the beautified ones, however falsified. Therefore, a similar practice was followed in the first two years of WW2, as in WW1.
The Navy Chief of Operations was of the view to “withhold any information until the end of the war and then announce who won”. The government censors, when encountering material they were not certain whether it should be made public or not, would rather withhold it, as they would more likely get in trouble if they published something they shouldn’t have than withholding something that could be made public. While the government had censorship control of any international exchange of information, censorship in domestic communication was based on the willing compliance of the Press and the public. The photo editor of the New York Daily News reports that he didn’t use the photo of a soldier who had lost his leg in an explosion because “personally, I try to pick images that would sit right to me when I drink my morning coffee”.
An effort was mobilized to make distant war appear more real to all those destined to provide material and political support necessary to reach a victory. The war infused the private lives of citizens with a sense of a common purpose. Most Americans still view WW2 one of the few instances where they could clearly see the difference between good and evil, an experience that united them in an effort to protect human dignity, and telling of their moral superiority.
The censors were strictly forbidden to publicize news of American or Ally atrocities. Rare exceptions were occasions of soldiers collecting human parts as trophies (e.g. necklaces of human teeth) that could be attributed to the specific soldiers, naming them “black sheep”. Photographs with mutilated parts of rape victims or news of soldiers shooting themselves to be relieved of duty were retained and were left in the dark for years.
Commercials, movies, photographs, posters and dailies in the time of war offered viewers images of a vast array of domestic national, class and religious groups. Racist prejudices were more easily put aside when it helped the war effort. Frank Capra’s documentary series Why We Fight, which all soldiers had to watch, showed the antithesis between American tolerance and the totalitarian compliance to race and other kinds of prejudice against minorities of the enemy. Blind volunteers could serve as messengers in times of black-outs. Deaf volunteers, who could lip-read, were used in the cacophony of an enemy attack and little people, serving as technicians, could penetrate airplane spaces where taller men could not fit.
At the same time, nine in ten white Americans thought that white and black soldiers should be trained separately (seven in ten blacks had the same view), proving prejudice to be more difficult to undermine than the enemy was. Black men served in strictly segregated units. The government, in an effort to unify the people for the common cause, showed as many positive images of blacks during the war as it did in the previous 150 years of its existence. The soldiers, on the other hand, did not make distinctions between the use of pejoratives towards their enemies and their allies. Derogatory words were used to describe Italian citizens and soldiers, but also British and Chinese.
It is true that the image of the black population was improved in the media at the time, and also in the white citizen’s minds. But this shift didn’t last long, as, with the end of the war, the thought that the whites had a new adversary, the black citizen, who would now, after his contribution to the conflict, ask for more rights, was prevalent among them.
Images of violent race rallies in military bases in Louisiana, New Jersey and elsewhere were hidden. Similar violent protests also took place among civilians, like in 1943 Detroit, which were hidden too, with the police summoning any photo of the riots from newspapers.
Propaganda material showed the antithesis between the hard life of the soldiers and the routine of a store clerk, while it parallelized a soldier’s experience with that of a factory worker, regarding noise, heat and the hard work of the everyday shift. The politicians considered that, in this way, the workers would think that they shared the responsibility and the pride with the soldiers, and with a grown sense of guilt they would be refrained from striking or showing up late for work.
On posters, the throwing of a grenade was made to look like delivering the paper on the doors of a paper route. The posters informed the public that the same paper pulp used to make a newspaper was used in the making of a grenade. More parallelizing was used, such as the likeness of charging the field of battle with the entrance of the players in a football field for a match. The general practice was to make it look like the fighters on the front didn’t do or experience anything different than their obligations and lives as citizens.
The Japanese were presented in the Press and radio as rats, monkeys, snakes and cockroaches. In January 1944 it was decided to publish narrations and photographs with Japanese atrocities against the Allies, so that “the voices that might rise up in the event of future bombings of Japanese cities were extinguished” (Elmer Davis, Officer of War Information). Another reason was the revival of interest and the raised morale of the public would replace its indifference on the war efforts, expressed in strikes, absence from work and diminishing voluntary enlisting, that harmed the war effort.
In the movie the War Department made, called Action at Anguar, during a scene showing Japanese burning alive, the narrator is heard saying: “At this point, we had shot, bombed or cooked six hundred of these little apes”.
The government violated the Constitution with its decision to enclose American citizens with Japanese descent, transporting them from their place of residence in concentration camps, were they were held with guns turned towards them at all times from every corner of the camps.
For the campaign to sell War Bonds, a poster asked: “Did you kill a Japanese today?” It was suggested that they could only reply ‘yes’ if they had bought a war bond or if they had been productive workers.
Concerning films and dailies, a law was passed making it obligatory for all products to go through a censorship committee. The judges deemed it necessary, as “the audience of cinematographer, usually consisted of children and the illiterate, is more susceptible to influence than newspaper readers”. Hollywood movies had to support the war effort, or at least not undermine it.
Movies and cartoons showed American bombardments with glorious explosions of munitions warehouses and Axis military bases. What they didn’t show was that, on average, American bombs would fall in a radius of one kilometer from their target, which sometimes meant hitting houses and schools apart from military bases and factories. Moreover, the pilots that, for whichever reason, hadn’t managed to drop all their bombs before the end of their mission dropped them wherever they could on their way back.
Also, the government successfully minimized the attention to the fact that many soldiers, instead of dying heroically in the front, fell victims to accidents, including military cars, trucks and planes, which caused the deaths of 12,000 Americans and injured 230,000.
Apart from the beautification of American soldiers and the demonizing of the enemies, the American authorities aimed at withholding horrific images from the citizens’ gaze. They believed that complete transparency would discourage non-combatants and make them give up hope and desire to surrender instead of supporting their military. A political commentator had written in Newsweek that if there were cameras during the Civil War “there would now be two countries. The war atrocities would make the northerners let the southerners secede”. So, while some journalists complained for the fact that the government considered the American people didn’t have the stamina to hear the bad news, during the war the authorities hid any evidence they had on the activities of the Germans’ death camps. Those same governmental receivers of such news found it difficult to accept the relevant testimonies and believed that the citizens would consider them too extreme to even take seriously; that they would rather misunderstand them for the raw propaganda machinations in the style of the 1st World War era.
Among the censored information were practices like the German submarines storing human members only to release them on the surface along with debris when they wanted to fool the enemy into believing they had been destroyed.
The British Stuart Cloete described an event that was published years after the war: “While you lifted a dead body from the arms and legs, they would detach from the torso, and that was not the worse part. Every body was buried under a few centimeters of a black fur of flies, which got on your face, into your mouth and your nostrils as you approached it. The corpses were full of maggots…We stopped often to vomit…the corpses were as intact as a piece of cheese. Once I fell and my hand went through the belly of a man. Days passed for the smell to go away.”
Only near the end of the war, in 1943, photographs depicting death started to show up, and still not the bloody ones. In the war as it was presented to the public the intestines were left inside the body of the dead, with their other limbs intact. In no period of the war did images of crying soldiers on the field appear, apart from the movies; and even then they were never tears of personal pain, fear or loneliness (something that would depict reality), but tears of despair for something terrible that happened to one of the comrades in arms.
Five years after WW2, when the war in Korea broke out, the same softer tactics of the end of the previous war were applied, and so it was relatively early that the public saw images with dead Americans and soldiers crying. In the Vietnam war the tactics made full circle, with the journalists at first considering themselves a member of the team, and presented a somewhat heroic image, until 1965 and the detachment of large numbers of soldiers and the escalation of the operations. The images started to become more and more revealing as time passed, something that, to many, helped towards the awakening of the public, which led to the war’s ending and the removal of American military force from the region. The “mistake” was not repeated, and in the Gulf war we saw a version of conflict as video game; and more recently in the Iraq intervention, photos of American coffins were banned from publication.
George Roeder – The censored war (Yale University Press, 1993)
[Some quotations were back-translated to English from Greek]