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Propaganda in the Classroom

Faces of the Enemy

No longer in print, Sam Keen's book, Faces of the Enemy: Reflections of the Hostile Imagination, is a masterpiece.  In it, Keen explores the psychological quirks that make us susceptible to wartime propaganda.  As I interpreted it, his basic message is that before ordinary humans will kill or support killing in their name, they must believe that an enemy has shown himself to be less than human, a bestial being no longer worthy of life; and that "we" (whatever group we happens to be) are pure, just, strong and resolute.  War propaganda from all nations and groups fosters these beliefs.  One need only examine the horrific events of September 11, 2001, and the media, government and public responses on all sides, to see that his insights are as timely today as when he penned them.  The 2003 war against Iraq provides further evidence.

Do your best to find a copy of Keen's book in a library or from a used book source.  The Emmy-nominated PBS documentary based on the book is available on DVD from Sam Keen's web site. You may view a clip from the documentary via YouTube at

The images found by following the links in the table below illustrate how the collective "We" in many nations saw "Ourselves" and the collective "Them" during World Wars I and II.  As you'll see, all sides used the techniques Keen explores. From the images, you'll learn much about our common humanity, warts and all. 

There are many ways to explore the images with your students.

  1. Select an appropriate pair, then present them using the technique from Dueling Posters.
  2. Present them, one at a time, adapting the technique outlined in Why People Smoke.  Instead of looking for "reason to smoke" messages, have students look for "us" and "them" messages, then try to identify the action or belief the propagandist wants from the target.  You might begin your adaptation by having your students try to reach a consensus on a list of ten reasons people are willing to support a war.  After studying a number of images, they should see common themes.  Once they have, you can ask them to find, present and discuss contemporary examples of them.  Unfortunately, they are all too common.
  3. As subjects for analysis using the Propaganda Analysis Sheet.
Posters from World Wars I and II that show
Us Them Good versus Evil

To see more war posters, look at the online collections you'll find at the sites for the Northwestern University Library and the U.S. National Archives.  Georgetown University has put up a set of World War I posters.  The Cleveland Public Library also has a nice collection.  For an international perspective on WWI posters, look here has posted a set of US posters from World Wars I and II.  To keep current with the contents of the ever-changing web, look at this Google search periodically.

You can also use this link to visit's search page.  If you type "war posters" (without the quotes) in the subject box, then click the Search Now button, you'll see a list of all the war poster books currently available through this site.  You can also use this link, to get a similar list from the Barnes and Noble site.

Dehumanization of "the enemy" has been accompanied in our time by sanitization of war.  In the past decade technology, the mass media and government have combined to present us with the myth of the bloodless war - we are told (and shown) over and over that our "smart" weapons have given us the ability to kill only the really bad guys quickly and cleanly, and to limit (if not eliminate) harm to our side.  However, even when it is not Americans being killed and maimed, that is precisely what war does; even in our first "bloodless" war, the Gulf War of 1991.  To see the blood on our hands that the military successfully kept out of the mass media at the time, you might want to look at Peter Turnley's The Unseen Gulf War.  This site displays a collection of Turnley's photographs that were taken outside the system of censorship imposed on most reporters and photographers at the time.  He presents them in an effort "to offer the viewer the opportunity to draw from [them] as much information as possible, and develop his or her own judgment" as we prepare to go to war again.

People's perceptions of war are often radically different going in than they are coming out.  The original cast album of the 1960s stage play Oh, What A Lovely War uses music and song to illustrate this observation in an unforgettable manner.  If you can find a copy (I've seen them periodically on EBay and, more frequently, in public libraries), listen to it.

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original web posting: Sunday, November 4, 2001
last modified: Saturday, June 21, 2014