Paper Bullets, Paper Tigers?: On War and Public Opinion

UPDATE: The essay (indeed the entire volume) is now freely available online.  Here’s the link to the table of contents and here is the entire volume in PDF.

I have a large review essay out in the wonderful Mexican journal of history and ideas istor; part of a special edition on the history of public opinion edited by Carlos Bravo Regidor.  The piece is a lengthy multi-book review of several works: Kenneth Osgood and Andrew Frank’s Selling War in a Media Age, Alan Axelrod’s Selling the Great War, Hugo García’s The Truth about Spain, José Luis Ortiz Garza’s Ideas en tormenta, Monica Rankin’s ¡México, la patria!, James T. Sparrow’s Warfare State, and Laura Belmonte’s Selling the American Way.  There’s no link available at this time (and the piece is in Spanish), but I can share copies in either language with anyone interested.

The piece begins with the observation that one of the reasons that so many books on war and public opinion were published in the last few years is as a delayed scholarly reaction to the Bush Administration’s propaganda success with the Iraq War.  The piece ends by observing that that propaganda success, if it indeed ever was such a thing, dissipated quickly.  Here are the final paragraphs:

This is not to say, of course, that propaganda campaigns always fail or backfire; simply that, like all human communication, they are complicated.  It seems to me that one of the larger messages of these books is not simply about the power of propaganda to mobilize action, but that action is, in some sense, the most important form of propaganda.  Sparrow’s social history of the United States during World War II is useful, though it is the least directly about propaganda of all of the books under consideration here, because it shows that even though close examination of the state’s messages reveals that they often did not have their intended effects, people’s actions, in the main, were compatible with the war effort.  New rituals, myths, and symbols emerged and were effective because they were partially self-constructed, and thus potentially durable.  Fin-de-siècle anarchists drew a distinction between propaganda by the word and propaganda by the deed.  By the latter, they meant that a singular act of violence, such as an assassination, could spur the masses to act in ways that language never could.  Their narrow definition of what constituted a meaningful “deed” aside, the works here do suggest that deeds may well create a more successful campaign.

And what of public opinion?  The challenge of war called forth the need for states to try and harness the machines of the mass production of opinion, and they tried.  By the end of the twentieth century, information bureaus were a normal part of government and foreign relations.  The idea of public opinion was transformed over the course of the century by quantification from a loose sentiment into a morass of data, and in that transformation the concept was reinvented. Reading public opinion into existence now requires polling, but, like a kind of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle of opinion, asking questions seems to change the result.  In any case it can project a false coherence onto a messy agglomeration of conflicting interests and attitudes, and creates an artificial public commons in which ignorance, expertise, and indifference all register with equal weight.  The early artists in public relations imagined themselves symphony conductors, controlling each instrument and keeping the audience in thrall to the emotions they wished to summon.  A more apt metaphor for their work might be a street musician, eyed with suspicion by passersby, competing for attention with the magician down the block, and struggling to be heard over the noise and movement of the crowd and the city.  Public relations became part of the chaos of human experience.  Propaganda proved not to make democracy possible, or even better, but it did not make it impossible either.

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