We left off here last time, if you need to catch up.
The last facet of war propaganda is the formation of the official history of the war. This is a crucial function, performed by the state with the help of the press. It is performed by victor and vanquished alike. Both find it necessary to write the official narrative of the war after it’s conclusion, in order to preserve legitimacy, which is the constant pressure of the politician. In this way, every state undertaking needs an official narrative to be pushed into the public mind.
The necessity of the formulation of a post-war narrative is even more true of democratic systems than it is of totalitarian ones. That may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s not. The government of a totalitarian state gets it’s legitimacy through sheer force. Justifications for totalitarian government actions may be given from time to time, but they are never really required. Justification changes nothing in the totalitarian state. On the other hand, the democratic government relies on a prevailing sense of legitimacy to maintain it’s control. Therefore, it must continually justify itself to the enfranchised. The modern democratic process has turned this into an art form – constantly molding legitimacy and justification out of the cacophony of motivations found within the bureaucracy.
You’ve heard it said that the winner writes the history. It’s probably more accurate to say that the one who writes what becomes the accepted history is the winner. This is the nature of propaganda in general, but of war propaganda especially. You see, during the course of a war, the reasons for being involved will always mutate. Short, military “police”-type actions may be the exception, but any war of length will demonstrate this metamorphosis effect almost certainly. Just go back in your mind over recent wars like Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, World War II, etc. Each of these wars had an official pre-war story that they started with. And, during the course of the war, that story began to mutate. By the time they were over, the story of why the war happened had totally changed.
Since WWI and WWII are too obvious, let’s look at a couple of more recent examples:
The official pre-war narrative of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was to protect the world from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction(WMD’s). This changed rapidly once no WMD’s were discovered. That narrative was dropped altogether and a new one was picked up: Saddam had links to Al-Queida. This one lasted a while, but the “links” were so tenuous that it made this narrative very cumbersome for public consumption. Finally, the narrative settled on “freeing the Iraqi people.” This is an easy, 30 second sound bite type of message and has remained the popular myth of the Iraq war ever since. It’s the official narrative.
The first reason for the U.S. getting involved in Vietnam (around 1950) was as part of a plan to let the French re-colonize Vietnam after WWII. The French had lost Vietnam as a colony to the Japanese during the war, and the former WWII allies helped them re-take it. Over the next few years, as the “cold war” grew, the official reason for escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam would become “containment” of communism.
As the conflict intensified over the next decade, the war became increasingly about the United States and Vietnam alone. The earlier reasons for the war faded as Kennedy focused on “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese.
By the time Lyndon Johnson escalated to full war, hardly anyone knew what the war was about anymore. What had started as an aid to French imperialism had morphed into a communism blockade strategy, and then to a humanitarian mission and finally to a localized democracy vs. communism struggle.
When it comes to post-war propaganda, what matters isn’t truth, but legitimacy. And, this lines up very well with the day to day functioning of bureaucracy. The job of the bureaucrat is to legitimize the existence of their job. Truth matters very little to the functioning of the state apparatus.