Analysis of two military propaganda Posters

The task of an efficient military propaganda (EMP) is to advertise the military service as an exemplary way of life, as a life style of moral uprightness. EMP sees psychological and cultural militancy as an honorable and a beautiful condition, and orientation on military solutions of international conflicts as a sign of spiritual superiority.

To achieve effectiveness EMP must appeal to the human emotions and to suggest a certain way of behavior as commendable and even admirable.

The first poster we will address was made for the German propaganda during the WWII period. It covers the topic that everybody who has served in the army of any country at the time of war at any historical period will be able to relay to.
The poster exploits the extreme emotions wars awaken in the human soul to glue people to militarism by mixing feelings with narcissistic pathos. The very universality of the situation represented here becomes a propaganda vehicle for staging the universal appeal of Nazi ideology.

The soldier swears to avenge the death of his fallen comrade. To be effective this picture tries to involve the emotions of the viewers by sentimentally marking the moment of grief personified by the obvious dramatic plot and also by the symbolic softness of the banner being squeezed by the despair of a man resisting his tears. It is the moment when the need to weep for the lost life gives birth to the desire to prove that it was not lost in vain and to the enlightened wave of righteous hate toward the enemy. The poster resourcefully connects the unjust war (motivated by megalomania, scapegoating and a crude greed for economic expansion) with the “good” and universally popular emotions and by this elevates the wrong war to the status of the proper one.

The picture blurs the Nazi context of WWII by reducing it to its sentimental core. That’s totalitarianism’s propagandist modus operandi – the understanding of what’s going on is reduced to the human reactions, and the latter to their emotional code; the mental assessment of life’s situations is weakened, and so is the critical function of human thinking. People take the commands of their leaders as an absolute frame of reference. Their reactions to the world are reduced to purely emotional ones. That is how Bushmericans reacted on 9/11 – probing thinking was not involved.

Let’s look at the poster more attentively. Flag’s cloth is, as if, saturated by the blood and tears. It is like a giant drop of blood and tears streaming down on the dead soldier. It is, as though, the swastika itself was bleeding and weeping together with the “sons and daughters” of Germany. The flag touches the face of the killed, and it is as if, the blood was connecting him with his living comrade. The two faces (of the dead and of the living) are nearly identical. The both soldiers look like twin brothers united with one another through the gap of death – the poster here makes a point about the sacredness of the army’s brotherhood-in-arms and shows how the feeling of belonging to it changes the soldiers’ perception of the very relations between life and death. The difference between life and death becomes a two way street: of our mortality (from the living to the dead) and our resurrection (from being dead back to being alive). The identity of the two faces creates the illusion that the killed soldier was instantly reincarnated.

The poster depicts deep and tormenting emotions – it represents the human soul in its agonizing moments. We from another historical times and from another political system can easily understand the emotions expressed here and identify with them. Our American flag has different political and moral connotations than the Nazi flag but we who oppose Nazism and totalitarianism in general are made to empathize with the human emotions that are described as universal.

At this point some of us could go beyond the propagandist intentions of the Nazi artist and ask the question, why banners that represent a democratic ideology can still carry the same emotional aura (too intimate connection between grief and hate) and make people who grew up in democracy feel and behave similarly with the Nazi soldiers?

While comparing the Nazi poster with the recent Bushmerican military recruiting
poster we see an important difference between the two – the disappearance of the human soul. Instead of faces of soldiers (always present in the Nazi propaganda posters) we see only hands and legs in military uniforms: no heads, chests, or torsos. The effect is that as if from the Bushmerican soldiers the soul and the mind have been taken away.

Dropping the human face (the human soul) and head (mind) marks the advancement of dehumanization and totalitarization. According to the intuition of the artist, the soldiers as human beings are reduced to human hands and legs as instruments of the will of deciders and commanders. While the Nazi soldiers are still represented as human beings (though with thinking that is reduced to a purely sentimental reactions of obedience to their leaders, loyalty to the cause and hate for the enemies), the Bushmerican soldiers are pictured as body parts – “hands and legs” waiting to be activated by the military orders. Is this how the Bushmerican leadership perceives the men serving their country?

This poster could be an advertisement of military boots but as an illustration of patriotism it marks the change in the very concept of patriotism. According to this placard patriotism is not the unanimity of human souls, but just the unity of limbs, the very readiness of muscles and bones for warfare.

If the Nazi soldiers were sent by the Fuhrer’s order to an unjust and a monstrous war, to what absurd military operations can hands and legs be sent off by the intentions of those who perceive the military force not as a unity of different individuals in the uniform, but as human limbs waiting to be brought into movement? The very concept of military loyalty has changed between these two posters – before even the most improper commands were still addressed to the human heart, but today, as this poster states expressing the spirit of the time behind it, we see that orders are given to a bodily fragments, to human limbs.

To what emotions does this recent American military propaganda poster appeal? And what behavior does it suggest as commendable and admirable? The Nazi poster appeals to the ability to feel grief about a killed comrade-in-arms and to transform this grief into a sacred fury directed towards the enemies, and it suggests that the desire to avenge this death is a proper behavior. The recent American poster on the other hand appeals to the desire to forget who you are as a human being and a soldier, your human identity, your very ability to think and feel, and suggests that you have to be transformed into your limbs that should be ready to do whatever your (its!) superiors will order.

Which poster represents a more totalitarian and a blind (oriented on mechanical obedience) condition of human being?

METHODOLOGICAL NOTE. The question of how any subject that is represented in art can reflect the sensibility of the epoch the work of art belongs to – cannot be answered too straightly. Work of art never directly represents its time. It does it through multiple mediations – by the artistic medium, by the intention of its producer-propagandist, by the talent, the psychological peculiarities and the degree of the artist’s conformism, by the difference in worldview between the artistic elite and the wide population, by interpretative skills, aesthetic sensitivity and personal proclivities of the art lovers, etc. Considering that art of propaganda is oriented on inducing mass feelings and sponsored by the ruling elite, and comparing the posters represented here with numerous other produced in the same historical periods, I came to the conclusion that they, indeed, are a typical representations of the spirit of its times. The readers are encouraged to make their own mini-research and check U.S. military posters of the beginning of 21st century.