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Weapons of Mass Communication: propaganda for and against war

This article is over 16 years, 3 months old
Jane Bassett examines the uses and abuses of war posters in a new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London
Issue 2075
I Want You for US Army by Personality Posters - reworking James Montgomery Flagg’s nationalist original - against the war in Vietnam, is one of the anti-war posters in the exhibition  (Pic: Imperial War Museum)
I Want You for US Army by Personality Posters – reworking James Montgomery Flagg’s nationalist original – against the war in Vietnam, is one of the anti-war posters in the exhibition (Pic: Imperial War Museum)

Sometime in January 2003, walking along Dalston Lane in Hackney, east London, I found it lined with posters bearing the simple message “15”.

That was the point at which I realised how big the anti-war demonstration on 15 February was going to be.

Nearly two million people took to the streets of London and millions more demonstrated across the globe against the impending war on Iraq.

The impact of those protests, and thousands more like them, can be seen at the Imperial War Museum’s new exhibition of war posters, Weapons of Mass Communication.

Advertised using the iconic red splodge of blood David Gentleman designed for the Stop the War Coalition posters, the exhibition ends with a set of posters inspired by the anti-war movement.

Examples include Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Socialist Worker illustrator Leon Kuhn, Make Tea Not War and the simple demand No More Lies – an appropriate ending to an exhibition that looks at how posters have been used to put the case for and against war.

The exhibition traces the use of posters throughout the 20th century, mainly in Europe and the US.

The bulk of them are posters propagandising for war, produced by governments and the military.


These include the famous portrait of Lord Kitchener gazing straight at the viewer, urging Britons to enlist in the army at the start of the First World War.

This design has been endlessly copied – and also parodied – in exhortations to fight, to enlist or indeed to contribute to the war effort.

Indeed, looking at the posters spanning two world wars, you are struck by the similarities between them.

As war has increasingly enveloped all of society, young men – and increasingly women – are lectured to sign up, through appeals to masculinity, courage and the ostracism you will suffer if you show yourself to be a coward.

Linked with this, are crude parodies of the enemy, such as the poster How the Hun Hates, or an Italian poster produced in 1943 depicting a bloated John Bull representing Britain, striding across corpses and clutching the globe.

In contrast “we”, the home country, defend freedom and traditional patriotic values.

There are endless examples of government posters exhorting people to contribute their savings – Liberty Bonds in the US, endless war loans in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Essential to keeping war going, they also remind us that it is big business.

This point is brought out in the use of smiling soldiers selling Oxo and Dunlop tyres, and in parodies of film posters. One, Peace Killer, highlights the role of Halliburton, George Bush’s favourite company in occupied Iraq.

The images of women on the pro-war posters conform to a narrow range of stereotypes.

Nazi Germany’s stress on the Aryan family is mirrored by smiling thrifty housewives, mothers protecting their children and wives urging their men to fight.

Elsewhere, women move resolutely into the workforce – unless they are dangerous and seductive spies.


And of course after the war, women were forced back into domesticity and low paid jobs.

They were forced to abandon, in many cases, the freedoms they had enjoyed as part of the workforce.

Similarly black workers, shown in US posters as fighters and factory workers contributing to the war effort, found continued segregation in the army and no end to the racist Jim Crow laws in the South when they returned home.

However, the exhibition also traces a long line of resistance to war.

This includes the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1918 and anti-fascist posters from the Spanish Civil War and Nazi Germany, to the modern anti-war movement.

The struggles of the 1960s are reflected in CND posters opposing Britain’s nuclear weapons and posters from the struggle against the war in Vietnam.

And Babies Too? reminds us of the Mai Lai massacre, while Fuck the Draft incites young men to burn their papers and refuse to serve.

As Bush and his poodles continue to threaten Iran, and the bloody occupation of Iraq continues, this exhibition reminds us all of the need to continue to build the movement against imperialist war.

Weapons of Mass Communication is on at the Imperial War Museum in London until 30 March 2008. For more information go to »

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