“How and why might a culture take their conflict into an organized form?”
Napoleon once said, “Men will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon,” and considering he talked 1000s of men into an insane assault against Russia, well, we can only assume that Napoleon knew what he was talking about. The documentary film, War is Sell takes a look at how a war is ‘sold’ to the people who have to fight it. Obviously the politicians who come to the decision that war is the only solution to whatever foreign policy problem the country faces are not the ones who put their lives on the line, so the big question becomes, how do those at the top–those making the decisions–persuade the rest of us peons to go along with it?
War is Sell is divided into three sections. The first section, Tricks of the Trade examines some tried-and-true methods behind whipping a country into a war frenzy, and this takes us to a discussion of propaganda. Propaganda is defined as “attempts to indoctrinate a mass audience” while it “strives to be invisible.” Interviews with several writers and media watchdogs are included, and the film examines propaganda techniques including: Demonizing the Enemy, 3rd Party Endorsement, Staying On the Message, Telling the Big Lie, Using Doublespeak, and Silencing the Opposition. The film uses a historical approach with archival footage to examine these tactics used through WWI up until the present mess in Iraq.
The film’s second section, Teaching Propaganda is the weakest. The filmmakers enter the classroom of high school teacher, Mary Skinner and record her lesson about propaganda and subsequent discussions with her students. While Skinner’s valiant efforts in the classroom are noted, this section of the film is uninteresting. Perhaps if one plans to teach a classroom of students the same sort of lesson, there’s some value here, but apart from that, this second section seems wildly out of place.
The film’s third section, however, was extremely interesting. This section, The Culture of War takes an anthropological approach to examine the phenomenon of violence. Professor Neil Whitehead from the University of Wisconsin presents a rational, thoughtful and intelligent overview of humans and their violent tendencies, and he notes that when it comes to war, there is a political gap between the “intentions of the leaders and the willingness of the followers” that has to be “filled with some sort of narrative.” The narrative, Whitehead argues, might include the “danger of resource loss” and/or the presentation of “aggressive action from another.” This narrative, Whitehead explains “need not be untrue.” Naturally, however, problems arise when national aggression towards another country is unjustified (based on, let’s say, wildly inflated intelligence information) or “presented as the only possible option.”
This final section (and strongest part of the film) includes: The Need for Propaganda, Bred for War, The Cannibal Within, The Terrorist Within (an examination of state terrorism and the Theory of the Intimacy of Violence.)
The 2-DVD disc set places the film on one disc, and the other disc is devoted to extras. Extras include: archival footage, WWI posters, short films: America Goes to War, Divide and Conquer, and Despotism, footage of the US presentation to the UN in 2003, miscellaneous Iraq War propaganda, deleted scenes, John Stauber: Embedded Reporters, Mary Carpenter: Trench Warfare, Robert Fisk: Descending into the Pit, Alexander Cockburn: Very Bad Liars, and Amy Goodman: The Silenced Majority. It’s somewhat uncanny to see propaganda materials from WWI and realise how strikingly similar these materials are to the stuff used to trumpet the Iraqi War. I suppose some things never change. For those interested in reading more about war propaganda, I recommend Mickey Z’s handy-dandy guide: Seven Deadly Spins.