Demonizing the Enemy a Hallmark of War

ByABC News
January 20, 2003, 5:48 PM

Jan. 29, 2003 — -- During World War I, the German threat was depicted as a mad, marauding gorilla with a bloody club.

Recently, an American political cartoon asked the question, "What Would Mohammed Drive?" and answered it with a drawing of a man dressed in Muslim garb driving a rental truck with a missile hanging out the back.

"For most human beings, it takes an awful lot to allow them to kill another human being," said Anthony Pratkanis, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "The only way to do it is to justify the killing, to make the enemy look as evil as possible."

Propaganda, both by governments and the private media, has evolved over the years as media has evolved. But, some say, the principle remains the same.

"The secret in propaganda is that when you demonize, you dehumanize," said James Forsher, a film historian and documentary filmmaker who has studied propaganda films, and who is an assistant professor of mass communications at California State University, Hayward.

"When you dehumanize, it allows you to kill your enemy and no longer feel guilty about it," he said. "That is why during World War II, a lot of caricatures became animals. You can kill a monkey a lot more easily than you can kill a neighbor."

Tales of atrocities also can dehumanize, as readers of William Randolph Hearst's newspapers learned when they got whipped up for the Spanish-American war with fake stories and sketches of Spanish atrocities that probably never happened. Arguably, it set a pattern for phony or embellished American wartime propaganda that would last at least through the Gulf War.

The Spanish-American War also delivered, perhaps for the first time, films gloriously recreating war events, Forsher said, and, "The government looked at it and went, 'Wow.'"

For World War I, the United States government created a propaganda office, and made sure to deploy movies in its propaganda arsenal. A cooperative Hollywood responded with films such as The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, To Hell With the Kaiser! and D.W. Griffith's Hearts of the World, which showed Germans throwing babies out windows, Forsher said.

On the other hand, an unfortunate group of filmmakers in 1917 put out The Spirit of '76, an epic about the American Revolution.

"Bad timing, as we were joining the war on the side of the British," Forsher said. "The Americans confiscated every print and threw the producer in jail."