AT THE OUTSET of World War II, a German bomber crashed in Britain, killing its crew as well as civilians on the ground. The enemy was pulled from the wreckage, and then given a funeral with full military honors by a respectful Royal Air Force. Paul Fussell, who tells the story in his book, "Wartime," quotes a contemporary account of how "the gallant foe were laid to rest amidst numerous floral tributes, their coffins being covered with wreaths of lilies, irises and other spring flowers." It was local civilians who, stricken by the tragedy, sent the wreaths. Even the RAF sent a wreath.
"The gallant foe." Such home front emotions appear anachronistic if not lunatic to us now, and in fact were very quickly to seem preposterous even to the people who had them at the time. For example, Fussell also tells the story of a bomber pilot who later survived a crash in Britain, only to be beaten to death by the outraged civilians who found him. This is a much more modern and comprehensible home front reaction, though as it happened, the pilot in this case was not bombing Britain, but was a Pole flying with the RAF; unfortunately, none of his murderers understood his protests.
As for the gallantry with which the war had begun, it was already out of date by 1940, the wreath-laden funeral notwithstanding: Guernica, the village destroyed by Germany as an air-power exercise during the Spanish Civil War, and transformed by Picasso into a symbol of modern butchery and a turning point in warfare, had by then been lying in ruins for three years.
Last week TV screens all over the world were transformed into little Guernicas by footage of corpses and body parts being removed from a still-smoldering Baghdad structure destroyed by American bombs. The uproar that these images provoked, and the emotions they elicited, ultimately revolve around a signal problem of American culture at war, especially a war in which the means of communications can be as powerful emotionally as the means of destruction are lethal physically: the challenge of having an enemy, and of being one.
Americans are of course accustomed both to being and having enemies, though for most of our history the burden was undertaken in a series of what we took to be higher historical purposes, from achieving our Manifest Destiny to saving the world for democracy to defeating fascism. Despite references in this war to its role in an as-yet-undefined "new world order," and the comparisons of Kuwait to the Czechoslovakia swallowed by Hitler, the war and our place in it are different in kind. When George Bush sent the troops to Saudi Arabia, he cited the economic threat as his primary reason. It is one thing to die -- and kill -- for an ideal, even an imagined one; quite another to do either for one's wallet.
In the case of the Baghdad bombing, there were concerns that images of the dead Iraqis, most of them reportedly women and children, along with pictures of their grief-stricken families, would weaken public support for the war. Conservative media critics complained that such images transformed the inevitable death toll of war from statistics into tragedy. Those news organizations that abetted this transformation by televising the footage were, according to such critics, conduits for enemy "propaganda."
In fact, opinion polls last week found that while Americans were shocked at the civilian deaths, a large majority accepted the argument made strenuously by the Pentagon and the administration that the bombed site was a legitimate military target, and that the deaths were thus the responsibility of Saddam Hussein, who allowed and perhaps encouraged civilians to take shelter in what he knew to be a military target. Both the debate and its apparent outcome are striking. If it is a reasonable premise that Iraqi censors intend such footage to sway American resolve -- and damage to civilian areas is virtually the only sight that Western cameramen are allowed to shoot -- then they are targeting what they believe is their enemy's ultimate vulnerability: its humaneness.
That they have failed, thus far at least, is due to America's success in pursuing a course that previous wars have shown to be problematic: defining the war in terms of a one-man enemy, in this case Saddam Hussein. As David Lamb recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Saddam is a great asset to the forces allied against him because "His reputation is so sullied that even the anti-war movements in Europe and the United States are having a hard time overcoming the vileness he represents."
The appeal to an enemy home front's humaneness is a recent addition to the arsenal of persuasion, and is in fact a revolution in the devices of propaganda. Traditionally, nations at war have gone to great lengths to do just the opposite: to dehumanize their foes in the eyes of their own citizens and the world at large. Enemies have often been metamorphosed into rats, bats and other beasts, portrayed as barbaric, as devoid of basic human feelings and possessed of a group mentality.
This is the persuasion of power. The propaganda of both World Wars is filled with efforts by all sides not only to reduce their enemies to so many creatures with group-minds -- the Germans were obsessed with Jews as rats, the Americans portrayed the Japanese as interchangeable parts of a horde, the Italians pictured black American soldiers as savages and threats to culture -- but to manipulate the enemy homefront by striking fear into it. The imagery of the Cold War has been similarly filled with threat.
The appeal to an enemy's humaneness is, on the other hand, persuasion from weakness. It can be credited, at least in modern times, to Gandhi, whose campaign of civil disobedience against the British in India was premised on the British public becoming revolted with the brutality necessary to maintain power. Americans have been confronted with this appeal numerous times in recent years, from Vietnam to the intifada.
The major reason it did not succeed last week, in the wake of the bombing, is that there has been no effort to characterize Iraqis in any way whatsoever, other than as the victims of Saddam's despotic rule. The sight of dead and suffering Iraqi civilians is thus apalling, but it cannot undo any enemy stereotype of them, because there isn't any. Violence against Arab-Americans has been scattered, and a few anti-Iraqi jokes are in circulation, but for most people, the bombing became more evidence of Saddam's ruthlessness, and thus all the more reason to prosecute the war against him.
By contrast, the American confrontation with Iran during the hostage crisis was perceived as a struggle not only with the Ayatollah Khomeini, but with his followers, who became typed as monolithic-minded religious fanatics, mostly due to television footage of chanting, America-hating crowds in front of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The result was considerable anti-Iranian feeling in the country. The only such anti-U.S. crowd footage now running is of people in front of the U.S. embassy in Amman, Jordan. Indeed, it is these demonstrators ("Saddam, our beloved," went one of their chants, "hit Tel Aviv with chemicals!") rather than the Iraqis who at this stage threaten to emerge as the counterparts of the Iranians of this conflict.
Even more revealing than the official characterization of the conflict is the unofficial one. There are two types of "propaganda," argued the French intellectual Jacques Ellul. One is political, and emerges from the state. The other is sociological, and is, in Ellul's words, "persuasion from within." It answers what Ellul called modern man's "need for propaganda." That is, such institutions as the private media begin to generate material that both reflect and confirm the public's concerns and beliefs. In the case of the gulf war, the manner in which the American home front is propagandizing itself through the popular media in the wake of early war euphoria has been by focusing with concern on Saddam Hussein, with worry on the American forces and the potential threats to them personally, or with glee on technological military success. In other words, it is a reactive process, not an aggressive one, far more intent on danger (and even home-front anxiety) than on glory, a function, perhaps, of the absence of ideals in the war. The near-total focus on Saddam emerges even in interviews with American soldiers in Saudi Arabia. Whereas U.S. soldiers in other conflicts spoke of "jerries" or "Huns" or used ethnic insults, these soldiers repeatedly insist that they have no antipathy to the Iraqi soldiers they face. "They're just like us," one told the Associated Press, "they're soldiers doing their job." "I feel sorry for those guys," another soldier told the AP in describing the heavy bombing against Iraqi lines. "The more we bomb the less we die. I know they're catching hell." "My own feeling," a third soldier told an American reporter, "is that this is a war of us against him, Saddam Hussein, rather than a war of us against them, the Iraqis."
Such feelings about the enemy (offered in the course of interviews chaperoned by military public relations figures) no doubt will change dramatically in the face of a land war. But the tight focus of a struggle against one evil figure remains remarkable -- and chancy -- nonetheless.
President Bush's frequent reminders that "we have no quarrel with the people of Iraq" is actually common head-of-state rhetoric in wartime. The soldiers and civilians of an opposing nation are often told that they have been misled into war by their militarist leaders, by the ideologues among them, or by some cabal with a hidden agenda, even while otherwise dehumanizing them. Probably the most famous such line was delivered by Joseph Stalin, who proclaimed in the course of World War II that "The German state and the German Volk remain!" In other words, Stalin had no quarrel with Germany, just with Nazis.
"It is thoroughly unsound to define the enemy too widely," wrote America's premier psychological warrior, Paul Linebarger, in the 1940s. He recommended defining the enemy in terms of the ruler, a ruling clique, unspecified manipulators or a minority. On the other hand, he continued, too narrow a definition has problems of its own: One is the danger of being cornered by one's own rhetoric before the war's aims are fulfilled, should the enemy change its leadership or make a unexpected peace move. The other is that one risks making the enemy a hero, or ultimately a martyr. Both could yet play out in the gulf war.
There is one more use that a culture makes of an enemy, even a hated one: It can eventually redefine him as noble. The Romans did so with the Gauls, the British did so with the Zulus, and we have done so with American Indians. These are foes whom each of these cultures overwhelmed in the course of defining themselves and achieving what they saw as historical high points. They became celebrated enemies because they were part of a celebrated history. This is hardly likely to be Saddam's future. But all our enemies -- fascists, communists, slavers, etc. -- have been a part of process of defining ourselves, for good and ill. The question becomes, what other variety of enemy does the home front have to look foward to?