IN THE Martin Scorsese-directed “Life Lessons,” within the larger film “New York Stories,” a grizzled abstract painter played by Nick Nolte is cleaned-up and charismatic in tux and tales – yes, tales, because a man with an ego the size of his Manhattan loft has to lubricate his big exhibition opening not only with Smirnoff’s Gold, but also silver tongue. And fortunately for Nolte’s “action” artist, Lionel Dobie, he has literal war stories to tell these bejeweled patrons — shaggy anecdotes about how his X-rated doodles were once dropped beyond enemy lines, as renderings intended to deflate the fighting hearts and minds and cartoon-helpless eyes of the humble foot soldier.
Airdropped wartime propaganda dates back decades – including leaflets being emptied from a French balloon over 19th-century Prussian troops. And cartoons notably filled the strafed skies during World War II, when anti-Nazi leaflets with Hebrew-text drawings represented one type of psychological airstrike. So deploying caricatures and cartoon iconography easily interpreted even by illiterate troops is certainly nothing new.
Yet still, it can be bracing to see a newly deployed cartoon that puts the “graphic” in graphic arts.
Ten days ago, the United States dropped a visually head-turning (and -churning) leaflet cartoon over Raqqa, the power center of the Islamic State’s operations, reported several outlets today, including USA Today.
Every so often, critics question the power of a cartoon: In the wake of attacks like that on Charlie Hebdo, how can the dip pen possibly be mightier than the sword?
To return that volley of criticism, perhaps this is how, as reportedly provided by the Military Information Support Operations Command. The Pentagon opts for watercolors over waterboards, and graphite is fired instead of lead.
The United States gave the okay for an F-15 to drop some 60,000 of these leaflets over Syria. And in the cartoon, men at a recruiting station are fed into a meat grinder – bloody sacrifices who immediately go from new signee to human hamburger. The no-mistaking-it message: Think twice, because you, too, will soon become “ground troops.” And on the meat grinder is the word “Daish” – which translates to a common derogatory name for the Islamic State group, according to U.S. News and World Report.
There is a dark art, of course, to this emotional barrage. “It’s trying to set the stage for an internal uprising against ISIS,” Nicholas Heras, an expert at the Center for a New American Security, told USA Today.
The United States, as much as any nation, understands the power of “optics,” and trying to get a “visual” on the enemy through caricature and cartoon mockery is a time-tested form of attack.
So shortly after the White House reportedly sent out a “share your story” email to supporters – one in which President Obama cited his childhood fandom of such superheroes as Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian – we also learn how the United States deals graphically with the Islamic State’s form of barbarism.
Will this would-be Operation Shock and Draw prove effective?
Well, getting into your enemy’s mind is a powerful act. And it’s better to convert a head than remove it.