Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  4

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Seeing and Reading through the Culture of War


Tracy Bilsing, Sam Houston State University

Carroll Ferguson Nardone, Sam Houston State University


Bilsing, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English whose research interests are in British literature and the world wars.  Nardone, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in rhetoric and professional communication.




Students often have trouble understanding culture outside their own generation. One of the ways that we can bridge the gap for students is to focus on a culture engaged in war—an event which permeates all aspects of society. Using emotionally and politically charged images provides a preliminary method for students to engage in analysis.  Then literature emerging from war can serve as the conduit through which educators can more effectively teach students to analyze cultural influences shaped by war and its effects.    


Introduction: Cultural Influences, the Self, and War

In our highly mediated culture, visual representations shape much of our knowledge about the world apart from our own corporeal experiences.  To a generation accustomed to a daily onslaught of images, visuals are often seen as a normal component in the transfer of information, and because of the pervasiveness of these images, people do not ordinarily think about the dissemination of ideology.  In Remediation, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin state, “we employ media as vehicles for defining both personal and cultural identity.  [. . .]  New media offer new opportunities for self-definition, for now we can identify with the vivid graphics and digitized videos of computer games as well as [. . .] film and television logos” (231).  Also, because we “always understand a medium in relation to other past and present media” (231), we are constantly reworking awareness of our selves in relation to culture.  While people thumb through magazines, mindlessly watch television programs, or surf the internet, they are bombarded with a vast number of ordinary images; therein lies the concern.  We must recognize that these seemingly ordinary images transfer inherently invisible ideologies, inviting us to remake ourselves in those images.  Visual messages are not always nefariously constructed, nor do they all have negative consequences; nonetheless, their power to influence society cannot be understated.  Because they form their views of the world beyond their own experiences, students must be able to mediate and to analyze critically visual forms of communication and the impact these visual messages might have.


Training in visual rhetoric must be placed within students’ literary education.  We suggest the concepts of visual rhetoric can be easily grasped through the propaganda posters created by the Office of Public Information (OPI), which worked to garner support for WWI, and were arguably part of the most successful public relations campaign in US history.  This propaganda project offers a unique perspective into the way visuals can and do sway public opinion.  From this perspective, then, we present a pedagogical tool for students to transfer the analytic skills gained from their study of the OPI to interpret more fully various literary texts.  Our purpose is to make students recognize the power of visual rhetoric on our culture and to become comfortable using their own powers of analysis to question the way they allow varied discourses to communicate to them and, ultimately, how they allow those ideas to shape their beliefs about our culture and the world.


Linking Images and Literature

Since engaging in war necessarily politicizes private space, the home front is open to the introduction of psychological manipulation used to sway opinion to support war and to recruit armed forces.  Though the United States entered the Great War in 1917, a campaign to enter the war had already been running since the war’s advent in Europe in 1914.  The job to generate support from the public and to recruit volunteers to fight in a foreign land was handed to the OPI under George Creel, who waged an enormous psychological offensive against America’s citizens, and in doing so, helped to garner support for the war effort and heralded the United States’ entry in to the war.  Creel queried, “How could the national emergency [of the war] be met without national unity?”  In answer to this question he asserted: “The printed word, the spoken word, motion pictures, the telegraph, the wireless, posters, signboards, and every possible media should be used to drive home the justice of America’s cause” (qtd. in Ewen 112). 


Understanding that oftentimes graphic illustrations conveyed messages more immediately upon the public sensibility than printed material, Creel hired artists whose job it was to produce propaganda—emotional manipulation of the mass sensibility towards support of the war to end all wars.  In this era before mass broadcast media, the poster proved a highly effective tool for conveying information; twenty million were plastered all over the US; all called for enlistment to defeat the brutal Hun who had invaded Belgium and now threatened the rest of continental Europe and even America.  These posters also adjured those remaining on the home front to be frugal and to keep the home fires burning, to donate money, goods, and their time to aid in the defeat of the Germans.  One of the most psychologically effective tools used in these recruitment posters during WWI was the female image.  Conventionally associated with the home and security and also traditionally employed as the symbol of country and liberty, the iconic visual representation of woman proved to be highly successful for propagandists.  For example, when the British ship Lusitania was sunk in 1915, American propagandists used this tragic event to gain support for the war in Europe.  Perhaps the most effective poster of this time is stark in its simplicity.  Pictured is a woman in a white nightdress cradling an infant in her arms.  She slowly descends into the murky, green-black depths of water.  The suggestion is that she and her child are drowning, victims of the attack on the Lusitania by the Germans.  A simple word at the bottom of the poster issues a call to action: “ENLIST.”  Stunning as it is in its minimalism, the image on the poster evokes the complex psychological directive of Americans’ emotions.


Similarly, some early war literature offered a romantic vision of soldiering.  Most famously, Rupert Brooke’s Sonnets of 1914 glorify the soldier and the fighting experience, likening the soldiers to “swimmers into cleanness leaping.” (“Peace” 4).  In the same way, Julian Grenfell’s highly popular “Into Battle” (1915) offers a stirringly beautiful account of death in battle:

        And when the burning moment breaks

        And all things else are out of mind,

        And only joy of battle takes

        Him by the throat and makes him blind,

        [. . .]

        The thundering line of battle stands,

        And in the air death moan and sings;

        But day shall clasp him with strong hands,

        And night shall fold him with soft wings.  (35-38, 43-46)

The standard visions of WWI soldiers portrayed in propaganda posters and literature offer romantically-charged images of the hero, which initially became the pervasive beliefs of a culture at war.  These provocative images drawn from romantic notions of war materialized in an overwhelmingly successful campaign to gain support and recruits for the war.  However, historically we know the reality of the war was very much different.  Wilfred Owen provides the indictment of the glorious portrayal of war in the lines from his well-known poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1917):

        If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
        Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
        Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
        Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
        My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
        To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
        The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
        Pro patria mori.  (21-28 )

The memoirs which emerged after the war similarly demystified the war experience. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Robert Graves’ Goodbye to all That, Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero, and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, among others, provide biting commentary on battle and the long-reaching effects of war which refute the propaganda which inspired so many men to go to war.


Once again, nearly one hundred years after WWI, we are a nation at war. We, the Americans of the 21st century, are being bombarded with images of war and the threat of terrorism on our shores just as Americans were in the second decade the 20th century.  The call to protect and to serve America is stronger than it was during WWI because of the attack on New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.  The images associated with WWI recruitment can serve as a basis by which to trace the evolution of military propaganda associated with the call to arms.  With a 21st century lens and the knowledge that history brings, we are able to see how these posters and written texts worked insidiously to create emotions that could call men to action.  We can look at these cultural components now and recognize the exaggerated depictions of typical hero icons.  Though these glasses work well to peer into the past, they somehow dull our sight to some of the same ideologies being played out before us today. If we can recognize how visual rhetoric is at work in historical context we should thus be able to interpret the contemporary literary rhetoric as well.  Our goal here is to teach students to recognize and decode the manipulative ideologies in historical contexts and be able to use those decoding skills on continuously emerging contemporary contexts.  Our intent is to help students see through the images and the written texts to the rhetorical arguments; thus, they will be able to create an informed decision about their ideological stance, rather than have one created for them by cultural constructs.


Studies in the emerging field of visual rhetoric merge traditional literary analysis with analysis of visual images to determine the ways meanings are formed in our society.  Our vision, our texts, our rhetoric are never neutral since our minds do not function in a vacuum devoid of subjectivity, political agendas, and points of view (Handa 377).   Theorist Irit Rogoff asks us to find out which aspects of the historical past actually have circulating visual representation and which do not.  To find out, he argues that we must look at visuals intertextually so we can read the “images, sounds, and spatial delineations […] onto and through one another, lending ever-accruing layers of meaning and of subjective responses, to each encounter we might have with film, TV, advertising, art works, buildings, […] urban environments” (Rogoff 381) and especially literature.  In essence, the propagandized representations of war begun through the Office of Public Information in WWI, which continue through the 21st century within media as diverse as film, print, and the World Wide Web, continue to inform the way the military is perceived in our country and thus constitute what functions as a cultural discourse to be read against emerging literary texts.  Contemporary military recruitment has tapped into the “what’s in it for me” (Sackett and Mavor, Attitudes 230) attitude of its potential recruits and has created motivating images to encourage awareness of this “alternative career” choice.  An evocative tool within the military’s advertising is the catch phrase, “patriotic adventure” which recalls past images of soldiers and soldiering which offset the realities associated with warfare. The call to duty is couched in visual/textual/rhetorical images which appeal to today’s youth between the ages of 16-21: “extreme” sportsmanship, adventurous spirit of individuality, challenge, and pride in country gained through being “all that you can be.”  


Structuring the Link between Past and Present

In his book, Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives, Glenn Stillar shows us how to organize textual analysis and conduct theoretically informed critical analyses of everyday information—a label that can easily be placed on images in our highly visual culture.  In the same way that we can study a written text through understanding its rhetorical structure, visual images can enhance the deconstruction to reveal an interesting interplay of beliefs, ideals, and assumptions.  Since visuals operate in much the same way as written texts and are structured through much the same discourse frameworks, we can use social semiotics as a method to uncover the beliefs, ideals, and assumptions carried in today’s visual images.  Stillar’s textual analysis process is structured to help practitioners of discourse analysis who are looking for ways to instantiate the work of Kenneth Burke, among others.  Acknowledging that no method is free from representing some structures of ideology and power, using the discourse framework allows for the analysis to be a “form of participation with the very practices it analyzes” (Stillar 9).  Using WWI images and texts, teachers can provide a model for students so that they may more readily engage in critical analysis of contemporary cultural modes of representation. 


One assignment might have students analyze one of the infamous propaganda posters of WWI in conjunction with one of the more famous poems of the era.  A well-known poster of the time preys on the fear of invasion and the ensuing damage to American womanhood and therefore America itself. The poster depicts the German threat as a bloody-fanged gorilla leaving a burning Europe behind him as he crosses the ocean to America’s shores. He wields a club on which is written “Kulture;” from his arm dangles an unconscious (perhaps dead) woman who has been ravaged, her dress ripped to reveal her breast. The caption reads: “Defeat this Brute!” and offers an address of the armed forces recruitment office. The poster is effective in its manipulation of the public’s fear of invasion and its ignorance of the “culture” which drove Germany to war. This demonization of the enemy and the highly evocative image of the woman presented in these posters appealed most certainly to men who were invited to enlist in order to defeat the German peril.  In conjunction with the analysis of the poster, students might read Wilfred Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting.” In this poem, set in hell, a British soldier meets the German soldier he had killed the day before. During the course of the poem he finds that the man he has killed is very much like him, not the demonized enemy of propagandized media, and in essence, he has destroyed the bearer of “truths that lie too deep for taint” (36).  The young man tells him: “[. . .] by my glee might many men have laughed,/ And of my weeping something had been left,/ Which must die now.  I mean the truth untold,/ The pity of war.  The pity war distilled” (22-25).  Indeed, the pity of war is that which undoes the glory of war, and by reading the literature coming from those who have experienced war, students can readily see the discrepancy between the visual representation of an idea and its reality.


In linking these seemingly disparate components students will be able to develop their interpretation skills of culturally-produced visual, literary, and public texts.  The ironic juxtaposition found within the disparity between inculcated notions and lived experience can be translated into contemporary visuals such as the recruiting advertisements for the US Armed Services, in conjunction with emerging literary texts.  As an example, Anthony Swofford’s memoir Jarhead brutally recounts his time spent as a Marine sniper in the Gulf War.  Although Swofford is proud of his service in the Marines, what emerges from his account of active service is quite different than the images presented by the media and magazine ads.  His harshly realistic account of soldiering might be read against the now legendary media coverage of the war presented by CNN as well as against current ads for military recruitment.


Images for this exercise can be found in a variety of locations.  For those images associated with the military, we suggest Armed Forces websites, magazines, television—particularly those channels (MTV, VH1, BET) and programs which target youth, and the internet (Google images or Yahoo! Pictures).  However, our purpose in this essay is descriptive rather than prescriptive. We want to offer a framework for a classroom exercise that instructors can adapt to differing situations based on desired outcome.  We also want to foster an understanding of the myriad ways in which visual images barrage our sensibilities and also to offer a critical lens through which to translate all cultural messages, not just those confined to the military.  A useful tool to consider such lenses is to think of them as “terministic screens [which] direct the attention” (Burke 45).  These screens are verbal filters we construct and through which we perceive reality.  Reality, in these Burkean terms does not come to us whole; instead language as a “symbolic action” is a “reflection of reality, [. . .] a selection of reality [. . .], and a deflection of reality” (45).  Advertisers play on this, using verbal images to direct our attention and so focus on those aspects they wish to feature.  Military recruitment offers a reflection, a selection, as well as a deflection of the nature of warfare in order to gain support and troops.  However, it is the lived experience of the combatants, captured in current and emerging literary texts that will ultimately allow for greater understanding of and a more informed critical analysis of our current culture of war. 



This essay presents a framework for deconstructing visual images and literary texts to help students better understand their culture.  Using examples from previous generations torn by war, we can easily see how images manipulated public opinion and supported particular ideologies.  Through this lens, students can deconstruct their own media-saturated cultures and perceive how people are often influenced through seemingly innocuous images.  Linking the deconstruction of images to literary analysis presents a valid structure for discerning how texts and images work in concert to cement our culturally ascribed positions, or not.  Once we can see how these textual functions operate within a historical context, we can use the ironic juxtapositions to illuminate how ideologies are working to shape consent today.  





Attitudes, Aptitudes, and Aspirations of American Youth.  Paul R. Sackett, and Anne Mavor, eds.  Committee on Youth Population and Military Recruitment.  Washington DC: National Academies Press, 2003.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin.  Remediation: Understanding New Media.  Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999.

Brooke, Rupert.  “Peace.”  Poetry of the Great War: An Anthology.  Eds. Dominic Hibberd and John Onions.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1986.  43.

Burke, Kenneth.  Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method.  Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.

Evaluating Military Advertising and Recruiting: Theory and Methodology.  Paul R.Sackett, and Anne S. Mavor, eds. Committee on Youth Population and Military Recruitment.  Washington DC: National Academies Press, 2004.

Ewen. Stuart. PR! A Social History of Spin.  NY: Basic Books, 1996.

Grenfell, Julian.  “Into Battle.”  Poetry of the Great War: An Anthology.  Eds. Dominic Hibberd and John Onions.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1986. 100.

Handa, Carolyn.  “Introduction to Part Five.”  Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook.  Ed. Carolyn Handa.  Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2004.  377-380.

Owen, Wilfred.  Dulce et Decorum Est.”  Poetry of the Great War: An Anthology.  Eds. Dominic Hibberd and John Onions.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1986.  141.

---.  “Strange Meeting.”  Poetry of the Great War: An Anthology.  Eds. Dominic Hibberd and John Onions.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1986.  165.

Rogoff, Irit.  “Studying Visual Culture.”  Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Carolyn Handa.  Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2004. 381-394.

Stillar, Glenn.  Analyzing Everyday Texts: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Social Perspectives.

            Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998.