A Faithful Approximation: E Pluribus Nullus Pt. II

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

In keeping with the theme begun in my last post, my entry today will continue to explore Anderson’s ‘imagined community’ as it relates to American military recruitment ads.

Formed in June of 1942, the Office of War Information (OWI) served as the official ‘public information’ arm of the United States Government during World War II. Its directive, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, was to “control the content and imagery of war messages.” Arguably, the OWI’s most enduring legacy has been its iconic propaganda posters, which have come to constitute something of a genre unto themselves.

The OWI was disbanded on August 31st, 1945 by President Truman. Since then, their defining poster-as-propaganda format has fallen to the wayside—replaced, largely, by the Internet.

Not that this is surprising.

The Internet allows for the circumvention of many of its predecessor medium’s ostensible shortcomings. Its intrinsic allowance for interactivity and navigability, for example, lends itself to more versatile and inclusive portrayals of the American imagined community. Moreover, the Internet is a relatively nuanced communication medium: far more so than a simple poster, it can communicate complex and voluminous information in a fairly comprehensible manner. Perhaps most importantly, its capacity is such that propaganda crafters can exploit a broader cast of characters in telling their version of the American story.

For example, when one visits http://www.army.mil , the official website of the United States Army, one is not presented merely with a single image and a few choice words, crafted so broadly and bluntly as to appeal to the largest possible swath of receivers. Rather, one is presented with a streamlined interface, one full of more information than any single receiver would likely care to peruse. To use an analogy, if a World War II poster functions like a shotgun, army.mil functions like a high-precision rifle.

One of the crowning elements of the website is its ‘Features’ section, which consists of various “interactive microsites focused on valor, events & history.” Here, the imagined American community is faithfully approximated. In the section, the travails and storied involvements of various groups in the United States Army are articulated in no uncertain terms. Different groups are given their own personally tailored and independently navigable website which individual users are free to investigate at their own discretion. The decision is left to these individuals to pick the site they feel is most applicable to them—to their national, racial and cultural identity.



Examples of groups represented on the site include: Women, Hispanic Americans, “Asian/Pacific” Americans, American Indians and African Americans. Amazingly, the Features section also contains two special sections: one dedicated to “The United States Army in Post-World War II Japan, 1945-1952”; the other to “Operation Arkansas,” which “commemorates the 50th Anniversary of Operation Arkansas, where Soldiers were ordered to Little Rock Central High School to enforce the desegregation of the school.”

As they appear on the webpage, the relevance of the aforementioned dedications is anything but mysterious. Each is geared toward the reconciliation of a historically underrepresented—or in the former’s case, historically devastated—group relative to the United States Army. In this way, the allowances of the Internet as a medium for propaganda are perfectly illustrated: Gone are the days of synecdoche and broad-stroke generalization; now is the time of hyper-personalization and all-inclusiveness.

Here, the persuasive power of Anderson’s imagined—or readily imaginable—community is made real.

In my next post, for some perspective, I will be looking at one of the OWI’s most iconic World War II posters: the ‘Buy War Bonds’ poster featured in my last gnovis entry. I will also be comparing and contrasting the dominant forms of nationalism—the hot versus banal forms conceived by Billig—as reflected in the materials from World War II and the present. I will be paying particular attention to the change in tone that has accompanied the shift from the poster-as-propaganda form to the website-as-propaganda form.