Propaganda when Preparing or Justifying War

By Anup Shah

July 21, 2022


In preparing for or justifying war, additional techniques are often employed, knowingly or unknowingly:

“Several key stages of a military campaign is identified to “soften up” public opinion through the media in preparation for an armed intervention. These are:

The Preliminary Stage—during which the country concerned comes to the news, portrayed as a cause for “mounting concerns”because of poverty/dictatorship/anarchy;

The Justification Stage—during which big news is produced to lend urgency to the case for armed intervention to bring about a rapid restitution of “normality”

The Implementation Stage—when pooling and censorship provide control of coverage;

The Aftermath—during which normality is portrayed as returning to the region, before it once again drops down the news agenda.

“There is always a dead body baby” and it comes at the key point of the Justification Stage—in the form of a story whose apparent urgency brooks no delay—specifically, no time for cool deliberation or negotiating on peace proposals. Human interest stories … are ideal for engendering this atmosphere”.

The Peace Journalist Option,, August 1997


Award-winning investigative journalist, Phillip Knightley, in an article for the British paper, The Guardian also points out four stages in preparing a nation for war:

1. The crisis

The reporting of a crisis which negotiations appear unable to resolve. Politicians, while calling for diplomacy, warn of military retaliation. The media reports this as “We’re on the brink of war” or “War is inevitable”

2. The demonisation of the enemy’s leader

Comparing the leader with Hitler is a good start because of the instant images that Hitler’s name provokes.

3. The demonisation of the enemy as individuals

For example, to suggest the enemy is insane.4. AtrocitiesEven making up stories to whip up and strengthen emotional reactions.

Knightley also points to the dilemma that while some stories are known to have been fabrications and outright lies, others may be true. The trouble is, he asks, “how can we tell” His answer is unfortunately not too reassuring: “The media demands that we trust it but too often that trust has been betrayed”. The difficulty that honest journalists face is also hinted to in another article by Knightley:

“One difficulty is that the media have little or no memory. War correspondents have short working lives and there is no tradition or means for passing on their knowledge and experience. The military, on the other hand, is an institution and goes on forever. The military learned a lot from Vietnam and these days plans its media strategy with as much attention as its military strategy.

Phillip Knightley, Fighting dirty, The Guardian, March 20, 2000


Miren Guiterrez, editor-in-chief of Inter Press Service notes a number of elements of propaganda taking the more recent wars into account, the “War on terror” and the Iraq crisis. Summing up his short but detailed report, he includes the following as propaganda strategies:

  • Incompleteness
  • Inaccuracy
  • Driving the agenda
  • Milking the story (maximizing media coverage of a particular issue by the careful use of briefings, leaking pieces of a jigsaw to different outlets, allowing journalists to piece the story together and drive the story up the news agenda, etc.)
  • Exploiting that we want to believe the best of ourselves
  • Perception Management (in particular by using PR firms)
  • Reinforcing existing attitudes
  • Simple, repetitious and emotional phrases (e.g. war on terror, axis of evil, weapons of mass destruction, shock and awe, war of liberation, etc)

Military Control of Information

Military control of information during war time is also a major contributing factor to propaganda, especially when the media go along with it without question. The military recognizes the values of media and information control very well.

Information Operations

The military often manipulates the mainstream media, by restricting or managing what information is presented and hence what the public are told. For them it is paramount to control the media. This can involve all manner of activities, from organizing media sessions and daily press briefings, or through providing managed access to war zones, to even planting stories. This has happened throughout the 20th century. Over time then, the way that the media covers conflicts degrades in quality, critique and objectiveness.

“Information is the currency of victory” an August 1996 U.S. Army field manual. From a military’s perspective, information warfare is another front on which a battle must be fought. However, as well as needing to deceive adversaries, in order to maintain public support, information to their own public must no doubt be managed as well. That makes sense from a military perspective. Sometimes the public can be willing to sacrifice detailed knowledge. But that can also lead to unaccountability and when information that is presented has been managed such, propaganda is often the result. Beelman also describes how this Information Operations is used to manage information:

“For reporters covering this war [on terrorism], the challenge is not just in getting unfettered and uncensored access to U.S. troops and the battlefield—a long and mostly losing struggle in the past—but in discerning between information and disinformation. That is made all the more difficult by a 24-hour news cycle, advanced technology, and the military’s growing fondness for a discipline it calls “Information Operations”

IO, as it is known, groups together information functions ranging from public affairs (PA, the military spokespersons corps) to military deception and psychological operations, or PSYOP. What this means is that people whose job traditionally has been to talk to the media and divulge truthfully what they are able to tell now work hand-in-glove with those whose job it is to support battlefield operations with information, not all of which may be truthful.

Maud S. Beelman, The Dangers of Disinformation in the War on Terrorism, Coverage of Terrorism Women and Journalism: International Perspectives, from Nieman Reports Magazine, Winter 2001,


“Danny Schechter, also referring to the article above by Beelman, describes Information Operations more bluntly as being “a way of obscuring and sanitizing that negative-sounding term ‘propaganda’ so that our “information warriors” can do their thing with a minimum of public attention as they seek to engineer friendly write ups and cumulative impact:”

Embedded Journalists: An Advantage for the Military


During the short invasion of Iraq in 2003, journalists were “embedded” with various Coalition forces. This was an idea born from the public relations industry, and provided media outlets a detailed and fascinating view for their audiences.

For the military, however, it provided a means to control what large audiences would see, to some extent. Independent journalists would be looked upon more suspiciously. In a way, embedded journalists were unwittingly (sometimes knowingly) making a decision to be biased in their reporting, in favor of the Coalition troops. If an embedded journalist was to report unfavorably on coalition forces they were accompanying they would not get any cooperation.

So, in a sense allowing journalists to get closer meant the military had more chance to try and manage the message.


In U.K., the History Channel broadcasted a documentary on August 21, 2004, titled War Spin: Correspondent. This documentary looked at Coalition media management for the Iraq war and noted numerous things including the following:


  • Embedded journalists allowed the military to maximize imagery while providing minimal insight into the real issues;
  • Central Command (where all those military press briefings were held) was the main center from which to:
    • Filter, manage and drip-feed journalists with what they wanted to provide;
    • Gloss over set-backs, while dwelling on successes;
    • Limit the facts and context;
    • Even feed lies to journalists;
    • Use spin in various ways, such as making it seems as though reports are coming from troops on the ground, which Central Command can then confirm, so as to appear real;
    • Carefully plan the range of topics that could be discussed with reporters, and what to avoid.

In summary then, the documentary concluded and implied that the media had successfully been designated a mostly controllable role by the military, which would no doubt improve in the future.

For more about the issues of embedded journalism during the Iraq invasion, various propaganda techniques employed, and more, see this web site’s Iraq media section.

Dilemma of Journalists and Wartime Coverage

With military conflicts then, reporting raises an interesting dilemma for some; one the one hand, the military wish to present various aspects that would support a campaign, while on the other hand, a journalist is supposed to be critical and not necessarily fall in line. The is captured well by Jane Kirtley, a professor of Media Ethics and Law:

“Shortly after the end of the American Civil War, journalist F. Colburn Adams wrote, “The future historian of the late war will have [a] very difficult task to perform … sifting the truth from falsehood as it appears in official records.”

Similar to the oft-repeated axiom that truth is the first casualty of war, Adams’ observation succinctly summarizes the nub of the conflict between the military and the news media. The military’s mission is to fight, and to win, whatever conflict may present itself-preferably on the battlefield but certainly in public opinion and the history books. The journalist, on the other hand, is a skeptic if not a cynic and aims to seek, find and report the truth — a mission both parties often view as incompatible with successful warfare, which depends on secrecy and deception as much as superior strategy, tactics, weaponry and manpower.



                                                                Jane Kirtley, Enough is Enough, Media Studies Journal, October 15, 2001


Often, especially when covering conflicts, the media organizations are subject to various constraints by governments, military, corporate pressure, economic interests, etc. Sometimes, however, the media are more than willing to go along with what could be described as self-censorship, as highlighted vividly in the following:

“We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know about and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.

Katharine Graham, Washington Post owner speaking at CIA’s Langley, Virginia headquarters in 1988, Reported in Regardie’s Magazine, January, 1990

Wider Propaganda

The use of words is integral to propaganda techniques. Dr. Aaron Delwiche, at the School of Communications at the University of Washington, provides a web site discussing propaganda. Delwiche recounts how in 1937, in the United States, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis was created to educate the American public about the widespread nature of political propaganda. Made up of journalists and social scientists, the institute published numerous works. One of the main themes behind their work was defining seven basic propaganda devices. While there was appropriate criticism of the simplification in such classifications, these are commonly described in many university lectures on propaganda analysis, as Delwiche also points out. Delwische further classifies these (and adds a couple of additional classifications) into the following:

Word Games
Labeling people, groups, institutions, etc in a negative manner
Glittering generality
Labeling people, groups, institutions, etc in a positive manner
Words that pacify the audience with blander meanings and connotations
False Connections
Using symbols and imagery of positive institutions etc to strengthen acceptance
Citing individuals not qualified to make the claims made
Special Appeal
Plain Folks
Leaders appealing to ordinary citizens by “doing things
Band Wagon
The “everyone else is doing it” argument


Heightening, exploiting or arousing people’s fears to get supportive opinions and actions






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