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US losing the campaign for hearts and minds

By Mark Rolfe - posted Wednesday, 20 June 2007

What do al-Qaida and the Bush administration have in common? What do George Bush and Adolf Hitler have in common?

No, the answer to both questions is not fascism. Rather, both al-Qaida and the Bush administration agree they are in a propaganda war over the TV and the Internet, even using Youtube. They also subscribe to simplistic ideas that propaganda will cause a collapse of public opinion and military defeat. Thus, both Bush and Hitler adhere to the “stab-in-the-back” idea of propaganda.

Hitler fervently believed that Germany lost World War I because its army was “stabbed in the back” by Jews and socialists and by British propaganda which caused a collapse of mass opinion.


He wrote in Mein Kampf of a “flood” of propaganda in 1918 that seduced the army into thinking “as the enemy wanted it to”. Actually, he pinched these ideas from General Erich von Ludendorff who joined General Hindenburg to be the heads of the German High Command and who both became the effective rulers of Germany during that war instead of the weak civilian government.

Ludendorff failed to break the Allies with his March 1918 offensive, in which the Australian army took a leading role against the Germans around the French village of Villers-Bretonneux.

Then in July the German army reeled from an attack by French and American divisions, and there were millions more American troops to arrive in Europe and an American economy yet to get into full gear. In other words, there was an impossible strategic vice closing on the Germans.

Ludendorff saw that defeat was looming but, rather than letting the government know, he misled it into thinking that the war could still be won. In September he and Hindenburg had effective power transferred back to the German parliament and to a new government which was formed from the socialists that the two generals despised - and advised them to sue for peace.

After the armistice, Ludendorff fled to Sweden where he wrote repeatedly of the “stab-in-the-back” of the German army and of the “unscrupulous” enemy propaganda which “hypnotised” his army “as a rabbit is by a snake”.

Thus, he had successfully palmed blame onto propaganda and onto the civilian government which he helped create rather than take responsibility for the strategic failures he created for Germany. There is a comparison with contemporary events.


The US now pursues a counterinsurgency war in Iraq to win “hearts and minds”, a phrase from the Vietnam War that has also popped from the lips of Alexander Downer. It seems that he and the Bush administration are principally worried about our minds, rather than those of the Iraqis, and with getting through political difficulties of their own making.

In April, Bush compared Iraq to Vietnam and blamed the loss of public support when the horror was brought into American lounge rooms by television. Mythology has it that the war was lost because a negative media turned public opinion after the Tet offensive of January 1968. This is another tale of an army that was “stabbed-in-the-back” just when it was supposedly winning the war.

Interestingly, al-Qaida documents rely on the same mythology for their propaganda strategy of causing a collapse in American morale. With Vietnam in mind, they make comparisons to the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan by the mujahideen - with considerable help from the Americans. As one paper, entitled The Management of Savagery, states:

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A shorter version of this article was first published in The Canberra Times on June 11, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Rolfe teaches rhetoric and propaganda at the University of New South Wales.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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