Wednesday, March 10, 2010

El Paso Museum of Art’s American War “Propaganda”

During the Christmas holidays several months ago, my family was in El Paso, Texas and had occasion to visit the El Paso Art Museum of Art. It has an architecturally impressive home in downtown El Paso. Among other things, there is a lovely collection of European religious art from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. And during our visit there was an exhibit of art depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe. However, for purposes of this blog, I actually wanted to focus on another part of the museum.

Tucked away just outside of the gift shop, the museum displays a collection of what it termed American “propaganda” from the World War II period. It was a fascinating series of posters encouraging the American public to do various things in support of the country’s war effort. I was born well after World War II, and have only learned about that time from history books and documentaries. The posters were encouraging a wide variety of sacrifices of ordinary citizens—from participation in air raid drills to using less meat to recycling an array of industrial materials (well before the first Earth Day). Citizens were being asked to use less of just about everything and to do without certain items, many of which were considered staples of every day life.

And despite the great sacrifices being demanded, it seemed to me that Americans did all this—in other words, the war propaganda was successful-- because the average American ardently wanted to support the troops on the front lines. One could argue that support arose simply because our country had been attacked and our future seemed in jeopardy. And one could argue the same situation has been present in our country since 9/11. But its seems to me that the level of support was different, more personal during World War II in part because of the widespread mobilization of the nation’s young men. The war directly touched every community many times over, and touched most families personally. People were sacrificing not just for abstract ideals and to support folks they had never met. During World War II, Americans were literally sacrificing to support their sons, husbands and brothers.

Since our invasion of Iraq in 2003, some have called for a return to a mandatory draft. I’ve had mixed feelings about that proposal. I tend to have a great skepticism about wars generally, and that skepticism has intensified in recent years for fairly obvious reasons. However, it does seem a persuasive argument to me that nations with a more widespread conscription of their young people would be more reflective and cautious in following their leaders’ call for war, particularly in cases when the war is preemptive or elective in nature. (Indeed, many countries in Western Europe have compulsory military service for their young.) It seems strange to me that our own country has been at war for about 7 years now, but that fact seems to not disrupt the lives of most of our citizenry. For most of us, life goes on with only occasional remembrance that our troops are abroad fighting two wars.

Matthew 5:9 (New International Reader’s Version)

Blessed are those who make peace. They will be called sons of God.

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