Viral emails have emerged as a form of stealth propaganda recently, most noticeably in the recent U.S. presidential campaign, when Barack Obama was dogged with false claims that he was a Muslim, that he was refused to salute the American flag, that he was not a U.S. citizen and so forth. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, attempted to trace the chain of one of those emails and found what the Washington Post called "valuable insight into the way political information circulates, mutates and sometimes devastates in the digital age." She noted that the anonymous nature of viral emails, combined with the word-of-mouth way that they spread, makes them hard to counter. "This kind of misinformation campaign short-circuits judgment," she said. "It also aggressively disregards the fundamental principle of free societies that one be able to debate one's accusers."
Recently a friend forwarded me a viral email that has apparently been circulating since at least June of this year. I haven't seen it previously, but a Google search turned up several copies on various websites. This particular viral message was unrelated to Obama or the presidential campaign but carries its own load of rhetoric aimed at shaping public opinion. On the principle that these subterranean propaganda campaigns ought to be openly discussed and exposed, I thought I'd respond to this one publicly.
The email that I received began innocuously enough, listing a number of famous Hollywood actors who served in World War II and praising their service. As far as I could tell, this part of the message was accurate. It mentions Alec Guinness, James Doohan ("Scotty" on Star Trek), Donald Pleasence, David Niven, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Audie Murphy and others -- all of whom did indeed serve during the war, many in combat, and some suffering significant injuries. But then there's the kicker. The email concludes with a nasty swipe at today's Hollywood celebrities, accusing them of anti-Americanism for criticizing President Bush and opposing the war in Iraq:
So how do you feel the real heroes of the silver screen acted when compared to the hollywonks today who spew out anti-American drivel as they bite the hand that feeds them?
Can you imagine these stars of yester-year saying they hate our flag, making anti-war speeches, marching in anti-American parades and saying they hate our president? I thought not, neither did I! If you enjoyed this bit of history, please pass it on.
I did some checking, and it appears that this message has been circulating since at least June of this year. It clearly attempts to create a false contrast between the "real, manly, patriotic" stars of yesterday and today's Hollywood, where actors are presumed to be effete, liberal, traitorous, and certainly too cowardly to ever go to war themselves. But its closing commentary is not only insulting but untrue. Certainly some Hollywood celebrities disapprove of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, as do most Americans these days. Bush in particular is on track to leave office as the most unpopular president in history. Perhaps the author of the viral email I received would like to imagine that this means an overwhelming majority of Americans is unpatriotic.
In reality, however, opposing the war or President Bush is not the same thing as "spewing out anti-American drivel." And I have yet to hear an actual story of a single Hollywood celebrity who has actually said that he or she "hates our flag" or wants to "march in anti-American parades."
Out of curiosity, therefore, I decided to compile my own list of Hollywood celebrities who have seen actual combat in U.S. wars. The names that were not included in the email I received tell an interesting story. Contrary to what our viral propagandist would have people believe, the experience of war persuaded many soldiers, including Hollywood celebrities, to oppose subsequent military adventures.
- Actor Paul Newman flew as a tail gunner in the Avenger torpedo bomber during World War II and narrowly missed death during the battle for Okinawa in the spring of 1945. He became a liberal activist who spoke out strongly against the Vietnam War in particular. Near the end of his life, he supported anti-war candidate Ned Lamont in his home state of Connecticut. Shortly before Newman's death, he told a reporter that the greatest honor of his life was being named on Nixon's enemies list, something that he mentioned as well in statement opposing the policies of President Bush. "I was proud to stand with Democrats against an imperial president back then," he wrote. "And I am proud now to stand with a new generation of Democrats against a president who poses what I believe to be the biggest internal threat to American democracy in my lifetime."
- Director Robert Altman flew as a co-pilot on B-24 bombers during World War II. He went on to direct anti-war films such as M*A*S*H and was one of several hundred prominent figures who signed the "Not In My Name" declaration in 2003, opposing the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq.
- Another name left out of my viral emailer's list was writer Gore Vidal, who served in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. In addition to being a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, Vidal has gone so far as to call for the impeachment of President Bush.
- Writer Kurt Vonnegut was a private in the 106th Infantry Division during World War II, in which he received a Purple Heart and was captured by German troops on December 14, 1944. As a prisoner of war, he witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden, experiences that became the basis for his book, Slaughterhouse Five and made him a lifelong pacifist. With regard to the war in Iraq in particular, he denounced the Bush administration as "power-drunk chimpanzees" and said that soldiers "fighting and dying in the Middle East" are being "shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas."
- Actor James Garner saw combat in Korea and suffered knee injuries that required him to undergo multiple surgeries later in his life. In 2004, he discussed the lessons he learned from war and shared his opinions about Iraq and president Bush in comments to interviewer Tavis Smiley: "Anyway, you learn a healthy respect for war, and I'm not happy with what's going on today. Uh, you know, our sterling president--um, I shouldn't get into this. Everybody's gonna kill me, but I'm not happy with him. I--I-- if he had ever been in a war, he wouldn't have been so happy--so eager to send other people into war."
- Hollywood director Oliver Stone saw combat and was wounded twice in Vietnam, experiences that prompted him to write and direct anti-war films including "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July." More recently, he directed the movie "W." (currently in theatres), which presents a critical look at Bush's presidency.
Of course no one should rely on celebrities as their primary source of wisdom about matters as important as war and peace. However, these examples should suffice to answer anyone who still attempts to draw a pro-war message from the tragedies and suffering of the past.
If you enjoyed this bit of history, please pass it on.
CORRECTION: When originally posted, the second sentence of this article began as follows: "The Washington Post's Danielle Allen, a professor at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Studies, attempted to trace the chain of one of those emails..." This contained two errors. First, Danielle Allen was quoted in the Washington Post but is not affiliated with the newspaper in any way. Secondly, the Institute for Advanced Study (not Studies) is not formally affiliated with Princeton University, although it is located in Princeton, New Jersey. I regret the errors. -- Sheldon Rampton