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No Villains

I set down John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down, a novella about a fictional invasion of an unnamed European country, in frustration after reading the first page of the introduction. I had read that Steinbeck, according to the introduction by Donald V. Coers, worked with the Office of Strategic Services -- the CIA’s predecessor agency. Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down after they commissioned him to write a piece of propaganda.

Propaganda is rarely palatable, and has almost zero chance of being good art. I’m firmly in the Stephen Gauguin camp, “I would never, ever let my own personal, political instinct or leaning color something that I’m writing if it got in the way of the truth. Never. Because then it’s propaganda and I would never do that. Never.” To paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, “If you want to send a message, use a telegram.”

Though many critics discount Steinbeck and his Nobel prize, Steinbeck is in my top five greatest 20th century American writers. The simple beauty of Of Mice and Men and the Chapter 3 of Grapes of Wrath alone certify his literary genius. How then could he write propaganda? A genius should know better.

The Moon is Down takes place in a small, harmless Northern European town. A foreign country--vaguely German, overtly fascist--invades this town and, “by ten-forty-five it was all over. The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished.” (Page 1) In other words, the occupiers were ready to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner.
By the second chapter, we meet the occupiers of the small town. First, Major Hunter, an engineer who should not lead men, “An arithmetician rather than a mathematician” who fought “so he could get back to his fire place.” Next is Captain Bentick, “a family man, a lover of dogs and pink children and Christmas” with a pre-war obsession with English clothes, dogs, tobacco and culture. After him is the ambitious Captain Loft, “who lives and breathed his captaincy..driving ambition forced him up through the grades.” He believed, “that a soldier is the highest development of human life.” Then there are Lieutenant Prackle and Tonder, “snot-noses, under-graduates, lieutenants, trained in the politics of the day, believing in the great new system invented by a genius so great they never bothered to verify the results.” One is a dancer cum artist who loves destroying degenerate art, the other a poet who dreams of "dark women."

Steinbeck closes the description simply, “These were the men of the staff, each one playing war as children play ‘run, sheep, run.’”

What’s with all this description? In a novella of 100 very small pages, Steinbeck devotes four to character development...of the enemy! When I first read this chapter, I wrote in my notes, “What is w/ these descrips?” Steinbeck clearly does not know rule one of good agit-prop: never humanize your enemy. These men aren’t enemies; they aren’t strong, powerful and evil.  These aren’t the Nazis of film; they don’t cackle or hiss.
No, they are people; flawed humans like us all, just wearing uniforms. From Major Hunter’s detachment to Lt. Tonder’s strange fantasies, each man is tragically human. As the introduction describes, “There are no heel clicking Huns, no depraved, monocled intellectuals, no thundering seig heils” As the novel progresses, their demoralization and sadness only makes them more human, more pitiable.

Steinbeck didn’t write propaganda at all, and this made his novel more successful. Some of the best art, as my sophomore English teacher told me, acts like a mirror reflecting the world back at itself. Steinbeck struggled to present the world the way it was. He had “learned about the psychological effects of enemy occupation upon the populace of conquered nations” and put himself in the place of the conquered, then he wrote what he saw and learned about honestly.
In short, he wrote the truth. And the truth is not propaganda, it is art.

seven comments

As I believe Matt mentioned in an early post, Garth Brook’s song “Belleau Woods” does a similar thing in that it humanizes the enemy. Also, in one episode of Band of Brothers (I don’t remember which one but it is one of the last ones, episode 9 maybe?) in the interviews with the survivors before the episode begins one vet (also I can’t remember who) talks about how under different circumstances he and the German soldier he is fighting could have had similar interests and become good friends. Ignoring that those we fight are still human makes it easier to justify killing them, but if we take the time to think about what our actions will do to the millions of lives involved we might not be so quick to take pro-active measures and use force only as a last resort.

You’ve asked before, Will, about why we have this art section, and I think you hit it on the head. One of the main themes of war literature, or art on war, is that we are all human. And art is one of the only ways we can talk about that.

We’ll have an article eventually on “Belleau Wood” —

“Artist use lies to tell the truth while politician use them to cover it up.”

With the above stated, let me now interject on the policy of truth (also a catchy Depeche Mode song). In Utopia, truth is always spoken because there is never a need for a lie. The truth doesn’t bring hurt feelings or fear or chaos because the truth is inherently passive. Like Steinbeck, Moore was hinting at a philisophical truth of his own: that our world is not perfect. Literally, utopia means no-place.

Here, I believe, there is value in lies. The entire intelligence industry is built upon lies and the dissemination of truth. How long would an operative last if he told thos he was infiltrating that he was a spook?

But that’s an obvious example and has little to do with propaganda. The was a movie recently, Flags of Our Fathers based upon the story of the historic photograph of the Marines raising the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima. There were many lies that surrounded that event, a fact that destroyed those involved. The lies also won that hearts and minds of America and for a while staved off thoughts of defeat in a Pacific campaign wrought with hardship.

“We didn’t see as human; we couldn’t. We were there to kill them. They wanted to kill us. It’s not easy to kill a man… It not easy to live with something like that. It’s harder if you know there’s a family somewhere missing a son or father.” -Colonel Aaron Bank

He told me that in an interview I did for a 6th grade report. He was a smart man and a good soldier.

Propaganda is a tricky subject. I cannot say I support a government lying to its populace but at the same time it may be necessary. Let’s be honest, the truth is terrifying. There are still hold outs that actually believe that our industrialization doesn’t affect the planet. A picture, though a lie, helped win a war. Sometimes we don’t need the truth, sometimes I think we need hope.

@ matty p – There is a value in some lies, but distortion, omission and straight up bald faced lies almost always cause more harm than good. From a morale standpoint, yes you want people to have pride and faith in their country, but as we write in Mon’s article, we lie to the Iraqi’s, and they no longer believe us.

I have to stand with the belief that truth is best, and our gov should never be allowed to give us anything but.

That’s a fantastic quote, it captures what every must do in every war. Heck, even in fights between rival gans, they must dehumanize one another. The difference between COL Bank and the US Army at large is he decieved himself, not those he served for, the American people.

Knowledge is powerful. I think my reservation with only telling the truth is with regards to intelligence operations as well as sensitive information. The locations of nuclear assets, specs on military equipment, etc.