War and Persuasion: Thinking Critically and Independently

By Carl Savich

Wars come and go, but the persuasion techniques to induce us to go to war do not change. Wars and conflicts begin in the minds of men and women. Before there is a war of bullets and bombs, there is a war of ideas. Images and ideas emerge first. Before one kills another human being, one has to rationalize killing, to explain killing, to justify killing. The first casualty in war is invariably the truth.


Persuasion can also be termed “spin”, “publicity”, “public relations”, “marketing”, “advocacy”, or “propaganda”. The term propaganda is derived from the Latin “propagare”, to propagate, to reproduce, to spread, with the meaning, to transmit, to spread from person to person.

A modern definition is the systematic, widespread dissemination or promotion of particular ideas, doctrines, or practices, meant to further a particular cause or agenda and weaken that of another. It is a systematic effort to manipulate attitudes, beliefs, or actions by the use of symbols.

In its essential form, persuasion consists in the manipulation of symbols—-words, pictures, signs, and images. At its most basic level, words and language, and indeed, even thought, can be dispensed with. Merely a stimulus or image is all that is required to produce the desired response. An image such as a photograph or a drawing can be powerful enough to trigger a reaction that leads to war. William Randolph Hearst reportedly wrote in the run-up to the 1898 Spanish-American War: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

The activity of persuasion is known by different terms: public relations (PR), publicity, advertising, information warfare, public affairs, promotion, and marketing. Those who engage in the activity are media relations specialists, lobbyists, spin doctors, and image brokers.

The process of persuasion has been described as the “engineering of consent”.

First, an overriding theme or themes are created for the persuasion campaign. The themes chosen must coincide with the “fundamental motivations” of the target audience or interested publics. Once the themes are chosen they are repeated non-stop. After 9/11 the key themes were “security”, “terrorism”, and the “war on terrorism”.

Second, the theme is tied to a symbol. After 9/11, the symbols were and remain “Islam”, “Muslims”, and “Arabs”.

Finally, to arouse interest, the persuasion method must be newsworthy.   This is where the media comes in to emphasize and to reinforce the themes and the symbols.

Persuasion Techniques

Persuasion in its many guises, such as advertising, marketing, and public relations, is ever-present and all-encompassing in society. It is rarely, if ever, studied or even discussed. It is a given, an assumption. We all realize that we are subjected to persuasion every day of our lives. Niccolo Machiavelli advised that “occasionally words must serve to veil the facts, but this must happen in such a way that no one become aware of it, or if it should become noticed, excuses must be at hand to be produced immediately,” that is, plausible deniability.

Nevertheless, although commonplace and wide-spread, persuasion techniques can be recognized, analyzed, and understood.

Institute for Propaganda Analysis


Clyde R. Miller, Kirtley Mather, and Edward A. Filene founded the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1937. Widespread media in the U.S. made the persuasion and manipulation of the public much easier and more effective. Critical thinking skills and rational analysis were downplayed and de-emphasized.

The Institute published their first newsletter Propaganda Analysis in October, 1937 in New York “to help the intelligent citizen detect and analyze propaganda.” In the second newsletter in November, 1937, they presented the “seven common propaganda devices” used for analysis in a section entitled “How to Detect Propaganda”.

In the 1920s, the dangers of mass persuasion were revealed in such books as Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927) by Harold D. Lasswell and Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928) by Edward L. Bernays.

In a democracy, it is the citizens as voters who decide and determine the policies and outcomes in society. It is imperative that they know how to think, how to analyze and examine an issue. The goal of the Institute was “to teach people how to think rather than what to think.” In persuasion, the persuader ineluctably seeks to tell people what to think. These dangers were perceived in the 1930s. That is why the Institute garnered support. But by 1942, with the entry of the U.S. in World War II, priorities changed. An ideological conflict was now being waged. War necessitated obedience and diligence. Persuasion no longer became an issue. As a result, the Institute ceased its operations that year. The emergence of the Cold War further stressed the need for conformity and acceptance. Persuasion techniques and methods were downplayed even more.

Analysis of Persuasion Techniques


Methods and techniques of persuasion have not changed much in the last century. They rely on a variation of the same theme: How to manipulate and persuade the masses using: l) Confusion; and, 2) Repetition.

Persuasion can be achieved by using images, symbols, or words. The understanding of persuasion techniques begins with language because that is the basis of communication.

First of all, our understanding of the world is inextricably tied to our language. Language cannot be dispensed with to arrive at a pure, self-authenticating truth or method. Physical reality is probabilistic, relative, and changing. There is no absolute truth. Thus, there can in theory be no completely unbiased, totally neutral, and objective truth.

In language we rely on signs or symbols to create meaning. But symbols are never settled on an absolute meaning. Meaning is always to a certain extent deferred and in constant development and evolution through metaphor. We understand reality through metaphors.

Persuasion has its basis in binary opposition, the structural division of the indivisible into hierarchical oppositions. For example, we structure reality into us/them, male/female, truth/fiction, literal/metaphoric, mind/body, cause/effect, reason/emotion. But these binary oppositions, while helpful in analyzing phenomena, delude us into believing that they are absolute and objective dichotomies. In fact, these divisions are arbitrary and rhetorical. That is, our language shapes and structures the manner in which we see and perceive reality, language becoming a perceptual prison or strait-jacket. The Chinese philosopher Confucius deduced that a sane and organized society resulted when things were named or labeled accurately. The whole purpose of persuasion, however, consists in mislabeling or inaccurately representing things. “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.”

The following techniques based on the seven basic persuasion devices developed by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis are found in all campaigns to persuade.

ClydeRMillerClyde R. Miller, the co-founder of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1937 in New York.

The Appeals Technique—this technique appeals to human emotions and desires in order to promote or sell something else. In the Bosnian case, the something else was US military intervention on the side of the Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Thus, atrocity stories or Atrocity Appeal is an appeal to our emotions to sell intervention. The objective is to convince us that intervention is necessary to prevent future mass slaughter, to prevent genocide, and to prevent violations of human rights.

The 2003 Iraq war was sold by an appeal to our innermost fears. Saddam Hussein was accused of manufacturing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that threatened the United States. The stories are a means to an end, to achieve intervention. Once military intervention is achieved, the accounts are superfluous and no longer required and thus are no longer reported. There were no WMD. But it did not matter. The objective was attained.

In the 1999 Kosovo case, an imperative for military intervention by the U.S. against Yugoslavia was the need to stop genocide. This was the persuasion paradigm established in the Bosnian Civil War. No genocide was found to have occurred, thus nullifying the cause for the intervention, but once the objectives were achieved, the NATO occupation of Kosovo, the reason or rationale used did not matter. The persuasion had worked. That was all that mattered.

Kosovo persuasion techniques were thus derivative and modeled on the Bosnian case which had worked effectively. The Albanian population of Kosovo was a victim of “persecution”, “repression”, “oppression”, and human rights abuses. In 1998, the KLA, the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army, was termed by the U.S. government as a “terrorist organization”.  But when it began a separatist war against the Yugoslav police and governmental officials, the Albanians were now the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing, like the Bosnian Muslims had been. In short, the terms “genocide”, “ethnic cleansing”, “atrocities”, “massacres”, human rights abuses, were part of the Appeals Technique to muster support for military intervention. The Appeals Technique was used to conceal the fact that the Kosovo conflict was a separatist struggle by the Albanian minority in then Yugoslavia.

Bandwagon Appeal consists in showing that one should support intervention to get on the bandwagon because the whole world supports it, i.e., the UN, the international community, the Western world, the free world, and all mankind. In the Bosnian Civil War, the U.S. relied on the UN and international law because they buttressed the U.S. policy and position. On the Kosovo issue, the U.S. rejected the UN and international law because U.S. policy violated them.

Testimonial Appeal relies on experts, celebrities, or authorities to promote the goals of the persuasion. During the Bosnian civil war, the goal was intervention. Diplomats, public figures, writers, and journalists were called upon to give their “testimonials” for intervention, i.e., Susan Sontag, Anthony Lewis, Lawrence Eagleberger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Elie Wiesel. With regard to Kosovo, Senator Bob Dole, Joseph Biden, John McCain, General Wesley Clark gave their testimonials for intervention.

Plain Folks Appeal relies on the argument that those doing the persuading are “common” or “average” people who one can trust and relate with. In the intervention scenario, it is appropriate because the victims are plain folks like us, relying on the Us versus Them dichotomy. This technique was employed by novelist and free-lance writer Susan Sontag who portrayed the Bosnian Muslims as “secular”, “urbanized”, “cosmopolitan”, “tolerant”, and, who are, “after all, just like us”, that is, just like the nation that is being persuaded to militarily intervene, the US.

In appealing to the US to intervene, the persuader sought to show that the Bosnian Muslims were plain folks, like you and me. The staging of the rock musical Hair and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the playing of the Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Sarajevo were meant to show that the Muslims are Western-oriented, part of the Western tradition, plain folks, just like us and unlike them. Paradoxically, Hair was a 1960s musical which was anti-government, anti-war, anti-nationalism, and anti-racist. Persuasion techniques rarely rely on logical or rational bases but appeal to the emotions, affective appeal, and only the emotions and not to the intellect, cognitive appeal.

The Logical Fallacy Technique relies on an argument that is inconsistent, irrational, and rhetorical. It was rampant in the Yugoslav civil wars and in the Iraq War of 2003. For instance, all sides to the conflict committed atrocities and massacres, the media reported, but only the Serbs were condemned and ostracized, only the Serbs were “war criminals”, only the Serbs were committing “crimes against humanity”. In the Iraq War, all the evidence demonstrated that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Yet the war was rationalized as part of the “war on terrorism”. Moreover, there was no credible evidence that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

With regard to Kosovo, political analysts noted that Kosovo Albanians had been given greater minority rights by Yugoslavia than any other minority in the world. The Albanians, however, wanted secession and the creation of a Greater Albania and thus boycotted the political process. The murders of police officers and government officials by terrorist methods only created instability and a lack of normalcy and legitimacy. Albanian separatism, however, was the cause of the instability, not repression or human rights abuses. Moreover, the so-called refugee crisis in Kosovo was created by the KLA terrorist attacks and then by NATO bombing. But these refugees were illogically explained as the product of Slobodan Milosevic’s policy of ethnic cleansing.

The Misleading Association Technique relates one person event, or idea with another, implying guilt or virtue by their association or conflation. U.S. policymakers sought to associate the Bosnian civil war to the Holocaust. Bosnian Serb detention camps were portrayed as Nazi-like concentration camps, like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau. War crimes and war crimes trials were based on the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. War refugees, which are a part of every war and every conflict, in this case were deemed to rise to the level of genocide and the term “ethnic cleansing” was used to describe them.

Similarly in Kosovo, Albanian refugees were by the Misleading Association Technique associated with the Holocaust.

The Oversimplification Technique creates a simplified picture of a conflict. The Syrian Conflict is depicted as a dictator suppressing democracy. The solution is simple: “Regime change”. The media perceived the Bosnian conflict not as a civil war, but as an “aggression” by one state, Serbia, against another state, Bosnia-Hercegovina. The media did not perceive the conflict as one between three ethnic and religious groups, similar to Lebanon. The media saw the Bosnian civil war conveniently as another Gulf War scenario, with Bosnia as Kuwait. The intervention paradigm for a Kuwait scenario already existed. By contrast, a Lebanon scenario was difficult if not impossible to manage or resolve, especially by force.

The Kosovo crisis was oversimplified as one between the “repressive” security forces of Slobodan Milosevic and innocent, Albanian civilians. In fact, the Serbian minority in Kosovo was being systematically attacked and murdered by the KLA which also launched an attack on the police and government. The KLA was fighting for separatism and secession which every sovereign nation had a right to combat, to preserve its own borders and sovereignty. The Kosovo Crisis was reduced to a conflict between Slobodan Milosevic and Albanian Kosovo civilians. The technique is to focus on the leader such as Kaiser Wilhelm II, Adolf Hitler, Tojo, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Muammar Gaddafi, and Bashar al-Assad, and not on the issues of the conflict.

The Selection Technique consists of choosing only a part of the story and presenting it as the complete picture. The media focused on Sarajevo to portray Bosnian Muslims as “secular, “cosmopolitan”, and “tolerant”. They overlooked the fact that the Bosnian Muslims sought to create their own state which they controlled. Everyone else was reduced to a minority. This was their goal even though they were a plurality, not a majority in Bosnia. This is an example of False Emphasis. Alija Izetbegovic and the SDA party were committed to establishing a Muslim state, but the media never showed this by using the Card-Stacking Technique, selecting only certain details of the Bosnian Muslim leadership and not presenting the whole picture, i.e., that the SDA ruling party was a Muslim party made up of Muslims, that Izetbegovic had visited Iran, and that Iran was supplying weapons and funds to the Muslim leadership.

With regard to Kosovo, the US government and media hid the fact that the KLA was a terrorist organization seeking separatism and secession through terrorism and terrorist acts. This is a classic example of the Selection Technique.

The Word Techniques—used against an individual, cause, or idea—are the most prevalent. Name-calling—referring to the Serbs as “aggressors”, “rapists”, “killers”—allows us to form a judgment before examining all of the evidence or the complete record. For instance, Muslims are called “secular”, but the fact that the regime has ties to Iran is not revealed. These words cause prejudiced responses. Bosnian Serbs are labeled “war criminals”, “murderers”, “rebels” without showing or demonstrating how this is so. By using such words, “name-calling”, the media objective is to tell us how to think about the events and actors in the Yugoslav conflict, in fact, to preclude thought.

Glittering Words, or Virtue Words, are posited to preclude an examination of the evidence. Bosnian Muslims and Croats were depicted as “pluralistic”, “democratic”, “tolerant”, “Western-oriented”, “peace-loving”, “innocent”, “secular”, “multi-ethnic”, “victims”, and “defending themselves”. But the governing SDA Party was a Muslim nationalist party made up of Muslims with ties to Iran, Afghanistan, and Libya, and Algerian militants. The KLA was transformed from a “terrorist organization” to US allies and proxies, “freedom fighters”, without any rationale. Thus, the persuasion technique allows a misleading, one-sided presentation which is inaccurate and false. In essence, Glittering or Virtue Words are employed to preclude thought on the part of the target audience. The facts or evidence need not be examined. The conclusion has already been made.

Likewise, Glittering Generalities preclude a debate or discussion of the conclusions reached. This is a primary objective of all persuasion, to prevent or preclude discussion or debate, or ideally, to preclude any thought whatsoever. As Marshall McLuhan has noted, “propaganda ends where dialogue begins.”

The Bosnian Muslims were portrayed as supporting “pluralism”, a “multi-ethnic state”, “democracy”, “tolerance”, “the free world”, and “the New World Order”. But the ruling SDA party was made up of only Muslim leaders who seek to create a Muslim state for Muslims only, as exemplified in The Islamic Declaration (1970, republished, 1990) by Alija Izetbegovic, described as a “Mein Kampf for Balkan Muslims”.

The Islamic Declaration and Franjo Tudjman’s The Wasteland of Historical Reality (1989) were ignored in the West, although these books clearly enunciated the respective Bosnian Muslim and Croatian positions. The KLA separatist and secessionist goals were known by US policymakers. But like Glittering Words, Glittering Generalities seek to present a one-sided, subjective view of the Muslims and Muslim leadership which is a hallmark of all propaganda.

Finally, the legal doctrines of positivism and natural law are inconsistently applied in persuasion.

Positivism stipulates that the law is to be obeyed regardless of whether one regards it as just or not. The law is the final authority.

The natural law approach states that when one believes the law to be unjust one does not have to obey it and can violate it by rejecting it.

The US inconsistently applied these two approaches. UN approval for the 2003 Iraq War was not needed because Iraq posed an existential threat to the U.S. that overrode international law. Therefore, the law can be dismissed and not followed. The Krajina and Bosnian Serbs, howver, must follow the law, i.e., international recognition, even if they thought the law was against their interests and posed an existential danger. The law was the law.

With regard to Kosovo, the law is again immaterial and not to be followed. Albanian separatists and NATO are free to disregard the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, international law and treaties, and the customs and agreements between nations.

But with regard to the Bosnian Muslims and Croatia, the US applied a natural law approach. The US allowed Bosnian Muslims and Croats to violate international law, the UN Arms Embargo because US policymakers regarded it as favoring the Bosnian Serbs. Likewise, the US itself violated the embargo in l994 because it thought it unjust, even though the US had voted for the embargo in the first place. When laws are unfair, we should feel free in violating them, the US spokespersons explained. The Muslims had a “natural right of self-defense” thus they need not heed the law, civil, military, international, or even human rights.

Similarly, Bosnian Muslims could use UN safe havens as military staging areas because the law was unjust. The Croatian Army attack on the Krajina Serb UN Protected Areas was justified by the US on the grounds that Croatia was “establishing control of its international borders”, i.e., a positivist approach.

With regard to Kosovo, the US violated Yugoslav sovereignty. Yugoslavia had no right to control its international borders.


In the 21st century, we have to learn the lessons of the 20th. Otherwise we will be persuaded and manipulated to go to war. And the wars never stop. This is because we continue to fall for the same tricks and ruses. We have to learn to be able to think critically and independently and analyze persuasion techniques. The techniques do not change. But our understanding of them must. This is the only way to avoid war.