Paper Machine

Another weapon of war: propaganda

When we think of the weapons of war, it's usually guns and bombs and tanks that come to mind. But a major tool of destruction that's used globally is one that most people don't consider: paper. Psychological warfare -- an effort to confuse, intimidate, influence, or otherwise undermine an enemy or opponent -- often manifests in a tactic known as aerial propaganda, in which military bombers drop leaflets onto the nation whose ass they intend to kick. Sometimes it's done to inform the citizenry about its options, but more often than not it's to scare soldiers and civilians into surrendering. Technically, these leaflets are known as Psychological Operations (PsyOps), but they're also nicknamed "paper bullets," and the United States loves them: We've dropped more than 80 million on Iraq since our latest conflict began, for example. Intersection for the Arts took a collection of these materials used by various nations and asked nine artists to respond to them with their own work; the result is the exhibit "Paper Bullets: A War of Words."

The propaganda in the show is almost unbelievable in its scope. It includes everything from anti-American leaflets dropped by Nazis on Allied forces during World War II to U.S. pamphlets rained on Vietnam, with promises of freedom in exchange for surrender. Some show sexy women enticing men to forgo war for a different kind of action waiting on the home front; some feature cherubic little blond girls saying, "Come back home alive, Daddy."

Where did it all come from? "We were able to wiggle our way into this weird collecting subculture," says Kevin Chen, Intersection's program director and the show's curator. "People collect this stuff like they collect baseball cards."

The United States dropped this image on 
North Korea in 1953. It says: "WARNING."
The United States dropped this image on North Korea in 1953. It says: "WARNING."

The majority of the PsyOps leaflets belong to Stephen J. Hasegawa, a local collector, and the artists' responses to them vary. On the floor, Amanda Eicher has spelled out the word "surrender" in a massive collage of political photos from the New York Times and photocopied pamphlets; hanging nearby are Kara Maria's colorful acrylic paintings of women erotically draped over large missiles. There's persuasive paper everywhere. One artist shows a shredded mess of it sitting suggestively next to two snowblowers. In the center of it all, hanging from the ceiling, is the case of a real M129 bomb used to drop leaflets, generously (and surprisingly) loaned by the U.S. Army.

Most of the exhibit is pretty heavy stuff, but there's a slice of levity, too. Paper bulleting, like any type of warfare, isn't foolproof; you need a good translator and copy editor. Two flubs in particular elicit a giggle. In one, the United States dropped leaflets on Somalia that intended to say something about making it a united nation, but instead offered to make it a "slave nation." And a piece of Iraqi propaganda showered on U.S. soldiers during Operation Desert Storm shows a picture of the Statue of Liberty in tears, with the line, "Liberty Stadium is crying."

 
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