An application of hall’s theory to social constructs of the enemy

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In every war, there is a “good guy” and a “bad guy”. The good guy is the hero who is saving the world from the aggressor, while the bad guy is an evil entity bent on destruction. But how does the enemy obtain such a label and, furthermore, who constructs the face of the enemy? What role does mass media play in the construction of enemies?

This study focuses on how societal attitudes towards an enemy may be shaped by the media. Because different forms of media may construct different faces of the enemy, the public may hold different perceptions of this enemy. One form of media that was available to the public throughout World War I (WWI), World War II (WWII), Vietnam Conflict, and the current Iraq war is political cartoons. These cartoons reflect not only the cartoonists’ attitudes but, more importantly, the general sentiment of society. By analyzing political cartoons, this study will examine how American society viewed each war, the country, and the enemy. This study will also discuss what social factors may have influenced the media’s representation of “the enemy” during WWI, WWII, Vietnam, and the Iraq War.

Overview of Wars and Media: WWI, WWII, Vietnam, and Iraq

The First World War, also known as the “Great War”, took place from 1914 to 1918. The war was triggered by the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to rule Austria-Hungry, by a member of the Black Hand, a secret society founded in Serbia. Austria-Hungry officially declared war leading to allied countries joining nations together to engage in war. Two groups emerged, the Entente Powers and the Central Powers. Allison (2004) describes the Entente Powers as consisting of France, the United Kingdom, and Russia who were later joined by Italy (April 1915) and the United States (April 1917). The Central Powers were initially comprised of Germany and Austria-Hungry, the Ottoman Empire joined in October of 1914 and Bulgaria shortly followed. Allison (2004) claims that the resolution of the war came about through a series of treaties, but most influential was the Treaty of Versailles which left Germany in ruins.

Information given to the American public about World War I was largely supplied by the United States government rather than from close correspondence with people on the front lines or from journalists. The media available to citizens did include some primary sources such as poetry, “trench magazines,” or recollections such as novels written by soldiers after they had returned home (Allison 2004). Government propaganda at the time was generally in the form of posters designed to create the idea of the Allies fighting a large collective enemy. Few other media sources were available to the public.

The Second World War began in the late 1930s and officially concluded on September 2, 1945. This war again divided many of the world’s most powerful nations into two groups, the Axis powers and the Allies. The Allies were comprised of the British Empire, the United States, the Union of Soviet Social Republics (USSR), and eventually China. The Axis powers consisted of Germany, Japan, and Italy in the Tripartite Pact. At first, the United States hoped to remain isolated from the emerging war; however, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan the United States immediately entered into the war. With the Allies victory in 1945, the United States emerged as one of the leading international super-powers.

One of the significant factors shaping Americans’ understanding of WWII was the newsreels. According to a Penn State (2007) study, during WWII the U.S. government produced and financed 250 newsreels pertaining to the war which were shown in movie theaters. The study finds that watching these newsreels became a regular part of American life, thus people could keep track of the war efforts. Hagopian stated this gave Americans, “a sense of participating in a historical narrative without knowing how it was going to end” (as quoted in Penn 2007). Hagopian describes the newsreel as creating a pseudo reality of what the country wanted to believe in and the news reels gave the nation a sense of what the war should mean.
During WWII, Hagopian believes “America produced some of the most successful propaganda campaigns in history. The pushes for increased production, labor, and conservation may well have won the war for America” (as quoted in Penn 2007). This government propaganda encouraged people towards a collective effort to fight against a greater evil. Propaganda posters produced by the government constructed a collective evil that loomed outside of the United States.

The Vietnam War, or from a Vietnamese standpoint the American War, was one of the most controversial conflicts in United States history. The war was between the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). According to Allison (2004), the United States involvement was attributed to eliminating global communism. American involvement in the conflict began in 1959 and lasted until April 30, 1975. The United States drew its forces out of Vietnam, according to Allison (2004), due to its failure to implement foreign policy leaving the communist North Vietnamese to overrun the South Vietnamese territory.

Journalists’ involvement in the Vietnam Conflict played a significant role in how Americans understood the war. With advancements in media technology, Americans were able to watch events in Vietnam far more closely than any previous war; Vietnam was known as the “living room war” (Vandiver 2005). The American people were no longer dependent on the government for information on war efforts; rather, they could make inferences based on televised images.

The Vietnam War emerged as a time of growing mistrust of the U.S. government. Pilger (1986) describes the issues surrounding the Vietnam War and the media that the people back at home received,

So rare were those like [former CBS news correspondent, Morely] Safer, who would describe in his reports what he saw as well as the camera saw, that he was accused of being “anti-American”: the catch-all tag for those who stepped even briefly outside the consensus view. When in 1965 Safer’s CBS crew filmed marines burning down a village with Zippo cigarette lighters, President Johnson himself intervened (p. 262).
The tension between government reports on the war’s successes and media images of chaos left many American’s confused to what was actually occurring in Vietnam and anti-war sentiments began to rise. According to Pilger (1986), a combination of differing ideological goals, geopolitical and military goals, and the nature of reporting and the structure of the media, all impacted the way events were reported, or not reported, portrayed or misrepresented.
The United States entered into the Iraq War, or Operation Iraqi Freedom, on the 30th of March 2003 this military action and continues today. The United States was joined by military personnel from such organizations as Multi-National Force-Iraq, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, and the NATO Training Mission-Iraq (Wikipedia 2008). The initial reason for the coalition invading Iraq was the belief that Iraq was producing and sheltering weapons of mass destruction, which would infringe on an arms agreement made in 1991. However, investigation by the American led Iraqi Survey Group after the invasion reported no weapons of mass destruction were found, but the Iraqi Survey group also reported that Iraq was planning to resume production and distribution once Iraqi sanctions were lifted (Quandt 2003). Increased resistance towards coalition troops has come primarily from insurgent sects and led many of the allied nations to begin troop removal.
Due to advances in media technology by 2008, media and propaganda are readily available to the public. According to Schweikart (2006), The Iraq War has been the most widely and closely reported war in military history. Quandt (2003) reported that here has been over 775 embedded journalist and photographers within the troops as early as March 2003. Media and information technology has allowed for a greater ability for an individual assessment on the Iraq war. Replacing official government propaganda with information technology has allowed the average American to develop their own conclusions about the war. Questions as to whether the new information is more or less politically skewed than earlier forms of media and how that may be influencing the publics’ sentiment on the war efforts could be assessed by examining political cartoons over time.
History of Political Cartoons

Katz’s (2004) article “A Historical Look at Political Cartoons” offers a historical look at political cartoons during times of war. Political cartoons began in the early 1700’s with the work of William Hogarth; however, it was Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” cartoon (1754) for the French and Indian War that launched political cartoons in the United States. The idea of using cartoons intentionally for political purposes is attributed to Francisco Goya’s sketches los Caprichos (Katz 2004). Political cartoonists began to gain attention starting with Thomas Nast who drew commentaries about the New York City “Boss” William Tweed in the 1870’s. By this time, Katz (2004:45) argues that, “The persuasive power of political cartooning was now unmistakable even to casual observers. Cartoonists achieves unprecedented visibility and influence.” Publishers soon realized the power sketches had on public opinions. In 1884 the New York World became the first daily American newspaper to include political cartoons (Katz 2004).

According to Katz (2004), during the Great Depression cartoonists supported different political positions on the causes and solutions, thus allowing the audience to make their own inferences. During World War II, Katz notes that cartoonists collectively depicted images of the enemy of the United States. This changed during the Cold War when political ideologies were split and, Katz argues, cartoonists did not address the real issues behind the Cold War. During the Vietnam War, political ideologies again impacted political cartoons, “their passion pointed commentary combined with televised images of death and destruction” revamped the importance of the political cartoon (Katz 2004:46).

Today, political cartoons often feature exaggerated characteristics of government leaders and shots at those in power. With the exception of the time period immediately after 9/11, cartoonists avoid constructing an enemy in editorials. Political cartoons in mainstream newspapers and magazines are held to a high standard. “In an age where reality is defined by sound bites and spin doctors, pandering pundits and partisan politics, political cartoonists must remain relevant and above the fray” (Katz 2004:46). Political cartoons do offer a data set for analyzing feelings on such public events such as war.

Propaganda and the Enemy

Few studies have been conducted on the portrayal of an enemy during wartime. Keen (1986), examined how representations of the enemy affect the individual and why cartoonists distort images of the enemy for the American public. Keen focuses his analysis on “The Faceless Enemy,” a property of political cartoons and propaganda that keeps the audience from seeing the enemy. Keen (1986:24) states that, “We systematically blur distinctions and insist that the enemy remain faceless, because we are able to perpetuate the horror of war, to be the authors of unthinkable suffering only when we blind ourselves to what we are doing.” Keen argues that in order to get a group of people to unite against a common enemy, propaganda must be used. Propaganda is meant to “paralyze thought, the prevent discrimination, and to condition individuals to act as a mass” (Keen 1986:25). This form of paralysis causes the public to see the enemy as a collective “them” rather than a unique individual. According to Keen, by making the enemy an “idea” rather than a person, the public is able to collectively join together against an outsider group and to give support to those individuals actively engaged in hand to hand combat.

Another important factor in depictions of the enemy is whether the war is being fought against people who are believed to be from a different cultural group. Keen explores this through the example of United States involvement with Asian countries. (Keen 1986:26) states, “When Western countries go to war against Asians, they usually portray them as faceless hordes.” Americans are able to visually see distinct differences between “us” and “them,” thus turning Asians into a collective mass with a low value of life (Keen 1986:26).

While this perspective may accurately describe the U.S. government media during Vietnam, what happens when the images in political cartoons do not line up with the reality of those at the front line? “Front-line soldiers frequently report that when they come on an enemy dead and examine his personal effects -- letters from home, pictures of loved ones -- the propaganda images fade and it becomes difficult or impossible to kill again” (Keen 1986:26). If the enemy comes to be seen as a person rather than a collective mass, is public support for fighting the enemy undermined? If a shift in the portrayal of this “enemy” occurs, does the public perception of the war change? Has the image of the enemy differentiated in various historical periods, and if so, how? My study will attempt to address these questions, thus filling the gap in the existing sociological literature on the social construction of the enemy.


Throughout American history, wars have left influential marks on American society. Part of war is how a nation constructs the enemy being fought in any given war. In “The Global, The Local, and the Return of Ethnicity,” Hall (1996) explains the idea of a nation’s identity as a social construct that is used to unify its citizens. This same idea can, in turn, be reversed to show the construction of the enemy from a “unified” national point of view. This section discusses Hall’s theory on the national construction of self and how that pertains to the construct of the enemy.

Hall (1996:603) says, “National cultures construct identities by producing meanings about ‘the nation’ with which we can identify; these are contained in the stories which was told about it, memories which connect its present with its past, and images which are constructed of it.” He believes that a nation attempts to construct its’ identity in order to unify the people under one shared value system and to ensure their commitment to that society. A constructed national community, he believes, is based upon five representational strategies.

The first representational strategy Hall refers to as the narrative of the nation. Hall (1996:603) defines this as, “a set of stories, images, landscapes, scenarios, historical events, national symbols, and rituals which stand for, or represent , the shared experiences, sorrows, and triumphs and disasters which give meaning to the nation.” This idea of a shared story, rich in rituals and symbols, Hall believes is constructed within a society in order to give some foundational identity to all members of the society, past, present, and future. Hall’s (p. 603) second representational strategy is the “emphasis on origins, continuity, tradition, and timelessness.” Hall believes that a nation constructs its identity as “unchanged through all of the vicissitudes of history” and that regardless of when one enters their society, the nation has and will always be “unified and continuous, ‘changeless’ throughout all the changes, eternal” (p. 603). This idea of identity as natural and forever-standing gives a nation a concrete, although constructed, identity. The third representational strategy, the invention of tradition, is defined as “a set of practices…of a ritual or symbolic nature which seek to inculcate values and norms of behaviors by reputation which automatically implies continuity with a suitable historical past” (Hall 1996:604). He believes that this set of practices, believed to be long standing, seek to tie continuity with the community. The fourth representational strategy is a foundational myth; defined as “a story which locates the origin of the nation, the people, and their national character so early that they are lost in the mists of, not ‘real,’ but ‘mythic’ time” (Hall 1996:604). Hall argues that a nation’s identity is set so far back that the identity itself is misplaced within that past; that people seek their national identity from some distant idea of what they came from rather than where they are. Finally, Hall states that a fifth representational strategy is when a nation’s identity is “symbolically grounded on the idea of a pure, original people or ‘folk’” (p. 604). This idealistic image of the folk people who were the originators of a nation’s identity is not, coincidently, the people which constitute the population of the present society. These “folk” people who define the origins of the nation and are the basis of its constructed identity are not the ones who “dream[ed] of one day becoming powerful bureaucrats, ambassadors and ministers” (Hall 1996:604).

Hall (1996:605) next questions whether or not nations have an identity today when he points out, “A national culture has never been simply a point of allegiance, bonding and symbolic identification. It is also a structure of cultural power.” He believes national identity is about whom has the power to shape these symbols associated with a nation rather than the actual symbols themselves.

“Sometimes national cultures are tempted to turn the clock back, to retreat defensively to that ‘lost time’ when the nation was ‘great,’ and to restore past identities” (Hall 1996:604). However, as Hall (1996:604) points out, “often this very return to the past conceals a struggle to mobilize ‘the people’ to purify their ranks, to expel the ‘others’ who threaten their identity, and to gird their loins for a new march forwards.”

For this paper Hall’s theory of a nation’s constructed identity is reversed to examine how a nation constructs its enemy in times of conflict. Have Americans lost the ability to construct one enemy as seen in the past? By examining how our enemies are constructed over time, one can understand how America defines those in opposition and, in turn, understand the nation as a whole.
This study uses a historical content analysis of political cartoons to analyze how an enemy is constructed in times of war. A content analysis is “a technique for examining information, or content, in written or symbolic” (Neuman 2007). A content analysis is ideal for this topic because, according to Neuman (2007:228), “content analysis can be used to study historical documents, the writings of someone who has died, or broadcasts in a hostile foreign country.”

The sample included political cartoons from four wars including WWI, WWII, Vietnam, and Iraq. A sample of 119 cartoons from the Iraq War, 54 cartoons from the Vietnam War, 48 cartoons from WWII, and 19 cartoons from WWI were collected and analyzed. These images were gathered using the Google search engine using key phrases as “Vietnam Political Cartoons Vietcong” or “WWI editorial cartoons.” Using various keyword phrases allowed for a strong sample size. This search technique produced various datasets such as “Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonist Index,” The University of Southern Mississippi’s Digital Collections, SFU Library Editorial Cartoons Collection, as well as many other sites with political cartoons. All images that were found were added to the sample, with the exception of the Iraq War as there was a large number of cartoon samples available thus the sample here was limited to 120. Only American cartoonists were included, as this study aims to discern American sentiment towards the indicated wars. The images were analyzed using a coding sheet with various identifiers of the enemy to discern certain trends (See Appendix A.). The tone of each cartoon was also examined to attempt to understand the view of the enemy as either a terrifying force or a trivial buffoon.

Strengths and Weaknesses

A strength of this study can is that the findings add to the body of sociological knowledge about the sociological construction of other. Additionally, since data came from sources open to the public, future researchers may replicate this study.

A weakness of this study is in the data available, as there were some discrepancies in the number of political cartoons for each war. The original intent was to include between 75-100 images per war. However, this was not possible as the number of cartoons decreased with the age of the war.

Another potential weakness is the artists available. For example, in the WWII dataset, a large number of Dr. Seuss cartoons could have factored in to the results. Similarly, Clifford Baldlowski cartoons were over-represented within the Vietnam datasets. The particular artists’ presence may have impacted the findings.


The data collected from the political cartoons illustrates the change in perspective throughout the wars. Several trends emerged: presence of weapons, tone, portrayal of the enemy, enemy features, and context.

Table 1. Comparison of Percentage of Cartoons With Weapons and Tone


Total Cartoons




19 (19/240=7.9%)


F: 11(11/19=57.9%)

M: 8(8/19=42.1%)




F: 38(38/48=79.2%)

M: 10(10/48=20.8%)




F: 17(17/54=31.5%)

M: 35(35/54=64.8%)

R: 2(2/54=3.7%)




F: 22(22/119=18.5%)

M: 95(95/119=79.8%)

R: 2(2/119= 1.7%)


240 (100.0%)


F: 88(88/240=36.7%)

M: 148(148/240=61.7%)

R: 4(4/240=1.6%)

Overall, of the 240 cartoons analyzed, 96 (40%) showed weapons. Table 1 shows that the numbers of weapons present within the cartoons generally decreased overtime. Seventy-three percent of the cartoons during WWI presented the enemy as carrying a weapon compared to 30% of the Iraq cartoons. WWII and Vietnam saw similar amount of cartoons, as they both represented weapons in about 42% of the political cartoons.

This trend was paralleled in the emotion towards enemy of the cartoon. Cartoons could either show a enemy who was feared (F) or an enemy who was mocked (M). Additionally, some cartoons showed a soldier expressing regret. As table 1 shows, the total percentage of cartoons depicting the enemy with a tone of fear was about 36.7%. WWI had 57.9% and WWII had 79.2%, Vietnam had 31.5% and Iraq had 19% of the cartoons presenting a sense of fear. Thus, overtime there is a general pattern of less fear of the enemy. This pattern was inversely seen as the instances in mocked tone within the cartoon rose throughout time. WWI had 42.1% and WWII had 20.8%, Vietnam had 64.8% and Iraq had 79.8%. Vietnam and Iraq both had very high instanced of mocked enemies and also had two instances of remorse towards the enemy with Vietnam having 3.7% and Iraq having 1.7% of the cartoons.

Table 2 shows that the portrayal of the enemy as a “dehumanized foreigner” compared to a humanized representation of an opponent differed greatly throughout the wars. WWI and Vietnam had a significantly higher depiction of the enemy as something other than human; WWI had 94.7% of the cartoons showing the enemy as a subhuman or stereotyped individual and Vietnam had 77.8%. By contrast, only 26.9% of cartoons about the Iraq war had a humanized enemy.

Table 2. Humanized versus Dehumanized Representation of the Enemy in Political Cartoons



















The humanized cartoons presented an interesting trend comparing WWI with the other three wars, WWII, Vietnam, and Iraq. Overall, 88.8% of the humanized cartoons named the enemy and 11.2% used specific features so that the audience could identify the enemy. As seen in Table 3, only one of the cartoons from WWI represented a humanized individual and that one cartoon depicted the enemy based vividly real human feature. The other three wars predominantly named their enemies (e.g. Adolf Hitler, Ho Chi Minh, and Saddam Hussein).

Table 3. Humanized Cartoons: Enemy Recognized by Name

v. Realistic Human Features in Cartoons

























Table 4 summarizes how the cartoons dehumanized the enemy. The data reveals a general trend within all of the cartoons to generally stereotype the enemy (65.3%) as opposed to distorting them into an “animal” (10.4%), a “monster” (4.3%), or as “evil” (7.8%). There were also instances of the enemy being depicted as something else, such as a hand or a rose, which was categorized within the “other” category (12.2%). WWII cartoons were more evenly distributed among the various categories, but the data could be impacted because the sample was over-represented by the cartoonist, Dr. Seuss. Generally, the findings suggest the enemy is stereotyped.

Table 4. Dehumanized Enemy Depictions within Cartoons

























Lastly, Table 5 summarizes how the enemy was depicted, whether they were represented in a group or alone. Overall, a major portion (70.0%) of the cartoons showed the enemy alone. However, a significant difference occurs between WWI and WWII versus Vietnam and Iraq. Political cartoons during WWI and WWII were more likely to show the enemy as part of a group, 42.1% and 43.6% respectively. By contrast, Vietnam and Iraq cartoons were more likely to show an enemy alone, 72.2% and 79.0% respectively. There were also instances where the enemy was categorized as “other” (3.7%) if the enemy was something categorized as “other” when coding for dehumanized and humanized characteristics of the enemy.

Table 5. The Enemy Portrayed Alone or within a Group Dynamic in Cartoons.





































Overall, political cartoons showing an enemy have changed over time. The cartoons are less likely to show a dehumanized other as the enemy, more likely to name an individual as the enemy, and more likely to show an enemy as a lone individual.

By employing Hall’s theory on the construction of national identity to examine national enemies, several latent trends were found within the political cartoons. Political cartoons show a change over time regarding the cultural perception of the nation’s enemy and the differences in the political cartoons over time reflect larger societal changes.

The findings here showed a link between two themes: the depiction of weapons within the cartoons and a feared enemy. While weapons in an enemies’ hands may create fear, the weapons were often in the background or not highlighted. For example, within the political cartoons of the first two wars there were significantly more weapons depicted, but there was also an overwhelming sense of fear of the enemies themselves. The construct of the enemy during World War I and World War II both share a theme of excessive violence and fear. This construct can be related to Hall’s narrative of the nation, a symbol or idea that brings a nation together. Constructing the enemy as someone to fear as a universal symbol for violence and oppression will bring a nation together to rally behind its troops, especially an enemy depicted by mass media as a violent oppressor. Such violent oppression is the opposite of what America has constructed itself to stand for; therefore furthering the tension between American and its’ enemies.

The findings also show a difference between a humanized enemy compared to a dehumanized enemy. During World War I and Vietnam the enemy was mainly depicted as a dehumanized entity; they were either a nonhuman creature or a stereotyped portrayal of a human. Perhaps the American public was unaware of the leaders of these enemy nations. How many Americans would recognize the name of Franz Josef I (WWI) or Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam) comparatively to the names Adolf Hitler (WWII) or Saddam Hussein (Iraq)? Political cartoons during World War II and the current Iraq war tend to show people in power, thus giving a face to a specific enemy. However, in WWI and Vietnam the American public did not have an easily identifiable person to construct as the enemy; therefore, a generalized enemy was constructed. It should be noted that many of the WWII cartoons in this analysis where created by a major cartoonist of the time Theodor Seuss Geisel, commonly known by his pen name as Dr. Seuss. His style of cartooning generally includes creatures that are not quite human, while at the same time showing what person they are intended to be, as seen in the political cartoon depicted. This could have been one of the reasons the depiction of the human enemy was equal to that of a dehumanized creature.

The findings also demonstrated patterns as to how the enemy was depicted, specifically whether the enemy is a single person or a group personification of the enemy. During the first two World Wars, there tended to be an equal representation of the enemy as either a group or an individual. However, during Vietnam and the Iraq war the enemy was generally constructed as a single individual. The difference may be linked to the racial and cultural identities of the enemy during each war. During the first two wars, the aggressors were primarily Anglo-Saxon, with the exception of the Japanese in World War II, thus the cultures were familiar to many American. By contrast, Iraqi and Vietnamese cultures can be contrasted to American culture. Perhaps constructing the enemy as an individual is due partially to the fact that American society is so culturally different. Additionally, Americans have experienced “political correctness” within the media. Thus American media intentionally avoids any depictions of the collective enemy that could be seen as racist. By placing the enemy outside of a racial or ethnic group removes possible interpretation of racism. A person is the enemy, but an enemy without a cohort of people like them. The ‘folk’ of the enemies’ homeland, as Hall explains, is not something Americans fight.

Drawing upon Hall’s theory of how a nation constructs by its origins, continuity, tradition, and timelessness, this paper shows how the enemy is constructed to create a unified national discourse. Enemies are constructed in ways which relate the enemy to racial/ethnic stereotypes circulating in any historical period. By constructing the enemy as either a violent oppressive leader or mass, it creates a view of “them” as contrasted to the “us” (United States), which in the end reinforced America’s own constructed identity.


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Appendix A



















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