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BRAINIAC

When war meant getting people to sign up

Unknown Artist, Don’t Stand Looking at This, Go and Help!, 1915. Color lithograph. Adelaide, Australia
Unknown Artist, Don’t Stand Looking at This, Go and Help!, 1915. Color lithograph. Adelaide, Australia(Boston Athenaeum)

After a brief hiatus, the American military is returning to Iraq. Wednesday night President Obama outlined a new plan to combat the surging influence of ISIS in the Middle East. It calls for airpower, smartbombs, drones, and a small number of strategically placed military advisors. What it certainly does not call for is a big deployment of American troops.

Long before robot planes ruled the skies, the only way to wage a war was to get citizens to sign up. That’s one takeaway message from a new exhibition of World War I propaganda at the Boston Athenaeum called “Over Here: World War I Posters from Around the World.” Many of the posters feature stark illustrations of soldiers accompanied by slogans like, “Go and help!” and “Boys come over here, you’re wanted.” What those boys were wanted for, of course, was their bodies, in a war where the last man standing won.

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That’s not how the US goes to war today, and it’s easy to see the posters as old-fashioned now. But we shouldn’t assume that means war propaganda has lost its power: One reason for ISIS’s success is its adeptness at recruiting, and emotional calls to arms are very much a reason why.

Over Here: World War I Posters from Around the World” runs at the Boston Athenaeum, 10 1/2 Beacon Street, Boston, from September 10, 2014 through January 31, 2015.


Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.