Private Snafu's Hidden War

Historical Survey and Analytical Perspective

by Christopher Dow

Propaganda, the methodical swaying of public opinion toward certain attitudes, opinions, or procedures, is probably as old as public speaking. The concept was refined in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, who convened the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, a group of cardinals in charge of foreign missions. Gregory’s contribution to propaganda, aside from the word itself, was to add to the idea of persuasion the condition that the persuasion should be of large groups of people beyond the purview of immediate authority—possible only since the invention of mechanized printing a century and a half before Gregory’s time. The early twentieth-century development of electronic mass communication further extended the scope and immediacy of propaganda. By the end of World War I, radio and film had been refined to a high degree, and the beginning of World War II saw the rise of nationalist film propaganda with Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi production, Triumph of the Will. The United States was not far behind, producing the film series Why We Fight. But when the United States Army began showing a series of cartoons featuring a bumbling infantryman named Private Snafu, it proved that indoctrination could be fun as well as functional.

Private Snafu was named after the popular military acronym: Situation Normal, All Fouled (or Fucked) Up. “Warner Bros. cartoon studio produced twenty-six Private Snafu cartoons for the U.S. Army Signal Corps”1 between 1943 and 1945. “They were used as part of the Army–Navy Screen Magazine, a film series shown at military bases around the world.”2 The settings of the cartoons reflected this global presence of the U.S. fighting man, and Snafu finds himself in Europe, the South Pacific, and Africa as well as the United States. Snafu, himself, personifies the universal nature of the U.S. fighting forces by portraying the everyman soldier. Snafu is the little guy, the common army grunt caught up in a global conflict that is beyond his understanding and, seemingly, beyond his power to cope with. As the narrator of “Coming Snafu,” the first Snafu cartoon, says, “He is a patriotic, conscientious guy.” But Snafu is much more, or less, than that. Although he is described as “conscientious,” he is, in fact, “the worst soldier in the army, the one who does everything wrong.”3 Snafu’s plebeian nature, powerlessness, and mediocrity are all symbolized by his homeliness and his diminutive stature. Snafu is only half as tall as all the other characters, women included, with the exception of Japanese characters, who are occasionally even shorter than Snafu. But despite his shortness and mediocrity, Snafu was a big idea with a substantial history.

Private Snafu’s earliest genesis can be found in U.S. government studies of the propaganda potential of comic strips and film.


On June 13, 1942, an executive order signed by President Roosevelt established the Office of War Information [(OWI)] . . . [whose mandate was to] formulate and carry out, through the use of press, radio, motion pictures and other facilities the development of an informed and intelligent understanding, at home and abroad, of the status and progress of the war effort and of the war policies, activities, and aims of the government.4


One of the earliest OWI studies examined comic strips. “The appeal of comic strips as potential instruments for propaganda was a function of their popularity with readers.”5 In the end, however, OWI abandoned attempts to use comic strips for propaganda purposes. The strips inclined toward hackneyed portrayals of patriotic ideals and overly stereotyped characterizations of the enemy as stupid and incompetent, and these depictions tended to lull viewers into complacency rather than prompting them toward greater effort on behalf of the war.6


More importantly, however, comic strips in newspapers and magazines did not lend themselves to control or manipulation. . . . Actual government production of comics did not appear to be an answer, either. . . . OWI ultimately decided to leave comics alone for the remainder of the war, ironically after demonstrating the considerable power of the cartoon images and their undeniable hold on the American public.7


OWI’s attempts to use comic strips as propaganda ceased in November 1942, but other branches of the government had not lost interest.


Within the American Army, acceptance of social science research techniques and heavy reliance on media technology suggests that generals can sometimes be True Believers. . . . Military enthusiasm for social science research and media technology relates to the concept of Social Engineering, an outgrowth of behavioral psychology arguing that human behavior can be manipulated towards socially desirable goals.8


The Army’s Information and Education Division was headed by Brigadier General Frederick H. Osborn, a noncareer officer who, before the war, had been an active social science researcher and an important member of the Social Science Research Council. Osborn’s interest in using film as a means to educate and indoctrinate helped turn General George C. Marshall, army chief of staff, into “a zealous proponent of educational film.”9 Although OWI had found itself unable to adequately control and manipulate comic strips in magazines and newspapers and incapable of producing its own, the United States Army was in a different position. It could produce its own vehicles of propaganda—films—the content of which could be fully controlled, and it could then disseminate these vehicles to a captive audience of servicemen. The main thrust of the army’s effort was to produce the Why We Fight film series under the direct supervision of Frank Capra. This series “became mandatory viewing for all military personnel in 1942.”10 Official U.S. film propaganda was under way.

The Why We Fight series was a sort of overview of the seriousness of the war and the importance of sincere efforts to win it. Why We Fight, however, was primarily indoctrination, and General Marshall expressed his “intense dissatisfaction with existing methods of troop indoctrination,” which generally consisted of lectures.11 Part of the problem was that lectures were not on a large enough scale, and although the film series may have dramatically boosted the numbers of the lecture audience, it was still missing one vital element—the element of instruction. The massive scale of the war demanded a proportionally larger scale of instruction, for the army needed an efficient and economical way to train the enormous number of raw recruits flooding through basic training camps. “The uses and maintenance of new and intricate weapons and equipment presented an awesome problem. The nation was faced with the need to convert hundreds of thousands of civilians into military specialists.”12 Thus, Marshall and others displayed a growing interest in using film in more specific and intensive ways by combining indoctrination and instruction into a single, concerted effort. But despite the overarching presence of the Why We Fight films, there was a void of instructional materials and methods.

Into that void stepped Eric Knight, who had provided important input into the Why We Fight scripts. He “argued that ‘positive assertion of your beliefs and aims’ was more effective than ‘refutation of enemy assertions.’”13 To this idea of education, Knight added an important element—animation. “Knight had long been interested in animation. He was assigned to work at the Disney Studio in July 1942, to work out the extraordinary animated inserts for the first four [Why We Fight] films.”14 Knight wedded the use of film for indoctrination and education to the idea of using animation to provide specific instructional material. Private Snafu was only a few marching steps away.


Those steps were taken by several one-shot cartoons that graphically demonstrated proper and improper military behavior. One of these was “Flat-Hatting,” by John Hubley.

“Flat-Hatting” . . . was a huge success. Flat-hatting was air force slang for the custom of putting a plane into a screaming dive at some innocuous target, animal, architectural, or civilian, sometimes with fatal results. . . . Hubley’s picture showed, in a series of very funny gags, just how stupid and useless this form of braggadocio really was. . . . It totally demolished the image of flat-hatting as an admirable feat of derring-do.15


Films like Hubley’s proved the ability of cartoons to positively affect behavior through a combination of graphic representation and humor. Private Snafu quickly emerged to take up the banner in a more consistent, controlled, and continuous manner.


The first Private Snafu cartoon, “Coming Snafu,” appeared in June 1943. Despite Disney’s involvement in the Why We Fight films and Hubley’s success with “Flat-Hatting,” their contributions to Private Snafu were nil. Instead, Warner Bros. and Leon Schlesinger contracted to produce the entire series. They were among the last cartoons produced by Schlesinger before he sold out to Warner in July 1944.16 According to animator/director Chuck Jones, the films were produced “on a cost-plus basis.”17 Twenty-six Private Snafu cartoons were made between June 1943 and October 1945, including two that remained unreleased by the end of the war. One of these, “Coming Home,” remained on the shelf due to its depiction of a super bomb that was to be used against Japan. This reference to the top-secret atomic bomb was a little too informational to pass army censorship.


The choice of Warner Bros. to produce the Snafu series undoubtedly was influenced by several factors. First, the Warner directors, animators, and writers, whose stable of characters included Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweetie Pie, Porky Pig, and Elmer Fudd, had already demonstrated a superlative knack for investing their animated characters with real personality. This was an important consideration since, without proper (or improper!) personality, Snafu would not have the intended effect. Secondly, the Warner staff had clearly displayed the ability to combine unpretentious humor and surface narrative with adult-oriented double-entendres and subtexts. Such a combination is ideal for propaganda films intending to deliver hidden messages as well as more obvious ones. Simply put, Warner Bros. made the best cartoons around, and they were cartoons with all the right characteristics. But there was another, perhaps more significant point in Warner’s favor. The studio had been the first American studio to jump zealously into war propaganda, and they had done so at their own expense well before anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese sentiment became a Hollywood bandwagon.

As early as 1938, Warner Bros. had sent a script titled Storm Over America to the Breen Office, then the federal watchdog of Hollywood modesty and appropriateness. The script “pulled no punches in identifying Nazi Germany as a threat to American security.”18 More anti-Nazi films by Warner Bros. followed, but Warner’s ideas were not shared by other studios. “Warner Brothers’ boldness spread apprehension among other studios. The foreign department of Paramount thought Warner was making a grave mistake.”19 Among Warner’s foremost critics was Senator Gerald Nye of North Dakota, who decried the prointerventionist stance depicted in Warner productions. But “Harry Warner, whom Nye had accused of producing more propaganda films than any other, proudly announced his opposition to Hitler. Nazism was ‘an evil force,’ he said, and ‘the world struggle for freedom was in its final stage.’”20 The combination of Warner Bros.’s staunch anti-Nazi sentiment, its prior independent efforts to sway public opinion toward support of the war, and the excellence of its cartoon department’s productions made it the ideal studio to produce the Snafu series. For two years, Private Snafu was as much a member of the Warner family as were Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, and the rest of the gang.


The Private Snafu cartoons were Warner Bros. products in every respect. “Each cartoon is approximately three minutes long and in black-and-white. The cartoons utilized all of Warner’s cartoon directors and voice artists [Mel Blanc as Snafu and Robert C. Bruce as the narrator] and Carl Stalling’s music.”21 They were “written by [Theodore] Geisel, a cartoonist already famous in civilian life under the nom de plume of ‘Dr. Seuss,’ and Phil Eastman, who later wrote most of the Magoo pictures at UPA.”22 W. Munro Leaf, who wrote Ferdinand the Bull, also had a hand in at least one episode. The series had the two-fold purpose of instructing and indoctrinating enlisted men serving in the army, and each installment presented specific instructional material in a surface story, under which lay the indoctrinational material.

In a sense, the Snafu cartoons are modern military fables, presenting a character who makes behavioral decisions and lives or dies as a result of his actions, leaving a practical moral as denouement. In each cartoon, “Snafu would commit a blunder or infraction, then learn the consequences of such errors.”23 The instructional material was always presented in simple, straightforward terms so that the message could be understood by anyone, whatever his level of education. Commenting on the effectiveness of the films as teaching tools, Mel Blanc say:


"One episode was an aerial gunnery picture with Snafu telling what to do. He would always tell them wrong, and they would correct him. I remember there were three guys who had never taken any lessons in aerial gunnery but just saw this picture three or four times. They went up in a plane and they scored three ‘positives’ and one ‘possible’ on their first flight, just from looking at the cartoon pictures. So that shows you how important the cartoons were."24


As Blanc’s statement indicates, the primary instructional function of the cartoons was, to some extent, successful.


But the cartoons went beyond instructional specifics to encompass a plethora of aspects of military life and the war. For example, in “Fighting Tools,” Snafu has the most advanced and powerful weapons and equipment the military world has ever seen, yet he constantly mistreats them, and his lack of maintenance has turned them into junk. In the end he is blown up by a German who, though initially frightened by Snafu’s arsenal, is contemptuous of Snafu’s lax care of it. Thus the cartoon demonstrates the importance of equipment and weapon maintenance. Personal health and hygiene are the concern of “Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike.” Mike is a mosquito who guzzles malaria out of a hip-flask, and Snafu is the foolish soldier who ignores all military instruction on prevention of malaria and winds up with his head mounted as a trophy on Mike’s wall. Self-defense was an equally important topic. “Gas” showed the vital necessity of maintaining defensive equipment like gas masks, and “Booby Traps” demonstrated that alertness for dangers far more subtle than bullets but equally deadly could mean the difference between living and dying.




Copyright 2020 by Phosphene Publishing Company

  • Facebook Social Icon


© 2016 by Christopher Dow. Proudly created with