Illusions of War: The Value of the Ghost Army

Video via ghostarmy23 on YouTube.

Their skills were so valuable and so instrumental in bringing down Hitler’s army that their existence was kept secret until 1996, when some of their particular methods had become obsolete and no longer needed to be kept classified. They were the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a group of creative people from all walks of life who risked life and limb to create the illusion that there were more American troops on the ground than there actually were. There were three units: one to position inflatable vehicles and create the image of an army, one to play and mix the sounds of war preparation (including cursing soldiers), and one to create radio activity supporting the existence of an army that was an illusion. Their efforts protected the Allied forces when they were spread too thin to hold the enemy and fooled the German army into making tactical mistakes out of a warped sense of the American position.

Inflatable Sherman Tank
Inflatable Sherman Tank

The inflatable tanks needed continuing attention: over time they lost air and their gun barrels would sag and point at the ground, creating a visual that would have been hilarious in peace time, but could prove disastrous by tipping off the Germans. The job required acting skills, confidence, and creativity, and these men excelled in their duty. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops included future fashion designer Bill Blass, minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly, and photographer Art Kane. During their downtime, to ease their minds and pass the time, many of these men would sketch what they saw in Europe, creating a unique record of World War II.

This PBS special on the so called Ghost Army is available for a limited time here.

At the end of the video, the narrator makes the statement that implies that being part of the Ghost Army, with its deceptive purpose that saved lives, was more important than the art these men would make during their post-war lifetime. I wonder if those things can truly be separated, or if the job the artist does everyday is to provide illusions that save our lives over and over again? What do you think?

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