Forked-Tongue Warriors

In the Battle for Hearts and Minds, Watch Out for the Psy-Ops

Wedged between a rack of 99-cent Cheetos and a display of pork rinds stood a life-sized cardboard cutout of a buxom blond in a red miniskirt. Resting on her inner thigh was a frosty bottle of Miller Genuine Draft. "That's essentially what we do," an army major remarked, pointing to the stiletto-heeled eye-catcher. "But we don't sell beer."

The scene was a recruitment barbecue conducted by the U.S. Army's 11th Psychological Operations Battalion ("Psy-ops," for short), held last month at Andrews Air Force Base, outside of Washington, D.C. Amid the Cheetos, cheesecake, and a sweaty game of softball, there was casual chitchat about the workplace challenges faced by these fatigue-wearing PR execs whose job it is to sell Brand America in foreign and hostile territory.

Part ad men and part ethnographers, these specialists, some of whom are just back from Afghanistan, are dispatched regularly to front lines in the Middle East for hearts-and-minds campaigns aimed at undercutting the enemy's military morale and winning over civilian support. Many are waiting eagerly for a call to Iraq. With the U.S. military deploying in every corner of the globe, demand is booming in the psychological-warfare industry these days, and Psy-ops is especially eager to recruit outsiders who have experience or interest in the Middle East. Hence, the barbecues, accompanied by war stories—actually, psy-war stories.

illustration: Nathan Fox

Recruiters and guests wouldn't speak to me for attribution—I was invited but I'm a reporter—but they did reluctantly share some yarns.

"Much of the time on the ground," one private recalled about a tour of duty in Asia, "is spent driving around the desert in humvees mounted with nine speakers, each blasting a thousand watts of noise. Tank treads, helicopter propellers, huge guns—we broadcast anything that'll scare the shit out of 'em." When music is chosen, the playlist tends to be short: Beach Boys, AC/DC, and Jimi Hendrix's shrill "Star-Spangled Banner," repeated ad nauseam until the enemy submits out of sheer annoyance. Other psy-opers parachute in and then remain stationary, setting up the army's equivalent of a battlefield Kinko's to churn out agitprop handbills in the millions. Some operatives are airborne aboard Commando Solo, an air force cargo plane converted into a $70 million flying radio and TV station, beaming news, tunes, and an occasional bit of disinformation to the enemy.

"We just deliver the goods," quipped the major who played host to me. "The guys down South drawing the cartoons are the ones paid six figures to know that because bananas are a delicacy in Iraq, they should get drawn into the picture with an enticing feast scene."

Headquartered at the 4th Psychological Operations Group in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the psy-op artists typically rely on cartoon animations to get their messages across. But it's psy-op history itself that belongs in a comic strip: Its collection of harebrained schemes is sometimes almost too colorful to believe, though all of the following tales have been reported on from time to time. One such plan initially investigated by the air force before Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait entailed the projection of a holographic image of Allah floating over Baghdad and instructing Iraqi civilians to overthrow Saddam. The idea was promptly dropped after scientists informed the Pentagon that it would require a mirror that was a square mile in area, not to mention the added problem that no one knows what Allah looks like. Furthermore, since divine portrayals of any kind are strictly forbidden in Islam, the hologram would surely have gotten a reaction, but probably not exactly the one intended.

Framing an understandable message is always tough. When using comic strips, captions need to be as concise and simple as possible. Yet, even in small amounts, the use of text raises questions. One has to wonder, for example, whether it was really effective to drop millions of text-based leaflets on Afghanistan, where barely 30 percent of its 27 million people can read. In all cases, well-crafted animations are a must, and for the highest quality drawings the 4th at Bragg sometimes opts to contract out. In 2000, it hired DC Comics to produce special versions of Superman and Wonder Woman comic books, in the languages of the Balkans, Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, to educate locals on the dangers of land mines. But even Superman can be a bit confusing at times. Though widely understood in some contexts, thought bubbles appearing above a cartoon character's head left some readers, especially rural ones, completely baffled, according to press accounts.

Often more confusing than convincing, psy-ops can suffer hugely from the smallest graphical errors. A T-shirt used in Cambodia to try to deter kids from entering certain unsafe zones featured a boy squatting over a mine that he was poking with a stick. The silk-screened shirt was yanked from production, according to one account, when angered villagers kept asking why American personnel were distributing images of kids defecating over land mines. The squatting boy was eventually redrawn.

Bigger mistakes mean bigger consequences. Leaflets dropped in Somalia in 1992 prior to the UN troop arrival were meant to assure the populace of the mission's humanitarian intentions. Unfortunately, of all the personnel the U.S. initially deployed in the country, only two were native speakers, and one turned out to be the son of the country's bloodiest warlord. Pamphlet proofreaders, needless to say, were in short supply, and the result was sometimes quite embarrassing. Instead of announcing help from the "United Nations," the pamphlets spoke of help from the "Slave Nations," and as anyone who has seen the movie Black Hawk Down can certainly attest, neither the blue helmets nor the boys with stars and stripes were welcomed with open arms when they eventually landed ashore.

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