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.
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.
The backflow of misinformation can also be a serious problem. Though the Pentagon and the CIA are barred by law from propaganda activities in the United States, during the mid 1970s increased scrutiny of military intelligence operations revealed that programs planting fake leaks in the foreign press had resulted in false articles running back through the U.S. media. But sometimes the false articles are intentional. When the American public seemed to be developing weak knees about the Nicaraguan contras, the Office of Public Diplomacy, part of the Reagan-era State Department, quickly leaked fake intelligence to The Miami Herald that the Soviet Union had given chemical weapons to the Sandinistas.
Distribution of misinformation overseas can be trickier. In 1999, during the NATO air war in Yugoslavia, more than 100 million leaflets were to be dropped on Kosovo. But at the designated time, there was too much ground-to-air fire for planes to fly lower than 20,000 feet. Swept by strong winds, many leaflets landed in the wrong country, according to press reports.
Sometimes, though, the packages land in the right place, and the enemy is quite happy about it. During World War II, the Japanese utilized the standard tactic of telling American soldiers that their girlfriends were getting busy while they were away from home. But on the air-dropped handbills the Japanese illustrated their point a little too well, using graphic pornography that was otherwise tough to come by on the front lines. According to military historian Stanley Sandler, “Our guys loved it. They’d trade them like baseball cards . . . five for a bottle of whiskey.”
But there are also some psy-ops success stories. In Vietnam, U.S. planes sprinkled enemy territory with playing cards, but prior to carpet bombing, they dropped only the ace of spades. Before long, the Pavlovian technique took hold, and just the dropping of aces was sufficient to clear an entire area. Incessant rock music did the job in Panama, getting Manuel Noriega to surrender from his presidential bunker. During the Persian Gulf War, many Iraqi soldiers surrendered with U.S. leaflets in hand. Throughout that war, American forces also cleverly floated 10,000 bottles with intimidating notes in the gulf toward Iraqi shores. According to subsequent interviews with captured Iraqi soldiers, the bottled messages effectively increased concerns in Baghdad over the possibility of a massive amphibious landing. No such landing took place. Enemy psy-opers occasionally brag, too. The North Vietnamese peppered American soldiers with leaflets using anti-war slogans from the States. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” was a particular favorite appropriated by Vietcong leafleteers. When American soldiers finally came home, many commented that the printed reminders of stateside opposition to the war really wore down morale. Last decade, the Iraqis made occasionally smart use of disinformation, often disseminated through their old enemy, Iran (making it more believable). According to U.S. military sources, leaflets were circulated in Bangladesh citing a Tehran radio report that U.S. troops had opened fire on Bangladeshi troops who refused to join the military strike on Iraq. The incident, allegedly leaving hundreds dead, was a complete fabrication.
Less than an exact science, psy-ops is a clumsy art that has seen few real innovations over the years. Alexander the Great ordered his metalworkers to craft giant helmets to fit men the size of 20-foot monsters. His soldiers would then leave the helmets strewn about in conquered villages, hoping to inflame the wildest imaginations of enemy armies passing through the area. Folklore has it that along the same lines, though pitching at a slightly lower angle, American psy-op specialists in Vietnam left foot-long condoms along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, presumably to preoccupy the enemy soldiers with hiding their wives and daughters.
The laundry list of actual psy-ops bloopers is certainly long and dirty, leaving some in the U.S. military skeptical of whether the American forked-tongued brigades are keeping up with the enemy. A May 2000 report by the Defense Science Board Task Force, an advisory panel to the Defense Department, concluded, “While the United States is years ahead of its competitors in terms of military technology, in terms of psy-ops there are already competitors on par with, or even arguably more sophisticated than, the U.S.” But in other circles, confidence is unwavering. At a recent press conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “If Saddam were to issue such an order to use a chemical or biological attack, that does not necessarily mean his orders would be carried out.” Rumsfeld’s oblique speculation rested on the dubious hope, gaining popularity on Capitol Hill, that psychological operations might just do the trick on Saddam’s key weapons handlers. But as one unnamed senior defense official pointed out to USA Today, the men in charge of the supposed Iraqi chemical or biological weapons and missile forces are likely Saddam’s most loyal soldiers. In fact, if our psy-ops people are left to their old devices, the Iraqi commanders might just hit those red buttons all the faster.
Ian Urbina is based at the Middle East Research and Information Project in D.C.