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[] Weekly Standard 24.12.01: Psyching Out The Taliban,

Weekly Standard
December 24, 2001

Psyching Out The Taliban

The Army plans mind games at Fort Bragg.

By Matt Labash

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Despite the low-rent ambiance of Bragg Blvd.--the land of Park'n'Pawns and $1.99 fried chicken plates--Fort Bragg has always been synonymous with the Army's elite. Arriving at the home of the 82nd Airborne and Special Forces, visitors often experience the contact-buzz that comes from occupying the same ground as the Green Berets and Delta Force. But in a complex of ugly low-slung buildings resides another group of warriors, these mostly unsung--the soldiers and civilians of the 4th Psychological Operations Group. 

After American bombs and Northern Alliance fighters, perhaps no one has had a greater effect on the rapid demise of the Taliban than the Army's psychological operations (PSYOPs) team. But you wouldn't know it from the way they act. Calling themselves "force multipliers" who deal in "perceptions management," they don't even have a blood-curdling nickname like the "Night Stalkers" or "Snake Eaters." While some Army regulars call them the "bullshit bombers" (for their propaganda dissemination), Maj. Ric Rohm, executive officer of the 8th PSYOP battalion, when pressed for a nickname, comes up stumped: "Umm, I guess it's just 'PSYOPer.'" 

If PSYOPers themselves are an understated lot, the very term "psychological operations" tends to conjure images of black-bag artists--camouflaged Freudians practiced in the dark art of winning hearts by warping minds. But operating under the regimental motto "Persuade, Change, Influence," the brass works overtime to stand a group of visiting reporters' stereotypes on end. 

Despite a John Wayne "Green Berets" poster on the wall with the dialogue bubble "Better get Psywar on that," the conference room where we are briefed is littered with mission statements, corny successories--even the serenity prayer. 

Over in the nearby printing plant, the air is choked with the smell of printer cleaning solvent, as the presses have now rolled off 15 million leaflets that have been dropped in fiberglass bombs over Afghanistan. Here, Dr. David Champagne, the 4th PSYOP Group's civilian Afghanistan expert, who says he fell in love with the country as a Peace Corps "hippie," translates the latest effort: a leaflet wishing Afghans "Happy Eid" (the feast in which Muslims break their Ramadan fast). "We want them to know that we care about them as human beings," says Champagne. "They probably haven't had many happy greetings for the last six years." 

With all this peace'n'love, a naive civilian--convincingly played by yours truly--might start suspecting that the real psychological operation is the one the 4th PSYOP Group is performing on the press. When my public affairs escort tells me that everything they put out has to be truthful, I finally snap: "Who cares if it is? This is war." ("Hey, I don't make the rules," he counters.) But my initial reaction is a poorly informed one. As Col. James Treadwell, the 4th PSYOP Group commander, says, "Truth is the best propaganda. If you ever get caught in a lie, you lose your credibility. That doesn't mean we have to tell the whole truth. I guess that's one difference between public affairs and psychological operations." 

Obviously Col. Treadwell has never sat through a Pentagon briefing. But he's wise to uphold this time-honored propaganda tenet. PSYOPers, after all, are in the perception business. For this reason, 9th PSYOP battalion commander Lt. Col. Glenn Ayers goes so far as to say, "I do not like that 'P' word. Propaganda elicits the vision of Goebbels, who used it for nefarious reasons." Though military historian Daniel Lerner has written that the mark of a first-rate propagandist is one who "conceals his skill from the public" appearing to be "a simple man, telling the simple truth," Joseph Goebbels had no appetite for subtlety. He gave the game away with his title, "Minister of Propaganda." 

With as brutal a regime as the Taliban, of course, there is no need to shade the truth. Consequently, American propaganda, in the form of leaflets and radio broadcasts beamed in from the EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft (television's not an option--since the Taliban destroyed everyone's sets), has come in four varieties: 

-Informational--giving listings of American radio broadcasts, and cautioning civilians to stay clear of humanitarian food drops, since nothing spoils goodwill like killing someone with a crate of peanut butter. 

-The Friendly Neighbor--smiling American family shakes hands with smiling Afghan family. 

-Appeals to the Taliban Swing Voter: One leaflet shows Mullah Omar as a dog whose leash is held by Osama bin Laden, while another shows fleeing Taliban fighters running from an incinerated truck with the gentle admonition "Stop fighting for the Taliban and live." 

-Sugar Daddy Appeals: $25 million to whoever assists in bin Laden's capture. 

While it may sound simple, it's not. Churning out these materials involves a 17-step process from conception to dissemination. Themes are not only thoroughly researched and vetted among the 4th PSYOP Group's 1,200 soldiers and 35 civilian analysts, but the final product has to be approved by the U.S. Central Command chief. While PSYOPers say they are part ad men, part ethnographers (all of them are proficient in at least one foreign language), Army doctrine requires that they also be everything from Strunk & White imitators ("the propaganda writer must be brief, summarizing the theme by using short, forceful words") to Mary Kay consultants ("Colors may be used to harmonize with the moods of the illustrations....Red may be used to suggest violence, blue or green for peaceful scenes, and black or white for death"). 

And like good ad men, they focus-group everything, pre-testing and post-testing materials with natives, refugees, or prisoners of war. Failing to focus-group a message might cause them to miss important cultural nuances, which can jeopardize credibility, cause a piece to fall flat, or even worse, insult the audience that it is intended to persuade. 

A few years ago, Lt. Col. Ayers was overseeing a land-mine awareness program in Cambodia. Ayers figured it was a fail-safe campaign, since "no one out there wants to step on a landmine." But he pre-tested a T-shirt anyway, one which depicted a boy squatting over a mine that he was poking with a stick. "In our mind's eye, it said 'don't poke a landmine with a stick,'" says Ayers. "But when we tested it, the Khmer villagers said, 'Why do you have this person defecating over a landmine?' The kid was in a position that they typically use for a bowel movement. We had to pull the boy back a little bit and make changes based upon what we found." 

Such attention to detail has earned American PSYOPers a reputation as the modern era's finest propagandists, which is saying something, since psychological warfare is as old as war itself. As long ago as 500 B.C., the Persians exploited the Egyptians' sacred regard for cats, paralyzing them by unleashing hundreds of panic-stricken felines on the battlefield. (The Persians claimed victory without suffering any casualties.) 

But after reviewing former PSYOPer Ed Rouse's (the web's most definitive repository of psychological operations history), it becomes apparent that all propagandists are not created equal. The United States has rarely resorted to sexual themes, though some reports have it that covert operatives left foot-long condoms on the Ho Chi Minh trail, presumably causing NVA soldiers to hide their women as well as themselves. Other countries, however, have been less circumspect, often stumbling into embarrassing gaffes. 

During World War II, the Japanese leafleted American forces, trying to demoralize the enemy with the hardy perennial: Your girl is getting mounted by the strapping buck back home. To illustrate this theme, however, the Japanese used graphic pornography--a relative scarcity on the frontlines. The effect, says military historian Stanley Sandler: "It did the opposite of what it was supposed to. It raised morale. Our guys loved it. They'd trade them like baseball cards--five for a bottle of whisky." 

In Iraq during the Gulf War, America ran a textbook PSYOP campaign, not only scaring the tar out of Iraqis by truthfully advertising when our B-52s would next bomb specific positions (causing mass surrenders), but also by running brilliant deception maneuvers (floating leaflets in bottles ashore in Kuwait to suggest an impending amphibious invasion that never came). Iraq countered pathetically with radio propagandist Baghdad Betty, the Gulf War equivalent of Tokyo Rose, who tried to break the enemy's morale by telling Americans that their wives and girlfriends were getting snatched up by Tom Cruise, Tom Selleck, and Bart Simpson. 

While it's difficult to quantify PSYOP success, Sun Tzu, whom many consider the original PSYOPer, wrote that "To capture the enemy's entire army is better than to destroy it. . . . For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence." 

Score is often kept in conventional warfare by tallying how many are killed, but in some measure, PSYOP success is based on how many are allowed to live. In Iraq, Rouse writes, nearly 87,000 Iraqi soldiers turned themselves over to coalition forces, and many of them were clutching American leaflets, which offered "safe conduct passes." During Vietnam, which wasn't even our best PSYOP effort because of organizational problems and stateside dissent, it was still estimated that the average cost of killing one Viet Cong guerrilla was $400,000 (the price of artillery shells, cluster bombs, etc.), while the average cost of causing one Viet Cong defection was only $125. 

The 4th PSYOP Group has yet to post-test its products with Afghans to see if they effectively employed "logic, fear, desire or other mental factors to promote specific emotions, attitudes or behaviors" (as the press release objectives state). But one is tempted to chalk the group's efforts up as successful. After all, in what other conflict have we so readily subdued the enemy? Then again, we have dropped over 12,000 bombs on Afghanistan since October 7. When it comes to modifying emotions, attitudes, and behavior, those tend to work wonders too. 

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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