The Pentagon defines Psychological Operations as intended “. . . to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign government [sic], organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.”
Further, “Psychological warfare [is] directed toward populations in friendly rear areas or in territory occupied by friendly military forces with the objective of facilitating military operations and promoting maximum cooperation among the civil populace.”
That is perfectly clear. The aim of psyops/psywar is to influence foreigners to alter their usual way of thinking, be that independently reasoned or imposed or encouraged by their own authorities. The most important aspect is credibility, and a major factor in establishing this is to avoid direct denigration of the target and its associates while, with great subtlety, making it (a person, an organisation, a country) look incompetent, ignorant or, preferably, silly. (Nobody can stand up to justified and well-directed ridicule. It is the one weapon against which there is no defence atall.) But psychological operations have to be cleverly conceived and carried out by playing on characteristics of local culture while displaying deference to them. This demands awareness and appreciation of national traditions, religions, venerated historical figures, superstitions, language subtleties, customs, hopes and fears.
In his memoirs, ‘Orientations’ (London 1937), Sir Ronald Storrs, a man of illustrious parts, wrote that “The science of war propaganda dates, I suppose, from no earlier than 1914. [His diary note was in early 1916.] We therefore had no textbook upon which to base our methods. All we knew was that careful and progressive handling of public opinion was no less difficult than necessary among peoples of alien race, language and religion. [Storrs spoke fluent Arabic, classic and colloquial, and his knowledge of the region was immense.] Articles, diagrams and caricatures effective in Europe often produce a negative, sometimes even a contrary, result in the East.” His statement could well be used in the introduction to any psyops manual, and I bore it in mind when I commanded the Australian psyops unit in Vietnam.
So let’s see what gives in present-day Iraq. Here is part of a Reuters’ report of August 18 that gives an indication of how sophisticated US psywar has become.
“US forces plan to put up posters around Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit showing his face superimposed on Hollywood heroines and other stars in an attempt to enrage his followers and draw them out. As well as Saddam dolled up as a slinky Zsa Zsa Gabor, there is a busty Rita Hayworth Saddam, a grooving Elvis Saddam and even Saddam in the guise of . . . rocker Billy Idol. “We’re going to do something devious with these,” said a chuckling Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Russell [a battalion commander] . . . One of the posters shows Saddam’s head on Elvis’s dancing body, a gold crucifix hanging around his hairy chest. Given fears in the Arab world that the invasion of Iraq was akin to a Christian crusade, some Iraqis say US forces would do well to think twice about leaving the cross hanging around Saddam Elvis’s neck. “Maybe it is funny for the soldiers, but I think most locals will find it very insulting,” said Uday, a 22-year-old translator at the US army base in Tikrit.”
The chuckling colonel imagines that locals “will be laughing” at his absurd attempts to influence “the bad guys”. But the translator, Uday, had the correct interpretation of the way the project will be regarded when he said “most locals will find it very insulting”. He is so right. And what is ludicrous is that people like Uday are the very ones who should be asked for advice about psyops initiatives. This has nothing to do with Islam (apart from depiction of the Elvis crucifix, which is breathtakingly crass. In fact that image, alone, should be worth a few dozen recruits to resistance groups). It has everything to do with lack of awareness about how foreigners think and react.
Occupation forces may be working hard at some levels to try to isolate Iraqi resistance fighters from the population, but given the enormous setbacks to trust and tranquillity that have taken place so far, caused mainly by the “We are the conquerors” approach, and a boastful arrogance that is as truculent as it is provocative, this objective is unlikely to be achieved.
It is fatal in psychological operations, just as in ordinary public relations, to indulge in insult, contempt or scorn. A boorish put-down might give the boor a feeling of satisfaction, but it is the ultimate No-No in psyops because no matter who you are, or what circumstances you are in, a direct insult is an adrenalin booster that makes you hate the person who insulted you. And not only the person, but what he or she stands for. This increases enormously the inclination of the individual or group that has been vilified to indulge in violence as well as providing a moral-superiority feeling of self-justification for committing atrocities. If this is what US occupation forces want to achieve, then fine. (The biggest psyops disaster so far has been Bush’s brain-dead challenge to “Bring ’em On.”) But if it is the intention of the occupying power to draw the Iraqi (and especially Tikriti) population closer to cooperation by persuading them that US occupation troops are friendly, then insulting Iraqis – any Iraqis of whatever religion, ethnicity or political persuasion – is the worst possible way to try to go about it. In the words of Bob Herbert of the NYT, perhaps a little bit of adult supervision would not go amiss.
In Tikrit, one of the most sensitive areas in Iraq, Lt-Col Russell (who declares that “God is watching over [my] battalion, believe me”), told Associated Press on 26 August that “The enemy is a coward. He continues to hide behind women, children and his own population.” When such statements are put alongside television cover of Iraqi men being forced to lie face-down in the dirt, hands tied behind their backs, while their terrified families look aghast at the spectacle of humiliation – and are themselves menaced by rifles pointed directly at them – one can see why, and how completely, the US has lost the battle for hearts and minds in Iraq.
Lt-Col Russell’s superior, Colonel James Hickey, told AP that “enemy tactics are ‘miss and run’. They’re almost running when they pull the trigger. I have yet to see any degree of military competence. They are not experienced fighters. They fire a mortar, then pick up and run . . . ” Colonel Hickey has described, obviously without realising it, the classic tactics of the guerrilla. The sequence of identifying a target, siting a weapon, firing it, then getting out quickly is precisely what guerrilla warfare is all about. Of course the enemy are not “experienced fighters”. And they don’t have “any degree of military competence”. Most are amateurs, ordinary citizens, who hate Hickey and Russell and all they stand for because their soldiers show no respect for their families and especially women in their irreligious, ferocious and intimidating door-crashing house raids in the middle of the night.
This Reuters’ piece by Andrew Cawthorne on September 1 sums up the bungled and clumsy tactics: “Iraqi sheep farmer Thani Mushlah was asleep on his roof when American soldiers arrived before dawn. “They banged open my door, came for me and made me lie face down on the floor in front of my wife and children” Two hours later . . . Mushlah, 33, was sitting handcuffed on the desert floor inside a ring of barbed wire used as a temporary prison . . . [he said] “The Americans said they came to free us, so why do they humiliate and insult us?”.” There is now talk of “cordon and knock”, but it’s far too late for this sort of amendment. In any event, occupation troops are simply not trained for this sort of operation and will continue to use ultra-violent house-fighting techniques against terrified civilians. Don’t get me wrong : when shock tactics are needed in all-out urban warfare I’m the first to support them. But one of the things you don’t do is rush through a door – always blast a hole in the wall with a shaped charge. That, however, is when you’re fighting against big boys, not terrorising women and children.
A report by Paul McGeough of Australia’s ‘Age’ newspaper on 16 August illustrates the appalling lack of sensitivity on the part of the occupying power. “I have just returned to my Baghdad hotel, on Abu Nuwas Street which runs along the east bank of the Tigris, when a US Humvee roars past. Blaring from a block of six big speakers strapped to its rooftop is John Mellencamp’s 1980s American anthem ‘Pink Houses: Ain’t that America? You and me! Ain’t that America? Something to seeeee!’ ”
This may be a huge joke for someone whose global horizon ends at his extended fingertips, but such vulgar and contemptuous performances announce to the Iraqi people “The hell with you and your culture. We own your country and we’ll do what we damn well please. And if you’re praying as we blast by in our Humvee, then tooooo bad.”
The latest wheeze conceived by occupation troops is to put up posters “that carry the faces of Saddam and his sons . . The sons’ faces are covered with an ‘X’, reminding Iraqis that they were killed by American forces . . .”
However much Iraqis loathed Saddam Hussein and his horrible regime, they will regard this ill-judged, inefficient and malevolent campaign as evidence of alien gloating at the humiliation of their country. This sort of clumsy stuff certainly won’t have the effect of “promoting maximum cooperation among the civil populace” and, as Sir Reginald Storrs observed almost a century ago, will “produce a negative, sometimes even a contrary, result”. Iraq isn’t the Wild West, it’s the Wild Middle East, where cultures are different. Occupation troops appear incapable of understanding foreign culture, and the psyops battle for Iraq has been a disaster.
BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes about defense issues for CounterPunch, the Nation (Pakistan), the Daily Times of Pakistan and other international publications. His writings are collected on his website: www.briancloughley.com.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org