AL SALTUIN, Iraq – The American soldier and the Iraqi villager stood in a tidy dirt courtyard and talked about electricity. They discussed clean drinking water and tribal politics in this rural corner of Baghdad province.
And then Sgt. Sam Harper – a member of a Fort Lewis Stryker brigade’s psychological operations detachment, known as “psyops” – cut to the chase.
“I’m here for another reason: to educate the people of this area,” said Harper, 38. “Do you know of any insurgent groups operating in this area?”
The man said he didn’t.
“We know there are,” the soldier continued. “They ask young kids to transport things from one place to another. We’re here to stop in some of the villages and talk to parents so their kids don’t get in trouble.”
Harper handed the villager a business card with a telephone number. The Illinois native explained it was a hot line the man could call if he saw suspicious activity. American military personnel staff it 24 hours a day, and all calls are confidential.
“This is what psyops looks like right now,” Harper explained to a reporter later. “Rolling through a town blaring Metallica from the speaker? Those days are done in Iraq. We’re kind of moving out of the traditional psyop phase to more of an information dissemination phase.”
WITH THE 4TH BRIGADE
Harper is one of 16 mobilized reservists working in the psyops section for 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division – the Fort Lewis brigade of some 4,000 soldiers on its second tour of Iraq.
Four of the Stryker brigade’s battalions have a three-person psyops section, and another four psyops soldiers work at the brigade headquarters at Victory Base Complex in Baghdad.
The Dec. 23 patrol was a joint psyops-civil affairs mission to gauge the feelings of the local population in the Zaidon area of Baghdad province. During the height of the insurgency, the area was a haven for al Qaida in Iraq. On this day, several homes were conspicuously absent of men, most of whom likely remain in prison.
For many, the idea of psyops still elicits the idea of broadcasting propaganda over the radio or blanketing leaflets across a town ahead of an impending attack. But Lt. Jose Perez, the brigade’s psyops detachment commander, said his troops don’t really do that anymore. It’s more about the art of gentle persuasion.
“If you want everyone in the room to stand on a chair, you can do it in a few ways,” the 41-year-old Chicago resident said. “One would be to throw a bunch of thumbtacks on the floor. But we try to convince people standing on the chair is in their best interest. In a nutshell, it’s advertising in a military way.”
A TOOL OF WAR
Controlling information has always been a powerful tool of war – at times a controversial tool when the information is put out in a false, deceptive or one-sided way.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, American efforts to counter Islamic radicals by using information or disinformation have occasionally made headlines.
Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld abruptly shut down the new Office of Strategic Influence in 2002 after reports surfaced that the agency was planting news items, possibly even false ones, in foreign media in both friendly and unfriendly countries.
In 2005, members of Congress were alarmed to hear that a private military contractor had secretly paid Iraqi and other Arab newspapers to publish hundreds of “good news” stories written by U.S. troops.
Today in Iraq, many of the 4th Brigade’s psyops products encourage locals to cooperate with American military or Iraqi security forces. The troops also print materials that in essence are public-service announcements; a recent handbill warned about the symptoms of cholera and how to prevent it.
The detachment produces about three or four new products a week. It prints handbills, fliers and posters; pays for advertising space on billboards and in newspapers; and purchases airtime on television and radio.
The soldiers have several vehicles with loudspeakers attached to the top, which have proven useful when crowds gather. If soldiers are searching a building, for instance, the speakers will broadcast a message in Arabic that announces why they’re searching, explains what they’re looking for and encourages the locals to cooperate.
When five car bombs exploded in a coordinated attack across Baghdad on Dec. 8, the soldiers initiated a media blitz.
“We told them that the attackers targeted Iraq’s culture and Iraq’s history,” Perez said. “We wanted people to know that it was way more than an attack on buildings and people.”
BATTLE OF IMAGES
Lt. Gen Charles Jacoby, the Fort Lewis commander now overseeing daily American military operations in Iraq, told reporters on Dec. 18 that the United States faces a battle over its image as it prepares to draw down forces.
“Our adversaries can’t win the tactical part, but they’re hoping to win whatever part of the strategic war they can,” he said. “Part of that might be the perception that the United States has abandoned Iraq or is being forced to leave, and we’re mindful of that.”
The U.S. military will emphasize to the Iraqi people its role in the security agreement between Washington and Baghdad that places Iraqi security forces at the forefront of security operations.
Basically, Jacoby said, the United States “wants to get all the information out there and tell our story.”
Psyops has its limitations. It won’t change the minds of people who oppose the American presence in Iraq. Printed materials have limited impact in rural areas where literacy rates are low.
But for those it reaches, it can be effective because it appeals to people’s interests, whether reward money or a mother’s intuition.
Spc. Olivia Laschober is the detachment’s only female soldier and often travels with the battalion psyops sections specifically to talk to women.
“Their voices aren’t often heard, but they can be a big influence,” she said. “I talk to them about their mothers’ intuitions. Most women, if they have children, want to protect their kids, and we play into that.”
One recent campaign included handbills encouraging mothers not to allow their children to drink dirty water. Other products aim to tell parents to teach their kids to stay out of the insurgency.
And when Harper talked with a villager at Al Saltuin, he encouraged him to report any suspicious activity for his family’s sake.
“I, too, have a family,” he said, “and my sole purpose in life is to keep them safe.”