Do Psy-Ops Really Work?

What do you think? (And what do you think now?)

John McCain

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell “repeatedly pressured” a “psychological operations” team in Afghanistan to use their techniques against visiting members of Congress, according to a Rolling Stone report published Wednesday. Although lawmakers are often subject to spin on the frontlines, Caldwell apparently wanted a “deeper analysis of pressure points we could use to leverage the delegation for more funds” and allegedly asked, “How do we get these guys to give us more people? … What do I have to plant inside their heads?” It’s illegal for psy-ops forces to target American citizens, so now the Pentagon is preparing to investigate. But is the secret manipulation that Caldwell had in mind even possible? Do psy-ops actually work?

Only as well as a good PR campaign. The purpose of psy-ops, as laid out by the Army in a 2003 field manual, is to “influence foreign audience perceptions and subsequent behavior … in support of [government] policy and military objectives.” Or, as whistle-blower Lt. Col. Michael Holmes put it to Rolling Stone, “my job in psy-ops is to play with people’s heads, to get the enemy to behave the way we want them to behave.” Although that sounds rather like a dark art, the truth is that psy-ops is essentially advertising. Teams identify a target audience (say, chicken farmers), research their needs (chicken feed, chicken consumers), and then try to exert influence (don’t sell chicken to the rebels), using loudspeakers, leaflet drops, radio programming, newspaper articles, TV spots, and posters (Say “no” to hungry rebels asking for chicken!). Chicken aside, the message is often intended for a more general, and potentially hostile, audience, and often boils down to simple messages like we understand you and you should like us. In 2008, Nathan Hodge reported in Wired that psy-ops teams were blasting Iraqi pop music during halal food handouts.

The idea that, given a U.S. senator as a target, a psy-ops team could “plant” the urge, Inception-style, to give the Army more resources is fairly nonsensical. Psy-ops teams use persuasion, not mind control. If Caldwell really did want Holmes and others to compile detailed profiles of John McCain and others, including their voting records and opinions on hot-button issues, he might as well have assigned such research work to his public affairs staff. (The difference between psy-ops and public affairs is that the purpose of the former is influence and it’s supposed to be directed at foreign audiences exclusively, whereas the latter merely informs audiences both at home and abroad. But the distinction can get hazy. A 1997 Army field manual on public affairs notes that the discipline helps the United States “achieve information dominance” and “contributes to the preservation of public support,” which seems to edge into influence.)

Fittingly for a practice that deals in “audience perceptions,” what Rolling Stone calls psy-ops has gone through several re-brandings. During World War I, we called the attempt to gain popular support and demoralize the enemy through leafleting and slogans (“the war to end all wars”) propaganda. But that word got to be associated with the dissemination of outright lies, so the United States started using the term psychological warfare, which eventually gave way to psy-ops. Perhaps because the name seems to evokemind control or The Manchurian Candidate or maybe the Jedi, it was re-christened as the soupy Military Information Support Operations (MISO) in 2010.

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Explainer thanks retired Army Sgt. Maj. Herb Friedman.*

*Correction, Feb. 25, 2011: This piece originally misstated Herb Friedman’s military rank.

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