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Selling the War
Psychological Warfare Not So Far Removed from Advertising

llisten Listen to David Kestenbaum's report on the military's propaganda efforts in Afghanistan.

EC-130 Commando Solo

EC-130 Commando Solo radio broadcast aircraft
Photo: Department of Defense

EC-130 View details the interior and capabilities of the EC-130.

Nov. 9, 2001 -- Shortly after hijacked planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Army psychological warfare experts from Fort Bragg, N.C., headed to war.

EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft from the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard began broadcasting news and music for 10 hours a day, in concert with the start of the bombing campaign in Afhganistan. Other groups began dropping leaflets aimed at demoralizing Taliban troops and reassuring Afghan citizens that America and its allies were here to help.

The leaflets and broadcasts are intended to convince the Afghan population that America has no interest in conquering their country, only ridding them of the Taliban.

The message to the Taliban is less consoling: "What are you using, obsolete and ineffective weaponry? Our bombs are so accurate we can drop them right through your windows." A hard sell, and an indication that the military is learning from Madison Avenue.

In advertising, the audience is key and the message is finessed using market research and focus groups. Psychological warfare is conducted in much the same fashion -- only the product being sold is often surrender, and the focus group may be prisoners of war.

 
For the attention of the noble people of Afghanistan. The forces of the United States are passing through your area.  We have not come here to harm you. We have come to arrest  Usamah Bin-Ladin, Al-Qa'idah and those who support him. We  request that you stay away from bridges and roads for your  own safety and do not interfere with the military operation  and our troops. If you follow these instructions no harm will come towards you. Listen

"For the attention of the noble people of Afghanistan:

The forces of the United States are passing through your area. We have not come here to harm you. We have come to arrest Osama bin Ladin, al Qaeda and those who support him. We request that you stay away from bridges and roads for your own safety and do not interfere with the military operation and our troops. If you follow these instructions no harm will come towards you."


Do not come near American troops. Remain in your own homes. We are not here to make your country our colony or to plunder it. When you see U.S. forces and aircraft you should seek protection in some places and remain there until we leave your area completely. Roads, streets and bridges are dangerous places to travel or visit. The most safe place is your own homes. Don't listen to what al Qaeda and the Taliban say. If you follow these instructions no harm will come to you. You should not forget that we do not want to harm innocent people Listen

"Do not come near American troops. Remain in your own homes. We are not here to make your country our colony or to plunder it. When you see U.S. forces and aircraft you should seek protection in some places and remain there until we leave your area completely. Roads, streets and bridges are dangerous places to travel or visit. The most safe place is your own homes. Don't listen to what al Qaeda and the Taliban say. If you follow these instructions no harm will come to you. You should not forget that we do not want to harm innocent people."

- Messages broadcast by U.S. military Psychological Operations


With propaganda, the smallest cultural nuances are important. In the Gulf War, consultants suggested that propaganda leaflets show bearded soldiers offering bananas to scared civilians -- because both images were thought to be comforting in Islamic society. Cartoons with speech balloons were rejected because the balloons meant nothing to Iraqis.

The Iraqis shot back with some propaganda that apparently didn't have the effect they were looking for: cartoon character Bart Simpson, romancing their women while they were off fighting.

The Gulf War psychological operations campaign, or "psyops," is regarded as one of the most successful in American military history and included the most involved radio broadcasts to date. "The broadcast would open with a call to prayer, followed by prayer in Arabic.. then essentially news, sports, weather and interviews with detainees," Psyops veteran Rick Hoffan told NPR's David Kestenbaum.

"And then at some point during the broadcast day, the next day's B-52 targets were announced, but never at the same time. So if Iraqi soldiers wanted to know what was on the list, they'd have to listen all day, exposing all the propaganda we cared to deliver," Hoffan said. "It was an amazingly effective campaign."

In Depth

ATC audioListen as All Things Considered host Noah Adams talks to Janes Defence's Paul Beaver about the EC-130.

Weinberg audio Listen as Scott Simon talks to Mike Linstead of BBC Monitoring Service

Other Resources

Find out more about the Commando Solo aircraft

See examples of psyops leaflets being used in Afghanistan

Listen to radio broadcasts from the Taliban and Allied countries

U.S Army's Psychological Operations Field Manual No.33-1 (from Federation of American Scientists.)

"Psychological Operations in Guerilla Warfare" (document from Federation of American Scientists)