A famously hard-bitten Green Beret, Col. Mike Kirby, glowers down on a conference table full of Army commanders here as they plot their next attack on the Taliban and al Qaeda. Kirby growls a key message: "Better go PSYWAR on that."
For the leaders of the 4th Psychological Operations Group -- considered among the Army's most intellectual warriors -- Kirby is a hero. Never mind that he's a Hollywood construct: a character played by John Wayne in the 1968 agitprop classic "The Green Berets." An enlarged photo of the Duke in uniform and a snippet of his dialogue hangs on the wood-paneled wall in tribute to one of the military's rarely glamorized special operations units.
The weaponry of the psyop soldier includes radio transmitters, loudspeakers and music, from classical to heavy metal. These elite airborne troops don't drop bombs on the enemy -- they drop leaflets and crude cartoons urging surrender. They parachute in, offering bribes, hoping to rat out evildoers like Osama bin Laden. They set up battlefield copy centers to crank out pro-American handbills.
"No one else does what we do," says Col. James A. Treadwell, who commands the 4th Psyop Group, a 1,200-member unit whose slogans include "Win the Mind -- Win the Day" and "Verbum Vincet" ("The Word Conquers"). Schooled in marketing and advertising techniques, they are a brainy subset of the "snake eaters," as the brawny commandos based here in the scrub pine and strip-club wilds of Fayetteville are known.
Wearing a maroon beret that designates him as a qualified paratrooper, Lt. Col. Kenneth A. Turner sounds like a typical "psyop-er" -- they don't go in for menacing nicknames -- as he patiently explains "the distinction between dissemination and communication." When he talks about a target, he means an audience.
Turner, 42, commands a dissemination battalion. He speaks French and holds master's degrees in international relations and military arts and sciences. Like others here, he considers psychological operations an art with a practical application. If you can demoralize the enemy and promote defections, the fighting ends sooner -- thereby minimizing casualties.
"Stop fighting for the Taliban and live," urges a leaflet designed here. "Drive out the foreign terrorists," says another.
"That's what we're all about: influencing people to take certain behavioral actions that accomplish our national goals," says Turner.
During the Persian Gulf War, many Iraqi soldiers surrendered clutching U.S.-dropped leaflets that offered safe passage. "There were special [Iraqi] teams organized to shoot anyone that was found to be in possession of our leaflets," Treadwell says. But he and other commanders of the Afghan psyop war are hesitant to make claims about the effectiveness of their propaganda in promoting surrenders, saying they haven't yet been able to make assessments.
The leafleting over Kandahar, one of the last Taliban strongholds to yield to U.S.-backed forces, included a broadside depicting Mullah Mohammed Omar as a "kuchi," a dog of nomads, chained at the heel of bin Laden. "Who really runs the Taliban?" it asks. Apparently it hit a nerve.
"If the Taliban are complaining because we dropped this in Kandahar, which they have been, we're kind of happy -- because they're upset about it," says David C. Champagne, a PhD research analyst with the Army psyop group. "If you have a reaction to it, it means you've been affected one way or another."
In Afghanistan, with a population of 26 million, some 18 million leaflets have been distributed -- often via fiberglass "leaflet bombs" that explode in midair. "We have leaflets that are dropping like snowflakes in December in Chicago," Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld noted earlier in the campaign.
Many messages produced here are benign, trying to reinforce the point that Americans are nice people -- anti-terrorist, not anti-Muslim. "To the honorable people of Afghanistan, may you have a Happy Eid," Champagne roughly translates from the Pashto as presses roll behind him. "May your fasting -- your sacrifice, be acceptable to God."
This is essentially a greeting card to mark Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. It depicts a date palm and a bowl of dates -- a traditional food for celebrating the end of the month-long fasting period.
"Obviously the target audience is the civilian population of Afghanistan, showing our friendship," explains Maj. Ric Rohm, another battalion commander. "All of our products fit into a plan."
At the start of a campaign, the psyop-ers decide which media will be most useful in getting across their message, "very similar to how a marketing firm would try to do their business," says Rohm. In Afghanistan, that ruled out television -- the Taliban had banned it.
But many Afghans owned radios, so the psyop-ers began drafting scripts and musical programming for the "Commando Solo" aircraft circling the region, broadcasting 10 hours a day. The leaflets relied on simple messages and graphics because of the population's low literacy rate, but Champagne, who served in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan decades ago, quickly points out, that doesn't mean "they're not intelligent."
Messages must be approved by the brass at Central Command and comport with the overarching info-war strategy laid out by the White House. Critiques and wrongheaded suggestions abound. One official objected to a leaflet showing Afghanistan as a chessboard with bin Laden orchestrating Taliban pawns -- until the experts here explained that chess is immensely popular in the region and the image would instantly connect.
Potential linguistic and cultural gaffes lurk in every operation. In Somalia in 1992, prior to a U.N. humanitarian effort, a hastily printed psyop leaflet contained a spelling error. Instead of announcing help from the "United Nations," it came out "Slave Nations."
At Fort Bragg, translations are scrupulously checked -- "So we don't end up having an advertisement for a car that says 'Won't Go,' " says Rohm, referring to a classic marketing screw-up involving the Chevy Nova. (In Spanish, no va translates as "won't go.")
In Afghanistan, the psyop-ers deliberately avoided using the word "surrender" because they knew it would not play well with the Taliban. They substituted appeals along the lines of "Return to your homes and villages." Military mind-warriors had faced that problem before.
"That's an old issue going back to the Second World War and leaflets that were directed at the Japanese," explains Robert D. Jenks, another doctorate-holding civilian analyst at Fort Bragg. "They discovered that [surrender] was offensive to Japanese. So they retooled and phrased it differently. What they said was: 'Cease resistance.' "
Over the years Army psychological operations have spread to the civilian arena. Because the unit supports peacetime anti-drug and de-mining efforts around the globe, the old term "psywar" -- accurate when John Wayne made his Vietnam War movie -- is out of favor now. But the swaggering spirit seems to live on among the guys who bring strong editing and graphic skills to combat, who can write radio scripts and leaflet slogans with a certain punch.
In October, when Army Rangers parachuted behind enemy lines outside Kandahar, four members of Fort Bragg's psyop group jumped with them. They left behind their calling cards for the enemy -- leaflets, of course. "We wanted them to know that we were on the ground," says Lt. Col. Glenn Ayers.
One bore an image of firefighters raising the American flag. It said simply, "Freedom Endures."