"ITHINK OUR leaders and our people have wrongly attacked the peaceful people of Iraq," a captured young Navy lieutenant intoned emotionlessly last Monday on Iraqi television. It was an appropriate beginning to a week in which much of the apparent news was in fact interchangeable with acts of psychological warfare.
A wave of attitude-influencing events in the news should be no surprise; governments, especially ours, now wage war in the shadow of Gen. Giap's dictum that the war in Vietnam could be won in America, by sapping the public support for war necessary in a democracy. A major front in this war is our minds; indeed, that battle is probably as important to Saddam Hussein as the shooting war. He has virtually said as much, suggesting in statements last year that America lacks the will for warfare.
In the case of Iraq's POW display, most Americans recognized the event instantly as a political charade. What was most interesting about that reaction is how strikingly different it was from the national trauma set off by Korean War POWs, and their germ-warfare "confessions" and denunciations of U.S. policy. Those set off a wave of national soul-searching, with the culture embarking on an inquiry into the arcane techniques of Hsi nao, or "brainwashing," and American susceptibility to them. There were few echoes of that reaction last week, though Ted Koppel wondered briefly at how little time had elapsed between the POWs' capture and their denunciations of the war, as though he had been anticipating a delay for mind-control practices to do their work.
The countervailing evidence on which most people could draw, however, was in our unhappily rich memory of other prisoner-of-war displays and recent POW lore that have long since revealed the blatantly political content of such events. Viewers could search the downed pilots' faces for signs of mistreatment and listen to their lifeless voices, and then dismiss this round of denunciations cooly as "propaganda" because they could recall a Vietnam prisoner who, during a filmed interrogation, managed to blink t-o-r-t-u-r-e, or the memory of the Pueblo crew who, posing for a prison photograph, made an obscene gesture toward the camera that their North Korean captors failed to understand, or the tale of the Vietnam POW who gave himself facial injuries so that his captors wouldn't dare display him. By week's end, Iraq announced it was suspending the televised displays, promising to resume them "at an appropriate time."
The nation's recent history would seem to have made political-communications sophisticates of us. In fact, psywar actions dominated the week, indicating not only the importance both sides place on the American public's perception of the war, but a presumption that it can be molded.
Aside from the POW display (and an early debate over how much of it to televise here), there was the "baby-formula factory" bombing, and the counter-accu-sation that the Baghdad plant was in fact a biological warfare facility; there was a redefinition of what has become the American vocabulary of this war, including what constitutes a "sortie" and what constitutes a "successful mission"; there was a shower of Scud missiles on Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose intended effect seemed more psychological than military; there was the promise by both President Bush and Vice President Quayle that this would not be "another Vietnam."
There was also direct criticism of the American press by White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, who complained of the effect its war coverage could have on "our public psyche"; there was footage from Iraq of injured civilians, intended to induce feelings of guilt; there were numerous appearances by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly did 50 radio and TV interviews in the war's opening days to improve the popular American perception of Israel; there was the release of oil into the Persian Gulf and oil fires in the region that raised questions about the war's ultimate cost; there was the debate over CNN reporter Peter Arnett's continued presence in Baghdad, and whether his Iraqi-censored reports had made him a "propaganda tool" of Saddam Hussein; there was a striking re-evaluation of the war's potential length and warnings by the Pentagon of some possible Iraqi victories before it was over.
So long as our attitudes are going to be targeted, it may be useful to recall that the public relations types, propagandists and psychological warriors who want to influence us are working from a body of research that extends back thousands of years, from Gideon's trumpets (his successful psywar ruse against the Midianites is described in the Old Testament), through Genghis Khan (we are probably still the credulous victims of his successful rumor campaign concerning the actual size of his "Golden Horde") to Benjamin Franklin (his influencing of British opinion during the American Revolution was a factor in gaining independence) to the latest research from the U.S. Army's special warfare school at Fort Bragg.
Psychological warfare, as American propagandist Paul Linebarger wrote in 1947, seeks to manipulate its target by converting lust into resentment, friction into distrust and prejudice into fury. Though long utilized to break a target's morale -- the soldier's will to fight, the state's ability to govern -- psywar's modern goals have expanded as the media available for exploitation have proliferated. Psywar today is virtually a social science, addressing itself to, among other targets, the manipulation of foreign policy. Though its intellectual furniture is constantly being rearranged and its precepts updated, its practitioners work within a long-established framework of ideas and practices. Here are some of them: Black Propaganda. When the source of information is disguised, and much or all of that information turns out to be false, you are dealing with a black propaganda operation. Obviously, such operations can be difficult to recognize, and often are not revealed until they are over. However, we may already have had at least one in the gulf war.
Last August, offices in Saudi Arabia began receiving faxed instructions on what to do in case of an Iraqi chemical weapons attack. According to a report in the Washington Times, one such fax read, "If you are outside, do nothing. You will die." Some of these faxes, said the Times, pretended to be messages from the Canadian and Philippine embassies in Riyadh, though both embassies denied any connection with them.
The lore of black propaganda is a remarkable one. During World War II, the allies beamed a regular radio broadcast into Germany that pretended to be a kind of military home service station. Though most of the programming was straightforward and truthful, the station would occasionally broadcast such helpful hints as recipes for cooking garbage, implanting the idea that somewhere in Germany, that's all there was to eat. Other times it might put out a desperate call for maps of central Germany, suggesting that the allies had already penetrated to the middle of the country. Another allied radio broadcast actually became very popular with German soldiers. It featured a wildly obscene figure known as "Der Chef," who pretended to be an old-fashioned German soldier who despised the Nazis and made merciless fun of them. Though the German soldiers were aware Der Chef was an allied figure, he was so entertaining that they regularly tuned in.
The United States has also been on the receiving end of effective black propaganda operations, most notably in the course of the Cold War.
No one who heard Hungary's heartbreaking appeals for help at the end of the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising can ever forget them. Hungarian radio broadcasters, their voices breaking, pleaded for the West to repel the Soviet army. "There is but little time!" begged the last message from Radio Free Kossuth. "Help Hungary! Help the Hungarian writers, scientists, workers, peasants and our intelligentsia! Help! Help! Help!"
The station left the air transmitting an SOS signal. Soon, however, a courageous clandestine radio operation began under the Soviets' noses. Calling itself Radio Free Hungary, the station kept alive the spirit of Radio Free Kossuth; it denounced Moscow, described in detail the brutal Soviet occupation and continued the appeals for Western intervention. The West, which through Radio Free Europe had encouraged such uprisings and had promised support for them, felt helpless and demoralized; a debate over the wisdom of such Western encouragement soon began.
It was a premier moment in the history of modern psychological warfare. Radio Free Hungary, as propaganda specialists Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell write admiringly, "was a totally brilliant fake operated by the KGB with the intention of embarassing the United States." Americans, distracted by their feelings of impotence and guilt, had no idea that they had been snookered until well after Radio Free Hungary shut down.
Gray Propaganda. In gray operations, one can be sure neither of the true source of the information nor its accuracy. Rumor-mongering is a form of gray propaganda in which no source is known. However, shortwave radio broadcasts, such as those of Radio Moscow during the Cold War, may also sometimes engage in gray operations.
The question of gray propaganda goes directly to the heart of the debate over Peter Arnett's reports from Baghdad. For example, have Americans bombed an Iraqi baby formula factory or a biological weapons facility? If the Iraqis have sold reporters in the country a bill of goods on the bombing, then accusations that their news organizations are a conduit for Iraqi propaganda are apt. What seemingly are news reports would in fact be gray operations. CNN spokeman have admitted that they find the problem a "thorny" one.
(By the way, the same debate over news vs. propaganda occurred during the Vietnam War, when Harrison Salisbury reported on American bombing in Hanoi. It led Secretary of State Dean Rusk to ask the American press corps, "Whose side are you on?")
There is also a psywar lesson in the way the Pentagon handled the baby-formula factory question when it first arose during a news briefing: It was ready with its own detailed description of the site as guarded and surrounded by barbed wire, and its identification of the site as a weapons facility. If the Pentagon had returned to the subject later on its own initiative, it would have committed a basic psywar don't: Don't ever repeat accusations made against you. White Propaganda. White operations are overt. Not only is the source not concealed, it may even be emphasized, so as to take advantage of its prestige. BBC broadcasts during WWII, for example, have been termed a white operation. White information itself is usually accurate, though inevitably selective.
The exchange of videotaped, head-of-state TV speeches last year between Iraq and the United States were both white operations, though it is worth noting that whereas President Bush wisely kept his speech to a few minutes, Saddam Hussein's tape went on for more than an hour; boring your target audience is a basic psywar sin.
Saddam Hussein's taped meeting last August with the hostages he was holding was similarly a white operation. Again, it was an unsuccessful one: Its basic prop, a little boy whose head Saddam kept stroking (children are a favorite prop of dictators), was completely uncooperative.
The idea of what constitutes white propaganda is expanding. In the past, propaganda experts made a distinction between the techniques of persuasion used on foreign audiences -- they called that "propaganda" -- and similar techniques used at home: These they called "public relations." Thus, a 1953 psywar teaching manual, "The Nature of Psychological Warfare," could call Franklin Roosevelt's wartime "Four Freedoms" speech "white propaganda" only when it was broadcast or published outside the country.
This distinction is not always used now. In their 1986 book, "Propaganda and Persuasion," authors Jowett and O'Donnell offer ABC's coverage of the 1984 Olympics as an example of white propaganda, because "it appeared to stir up American patriotism deliberately . . . ." Under such a definition, we are awash in white propaganda generated by the White House and Pentagon. Moreover, white propaganda is probably not to be avoided in any moment of national crisis or celebration -- whether the Bicentennial, the Challenger explosion, the Iranian hostage crisis of 10 years ago or other such events. There are numerous further distinctions of propaganda within these three types: Defensive Propaganda is used to maintain a situation, the way the Soviets undergirded their succession of Five-Year Plans, or the South Africans their system of apartheid. Messages intended to impede something, such as a revolutionary group's activities, are known as Offensive Propaganda. There are many more types with which professionals concern themselves: Conversionary, Divisive, and Counterpropaganda, for example.
There are, furthermore, numerous kinds of specific emotional appeals that have, year after year, turned up as black, white or gray messages. A number of them have already turned up in the course of the gulf war.
For example, the Atrocity appeal has been used by both sides. Germany was almost completely done in by mostly false atrocity accusations in World War I, a situation it compounded by repeatedly denying that it was guilty of crucifying any Canadian soldiers, impaling any Belgian babies on bayonets, or raping and mutilating any nurses.
In the gulf war, Iraqi TV's images of injured or dead civilians amid bombed-out rubble is an atrocity message. Saddam, however, has left behind a rich record of atrocities. "The Rape of Kuwait," a book currently being heavily advertised on television here is an almost pure example of the appeal. President Bush, when he has refers to Amnesty International material on Iraq, is using the appeal discretely.
The Estrous appeal has also turned up. Estrous propaganda is sex propaganda, and has been used for years to demoralize enemy troops by suggesting that while they are serving on difficult duty, rich men (usually also the real cause of the war, according to this appeal) are sleeping with their wives and girlfriends. A long line of radio announcers, from Tokyo Rose to Axis Sally to Lord Haw-Haw to Hanoi Hannah to Argentine Annie in the Falklands War have tried to undermine troops in this fashion.
Saddam Hussein has tried it, too. The Voice of Peace, an Iraqi station aimed at allied forces in the Saudi desert, has featured a woman announcer nicknamed "Baghdad Betty" by the troops, and a male voice known as "Iraq Jack," who have attempted estrous psywar. According to a report in The New York Times, the heavily-accented Baghdad Betty broadcast the following message earlier this month:
"GI, you should be home . . . while you're away, movie stars are taking your women. Robert Redford is dating your girlfriend. Tom Selleck is kissing your lady. Bart Simpson is making love to youre wife."
American soldiers have reportedly been tuning in the Voice of Peace to hear the music the station plays, and writing down some of the better material to pass around, including the warning that GIs can expect to come down with desert "craziness."
Finally, there has been the appearance of the Irrational appeal. Identified as a distinct form of propaganda by historian Terence Qualter, irrational propaganda appears to serve the function of holding together a group at the most basic possible level, usually mixed with heavy religious symbolism. Saddam has used this appeal in his own propaganda to Iraqis and other Arabs heavily, drawing heavily on Islamic symbols.
As an example of a precedent from a Christian nation at war, there is the World War I-era "Credo for France." "I believe," reads the credo in part, "in the blood of wounds and the water of benediction; in the blaze of artillery and the flame of the votive candle." The credo ends, "I believe in the hands clenched for battle and the hands clenched for prayer. I believe in ourselves, I believe in God. I believe, I believe."
Psywar alone cannot win a war, but bad or inept psywar has been blamed for the failure to triumph. Many Germans, after WWI, were convinced that it had been done in as much by effective enemy propaganda as anything else. Some Americans felt that North Vietnam's effective psywar -- and a compliant American press -- had had a fatally enervating result during the Vietnam years. It is a mistake that the U.S. military seems intent on not making again, as a glance at this week's news may indicate as well.