AFTER the laser-directed smart bombs and the Tomahawk cruise missiles and the rest of the futuristic arsenal directed at Iraqi troops and targets comes the psychological coup de grace: little pieces of paper fluttering to the ground. Intended finally to break the soldier's will to fight, they picture an Iraqi soldier's grieving parents and portray his leader obssessed with war; they promise: If you cease resistance, soldier, "you will not die."
"The enemy," Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg lamented when leaflets first were used, "bombards our front not only with a drumfire of artillery, but also with a drumfire of printed paper. Besides bombs, which kill the body, his airmen also throw down leaflets which are intended to kill the soul."
"Words," the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes once wrote as if in answer, "are cheaper than blood." When it became apparent to skeptical commanders of the past that leaflets really could help induce enemy soldiers to surrender, they began calling in the leaflet-droppers -- "confetti soldiers," as they were sometimes known -- in force. The horizons of wartime have since become dense with leaflets. Blizzards of leaflets have been dropped on or fired at soldiers and civilians since World War I. At one point during the Vietnam war, an estimated one billion ultimately futile leaflets were being dropped by American forces on the Viet Cong every month.
Safe-conduct passes and promises of humane treatment are probably the best-known types of combat leaflet, but in fact leaflets in their deciduous profusion constitute an airborne library of entreaty, manipulation and threat. Some are crude pornography; others, like the leaf-shaped warnings dropped on France by Germany in 1940, have a striking if morbid beauty. If you fight us, they warned, "your soldiers will fall like autumn leaves." Leaflets have been deferential and respectful, hailing the courage of trapped troops to whom they were promising a warm meal and medical attention; others have been brutally insulting: "You VC are bloodthirsty criminals," read one U.S. leaflet dropped in Vietnam. Though usually simple and direct, a few have offered complex narratives over a series of leaflets. Some leaflets have even been war newspapers-in-miniature, like the "Parachute News" and "Frontpost" series dropped on Axis troops in World War II, and some have been considered so dangerous by the targeted side that possession of a leaflet was cause for summary execution. The Associated Press last week transmitted examples of three leaflets that have already been dropped in the millions on Iraqi troops, especially over southeastern Kuwait where Iraq's most reluctant conscripts are believed to be entrenched. The appeals featured on these three leaflets represent a variety of psychological devices developed over a century of battlefield research to weaken and break a soldier, and, in concert with radio broadcasts and bombardment, to turn him into a man who wants no more of battle.
Only one of these leaflets, the basic surrender form, is verbal. "Cease Resistance," it says. "Be Safe." Providing written directions for surrender on one side, it features a pair of drawings on the reverse: one demonstrating the act of surrender as the U.S.-led multinational forces demand it be done, and the other featuring three Iraqi prisoners sitting down to a meal of fruit, a straightforward and unadorned image that takes on a powerful eloquence when seen by hungry men.
The leaflet is classic not only in its stark simplicity, but in its wording as well, reflecting the generations of psychological warriors who have learned from one another's mistakes. "Cease Resistance," for example, is a phrase created by American psyops officers who were leafleting exhausted Japanese troops during World War II and who were not getting the number of surrenders from their efforts that they were expecting.
The problem, they decided, was the leaflet's wording. Intended to be displayed at a distance to American troops, its large letters read, "I Surrender." According to a military psywar textbook by Paul Linebarger published after the war, "Few Japanese soldiers would accept such a humiliation." They changed the phrase to read, "I Cease Resistance" to accommodate Japanese cultural views of honor and acceptable behavior, and soldiers soon began to surrender in larger numbers.
The "Cease Resistance" formulation is probably being used in the gulf war because honor and shame are as fundamental in Arab culture as they are among Japanese. Indeed, each enemy soldier's culture determines the success of the appeal being used. What worked with German soldiers in World War II was a formal-looking safe-conduct pass intended to seem bureaucratic and "official." It looked very much like a stock certificate, complete with gilt-edging and the seals of three Allied powers. This famous "Passierschien" is said to have become a prized black-market commodity late in the war.
The surrender instructions being dropped on the Iraqi forces warn soldiers to "Sling your weapon over your left shoulder muzzle down." Soldiers have been receiving this leaflet instruction for generations, in almost exactly the same language. American forces in the Pacific theater were instructed to do precisely this in a "Ticket to Armistice" leaflet dropped on them by the Japanese. For some reason, the leaflet also enjoined the American soldier to "Sing your way to peace."
This notorious "Ticket to Armistice" was to become one of the most sought-after leaflets in the annals of warfare. The reason, as American propagandist Leo J. Margolin wrote after the war, is that in order to induce American troops to pick it up, the Japanese had decorated its other side with drawings of "naked women with shapely breasts."
Americans dropped similar sexy leaflets in Vietnam, but with disappointing results. According to a 1969 Wall Street Journal report on U.S. psywar operations, Americans used "pictures of voluptuous, scantily-clad women" to decorate leaflets in hopes that these images "would turn the thoughts of enemy troops toward home." They didn't. As one psyops officer in Saigon told the Journal, "Pin-ups just don't have the same appeal here." One of the visual leaflets being used by coalition forces against the Iraqis pictures an elderly Arab couple -- a soldier's parents -- brooding over their son's fate. "Oh my son," reads the Arabic script near the father, "when will you return?" The mother is imagining her son bandaged and mangled.
There are two messages in this leaflet: the appeal to the family at home, and the graphic warning of coming injury and death; both are leaflet traditions, though presented here in an unusual manner. Historically, it has been the soldier's feelings of separation that have been exploited, whereas here the soldier is invited to dwell on the pain of separation from the family's point of view.
It is also unusual to focus on a soldier's parents, rather than on his wife. As a rule, the homefront theme has been exploited in two ways. One is wholesome: a soldier's recollections of sweet domesticity. The other is not: Your wife (or girlfriend), soldier, is sleeping with other men.
This has been an extremely common form of demoralization. In World War II, the Germans told the French that the British were debauching their women, and the British that the Americans were debauching theirs. The most notorious of such campaigns was "The Girl You Left Behind," a German series of four leaflets aimed at Americans, which suggested that American women were being debauched by Jewish financiers.
A third twist on the homefront theme -- and the closest to the appeal employed on the Iraqi-parent leaflet -- has been the controversial use of letters from the dead. In past wars, some leaflets carried the purported text of letters, found on dead soldiers, written to wives and sweethearts. The object was to confront both soldiers and civilians with the grief of loved ones, and to remind them that their current separation could become permanent. The Allies during World War II even had a short-lived radio show, "Letters Which You Do Not Receive," that read such texts on the air.
As for the graphic depiction of wounds and death, that too has had a controversial history. The appeal is a risky one, because it can easily backfire, inspiring hatred rather then lowering morale. The current gulf war leaflet shows horrible injuries in cartoon form; in Vietnam, where the enormous American psywar effort apparently tried everything, Americans futilely distributed leaflets with ghastly photographs of bloated, mangled corpses. The third leaflet being dropped on the Iraqis is striking because it attempts to communicate a complex and abstract idea in visual terms. In it, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia is depicted with a comic-book style word balloon leading to his lips that contains images of three Arab soldiers from different armies joining hands. By contrast, Iraq's Saddam Hussein is depicted with a balloon containing a tank, the Kuwaiti flag and a pair of dead soldiers. "We are all brothers," it says on the back of the leaflet.
Such symbolic communication is filled with risks. The leaflet is clearly aimed at illiterate soldiers who will not have the benefit of the written explanation. Without it (and perhaps even with it), it seems easy enough to misread these images completely: The rich King Fahd has hired a mercenary army, while a stern and manly Saddam is defending the Kuwait he has finally wrested from neo-colonial interests. His fallen soldiers have died gloriously and are achieving Paradise.
Multi-national forces, such as that now in the gulf, can run into trouble depicting themselves in their leaflets. In Korea, for example, Chinese troops dismissed one American-produced leaflet that depicted Chinese soldiers killed by Turkish U.N. troops. In fact, the information on the leaflet was accurate. But because the targeted Chinese soldiers knew that the main Turkish force had recently been overwhelmed, they regarded the leaflet as a lie.
The Americans who prepared the leaflet were anxious to play down their own involvement in the war; and wanted to credit the Turks. American psywar officers were later to learn from Chinese prisoners that they would have been better off highlighting the American involvement, rather than underplaying it.
In this light, it is noteworthy that none of these three gulf war leaflets make any mention whatsoever of American involvement. If no leaflets being dropped on the Iraqis acknowledge the American involvement in the war, it is possible that such an omission could adversely color the Iraqi perception of the attempt to persuade them.
It may of course make little or no difference what is in these leaflets; the heavy bombing alone may be persuasion enough, and the basic surrender form leaflet enough, for men who have suffered injury and severe deprivation. The American and other psywar officers in the area will know soon. As the number of Iraqis surrendering increases, the psywar officers will be able to determine what effect their various efforts have had. Perhaps they will be told what many of the psywar people of other wars have been told by the prisoners of those wars: that words are cheaper than blood on both sides.
Charles Paul Freund is an Outlook editor.