The term "PsyOps," military shorthand for Psychological Operations, sounds downright freaky. Upon hearing it, one is almost certainly prone to Clockwork Orange-like images -- say, a petrified youngster with his eyelids strapped open or hooked up to an electroshock machine that will render him sterile should he not supply the proper answer to his camouflage-clad inquisitor.
First Sergeant Joe Hubbard, a spry, clean-cut 44-year-old U.S. Army reservist who heads up the 318th PsyOps unit at Jefferson Barracks in south county, knows such harrowing nomenclature is apt to intimidate, to the point where he all but curses its existence.
"We've tried to come up with a different term," says Hubbard. "It's really a very broad field."
Indeed, Hubbard's unit features not a single automated eyelid clipper among it. Rather, it employs a sophisticated combination of educational materials (posters, comic books), propagandist literature (leaflets), broadcast media, linguistics, humanitarian aid (food), infrastructure restoration (power, water), crisis response, peace negotiations -- and, yes, psychological maneuvering.
"It's like any other marketing effort you'd see in the States," notes Hubbard, whose unit's primary peacetime focus is Central and South America. "We're kind of like marketing and public relations. A foreign presence can be stressful to a local populace."
Sergeant Cherie Bone -- a 31-year-old Arnold resident, mother of three and subordinate of Hubbard -- just returned from a year in Iraq, where she served on the PsyOps front lines. Bone is hunkered down in a basic plastic-backed chair on the second floor of Building 26 at Jefferson Barracks -- once a critically active army base until it was declared surplus property in 1946. It is hard to imagine her, dressed in a pretty purple sweater and gold pendant, patrolling the chaotic deserts of Iraq.
But since the war began more than a year ago, that's exactly what Bone did: negotiate the surrender of hostile forces, help to reinstall water and power lines, convince residents to return to their homes and care for their families rather than join rebel forces, and ensure that air-dropped leaflets denouncing Saddam as an opulent tyrant made it into the natives' hands.
PsyOps units were also responsible for overseeing the frequent food drops in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 -- a tactic that is as political and strategic as it is practical, says Timothy Lomperis, chair of the Department of Political Science at Saint Louis University and former military commander in the Vietnam War.
"[PsyOps] is designed to save lives by attempting to create a favorable reception for U.S. forces," says Lomperis. "In Afghanistan, for example, all the food drops were a big part of PsyOps. Then, of course, the big point is to try to maintain a favorable relationship with locals so it can be exploited by intelligence folks. PsyOps, then, becomes a central part of the intelligence arm of any military force. PsyOps people see themselves as creating goodwill chits in the bank, whereas other units will draw down on that through bombings and raids. PsyOps tries to build the credit back up through food, medical facilities, et cetera."
In Iraq, says Bone, sometimes even the most well-intentioned deeds didn't go over well with some of the more nationalistic locals.
"We never had to convince Iraqi people to not like Saddam," the sergeant says of her unit's outreach efforts. "They didn't like Saddam, but they didn't like us either. We'd fix a power line and somebody would sabotage that power line. They didn't want us to be successful."
"You go from a war of maneuver[ing] into peacemaking, then into peacekeeping," explains Hubbard. "Peacemaking is when you've got chaos. In times of anarchy, the only thing that's gonna work is the biggest, baddest motherfucker on the block. Iraq was an orderly place because Saddam was the biggest, baddest son of a gun."
However daunting her public-relations and reconstruction efforts have been, Bone considers PsyOps an absolutely vital tool in preventing casualties as the country makes the tedious transition from peacemaking to peacekeeping.
"PsyOps is vital in the combat phase," says Bone. "In some of these towns, they've never seen the equipment [missiles, firearms, tanks, etc.] we have, and it scares the hell out of them. PsyOps makes the transition easier. It prevents collateral damage. It saves a lot of lives."
Local activist Bill Ramsey of the Human Rights Action League has serious questions about the ethics of PsyOps. "I think the parallel is somewhat similar," Ramsey says of Hubbard's comparison of PsyOps to a full-service marketing firm. "And I'd be against them for the same reason. I don't let my kids watch TV because of the way marketing manipulates their minds. I don't believe that we should be marketing democracy. That's a contradiction for me. Democracy is an effort for people to come together and make the best decisions they can in a collaborative way."
SLU's Lomperis dismisses Ramsey's assessment as too narrow in focus. "I think PsyOps appreciably lowers casualties for both sides," he says, echoing Bone's assertion. "You're fighting another organization that's putting their own information out. PsyOps operates as the functional equivalent of a political party. It's very moral to counter these messages of hate."
Moral or otherwise, there is considerable question as to whether U.S. or Coalition-operated radio and television stations -- two key elements of PsyOps -- are actually working.
"To the extent that the Americans think they can control the informational environment, they're wrong," says Marc Lynch, assistant professor of political science at Williams College in Massachusetts. "Arab audiences are pretty sophisticated at decoding media messages. They lived with Saddam for 30 years and learned how to decode propaganda. I'm not sure American media strategy has taken that into account as well as it should have."
Sinan Antoon, assistant professor of Arabic literature at Dartmouth University, is a native Iraqi who lived there until 1991. This past July Antoon returned to Baghdad to shoot a documentary film in an attempt to provide Americans with a realistic portrait of everyday Iraqi life and perspectives.
"We were promised by warmongers that all Iraqis would come out with sweets for the U.S. Army, and they didn't," says Antoon. "They were behind [U.S.] sanctions for thirteen years, which really destroyed the country."
Sergeant Hubbard disputes Antoon's assertion that U.S. sanctions are solely responsible for the rationing and infrastructure shortcomings that have fueled Iraqis' bitterness toward American and Coalition forces.
"That all predated Desert Storm by generations and generations," claims Hubbard.
Counters Antoon: "That's not true -- I lived there. Things were nice and dandy between Iraq and the U.S. in the '80s. I remember seeing Donald Rumsfeld on TV shaking hands with Saddam Hussein when he was Reagan's emissary. Yes, in the '80s there were some pressures because of war in Iran, but we did not starve. Before 1990, Iraq had one of the best healthcare systems in the world. But in '91 the whole infrastructure was destroyed. Because of sanctions, we couldn't rebuild it. Sanctions not only hurt the people, they strengthened Saddam."
As for the effectiveness of marketing missions carried out by Bone and her fellow PsyOps soldiers, Antoon is skeptical.
"What is creating negative feelings toward the U.S. in the Middle East are policies," says Antoon. "You don't sell it like a commodity, you have to change the policies. The U.S. has been an ally of Saudi Arabia -- a dictatorship -- for 50 years. So when people are told the U.S. is coming to support democracy, they don't buy it. Leaflets and radio programs are not going to do anything."