Selling America: U.S.
army units try to win hearts and minds of
By JIM KRANE
BAGHDAD (AP) - Sheik Abdul Jabar leaned
forward in his chair, stroked his beard and
delivered a warning to the U.S. army
psychological operations soldier seated across
"We don't want anyone to touch our
women," the Shiite cleric said as his
companions in turbans and headscarves nodded.
Then came other grievances, including a vague
warning about U.S. soldiers displaying
pornography in Iraq.
"You talk to that soldier's boss, and
immediately something will be done. I guarantee
it," said Sgt. Eric Viburs, of the army's
346th Psychological Operations Company, based in
Columbus, Ohio. The tension eased, Marlboros and
Kufa Colas were passed around, and soon Viburs
was practically family.
The Americans aren't merely interested in the
sheik's friendship. They want to enlist him as a
mouthpiece in the poor Shiite Muslim
neighbourhood where he is a leader.
Across Iraq, dozens of three-person "psyops"
teams are pursuing similar missions: befriending
community leaders and using them to boost
Iraqis' opinions of the United States and
distribute its messages.
The army's psychological operations force in
Iraq is the largest in U.S. history, with 11
companies and almost 1,000 psyops personnel in
the country or in support roles in the United
States, said Lt.-Col. Glenn Ayers, commander of
the 9th Psychological Operations Battalion based
in Fort Bragg, N.C.
Their mission is to persuade Iraqis to do the
Pentagon's bidding: report unexploded munitions,
vacate a building, support U.S. troops, give up.
It's a mission as old as war itself.
"You're basically trying to sell a
product, and the product is 'Please surrender at
your earliest possible convenience,' "
said John Pike, a military analyst with
GlobalSecurity.org, a consulting group based in
During the war, psyops detachments helped
engineer the surrender and desertion of
thousands of Iraqi soldiers.
They dropped leaflets describing the proper
way to hand over weapons. They carried a mobile
radio station that told Iraqis the U.S. invasion
force was on its way.
On the ground, the teams carry Sony MiniDisc
players packed with bizarre sounds: commands in
Arabic, helicopter and tank noises and sonic
shrieks to clear crowds. One unit in southern
Iraq deceived the Iraqi military by blaring
recorded sounds of advancing tanks, Ayers said.
"We got the Iraqis to look in one
direction when the real tanks came in the other
direction," said Ayers.
Since the war's end, the psyops mission has
changed to a "safety and
stabilization" message. Teams roam Baghdad
asking Iraqis about their daily problems and
their opinions of the progress being made under
the U.S. occupation.
Information Radio, one of the U.S.-led
coalition's three radio stations, broadcasts 24
hours a day. It warns Iraqis to watch for
unexploded munitions, reports on moves to create
a new government, explains food distribution
efforts and carries other U.S. messages.
The job is similar, but tougher, than the
marketing of, say, Coca-Cola, Ayers says.
"Cola is a product you already want to
buy. Coke just has to convince you to buy its
brand," Ayers said. "(Iraqis) don't
want to buy our product. But we still have to
sell it to them."
Like marketers, psyops soldiers study their
They use groups of Iraqi prisoners who
evaluate the message, often crafted by
reservists who work in sales or marketing in
civilian jobs. Psyops soldiers take courses in
Arabic language and culture. They're comfortable
in Iraqi crowds and homes.
In civilian life, Maj. Allen McCormick of
West Chester, Ohio, is a marketing executive for
Procter & Gamble. He devises pitches to
persuade U.S. teens to buy Pringles, Cover Girl
and Scope. Now he tries to persuade Iraqi teens
to embrace democracy and their U.S. overseers.
Sometimes it's difficult to tell where the
psychological operations begin and end.
"I don't tell them I'm psyop," said
Sgt. Grey Wettstein of Ashtabula, Ohio, whose
head is shaven and whose body is covered in
tattoos. "They'll either think I'm into
brain washing or I'm a psychologist."
There are three types of psyops missions.
White ops are true messages where the source
is known. Grey ops are accurate, but the source
is hidden. In a form of grey operation, one
Baghdad weekly prints articles supplied by the
military, most of which don't appear to come
from a U.S. or military source. In exchange, the
U.S. buys and distributes 70,000 of the
Black ops are false rumours. The army is
prohibited from launching them. But that's not
to say they don't exist.
Before the war, some western media carried
reports that, in retrospect, resemble black ops.
One was that the United States might wreck Iraqi
communications with a so-called electromagnetic
pulse weapon. It never happened. In the second,
a Kurdish group claimed former deputy prime
minister Tariq Aziz had defected. Aziz appeared
on TV to disprove the story.
If the reports were engineered, the military
says it had nothing to do with them.
"A lot of the stuff we don't deny,"
Wettstein said, "because it helps the
situation at the time."