I must admit that, as a former PSYOP section commander and target audience analyst, I was amused by Loren Schofield’s satirical article about the Army making PSYOP an “all-women trade.” Loren hasn’t been the only one to poke fun at the trade—the ever-hilarious DuffelBlog referred to PSYOP soldiers as “highly-trained radio guards” for Special Forces ODAs.
I guess that’s what happens when a trade with too few “elite” requirements such as PSYOP gets embedded within USSOCOM, although it’s worth noting that while the latter retains control over PSYOP doctrine, units no longer belong to the command. As a former Green Beret, Loren likely stumbled upon his share of sub-par soldiers serving with PSYOP.
While it remains a funny article which never claimed to tackle PSYOP seriously, it does raise a valid question: Is PSYOP a lesser trade within the Army?
When I first joined Canadian Psychological Operations (PSYOPS, with an “s” north of the border) in 2008, they had been deploying in Afghanistan since 2005, slowly trying to build a credible reputation with field and HQ commanders as force enablers, valid advisors, and cultural specialists. They had carried on actions during Operation Medusa, dropping leaflets and deploying loudspeakers as part of an elaborate deception plan, coordinating music with artillery strikes in a very Pavlovian experiment.
Such success made for a very effective recruitment tool for soldiers looking for unconventional military venues. PSYOP had the theoretical capacity to support all sorts of operations throughout the full spectrum of conflict, from disaster assistance to special ops, and certainly fit the bill for a college-educated NCO and Afghanistan veteran such as myself.
And this is where I found out that there’s a huge gap between what PSYOP tries to be and reality.
As members of a “specialty” trade supporting conventional field units using unconventional tactics, PSYOP soldiers often succumb to hubris, thinking of themselves as part of a unique military brand, which is not entirely false. Problems arise when soldiers barely meet basic requirements such as physical fitness, professional dress, and deportment within an infantry battalion context and, chief among all, lack the humility to admit that while exotic—especially to combat troops unfamiliar with it—PSYOP serves in a support capacity and will eternally struggle to gain recognition.
Despite years of being used in Afghanistan, many commanders at all levels have still only “vaguely heard of the concept” of PSYOP since Army staff colleges and combat school still fail to teach it. I can’t even recall how many times I was asked what I was doing around the table whenever a company commander was planning his operation, how many times an artillery sapper or CAS officer looked down on me as I was explaining the AOs tribal dynamics to the company commander, all the while wondering who the hell cares since a 155mm Excalibur doesn’t make the distinction between a Popalzai and Noorzai tribesman. I couldn’t say how many times we tried to convince higher-ups that PSYOP was a vital part of any coherent COIN strategy—before realizing, years later, that they had no idea what COIN actually involved in the first place.
So there we were, motivated soldiers with unique skills suffering from lack of recognition and a cognitive dissonance between how we saw ourselves and external perceptions. While not serving as “highly trained radio guards” for CSOR in Afghanistan, PSYOP soldiers certainly weren’t used to their full potential.
Last week, as I had been called on to comment on the Charlie Hebdo massacre on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, I had the chance to meet a retired Canadian general who served a few years with Joint Task Force 2 and is considered to have been one of the co-founders of Canadian PSYOPS. We exchanged thoughts on how the trade had been squandered by the Canadian military and how it’s noticeably absent from any strategy dealing with the emerging threat of the Islamic State, which heavily relies on propaganda—a perfect assignment for PSYOPS.
So while Loren drives a point home by gently belittling PSYOP as a bit of a “lesser trade” within the special operations community, there’s hope it will someday be taken more seriously.