The Power of Paper

Never underestimate the power of a piece of paper. Whether money or a strip containing words and images, psychological operations (PSYOP) soldiers have been using it for centuries to win the enemy over to our way of thinking, it’s a low-tech form of communication, but it can be quite effective.

One of the earliest examples of airborne leaflet propaganda can be traced back to the Franco-Prussian war when during the Autumn of 1870, a French balloonist dropped slips of paper over German troops that read in German: “Paris defies the enemy. The whole of France rallies. Death to the invaders. Foolish people, shall we always throttle one another for the pleasure and proudness of Kings? Glory and conquest are crimes; defeat brings hate and desire for vengeance. Only one war is just and holy; that of independence.”

That’s a bit wordy, but it’s a start.

World War I

During the first world war, the war to end all wars, both sides were dropping leaflets on each other. M17 (part of the British War Office’s directorate of Intelligence) put out a staggering 26 million propaganda leaflets during the conflict. In addition, they would drop postcards from prisoners of war over German Imperial Army trenches stating how well the captured men were being treated. It didn’t take much to inspire men being shelled in trenches every day to want to get out of there. The propaganda made surrender sound good.

Once soldiers encountered a leaflet, they were supposed to turn it over to a superior immediately. Severe penalties were in place if they did not. However, despite that fact, about one in seven intercepted leaflets were never turned in. Troops were secretly keeping them and perhaps ponding the idea of giving up. General and later President of Germany and ill-fated airship namesake, Paul von Hindenburg, remarked: “Unsuspectingly, many thousands consumed the poison”

World War II

PSYOPS continued during the second world war, again with both sides dropping propaganda as well as explosive bombs on each other. The Germans gave some of their infamous V-1 flying bombs a dual purpose, having them eject leaflet canisters via the detonation of a small charge that dislodged canisters full of propaganda while in flight. Not much of the disinformation reached its intended targets, however. Because of the speed and altitude at which they were released, the leaflets tended to drift many miles from their intended targets ending up in lakes, highly rural areas, and sometimes the English Channel.

British propaganda leaflet dropped over Germany in 1943. The title reads, “Fortress Europe has no roof.”  Here the Brits are showing the ever-increasing tonnage of bombs dropped on German cities since thee war began versus the ever decreasing number of bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe on British cities. Image from Wikimedia Commons


I’ll fast forward to times I am more personally and intimately familiar with, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. There was no shortage of Psychological Operations during either of those conflicts.

I can show you some examples from both sides in Desert Storm and the sequel, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).