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).

Here they are in actual “bomb” form. This photo shows PDU-5/B leaflet bombs under the wing of a B-52 bomber during a test. A single leaflet dispenser can deploy up to 60,000 leaflets depending on their size. Image from
The Black Hawk made an excellent information dispersal platform. Image courtesy of the United States Army
Of course, bombs aren’t the only way to disperse the leaflets. There is always the tried and true “dump them from a Black Hawk” method. Here Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 350th Tactical Psychological Operations, 10th Mountain Division, drop leaflets over a village near Hawijah in Kirkuk province, Iraq, on March 6th, 2008.

You probably want to know what they look like. Here are a few examples, first in Arabic and then with their English translation:

From the author’s private collection.
English translation from the author’s personal collection.
They weren’t kidding about the reward part. There would be Americans with literal boxes of cash that they would dole out to citizens as repayment for damage done or as rewards for information or actions.
This looks a bit ominous—the author’s private collection.
You can tell we were still concerned about WMD. Author’s private collection.
Don’t let this happen to you—the author’s private collection.
How to surrender. We allowed officers to keep their sidearms—the author’s private collection.

Lies, Threats, and Biohazard Suits

Coalition aircrews dropped more than 2 million leaflets over 29 military and civilian targets on March 21st, 2003. The day of “shock and awe.”

As you might imagine, the Iraqi government didn’t care much for our propaganda. They established a special Psychological Operations Committee to collect Coalition propaganda leaflets. Military and civilian leaders threatened to imprison or execute citizens who possessed or passed along the leaflets.

Iraqi leaders claimed the leaflets were contaminated with chemical or biological agents to discourage their citizens from picking them up. To reinforce this impression, they wore protective suits as they disposed of the leaflets.

PSYOPS didn’t stop with the official end of hostilities in Iraq (whenever that was). When we left in mass numbers, that void was eventually filled by ISIS (aka Daesh, its Arabic acronym).

What follows is a list of approved themes for leaflets and other broadcasts in Iraq and Syria as part of the American-backed campaign against ISIS. It is worth noting that the list of themes to be avoided is not for public distribution, and I will not post that.

Approved themes for Daesh propaganda. Approved for distribution. Author’s private collection.

Pink Death

I did mention that propaganda leaflets are a two-way street. Here are three examples of what the Iraqis dropped on us during Operation Desert Storm.

From the author.
Weeping liberty. From the author.
Fatal fire. From the author

The bright, pinkish color made them stand out from the desert sand.