Psychological Operations. These two words have become so controversial that the U.S. Army in 2010 nonchalantly changed the term to the rather bland and bureaucratic “Military Information Support Operations (MISO).”  

Rosa Brooks, Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Rule of Law and International Humanitarian Policy explained: “The term PSYOP was anachronistic and misleading; Military Information Support is a more accurate description of the activities and programs at issue.”

But how necessary was this course of action? It was enough of concern, apparently, that our company command directed us to cover up the unit nomenclature anytime we took our vehicle out of Fort Bragg for field exercises. The word “POB” (Psychological Operations Battalion) was apparently enough to strike fear in the masses.

According to the United States Department of Defense (DoD), Psychological Operations or PSYOPs are: 

“Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.”

The DoD definition of PSYOP also seeks to distance itself from words with negative connotations, such as “deception” or “lies.

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U.S. PSYOP is essentially the means to influence foreign audiences to better serve the United States’ interests. Note the words “foreign audiences.” Whereas people might conflate the term “propaganda” with PSYOP, propaganda is a more generic term without constraints regarding target audience, type of message, or means of delivery.

Perhaps the concern stems from the fact the roots of military PSYOP relied heavily on experiences in civilian propaganda, with the two being conflated during times of conflict. Simply put, PSYOP is a form of propaganda, but not all forms of propaganda are PSYOP.

The modern notion of PSYOP didn’t develop until the early 20th century when the United States became more assertive in world affairs. But the art of American propaganda goes back to the founding of our nation.

Trying men’s souls

“Go on doing with your pen what in other times, was done with the sword: show what reformation is more practicable by operation on the mind than on the body of man.” 

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Paine, 1792

Propaganda has roots in the foundation of the American experience. During the Revolutionary War, propaganda was crucial. Since the target was the (largely) apathetic population both Patriots and Loyalists fought to woo it over to their side. However, an often cash-strapped Continental Congress and aloof English Crown were generally not the sources of these propaganda efforts.

It is true that the Continental Congress tried to win over Hessian mercenaries to its side with the promise of land, while the British tried to sow confusion by issuing proclamations urging colonial slaves to escape and even join up with the British. But these were ad-hoc attempts, used to exploit certain opportunities at given times. Besides, it was fiery and charismatic individuals that were the most successful in galvanizing the people to their respective causes. Individuals such as Thomas Paine who wrote the now-famous pamphlet “Common Sense” in 1776 that helped push the growing notion of an independent America.

Paine’s influence only grew during the Revolution, when his “The American Crisis” was read to a beleaguered Continental Army in the first winter of Valley Forge. Key individuals such as Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere pushed the cause for independence further, by publishing their own newspapers. Political cartoons and illustrations in Patriot backed publications showed bloodthirsty Redcoats shooting down unarmed civilians, while engravings of angry mobs tarring and feathering helpless officials were common in Loyalist newspapers.

Perhaps the closest the Continental Army came to directly use propaganda was the relationship George Washington built with the newspaper New Jersey Journal. The editor of the newspaper received news directly from Washington’s headquarters, usually to buoy the spirits of the soldiers’ families, but also to spread the message of independence to its readers.

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Pax Americana meets Yellow Journalism

“Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!”

-Rallying cry during the Spanish-American War

Outside of diplomatic and military overtures to foreign governments, or political announcements made at key moments during the war of Independence, of 1812, the Civil War, and later conflicts, most propaganda efforts were directed by individual media moguls.

The United States government didn’t need to evoke a casus belli when yellow journalism had been stoking that fire for years prior to the Spanish-American. U.S. Armed Forces and volunteers invaded the Spanish-held territory of Cuba, after years of tension culminated in the mysterious sinking of the battleship Maine in the Havana harbor in February 1898.

The two most prominent publishers of the time, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer found it easy and profitable to publish tales of Spanish cruelty towards the Cuban people. There may have been some truth behind every exaggeration, but no matter. Violence and heartache sell. The public furor pushed the initially hesitant President McKinley into asking Congress for a declaration of war against Spain. Quick military action was enough to capitulate the demoralized Spanish forces.

Following the war, the U.S. found itself in possession of the Philippines, a former Spanish colony in the Pacific. The tension between Filippino nationalists and the newly arrived American forces resulted in the Philippine-American war, a short-lived conventional conflict that evolved into an insurgency.

It is easy to relegate the Philippine-American War as some footnote in history, but if you read accounts of the time, public debates grew heated as the insurgency raged for years. Replace the word “Philippines” with “Iraq” in some of the news coverage and you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Despite this, the U.S. Army seemed particularly oblivious in utilizing any propaganda or PSYOP techniques against the Filippino forces.

What is interesting during this war is not the lack of PSYOP efforts by the U.S., but the embrace of these techniques by the Filippino forces. The U.S. Army focused purely on military operations to fight the increasingly ambiguous enemies. There was little, if any, effort to use public relations and any reconciliation efforts towards the indigenous population were left to the governing civil authorities.

The controversial General Otis, in charge of the U.S. Army, resorted to censoring information that left the island, particularly the varying accounts of atrocities and acts of torture. In the fight against the U.S. military, the Filipino forces were generally under-equipped and outmanned. Therefore, they greatly utilized PSYOP techniques of their own to galvanize the American public against the conflict and undermine U.S. morale on the field. The Filipino leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, was especially keen on inviting foreign and U.S. reporters to write favorable accounts of his treatment of POWs and push the narrative of U.S. atrocities.

In what would be repeated in later wars by other enemy forces, the Filipino forces targeted African-American soldiers in segregated units with racially-themed propaganda. They disseminated posters and leaflets claiming that the war was an unjust war that they had no interest in fighting. Despite winning over a few black and white deserters to their cause, as well as stoking much debate back in the U.S., the Filippino PSYOPs were not enough to overcome their military reversals. By 1902, the Filipino resistance had all but collapsed — although subsequent conflict with the Philippine Islamic Moros would continue until 1913.

The U.S. Army did not develop or use any PSYOP in the Philippines. There were a number of different reasons for this: the initial confusion of the conflict, the indecision of the U.S. regarding its future role in the Philippines, and traditional military thinking. Many of the senior officers, including General Otis, gained their experiences in the American West fighting Native Americans. They thus believed in using force, not messaging, to whittle away the resolve of the enemy. Although force did work, it was not without controversy, even during the time.

It would take one giant world conflict for the U.S. government and the U.S. Army to develop PSYOP and propaganda in any official capacity.