Psychological Operations. These two words have become so controversial, that the U.S. Army in 2010 nonchalantly changed it to the rather bland and bureaucratic title 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? Enough concern apparently that our company command directed us to cover up the unit nomenclature anytime we took our vehicle off 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 is: “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.”
U.S. PSYOPS is essentially the means to influence foreign audiences to better serve the United States’ objective. Note the word foreign audiences. Whereas people might conflate the generic term propaganda with PSYOPS, propaganda is a more generic term without constraints regarding target audience, type of message, or means of delivery. The DoD definition of PSYOPS also seeks to distance itself from words with negative connotations, such as “deception” or “lies.” Perhaps the concern stems from the fact the roots of military PSYOPS relied heavily on experiences in civilian propaganda, with the two being conflated during times of conflict. Simply put, PSYOPS is a form of propaganda, but not all forms of propaganda are PSYOPS.
The modern notion of PSYOPS didn’t develop until the early 20th century when the United States became more assertive in world affairs. But the art of American propaganda does go to the beginning of our foundation.
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, even prior to the Revolutionary War for Independence. This was crucial, as the target was the (largely) apathetic populace both Patriots and Loyalists fought to win to each side. An often cash-strapped Continental Congress and aloof English Crown were generally not the sources of these propaganda efforts, however. It is true that the Continental Congress tried to woo over Hessian mercenaries to their 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 measures, used to exploit certain opportunities at given times. Besides, it was fiery 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. His influence only grew during the Revolution, when his writing “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 showed bloodthirsty and orderly Redcoats shooting down unarmed civilians in Patriot backed publications while engravings of angry mobs tarring and feathering helpless officials curry favors with Loyalists papers.
Perhaps the closest the Continental Army came to directly using 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 and helped foster the arguments for independence to the rest of the readers. Even from the beginning, individual Americans had a knack for exploiting mass media and propaganda.
Pax Americana meets Yellow Journalism
Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!”
-Rallying cry during the Spanish-American War
But outside of diplomatic and military overtures to foreign governments, or political announcements made at key moments during the Revolutionary, 1812, 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 on February 1898. The two most prominent publishers of the time, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, found it easy and profitable to conflate tales of Spanish cruelty over 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. Although the quick military action was enough to capitulate the demoralized Spanish forces, the U.S. found itself responsible for the other former Spanish colony in the Pacific, the Philippines. Political differences between the new Philippine nationalists and newly arrived American forces resulted in the Philippine-American war. It was a short-lived conventional conflict that unfortunately dissolved into a proactive insurgency.
It is easy to forget the subsequent Philippine-American war as some footnote in history, but if you read about 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 PSYOPS techniques against the Philippine forces, and later Moro insurgents. What is interesting is not the lack of PSYOPS 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 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 out-manned. Therefore, they greatly utilized PSYOP techniques of their own to galvanize 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 it was an unjust war that they had no interest in fighting for. Despite winning over a few black and white deserters to their cause, as well as stoking much debate back in the U.S., it was 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.
Despite being somewhat of a precursor to the much later Vietnam War, the U.S. Army did not develop or use any PSYOPS in Cuba and the Philippines. There was a variety of different reasons for this: the initial confusion of the conflict, the undecided role of the U.S. in the Philippines and Cuba, and traditional military thinking. Many of the senior officers, including General Otis, gained their experiences from the American West fighting Native Americans. They viewed using force, not messaging, to whittle away the resolve of the enemy. Although it did work, it was not without controversy, even during that time. It would take one giant world conflict for the U.S. government and the U.S. Army to develop PSYOPs and propaganda in any official capacity.
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- U.S. History, American Revolution, Thomas Paine