Fort Bragg celebrates 100 years of American psychological operations
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: August 2, 2018
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — The first leaflets dropped by American troops in World War I were targeting German soldiers considering desertion.
One side of the page published, in German, American orders on the treatment of prisoners. On the other side was information on American food rations that would be available to those prisoners.
When American pilots dropped those leaflets in August 1918, they launched the nation’s first battlefield psychological operations campaign.
One hundred years later, the psyop community at Fort Bragg gathered to celebrate that anniversary and kick off the first of several centennial events planned for the coming months.
“It’s not every day you get to celebrate a 100th anniversary,” said Col. Bob Curris, the psychological operations commandant at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
Times and war have changed since the stagnant trench fighting of World War I, officials said. And so has psychological operations.
In addition to the leaflets and loudspeakers used on those aged battlefields, modern psyop soldiers have adopted more modern means to get their messages across, including text messages and social media.
But Curris said the core of their mission, which is based in truth and centered around influencing foreign populations, remains the same.
On Wednesday, at Fort Bragg’s John F. Kennedy Auditorium, officials from the Special Warfare Center and School, 1st Special Forces Command and U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command came together to celebrate that mission.
The school trains all of the Army’s psychological operations soldiers. 1st SFC, also based at Fort Bragg, is home to the Army’s two active-duty psyop groups. USACAPOC, another Fort Bragg-based command, is home to the Army’s two Reserve psyop groups.
For the kick-off event of psyop centennial, leaders started where it all began with remarks from Jared M. Tracy, the psychological operations branch historian at U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
Tracy began with the very beginnings of psyop, which was originally part of the Army’s military intelligence section.
Originally, the capability now known as psychological operations was known as propaganda, Tracy noted. Throughout the years, officials also have called it psychological warfare and, more recently, military information support operations.
Regardless of the name, Tracy said, psyop has weakened enemy will, garnered support and cooperation for U.S. troops and saved countless lives over the past century.
Its introduction nearing the end of World War I was a momentous occasion, he said, that was spearheaded by a newspaper journalist named Capt. Heber Blankenhorn and a small team, many of whom were also journalists by trade.
Blankenhorn, an editor at the New York Evening Sun, led the propaganda section that deployed to Europe in July 1918 to serve as part of the American Expeditionary Forces. Blankenhorn believed that modern wars would be fought with printing presses in addition to artillery, Tracy said. But many in the upper echelons of the U.S. government disagreed.
President Wilson was opposed to battlefield propaganda, he said. And most general officers turned Blankenhorn away or did not give him access to information he needed to launch a campaign.
But that changed when officials sought to encourage more German deserters.
And those first leaflets, dropped with the help of volunteer pilots, opened the doors to a much larger campaign.
By war’s end in November 1918, Tracy said more than 5.1 million leaflets were printed, with 18 designs, including some based on interviews with German prisoners.
More than three million leaflets were delivered in those final months of the war, he said. And the increasing number of prisoners captured with the leaflets spoke to the effectiveness of the campaign, which set the stage for a similar effort on a much greater scale during World War II.
Curris said psyop today has some of the same battles that it did in its earliest days.
“One hundred years ago Blankenhorn struggled mightily to get the psychological operations subsection off the ground,” he said. “We’ve been fighting some of the same darn naysayers for 100 years.”
But times are changing, he said. Officials have recognized information as a maneuver space where militaries must tread. And no other force in the U.S. military is trained to operate in that space.
“Growth is slow happening, but it is happening,” Curris said. “There is great opportunity on the horizon for this regiment.”
The modernization of psyop has led to more digital platforms, Curris said. And the force has taken a more targeted approach by analyzing its intended audiences. But the original methods are still in use, too.
In Iraq in 2015, U.S. planes targeted hundreds of trucks carrying oil that could fund the Islamic State, Curris said. But they originally dropped paper, not bombs. The leaflets told the truckers that it was the oil that had to be destroyed, not their lives. And it encouraged the drivers to leave their payloads behind.
Some time later, American firepower obliterated the trucks, Curris said.
Similar tactics also were used to influence enemy fighters and inform residents during the liberation of Mosul, he said.
“We have found that leaflets still work to a degree,” Curris said. “It shows you can’t forget your history because it still works.”
Still, the challenges facing psyop continue to grow. The force is more closely regulated than artillery and missiles, Curris said. And on today’s battlefields, there is increasing competition from others looking to wield influence through social media and the internet.
“It’s more crowded. There’s more competitors. And there’s more available,” he said. “Any 13-year-old with a cell phone can put stuff out there.”
The key, Curris said, is that American psyop must ensure it's pairing the right message with the right audience. There should be plenty of opportunity for that in the future, he added.
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