Falling Leaves

SGM Herb Friedman (Ret.) 

This article was originally published in the September-October 2003 issue of Print magazine. It is reprinted here with their kind permission. This article is not meant to be an in-depth study of psychological operations. It is simply an introduction to the field for the general public. The story originally was 4000 words with 38 illustrations. The publication edited it down to 2600 words. I think it will interest those wondering about American propaganda campaigns during wartime.

WWII "I Cease Resistance" leaflet.

In 2003 the United States Army propaganda campaign in Iraq – the first in history to go on official public display – used airborne leaflets with themes that trace their lineage through decades of war and peace.

On March 21, two days after the U.S. imposed a 48-hour deadline for Saddam Hussein to exile himself from Iraq, the coalition led by the United States and the United Kingdom commenced Operation Iraqi Freedom with a "shock and awe" attack. Aircrews targeted Baghdad, Mosul, Basra, Tikrit, and Kirkuk with 1500 bombs – and more than two million propaganda leaflets.

Falling Leaves - IZD069, Operation Iraqi Freedom Safe Conduct leaflet.

IZD069, Operation Iraqi Freedom Safe Conduct leaflet.

The psychological operations mix that day consisted of 17 messages. One was a surrender pass, depicting unarmed Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles with white flags tied to their antennas. "To avoid destruction, follow Coalition guidelines," reads the leaflet; on its reverse are specific instructions: "Display white flags on vehicles. No visible shoulder-fired air defense systems." A second leaflet offers a reward, depicting an Iraqi family giving food to a downed coalition pilot, and urging:

Help them return to their families! You will be REWARDED for your hospitality!" (The leaflet mentions no specific reward, although the immediate family of Iraqi lawyer Mohammed al-Rehaief was granted asylum in the U.S. after he risked his life to help rescue Private First Class Jessica Lynch.)

Coalition aircraft dropped 11 more leaflets on March 23. One message was a threat. "The Medina Republican Guard Division has been targeted for destruction," reads its caption, over an image of a decimated tank and surrendering soldiers. "FOR YOUR SAFETY – Abandon your weapons systems. Whether manned or unmanned, these weapons systems will be destroyed."

Safe-conduct passes, rewards, threats – these leaflet themes from the most recent Iraq war all have historical precedents. The U.S. has used each tactic repeatedly since World War II in wartime and peacetime psychological operations. Before this year, most leaflets remained classified until the conflicts had ended. But during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. Army amazed observers by posting half of its new leaflets (in Arabic and English) on the Central Command Web site (centcom.mil), giving the public unprecedented access to American propaganda while aircraft scattered it over Iraq.

Psychological operations (PSYOP) are attempts to achieve political and military objectives by influencing the attitudes, emotions, and ultimately behavior of friends, enemies, and neutral parties with selected information. Psychological warfare is a strategy dating back thousands of years. Genghis Khan boasted of his ferocious and limitless Mongol horde, frightening many strong nations into submission. During the Revolutionary War, American patriots prepared leaflets for British conscripts and mercenaries, offering surrendering soldiers seven dollars a month, fresh provisions, health, freedom, ease, affluence, and a farm. Today, U.S. PSYOP specialists use expert knowledge to design messages bearing the intended audience’s language and customs. An effective PSYOP campaign is a "force multiplier," doubling or tripling a military’s strength by persuading enemies to surrender, or even to befriend adversaries.

Though leaflets are best understood by literate populations, the U.S. has also dropped comic books for audiences that can't read, and even radios, deposited by parachute and locked onto a propaganda broadcast. (PSYOP media also include TV, movies, theater, newspapers, cellphones, and e-mail messages, as well as human interaction.) Over time, leaflets become records of the U.S. military and political philosophies collected by military and PSYOP historians and documented in a newsletter, such as The Falling Leaf, the official publication of the Psywar Society. By the end of the 2003 shooting war in Iraq, as proclaimed by President George W. Bush, 31 million leaflets had fallen; the final count is still rising as nation-building efforts continue. (Twenty-nine million leaflets fell in 1991's Operation Desert Storm; a million leaflets amount to one ton of paper.)

Falling Leaves - ZG.90, PWD/SHAEF Passierchein/Safe Conduct leaflet. Falling Leaves - ZG.90, PWD/SHAEF Passierchein/Safe Conduct leaflet.

ZG.90, PWD/SHAEF Passierchein/Safe Conduct leaflet.

When the coalition distributed leaflet IZD069 in 2003, promising safe passage to Iraqi soldiers, it upheld a PSYOP strategy that had influenced enemies since World War II, when the Allies used a series of designs to defeat their German enemies with Passierschein, or surrender leaflets. The documents withstood many design tweaks, and were first printed on dull yellow paper, later green (a poor color choice for a document dropped into a grassy field). Finally, bright red "official" documents bore the seals of the U.S. and the U.K.; German text shifted from the bottom to the top, and the leaflet bore the signature of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. PSYOP experts consider this leaflet the most successful of the war. American safe-conduct passes dropped on Japanese troops were ineffective until the removal of an offending message: "I surrender." These passes were replaced with leaflets bearing the statement "I cease resistance" – a declaration predicted (correctly) to encourage more soldiers to give themselves up – and depicting happy Japanese prisoners-of-war doing useful work in captivity.

Falling Leaves - Vietnam multi-flag Safe Conduct leaflet.

Vietnam multi-flag Safe Conduct leaflet.

During the Korean War, surrender leaflets for the North Koreans were plain, containing extensive text with United Nations symbols, but little imagination. A far more impressive pass was issued a decade later in Vietnam – the "flag" leaflet, depicting the flags of Allied nations (the Republic of Vietnam, the U.S., South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and later, Thailand and the Philippines). These bright, four-color leaflets could easily be seen on the ground in the dark triple-canopy jungle, and they were updated continually to reflect the leadership of Nguyen Cao Ky and, later, Nguyen Van Thieu. After President Richard M. Nixon instituted the official policy of Vietnamization in 1969, stating that the Vietnamese people would be responsible for their own protection without the aid of American ground forces, only the Republic of Vietnam flag remained on these leaflets.

Falling Leaves - Vietnam single flag Safe Conduct leaflet.

Vietnam single flag Safe Conduct leaflet.

American PSYOP came into its own during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The 4th PSYOP Group, based in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, designed more than 100 leaflets during the months of buildup and 100 hours of ground battle. Many images were designed in North Carolina and transmitted via satellite to be printed in Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

Still, the first such passes were not impressive: black-and-white line drawings depicting an Iraqi soldier considering the coalition forces gathered against him, and then, beneath flags of the U.S., Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, surrendering with hands up – apparently thinking of his wife and family at home.

Falling Leaves - Desert Storm Safe Conduct leaflet.

Desert Storm Safe Conduct leaflet.

Within days of its introduction, a more handsome (and more effective) four-color leaflet appeared, depicting an Iraqi soldier handing a safe-conduct pass to a coalition soldier, then sitting cross-legged in friendship beneath the Saudi Arabian flag, with a veritable feast laid out before him in the desert. The improvements here are immense: The soldier gives up with pride, without raising his hands, and no sign of the hated Americans or vengeful Kuwaitis appears. Roughly a dozen styles of surrender leaflets are thought to have prodded some of the 85,000 surrendering Iraqi soldiers to give up during the first Gulf War – a telling defeat for battle-hardened soldiers who had just emerged from an eight-year war with Iran.

Few surrender leaflets were used in 2003 in Operation Iraqi Freedom, when coalition forces bypassed Iraqi units rather than fighting them and regarded potential prisoners-of-war as a hindrance to decisive speed. Still, leaflet IZD-017d depicts American fighters attacking Iraqi forces with rockets as Iraqi soldiers abandon their weapons, leaflets in hand. "Artillery units have been targeted for destruction," reads the caption; on the back, soldiers are instructed to "abandon your weapons systems." There is no mention of surrender – but there is an illustrated image of it.

Threat of destruction is a far harsher PSYOP theme. Since World War II, when dozens of Allied leaflets depicted state-of-the-art U.S. aircraft like the B-29 and its terrifying specifications, leaflets have warned enemies of various types of devastation. Some World War II U.S. leaflets cited specific cities as targets, hoping to force citizens to flee to the highways, hindering military traffic, wartime production, and the national economy. During the Vietnam War, U.S. leaflets depicted the combined armies of the forces aligned against North Vietnam and showed the B-52 bomber, warning that it flew too high to be detected by the Viet Cong.

Falling Leaves - Desert Storm B-52 leaflet.

Desert Storm B-52 bombing leaflet.

Immediately before Operation Desert Storm, in December 1990, the U.S. prepared pairs of leaflets bearing the B-52 image and threatening specific Iraqi frontline infantry divisions. The first leaflet in each pair warned of the division’s impending raid; the second, after a bombing campaign, warned of further destruction. Unsurprisingly, thousands of Iraqi troops fled southward to surrender due to the bombing.

Falling Leaves - Operation Desert Fox highway of death leaflet.

Operation Desert Fox highway of death leaflet.

Eight years later came Operation Desert Fox, a four-day U.S.-U.K. attack on Iraq after its refusal to allow United Nations inspectors to search for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Four leaflets reprised scenes of destruction from Operation Desert Storm, one showing a B-52 bomber and another depicting destroyed vehicles along the "highway of death," where coalition aircraft attacked and destroyed Iraqis fleeing home with stolen booty and weapons. The reverse reads: "Protect yourself from harm. Do not resist the allied forces. Do not leave your positions. . . . Our goals are only the forces that back the government in Baghdad."


03-NN-17-L002, Kosovo War "Thousands of bombs..." Leaflet.

The U.S. warned Serbia against genocide of the Kosovars in 1999 with yet another B-52 leaflet. "Attention Serbian Forces," read the text. "Leave Kosovo. NATO is now using B-52 bombers to drop MK-82 225-kilogram bombs. . . . Each aircraft can carry more than 50 of these bombs." (The U.S., satisfied with Serbia’s retreat, never participated in a ground offensive).

Falling Leaves - Somali leaflet.

 Operation Restore Hope leaflet.

In 1992 in anarchic Somalia, where warlords stole humanitarian supplies intended to relieve famine, one leaflet depicted a Humvee and attack helicopter protecting the convoys of supplies, implying that bandits interfering with the delivery of food would be killed. After the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. dropped four-color threat leaflets over Afghanistan.

Falling Leaves - AF D40d, Afghanistan terror leaflet.

 AF D40d, Afghanistan terror leaflet.

Leaflet AFD40d showed a terrifying image of the AC130U "Spectre" gunship firing at Afghanistan's ruling Taliban party. "Taliban and al Qaeda fighters," it read, "We know where you are hiding. You are our targets." During Operation Iraqi Freedom, one four-color leaflet was a virtual Boeing ad, depicting a parked B-52 Stratofortress bearing a full load of bombs. (Additional bombs flank the photograph in the leaflet's margins.) "Attacking Coalition aircraft invites your destruction," reads the text on the front. The back, depicting a "smart bomb" in midair, warns: "Do not fire at Coalition aircraft. If you choose to fire, you will be destroyed. . . . The choice is yours."

In addition to safe-conduct passes and threatening messages, leaflets promising rewards have also become featured players in Allied psychological warfare from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom, beckoning enemies to surrender pilots, aircraft, weapons, information, terrorist leaders, and themselves. A series of World War II leaflets dropped over China offered rewards for the safe return of U.S. pilots, with some messages presented as simplistic cartoons to show that a citizen should carry an injured pilot on a stretcher back to American lines to collect a reward for his safe return. Later, in Korea, U.S. forces printed a leaflet in Korean, Russian, and Chinese offering $50,000 in gold to any Communist pilot defecting with a serviceable MIG-15 fighter jet (and adding $50,000 more to the first defector). One North Korean pilot, Lt. No Kum-Sok, defected but, to the chagrin of the PSYOP command, knew nothing of the reward.


 An April 20, 1953, Korean War surrender leaflet.

Leaflets offering money to the Viet Cong for the safe return of American pilots were a key feature in the war in Vietnam, as were leaflets that promised rewards to citizens who persuaded Viet Cong members to defect. Leaflets also informed Viet Cong combatants that they could claim rewards for turning in weapons – from $800 for a pistol to $20,000 for full-sized artillery. During the American involvement in Kosovo in 1999, the Department of Justice created several leaflets modeled on U.S. $50 bills, offering a $5 million reward for the capture of Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and Ratko Mladic, the Serbian leaders charged with genocide.

Falling Leaves - Kosovo $5 million reward leaflet.

Kosovo $5 million reward leaflet.

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the State Department has also prepared and disseminated millions of banknote-inspired reward leaflets for various populations in peacetime. One leaflet showed citizens injured in the U.S. Embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with the legend, "Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings, 1998. 220 killed and 5,000 wounded." Another recent leaflet depicted Algerian terrorist Abdelmajid Dahoumane (with and without facial hair) and stated that U.S. Customs had apprehended his fugitive associate Ahmed Ressam when he tried to transport illegal explosives across the Canadian border into Washington State. A third banknote leaflet shows the destroyer U.S.S. Cole and describes the 2000 suicide attack in the harbor at Aden, Yemen; a fourth, written in Spanish, shows a drawing of Jamel Lya, the figure suspected in the suicide bombing of a Panamanian airline in July 1994, and offers $5 million for the arrest and conviction of those involved in the attack.

Nearly a century of simple design and visual language have run through safe-conduct, threat, and reward leaflets since World War I. Today, as U.S. adversaries from Maoist rebels in Peru to the Iraqi Information Minister spread their word in Web sites and chat rooms, the simple paper leaflet remains one of the military's lowest-tech, but most effective, media. But while selected populations overseas can expect to see more leaflets falling from the sky in the future, only the U.S. Army knows whether it will keep showing these leaflets to its own citizens.

Korean War B-29 Super-Fortress leaflet

Korean War B-29 Super-Fortress leaflet.

Readers who care to comment on any aspect of this article are encouraged to write the author at sgmbert@hotmail.com.