SGM Herb Friedman (Ret.)

Note: Images from this article were used in “Three Practical Lessons from the Science of Influence Operations Message Design” by M. Afzal Upal, Canadian Military Journal, Volume 14, No 2, 2014.

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What is a mistake on a psychological operations (PSYOP) propaganda leaflet? Donald Fish wrote about such a leaflet in Airline Detective, Collins, London, 1962. His story could be true or could be apocryphal.

Allegedly, when the time came for the invasion of North Africa, a decision was made to prepare a leaflet to rally the Arabs to the Allied cause. The job of translating the text went to the sole Arabic expert in the Political Warfare Department, a certain Mohammed Ali, a green-tea merchant from Casablanca who had first rallied to the Free French and later come over to the British after the collapse of France. The pro-Allied leaflet was printed using his translated Arabic text and dropped in the millions over the local population.

After the invasion, an American intelligence officer who had taken part in the landings found his way to the Allied Political Warfare Group on Gibraltar. He had a handful of the leaflets and he said to the officer in charge, "What the hell is this stuff you have been dropping all over the country?"

The political warrior replied, "Those are leaflets to rally the Arabs."

"Do you know what they say?" asked the American.

"Yes" said the propagandist, "of course I do." They say, "Victory rests with the Allies."

"No they don't" said the American. "They say ‘Buy Mohammed Ali's green tea’."

I am positive that story is a myth, but it leads us to the concept of psychological campaigns that were prepared but had some minor error of lack of understanding of the local culture that made them less than valuable. There are many such blunders. We will just discuss a few of the more interesting ones.

World War I

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I’m Not Sure I Want That Medal

The German propagandists have always been heavy-handed. Someone once said that they so love propaganda that they cannot do it well. One of their worst WWI propaganda blunders occurred when a medal was commissioned to honor the submarine sinking of the unarmed British passenger liner Lusitania. The Germans were so proud of the sinking of the commercial vessel that Karl Goetz designed a medallion honoring the victory. One side shows the ship going down with the words "No contraband" at the top and “The liner Lusitania sunk by a German submarine 5 May 1915” at the bottom. The engraver added cannons and airplanes on the deck of the ship to justify its sinking. The back of the medallion depicts a mob of people buying Lusitania tickets from a figure representing death and the words "Business above all" while a man in the crowd reads a newspaper with the headline “U-Boat Danger!”

Unfortunately for Karl Goetz, he put the wrong date of sinking on the medal, an error he later attributed to an error in the newspaper account he had read. Instead of the correct date of 7 May, Goetz engraved 5 May, two days before the actual sinking of the Lusitania. This allowed the British to claim that the Germans had waited for the ship to leave port and committed wholesale premeditated murder. Goetz later corrected the date but it was too late by then.

British Intelligence copied the medallion and advertised it around the world to show the barbarian nature of the Germans. Some 300,000 British replicas of the medallion were made on the instructions of Captain Reginald Hall R.N., the Director of Naval Intelligence. The British imitations were presented in special boxes with a view of R. M. S. Lusitania on the outside. They were sold for 1 pound each, with the proceeds going to St. Dunstan's Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Hostels and the Red Cross. A label on the box holding the medal read:

The Lusitania (German) Medal. An exact replica of the medal which was designed in Germany and distributed to commemorate the sinking of the Lusitania. This indicates the true feeling the War Lords endeavour to stimulate, and is proof positive that such crimes are not merely regarded favourably, but are given every encouragement in the land of Kultur. The Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. She had on board at that time 1,951 passengers and crew, of whom 1,198 perished.

This German medallion infuriated Americans who had relatives on the liner. In some ways it helped to lead the United States into World War I. It surely was one of the great propaganda blunders of all time.


The Bay of Pigs “Victory” Medallion

It seems that we learned nothing from the medallion disaster after the Lusitania sinking. During the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower directed the Central Intelligence Agency to topple Castro’s Communist Cuban regime. The plan ultimately agreed upon–training and arming Cuban exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs–reached the combat phase in April 1961 under the administration of John F. Kennedy. The invasion was an unqualified disaster; Castro’s military forces captured or killed most of the invasion force within three days. The Soviet Union, having found an ally in Castro, feared for his government’s survival. Tensions rose between the US and Soviets, paving the way the following year for the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster.

This 3.7cm x 0.2cm silver coin commemorating an anticipated Bay of Pigs victory features an outline of Cuba with a rebel invader advancing past a fallen member of Castro’s military in the foreground. The text in Spanish is There will be no end but victory – 17 April 1961.

The reverse side prominently displays a cross, shield, and the flag of Cuba with the phrases in English - Crusade to Free Cuba and There will be no end but victory.

There is no mention of who designed and had the medallion minted, but it is on the CIA website, and they did run the operation. I think this might be one of theirs. At least they never disseminated the medallions…did they? It seems they did not go for siler as reported. Another source claims they were made of stainless steel…much less expensive. A vender says he sold  some for $40 each. How many are out there?

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Inside…Outside…What’s the Difference?

The British also blundered while trying to counterfeit enemy Turkish banknotes during WWI. They went to great pains to produce a very good imitation of the genuine note, and then ruined the entire effect by printing some numbers facing in the wrong direction. The story was first reported by Scott Cordry in an article entitled  "World War I counterfeits of German and Turkish notes," Coin World, July 13, 1988.

The British military forged the Turkish 10 livres regular issue banknote of 1915. This was part of a plan to destroy the Turkish economy and weaken their political strength in the Near East. The forgeries each have a different serial number. The size and feel of the paper is identical to the genuine notes and the colors are almost perfect. The excellent forgeries have a glaring error. All along the border of the note there are small Western and Islamic number 10s inside small six-pointed stars. Somehow the British forgers engraved the Western and Islamic 10's along the left border of the back side facing toward the outside of the note, rather than inward as on the genuine notes. This is a major error and one that would make the counterfeit immediately recognizable to even the most unskilled eye. The error certainly destroyed any chance these fake banknotes had of destroying the Turkish economy.

World War II

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Surrender? What’s that?

During WWII the Japanese forces had a well-earned reputation for fighting to the death. On Island after island thousands died in "Banzai" charges or committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner. Under their rules of Bushido, if they surrendered they were disgraced and lost from their family and ancestors forever.

Ignoring this cultural belief, the United States printed propaganda leaflets for the Japanese that said "I Surrender." They did not work. The Japanese troops continued to fight to the death. The Manila Chronicle, 19 October 1945, interviewed Sergeant Albert B. Gerger about persuading Japanese soldiers to surrender. The Associated Press later distributed the story worldwide. Gerger mentions that the early leaflets were unsuccessful. The Americans were not sure why leaflets that seemed to be so well written and illustrated had such poor results. Filipino scouts were sent into the field to study the problem.

A Japanese soldier was seen to examine one of the leaflets and then throw it on the ground, grinding it under his heel as he muttered 'Mujokan Kofuku,' the most despised term a Japanese soldier can utter, 'surrender.' From the time a Japanese can understand the meaning of simple words it is driven into his mind that the worse crime he can commit is to surrender. For this there is no forgiveness and one who surrenders sacrifices everything; his property, honor, rights, rights in life and after-life, and the respect of his fellow man.

Our experts in psychological warfare held a huddle and came up with a new one, replacing the 'I surrender' on the leaflet with 'I cease resistance.' It worked.

The Japanese indoctrination was not based on logic or intelligent thought. The Japanese knows that he must not 'mujoken kofuku' and that is all. There is nothing in his learning that prohibits the cessation of resistance.

The failure of the "I Surrender" leaflets led the American PSYOP specialists to carefully construct a leaflet with the words "I Cease Resistance." The change was minor, but to the Japanese the new wording meant a world of difference. One could cease resistance, pretend to be unconscious, or run out of ammunition and allow himself to be taken while never surrendering. A curious use of the Asian concept of "face."

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Anybody Know Where Cassenverein Is?

During WWII the American Office of Strategic (OSS) Services authorized an operation called "Cornflakes." The idea was to drop mailbags over the site of trains that had been attacked and derailed. The mail, containing propaganda material from the Allies, would then hopefully be delivered by the Germans to the addresses on the fake envelopes. Of course, this all assumes that you have spelled the town correctly. The "Cassenverein" cover became famous because it was the first of the OSS items to be identified as a forgery by the German postal authorities. Over a dozen raids took place with the Germans faithfully recovering the fake mailbags and “restoring” them to the Reichpost.  Then, at the conclusion of the 16 Match 1945 raid on a train near St. Poelten, the fake mail to citizens in the cologne area was being processed when a sharp-eyed postal clerk noticed that the return address on the envelopes was "Wiener Giro-und Cassenverein." The correct spelling of the final word should have read "Kassenverein." For the want of a "K" the game was lost. The Nazis became suspicious, the envelopes were opened and the propaganda placed inside was discovered.

Corey Ford (Little Brown, Boston, 1970) mentioned this campaign briefly in the book Donovan of the OSS. He mentions the attack on railways and marshaling yards; the dropped mail bags, and concludes with the statement, "There is no evidence that this device was ever detected." He is wrong, since as we have shown, on at least one occasion the bags were detected and identified.

This was not the only such Allied spelling error. The British were guilty too. In her dissertation, Smoke and Mirrors: the Role of British Clandestine Psychological Warfare in “Breaking the German Will to Resist,” 1944-1945, Jessica Simpson says that “Operation Rosebush” was undertaken in July 1941. The operation involved the counterfeiting and dissemination by air of forged German clothes ration cards for men. However, the operation failed when the rubber stamp on those cards intended for the city of Hamburg misspelled Hansastadt as Hanfastadt. Apparently, German is difficult language.

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Are you Jeuish?...Juwesh?...Whatever?

During WWII Heinrich Himmler's Schutzstaffel (SS) ran a secret forgery shop inside Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. A number of Jewish inmates were forced to counterfeit British currency and parody British stamps. The stamp operation was run by SS Major Bernhard Krüger, and thus called Operation Bernhard by the Allies. The Germans called it Wasserwelle for the wavy lines on the paper’s watermark. I first wrote in depth about this operation in the Society of Philatelic Americans Journal of February 1974.

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One of the British commemorative stamps that was parodied by the inmates was the green one-half penny stamp of 1935. This stamp was issued to honor the silver jubilee of the rule of King George V. The stamp is inscribed in large capitals "SILVER JUBILEE" above and "½ HALFPENNY ½" at the bottom. The face in profile of the British King is illustrated in the center. In the left area the King's crown is depicted under the date "1910." This was the year when King George assumed his throne. To the right of the portrait the date "1935" marks the silver jubilee of his rule. A laurel wreath is seen under the figure.

In the German propaganda parody the inscription was altered to "THIS WAR IS A" at the top and "JEWSH WAR" at the bottom. The years were replaced by "1939" and "1944." A hammer and sickle emblem with Soviet star replaced the laurel wreath, and the Star of David topped the crown. The Russian dictator Josef Stalin is depicted in the center instead of the British King. The inscription above is flanked with two Jewish stars, the term "JEWSH WAR" with a small hammer and sickle emblem at left and right.

The stamp is an excellent NAZI propaganda production. It implies that the British are fighting the war for the Jews and the Communists and is full of small symbols of Communism and Jewry. The visual image and message are quite striking. There is one problem however, the spelling of the word "Jewish." The forgers left out the "I."

There was some talk after the war that this might have been a secret plan by the Jewish forgers to sabotage the design and embarrass the Nazis. I spoke to Bernhard Krüger on several occasions and he told me that it was just "a terrible printing error. The word 'Jewish' had been translated properly but the engraver omitted the letter 'I.' The mistake was spotted and there was an attempt to halt production. However, the SS hierarchy decided to push on with the project. They were just propaganda stamps of no importance so who cared if there was an error on them?"

In fact, at any hint of sabotage on the part of the Jewish prisoners the SS would have immediately killed the inmates suspected of the treasonous action. That was made clear to them constantly and as a result they were always on their best behavior.

About one million copies of the defective stamps were printed. They are often offered for sale and always popular among collectors. Be warned, excellent forgeries abound and these days they are regularly offered to unsuspecting buyers on philatelic auction sites.

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Women don't Sweat, They "perspire"

Good use of the enemy's language is key in propaganda. A misspelled word means disaster as the leaflet becomes not a destroyer of morale, but instead the butt of jokes, and with it the producer become a laughingstock with no credibility. A good example is German leaflet AW-25. This small crudely printed black and white leaflet depicts a beautiful woman on the telephone and the text, "Will you ever hear her sweat voice again?" The back depicts dead Allied soldiers and the text, "Life is short - Death is quicker!" The leaflet was dropped by the Germans on Allied troops around the Normandy beachhead in 1944. It was surely meant to make the soldier think of his beloved wife at home, but instead the word "sweat" in place of "sweet" made the leaflet valueless and the German producers appear to be stupid.

Butchering the Language

The Japanese often butchered the English language and Americans laughed at their propaganda and the many errors. Unbeknownst to them, the American leaflets to the Japanese were just as bad. Some classified military documents studied the American leaflets written in Japanese and we see that they were less than perfect. Some of the numerous comments are:

In one case the Japanese text reads, “Japanese soldiers are eating each other.” In another, where the Americans thought they said, “We offer you peace with honor,” the Japanese text reads, “having pity on you we offer you peace.” Speaking of the choice of words and Japanese characters the report adds, “there are errors in grammar, in choice of words, and in choice of characters used. It is impossible to list them all.” The review ends with, “the choice of phraseology is quite offensive. From the point of view of psychological warfare such statements do incalculable harm.” It also seems there are errors in the American understanding of Japanese customs and respect. Another critique states, “we cannot begin to reproduce the tone of offensive familiarity that is in the actual Japanese text. The Japanese text treats the reader as both a mental and social inferior.” In another case a Japanese prisoner explained to an American asking about a leaflet, “The third character from the top in the right-hand row is wrong and makes the leaflet ineffective.” Other comments about U.S. leaflets tell of one error that makes “His Majesty the Emperor” into “The Emperor downstairs.” Another character is intended to mean “because,” but actually means “it is said.” The line “every other Japanese is cut off now” was omitted and makes the next sentence nonsense. The “famous Samurai saying” became simply “the saying.” etc. The entire psychological effect is badly missed in the translation. The handwriting is poor.

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Wow Look at her. I’m Not Fighting Anymore!

We would be remiss if we did not mention the use of sexual images on leaflets. American policy was generally against such images, but the Axis powers of Germany and Japan used them quite often. The theory is that a lonesome GI thousands of miles from home will find the propaganda leaflet showing a naked female, think of his wife or girlfriend, lose the will to fight, and be virtually worthless as a soldier. In reality, the result was quite different. Many troops were bored as they waited for the next battle or sat behind the lines in reserve. The sudden appearance of thousands of photographs or drawings of naked women falling from the sky was quite exciting. The Germans often dropped the leaflets in numbered sets of six. As the leaflets fell or lay scattered on the ground, the soldiers would go from leaflet to leaflet, trying to complete the sets. If a buddy had a leaflet that was needed, a trade would be made, not unlike the old bubblegum or trading cards. In some cases there were reports of cigarettes and other commodities traded for the sex leaflets. The result seems to be that instead of lowering the morale of the troops, the use of sexual leaflets actually raises the morale.

Another problem occurs when sexual leaflets are disseminated on a nation with parochial views toward sex in general. The United States prepared leaflets for both North Vietnam and North Korea showing young ladies in bathing suits. These leaflets were a total failure. The very prudish communists assumed that the women were either prostitutes or foreigners. No proper Vietnamese or Korean woman would be seen in such an outfit. Once again, a nice idea that was a total failure.

Sometimes sex could be used as a ploy. An old German SS panzer officer once told me that while on the Russian front his men suddenly began to yell and gesture. Across an open field a number of naked Russian women were walking through the forest. The Germans all moved to an area where they could get a better look with binoculars. As soon as they were concentrated, Russian artillery opened up, killing many of them. I suppose in this case the German mistake was reacting to the sexual propaganda.

Marilyn Longmuir tells of another WWII problem of cultural differences in The Money Trail: Burmese Currencies in Crisis, 1937-1947, Northern Illinois Press, 2002.

The author states that in March 1942, British Special Operations Executive (SOE) operative Mr. J.A.T. Galvin proposed the counterfeiting of Japanese invasion money (JIM) for Burma. It was believed that like most Europeans, the recipients would be suspicious if the banknotes were not aged and used. Thus, the SOE artificially aged their forged Burmese JIM by soaking them in weak tea, and then folding and crinkling them and rubbing dirt on them. The British then discovered that the Burmese favored crisp, clean notes. Once they realized their error they stopped the artificial aging and sent mint, crisp counterfeit notes to Burma.

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Even Your Best Friends Won't Tell You

This WWII mistake is a little different. The error was not on the part of the producers of the propaganda, but on the part of a friendly intelligence agency that was completely fooled by it.

In an attempt to drive a wedge between the leaders of the Nazi Party, the British put a plan called "Himmler for President" into motion. The idea was to pass rumors that Heinrich Himmler was jealous of Adolf Hitler's position and working behind the scenes to replace the German leader.

As part of the plan, a fake German postage stamp was printed that had Himmler's face in place of that of Hitler. The stamp was quietly distributed through Europe by British agents, with the hope that philatelists would see it and the story would break big in the newspapers. Sefton Delmer, the British spy chief, told me:

I was in charge of the unit that did the counterfeiting. The rumor that went along with the stamp was that Himmler in his megalomania was preparing for the time when he would succeed Hitler either by coup, Allied action, or Hitler's death, and that in his preparations he had gone so far as to have stamps designed and printed with his image.

The most impressive thing about this philatelic side of our wartime work was the utter failure of philatelists to observe these forgeries even when they were deliberately posted to them. In the end our agents had to take them to stamp dealers to get publicity for them.

So, the plan was a complete failure. Nobody in Germany or the rest of Europe believed the Himmler story.

Well, not quite. The British did fool one person. The American Office of Strategic Services Official Dispatch dated 10 June 1944 from Allan Dulles in Berne to Director Donovan in Washington says in part:

Some months ago I reported briefly about the mysterious Himmler stamp, which has turned up here in Switzerland. Since then, I have had someone investigate some stamp dealers in regard to the situation with this stamp and the mystery deepens.

The Stamp Collector's Journal, published here in December, 1943, had a brief article with regard to this stamp, with a facsimile and a full description. The next issue printed in 1944 had a further article about the stamp and stated that it was not an official issue of the German Post Office. As far as I can tell, pressure was brought to bear on the editors of this stamp journal by the German authorities to play the matter down.

It may have been a trick pulled by some of Himmler's enemies to make trouble for him, or it may be that some enthusiast in the Ministry of the Interior  thought that it might be nice to honor Himmler in this way, possibly in connection with some charitable drive. In any event, the mystery of the stamp has not been cleared up.

This is an interesting case where the British did not tell their own ally about a propaganda campaign and as a result time, money, and manpower was spent investigating a bogus anti-Hitler scheme within Germany. Readers who would like to learn more about this black operation should see my article, "A Philatelic View of Heinrich Himmler," The American Philatelist, February, 1970.

How to Make sure that a PSYOP Campaign Fails

A constant problem through all the wars of the last century has been trying to convince friendly troops that it is worthwhile to talk to enemy troops and change their attitudes. We read descriptions of U.S. Marines refusing to take Japanese prisoners during WWII, or aerial gunships following loudspeaker aircraft in Vietnam to fire on any enemy who seems recalcitrant or fires at the propaganda aircraft. A perfect example of such an act us found in War by Stealth: Australians and the Allied Intelligence Bureau, Alan Powell, Melbourne University Press, 1996. One of the Australian pilots drops leaflets from his fighter, and then returns to wreak havoc:

I fly along the tracks I know the Japs are using and drop leaflets on the way down. Then when I finish the run and come back, find the Japs picking up the leaflets, and shoot them up.

This is probably not as uncommon as one might think, and certainly did nothing to help the Allies convince the Japanese that their cause was lost and to give up.

There are numerous other blunders that occurred during the Second World War. Some were written, some were broadcast. One of the more notable radio errors was mentioned in U. S. Psychological Operations in Vietnam, a monograph on national security affairs written by Harry D. Latimer, Brown University, September, 1973. He says:

Perhaps the most famous blooper was an Office of War Information broadcast referring to Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel as "the moronic little king" and Marshall Badoglio as a "high ranking Fascist" just at the time the Allies were trying to persuade the Italian Government of Badoglio to proclaim an armistice. President Roosevelt himself repudiated and denounced the OWI broadcast. In this instance there had been a sudden change in Allied policy at the highest level, but OWI was not informed and had received no new instructions.

Graham Shaw wrote about Japanese leafleting in A Little-known Dimension of Indian Freedom Movement Iconography: Indian-language leaflets printed by the Japanese during the Second World War. The Japanese found a new way to fail. They gave their leaflets to pilots that thought dropping them was cowardice. They wanted to fight:

Major General Endo Saburo, commander of the Air Corps, had been my instructor when I was a student at War College. When I visited the command post to request cooperation in dropping the circulars, they were receptive to the idea, expressing their sympathy with my aims. These leaflets were dropped from the air over the 11th Division of the British Army deployed in Trolak and Slim.

But this first leafleting exercise did not go entirely according to plan:

We learnt a hard lesson from this leaflet dropping operation. Largely because of Japanese military tradition, the pilot was willing to risk his life on a bombing sortie or a reconnaissance mission, regardless of danger, the prime example being a kamikaze suicide attack. For him it was unworthy to fly on a leaflet dropping mission. He tended to belittle the importance of psychological warfare and propaganda operations. Soon after, Capt. Mohan came to see me with a complaint that, according to information obtained from interrogating Indian POWs, bundles of handbills were found to have been discarded in the jungle by the Japanese instead of being properly scattered. According to his investigation, the ratio of prisoners who surrendered because of the air-dropped leaflets in comparison with those persuaded by infiltrated agents was four to one. He said it was inexcusable that these valuable circulars were just dropped in bundles in an area where very few Indian soldiers were to be found. I was not able to offer him a satisfactory explanation when he demanded that the situation be remedied.

Know and Understand the Political Situation

There have been numerous problems when mistakes were made by PSYOP units that did not understand the full political situation. During WWII the Russians were always sensitive about working with the Western Allies and there are many cases where they felt they were being betrayed or acted as an injured party instead of a member of an Allied military force dedicated to destroying fascism. I will mention an example used by James M. Erdmann in Leaflet Operations in the Second World War. It may be the worst tragedy I have seen caused by a psychological warfare campaign.

Policy Problems Connected with the Use of Leaflets.

Thousands of foreign workers owed their lives, during the liberation operations, to acting on Allied advice with prudent timeliness. The promises made to such groups—freedom and good care—led in one or two unfortunate cases to surrenders which were disastrous to the individuals concerned and bred a deep-seated suspicion of the Russians which had significant bearing on Allied relations during the Occupation of Germany. One such incident occurred in August 1944, in a small forest near Lorient. The forest concealed an artillery unit, composed in part of Russian troops/laborers, which had been sited to cover the roads approaching the German submarine base. The enemy artillery was in a tenable position, was well defended, and could have held out for days.

The Psychological Warfare Division of 12th Army Group learned of this concentration standing in the path of Major General John S. Wood's 4th Armored Division (U.S. VIII Corps), which had few infantrymen for the taking of such positions and dispatched two fighter-bombers of the Ninth Air Force with Russian-language leaflets. These explained that if the men would surrender immediately, they would be given the same treatment the Allies afforded Prisoners of War and that they would not be sent back to Russia for punishment after capture as their German officers had threatened.

Within two hours of the leaflet drop, at about 3:00 p.m., over 100 of the men, wearing German uniforms, surrendered to American forces in the vicinity. They explained that they had killed their German officers and noncommissioned officers before deserting. They left the area undefended. "Obviously, this was a job accomplished by airborne leaflets ... and could have been accomplished in no other way," wrote Captain Monroe, on a liaison visit to P&PW Group where the story was being told. "The success of this mission...has done more to increase confidence in and facilitate operations for PWD than any other incident," he added. Unhappily, under the existing conventions between the armies of the Allied forces, such captives had to be turned over to liaison personnel of the Red Army. It was reported that troops which had surrendered at Lorient were later returned to the USSR and executed.

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You Are Forsaken

Another leaflet operation might be called more an embarrassment than a mistake. The story is told in Alaska’s Hidden Wars, Otis Hays, Jr., University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, 2004. The Japanese had occupied the Aleutian Island of Kiska on 6 June 1942 as a diversion for their plan for the battle of Midway. The United States wanted it back. The Americans prepared an anti-Morale leaflet depicting the North Pacific between Alaska and Japan with the island of Kiska highlighted. The leaflet text said:

You have been forsaken. There is no hope of reinforcement.

During early August 1943, American bombers flew over Kiska and dropped hundreds of thousands of these leaflets. On 17 August 1943, an invasion force consisting of 34,426 Allied troops, including elements of the 7th Infantry Division, 4th Infantry Regiment, 87th Mountain Combat team, 5,300 Canadians, 95 ships (including three battleships and a heavy cruiser), and 168 aircraft landed on Kiska, only to find the island completely abandoned. When the Allied forces hit the beaches with bugles blaring they discovered that the Japanese troops had been safely evacuated on 28 July. While the Japanese were gone before the invasion of Kiska was launched, Allied casualties during the operation nevertheless numbered 313. All of these casualties were the result of friendly fire, booby traps set out by the Japanese, disease, or frostbite.

Only three or four mongrel dogs were left behind by the Japanese. This led a U.S. pilot to remark:

 We dropped a hundred thousand propaganda leaflets on Kiska. But those dogs couldn’t read.

This embarrassment led to a song called The Song of Kiska. Some of the lyrics are: 

One hundred thousand men at muster,
Admirals, generals adding luster;
Two hundred planes, as many ships-
All were bound for Kiska’s Nips.

“Dog Day” Plus one and two and three,
Found three more in captivity;
But as for Japs we couldn’t say-
We’d seen one either night or day.

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Don’t Talk Soldier!

There is an interesting leaflet that might be from the aftermath of this battle. It claims to tell American soldiers not to mention anything about Alaska for safety and security reasons, but could it be because the planners were so embarrassed about invading a deserted land they wanted to hush it up? This has happened more than once, There is a Desert Storm leaflet where the text on an Army booklet depicting it incorrectly states that the PSYOP people did not know that Arabic went from right to left. It was an embarrassing and hopefully incorrect admission. When that caption was discovered, the offending section was blacked out on all the books.

Perhaps we should end this look at WWII with some interesting PSYOP stories from the U.S. Army Air Force 308th Bomb Wing. They appear in a letter dated 16 July 1945. The writer says:

During one mission run out of Darwin by B-24s, a bundle of leaflets was dropped from a plane without cutting the string. This bundle passed through the wind shield of a lower plane and the co-pilot was cut by the breaking glass. It did nothing to help the war effort or defeat the Japs, but it got the co-pilot a Purple Heart.

Another time a Nip jumped on the tail of a B-25. The gunner threw out a bundle of leaflets, and the Jap, fearing for the safety of his engine pulled away.

During a take off at Lingayen a bundle dropped out of the hatch and covered the field with leaflets. The tower immediately called to let us know that the air field was not a wastebasket. Sometimes planes in the forward element drop leaflets which blow back over the remainder of the aircraft. The crews said it was like flying through a snow storm.

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I am going to need more Erasers!

During WWII, the Air Force and OWI psychological warfare staff decided on a campaign to announce by leaflets, dropped by B-29s on weather runs, the names of a dozen Japanese cities, four or five of which would be bombed within the next 24 hours. The leaflet depicted a flight of five B-29s dropping bombs with Japanese cities printed in small circles below. The first run of 886,000 leaflets were printed showing the cities of Tokyo, Ujiyamada, Tsu, Kooriyama, Hakodate, Nagaoka, Uwajima, Kurume, Ichinomiya, Oogaki, Nishinomiya, and Aomori. At some point, General Curtis Lemay who had already firebombed Tokyo asked that the city be removed from the leaflet. The first leaflet in this series was dropped on the night of 27 July 1945.

I have seen reports that the entire run was reprinted without the word “Tokyo.” However, I have also seen leaflets from Japan that show the leaflet was dropped with Tokyo partially erased. My question is, if this actually happened: was who got the detail of erasing Tokyo from 886,000 leaflets, and how did he do it?

Korean War

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That’s a Chinaman?

During the Korean War the United States prepared a number of leaflets that failed due to the inability of the target audience to understand the visual image. They are mentioned in A Psychological Warfare Casebook, Daughterty and Janowitz, The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, MD, 1958.

In early 1951 the Psychological Warfare Detachment of the Eighth U.S. Army prepared a leaflet coded 8028. It depicted an F-80 “Shooting Star” and a tank attacking an individual who flees in terror. The text is, “Death – in many forms – awaits you on this foreign soil.” The soldier has no form of identification, either rank or unit. He wears no headgear. About the only thing that might make an American believe that he is Chinese is that he wears a padded jacket of the type some Chinese wore during the war. The problem is that the Chinese had not a clue who this person was. When eight Chinese prisoners of war were questioned about the image on the leaflet (without text) not one believed that he was Chinese. One actually thought that he represented an American soldier. If you intend to show a person from another culture, make sure that you use identifiers that are recognizable within that culture.

Elliot Harris mentions the problem with Chinese perception in The “Un-American” Weapon, Psychological Warfare:

The Chinese did not appear to identify symbols in the way U.N. leaflets had intended. Skeletons were not identified as such. A leaflet showing Stalin kicking the Chinese was interpreted as Stalin kicking the Americans. Leaflets using the picture-in-a-balloon technique to indicate the subject’s thoughts or dreams were completely alien to the Chinese. One leaflet with three balloon scenes was interpreted to be four unconnected pictures.

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Who’s the Funny Looking Guy at Dinner?

The same problem occurred on Korean War leaflet 7115, printed by the 1st Radio Broadcast and Leaflet Group in December 1951. This leaflet depicted a Chinese family of eight individuals sitting around a food-laden table that was not unlike an American Thanksgiving dinner. The bones show through one of the diners, so an American might assume that he is a ghost. The text on the front is:


The text on the back is:

Because Communists officials continue to stall at the Armistice talks – YOURS WILL BE THE EMPTY PLACE AT YOUR FAMILY’S NEW YEAR REUNION.

Because Communist leaders compel you to continue this hopeless war – IN THE HEARTS OF YOUR FAMILY THERE IS GREAT EMPTINESS.

I did see leaflet 7115 offered at auction where some GI had written across the side and top:

Found on the mountaintop by the 2 dead soldiers (Chinese)

This leaflet confused the Chinese. First of all, the seating arrangement of the people was all wrong. There were children at the table instead of respected elders and family members. The children would have eaten earlier. The table was full of food where a proper family would remove the dishes from each course before bringing new dishes. If the family was so rich that they could eat in a fashion that had not been seen since the late 1930s, why would a son be in the military? Who is the person with the bones showing through? This is not a traditional way to show a ghost in China (or the United States for that matter). This is another case where the American psywarriors knew exactly what they wanted to say, but the illustration completely confused the target audience. The Chinese did not understand the wealth depicted on the leaflet and truly believed that the family of a soldier would be poor. The leaflet served no military purpose and failed in its attempt to demoralize the Chinese Army. The Americans were thinking Thanksgiving dinner, and the Chinese had no clue.

The mistake of thinking that what is meaningful to an American soldier would also be meaningful to a Korean   soldier is pointed out by USAF Major Norman D. Vaughn in My Life of Adventure, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 1995. We have all read of Chinese farmers killing female children and wanting to raise only boys that could grow strong and help with the farm work. Apparently some Koreans had the same attitude. Vaughn tells of a particular Korean War leaflet deigned in Tokyo:

Some time later I was transferred to our headquarters in Tokyo. That’s where we wrote, illustrated and printed the larger, more important leaflets…My staff of three writers and four artists and I functioned like an advertising agency, creating new themes and ideas. In the cellars of the U.S.A.F. Headquarters in Tokyo, eight North Korean prisoners of war had volunteered to read and respond to our leaflets. Four were officers, four were enlisted men. The enlisted men reviewed leaflets in one room, the officers in another.

We had pictured a handsome, smiling soldier, wearing a distinctive UN uniform. He was on one knee and had picked up a little girl’s doll. He was putting the arm back on the doll while a little girl standing next to him is crying. The picture was intended to show that UN soldiers were human, liked children, and were willing to help. I thought it was an excellent message. I hoped the communist soldiers would reason, “If they treat kids this way, they will treat me the same way. I had better surrender if I want to stay alive.”

When we showed this leaflet to the enlisted men, the first one snorted, letting us know it was awful. Another pretended to spit on the floor, which was his way of showing disapproval. The other two nodded in agreement. The officers had the same response. Through an interpreter, we asked, “Why is this so terrible?” Their answer was, “To hell with little girls. We only care for boys. And our girls don’t have baby dolls anyway.” The next day we presented revised artwork. The child was now a crying boy. The doll had become a cart, and the soldier was fixing a wheel that had come off. All the test prisoners smiled their approval. It was a good leaflet.

This is one interesting anecdote about leaflets from the Korean War that although not an error in printing certainly might be considered an error in judgment. William E. Daugherty tells in the declassified technical memorandum Evaluation and Analysis of Leaflet Program in the Korean Campaign June – December 1950 of a headquarters officer so diligent in seeing that no papers fell into the hands of the Communists that he destroyed the propaganda leaflets printed for them to read:

There is one known occasion of the destruction of at least one-quarter million leaflets at Pyongyang, as the result of the forced evacuation of that city. An officer on the general staff at Eighth Army ordered enlisted personnel to dump the entire supply of propaganda leaflets on hand at Eighth Army Headquarters into a latrine, instead of leaving them for the Chinese and Koreans to read.

The propagandist must be very careful that his methods only influence the enemy, and not terrify friendly forces. Three cases come to mind. During the Korean War one enterprising PSYOP specialist assigned to the 25th Infantry Division went to the Seoul Zoo where he recorded growling lions and tigers at feeding time. One evening when he was feeling bored, he played the tape at full volume. Not only did the Communist troops directly in front of the loudspeakers start to run toward their rear, but the South Korean troops along the friendly line took off running too. The innovative psywarrior soon found himself attached to the 45th Infantry Division.

A decade later during the Vietnam War American PSYOP tapes featured funeral dirges and the sound of wailing ghosts. This worked quite well on the enemy but also terrified the Friendly ARVN forces. As a result, a directive ordered that the tapes not be played within earshot of friendly forces.

A 1967 Army paper entitled Vietnamese Superstitions explains the peril:

The first step in the manipulation of a superstition as an enemy vulnerability is its exact identification and detailed definition of it spread and intensity among the target audience. The second step is to insure friendly control of the stimuli and the capability to create a situation that will trigger the desired superstitious behavior. Both conditions must be met if the PSYOP effort will not yield the desired results; it might even backfire!

Sergeant Timothy Wones in Nangahar Province, Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, a PSYOP trooper may have emptied a chow hall while testing out his new tape with the sound of an attacking A-10 Warthog. Retired Sergeant Timothy Wones told me about an experience he had back around 2007 as a member of A Company of the 13th PSYOP Battalion.

Wones was in mid-tour in 2007 based at Forward Operating Base Mehter-lam. He was testing his vehicle-mounted loudspeaker system for a mission he was assigned to perform the next day. He knew that the terrorists were afraid of the Close Air Support A-10 “Warthog” and its mini-gun that sounded like a zipper opening and the depleted uranium ammunition that could take an enemy tank apart like a hot knife going through butter. He had downloaded the sound effects of a low flying A-10 but without the Brrrrrrt of the minigun. He told me:

I pumped up the volume and played it several times in multiple directions, shifting the turret back and forth since I wanted to hear what it sounded like bouncing off the hills around us. It was good. The jet screaming overhead was very loud and very realistic. I thought it would scare the hell out of the fighters hiding in the hills.

I did not know the effect it was having on my own people. The unit's S-5 (the civil- military operations staff officer) told me about it later. He was laughing hard while telling me. He said that the Sergeant Major of the unit we were supporting came charging out of the chow hall furious. He wanted to know “Who is that damn pilot and why in Hell is he flying so low around us? Nobody called in any air assets for us that I know of! I have to get to the Tactical Operations Center and wave that SOB off.”

I don’t know if I scared the fighters in the hills, but I think I did a pretty good job of making our own troops in the chow hall damn nervous. 

The PSYOP specialist also has to be sure that he has the confidence of his own soldiers. Sometimes they may feel that he is not working in their best interests. In the last stages of the Korean War the Chinese put a bounty of ten thousand dollars in gold for captured loudspeaker personnel and threatened to hang them if captured. The loudspeaker teams also drew artillery fire and were attacked with small arms fire by Communist scouts about one-third of the time that they were out in front of friendly troops. The infantry took the situation in their own hands on several occasions and cut the wires from the generators to the loudspeakers or filled the loudspeakers with snow. The American loudspeaker teams did have a secret weapon to get them out of a jam when their broadcasts stirred up a hornet’s nest. Charles H. Briscoe tells us about the weapon in “Volunteering for Combat: Loudspeaker Psywar in Korea,” Veritas, volume 1, number 1.

For some reason, the Americans and Chinese loved listening to Doris Day. When our efforts had really stirred them up, resulting in artillery and mortar barrages and machine gun fire being directed at us, and in turn from the American lines, we quickly switched to Doris to quiet things down…Only Doris Day worked.

As long as we are on the Korean peninsula we should mention an interesting error that occurred during the Cold War period when leaflets were being dropped by the Americans from far out at sea under the codename Operation Jilli. Specialist Fifth Class (SP5) Dennis Kaliser, a lithographic plate maker with the 15th PSYOP Detachment of the 7th PSYOP Group told me that about 1966 none of the Americans could read Korean in the printing branch, and as a result, close to one million of the leaflets were printed backwards. He adds:

There never was any linguists attached to the printing branch. There were many Koreans among the leaflet designers and probably in the 7th PSYOP Group near the graphics branch (in the “Green Compound”) about a mile from the printing plant. The problem was one of communication breakdown in the production process. I can only surmise that somebody, somewhere checked the first copies of any press-sheet before we printed too many with mistakes.

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Cartoon depicting leaflet dissemination mistake over Korea
Ironically, the letters “ZD” on the leaflet stand for “Zero Defects”

Lieutenant Colonel Dave Underhill was assigned to the 7th PSYOP Group on Okinawa during Operation Jilli. He had some targeting problems with his young navigators:

There was a rush to train Navigators to plan the missions. I had 120 hours of instructional material. They got six hours a day for five days (30 hours).

They were smart, but on their very first mission, I got a call from Korea Detachment saying the people along the DMZ were up to their butt in our leaflets.  I asked for their winds aloft report in plotting the mission.  Where the DMZ takes a rather sharp turn to the Southwest when traveling West, I calculated there would be 1,100,000 leaflets in South Korea.  So much for smart navigators. They failed to consider the natural dispersion in still air effect. From 25,000 feet, it is substantial. You need to add 6,250 feet on both sides of the flight path when flying into the wind. They were away from the DMZ and still dropping leaflets over a mile wide into the South Korean side.

That was still better than our jets did that dropped the old Monroe Leaflet Bomb. Army crews loaded the bombs, packed, not rolled. They destroyed the known drift and dispersion characteristics. When they moved in close and released their Monroe Bombs, they reported leaflets on target. I think it was Hanoi. I asked for a “ winds aloft report.”   I ran the plot.  Not only did they miss the target, they even missed the Red River Delta with most of the leaflets. They ended up in Southern China. A leaflet bomb results in a long stretch of leaflets along the net drift vector.

Dropping leaflets on the enemy instead of our troops has been a problem in every war. There are many stories of German-language leaflets found in the fields and on the cottages of British farmers. An interesting story is told by Colonel Kenneth K. Hansen in Psywar in Korea. It seems that General Ridgway, Commander of the Eighth Army in Korea sent a message to Major General James Cassels the commander of the British Commonwealth Division:

Your leafleting plane has been over my division this morning and dropped many thousands of leaflets. We have read them. I am ready to surrender with my division whenever you send forward a representative.

Staff Sergeant Steve Jones of the 15th Physiological Training Flight, Kadena AFB, Okinawa, flew support for the 90th Special Operations Squadron (later renamed 1st Special Operations Squadron ) and the 374 Tactical Airlift Wing from 13 March 1972 to 9 January 1973. He talks about similar problems and ways that the leaflet kickers amused themselves during long propaganda flights.

One time when we were flying out of Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base we were assigned to drop leaflets over Laos. During the drop the wind changed drastically and instead of Laos, we covered our own base and the city of Nakhon Phanom.  It looked like a snow storm as we landed.  The Thai government didn’t approve of propaganda so we kept a very low profile that day while the rest of the base was assigned the duty of picking up the leaflets and hauling them away.  

Sometimes on a very boring drop some of the kickers would intentionally forget to hook the static line and attempt to drop the loaded boxes on selected targets. It was especially fun trying to hit fishing boats in the harbors because we could see the splash caused by the boxes when they hit.  We never did hit a boat, but we came close a few times!

On the subject of Okinawa there were some leafleting problems there during WWII. The most interesting is told by naval pilot Garland E. “Buddy” Bell who flew a scout plane off the cruiser USS Tuscaloosa. He says:

My most vivid memory occurred during a spotting mission over Okinawa when I flew into thousands of falling propaganda leaflets dropped by one of our planes.  The airplane appeared to be running into a snow storm.   Hundreds of the leaflets caught on the wings and the cockpit canopy.  Cracking the canopy, I was able to grab one before they all blew off.  The leaflet was the “Ryukyu Shuho” [Ryukyu Weekly] or Okinawa Weekly. 

A similar problem happened to an American Army helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. He told his story to Robert Fulton, the Executive Officer of the Regional Service Center in Manila where leaflets were printed.

I was on an assault mission, flying Vietnamese Army troops low over the countryside and just a few minutes from coming in hot at the landing zone. It was a tense moment. Suddenly, all I could see was white. Being from a northern state, my instant reaction was to call out an immediate “abort mission” to the other pilots while shouting into the microphone, “We’re in a snow storm…We’re in a major white out!” I instantly banked up and away, and was suddenly in clear blue sky. Looking around, I realized we had just been hit with a large drop of propaganda leaflets. The worst part was when I got back to his base, and everyone I passed shouted at me: “We’re in a white out. We’re in a white out! It’s snowing! It’s snowing!”

Similar cases occurred during the Cold War when Radio Free Europe and the Free Europe Press sent anti-Soviet propaganda leaflets by balloon to Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Unfortunately, many of these leaflets ended up in Greece and Turkey.

In 2012, Greek researcher Thanassis Vembos wrote an article entitled Cold War Balloons and the Greek UFO Wave of 1954. He points out that some of the Greek UFO sightings seem to line up with balloon launchings and it is possible that they are one and the same. He mentions several cases:

On 2 October 1954, at Agios Georgios village, on Pilion mountain, 50 year-old Elias Voyagis was returning home from his fields around 7 p.m. Half a kilometer from the village he looked at the sky and noticed a huge, bright object. It was a conglomeration of four extremely bright circles, “like luminous spots” constituting a longish thing moving with airplane speed. He described it like a long moving balloon target for anti-aircraft guns.

Interestingly, several hours before the Pilion sighting, a real balloon created a big fuss in Rhodes Island, Dodecanese. At 3:15 a.m. on 2 October, a small white balloon coming from northwest crashed on a fence at Kremasti town and blew off. In a little carton hanging below the balloon, leaflets in Hungarian were found. To my knowledge this was the first documented account of a stray balloon of Operation VETO that ended up on Greek soil. Significantly the operation had commenced just the previous day!

Alan Michie adds in Voices through the Iron Curtain: The Radio Free Europe Story, Dodd and Mead, NY, 1963:

Reports began to come in of these long-range balloons coming down as far afield as central Turkey…

Sig Mickelson adds more about balloons gone astray in America's Other Voice: The Story of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, Praeger, New York, 1983.

Balloons were discovered as far away from West Germany as Turkey. At least one was caught in the air currents that carried it to Scotland, prompting an irate Scottish farmer to write angry letters to British newspapers condemning the operation.


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Suez Crisis Leaflet

An Egyptian Propaganda leaflet in the form of a postage stamp showed a terrified Jamal Abdul Nasser. The text is:

Nasser said: "I am ready to fight until the last drop of blood for the freedom of Egypt and the Egyptian people"- 1 November 1956

The Suez Crisis was a military attack on Egypt by Britain, France and Israel beginning on 29 October 1956. The attack followed Egypt's decision of 26 July 1956 to nationalize the Suez Canal after the withdrawal of an offer by Britain and the United States to fund the building of the Aswan Dam. Prior to the operation, Britain deliberately neglected to take counsel with the Americans, trusting instead that Nasser's engagement with communist states would persuade the Americans to accept British and French actions if they were presented as a fait accompli. This proved to be a fatal miscalculation. Although the attacking nations were winning in the field, the United States, fearing a public relations fiasco, forced a cease-fire on Britain, Israel, and France. The U.S. demanded that the invasion stop and sponsored resolutions in the U.N. Security Council calling for a cease-fire. There were a limited number of propaganda leaflets dropped on the Egyptians, but the mistake in this case involved their leaflet bombs.

Paul Lashmar and James Oliver say in Britain’s Secret Propaganda War 1948-1977, Sutton Publishing, UK, 1998:

The “psychwar” operations were run by Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Fergusson; a man with no previous experience in psychological warfare…The Royal Air Force flew operations to drop propaganda leaflets on the Egyptian population. The problem was that the leaflet bombs were designed to explode at 1000 feet using an altitude fuse, and scatter paper over a wide area. However, because of barometric differences in Egypt, the bombs exploded at just six feet causing death or injury to any Egyptian in the vicinity.


From 1963 to 1967 the British Army fought Communist terrorists in Aden. During that time they produced many propaganda leaflets including a great number offering rewards for weapons. Two of them were printed with the wrong text, offering rewards for a weapon that was not pictured on the leaflet. It is possible that the person that prepared the text made the mistake, but it is more likely that the printer, not reading Arabic, simply reversed the text on each leaflet.

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The uncoded leaflet above depicts a bazooka rocket and the Arabic text:

This is a hand grenade

Inform the security services if you find one and receive 25 dinars.

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The uncoded leaflet above depicts a single British “Mills 36” hand grenade and the incorrect Arabic text:

This is ammunition for the bazooka
If you see this anywhere, inform the security services.
You will receive 50 dinars.


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Nguyen…Why are They Playing Cards?

During the Vietnam War, many American troops dropped the ace of spades on the bodies of dead Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops in the belief that it terrified the enemy.

The ace of spades was also featured in movies about the Vietnam War such as Apocalypse Now. The symbol is also depicted on various unit crests, special operations patches, collar insignia, and on flags and painted vignettes on military aircraft and gun trucks. This was a psychological warfare campaign that came from the troops, not headquarters, G-2 (Intelligence) or the Psychological Operations experts at Battalion and Group. American troops just loved them. Were the Vietnamese really terrified by the ace of spades? It appears not.

Robert W. Chandler says in War of Ideas: The U.S. Propaganda Campaign in Vietnam, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1981, in a section entitled "Major Psychological Appeals and Themes," under "Fear":

But not all such approaches were effective. One major misassumption occurred about 1966 when U.S. soldiers scattered fear-appeal leaflets with the ace of spades as an omen of death. In some cases actual playing cards were left along trails in Communist-controlled territory (to supplement the campaign American troops wrote to playing card manufacturers requesting numerous aces of spades to supplement the campaign). A subsequent review and evaluation by the United States Information Agency revealed, however, that the ace of spades was not included in the Vietnamese deck of cards. Thus, except for a few Montagnard hill tribesmen, they were unfamiliar with its meaning as a death omen. Despite these finding and a Joint United States Public Affairs Office policy directive prohibiting the aces of spades practice, American soldiers began using the technique again in 1971. This repeated error was probably symptomatic of trying to maintain continuity and high-quality psychological operations with military persons being shuffled into and out of the country on one-year tours of duty.

So, although thousands of aces of spades were sent to Vietnam and many were placed on the bodies of the dead Viet Cong, it appears that the enemy had no idea what the cards represented.

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He’s a Martyr…No he Isn’t

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong sometimes made mistakes in their propaganda campaign. In one case a young Viet Cong guerrilla named Nguyen Van Be was on a mission with his comrades in May 1966. They were attacked and Nguyen Be was captured. The American and Vietnamese troops demanded that he instruct them on the workings of an unknown explosive mine. He allegedly did so. According to the Lao Dong (Communist) Party sources, he picked up the mine high over his head, and shouted, "Long live the National Front for Liberation. Down with American Imperialists." He then smashed the mine against an armored vehicle, killing himself and dozens of American and Vietnamese officers and soldiers.

For six months, the Communists bragged of his heroics in prose and song. Young men were urged to emulate the fallen hero. Be had been a model guerrilla. He had joined the People’s Youth League at an early age and later became a volunteer in the Liberation Army. There were poems, booklets, plays and radio broadcasts telling of Be’s death and sacrifice. The communists in the North even wrote an opera for Be. In addition, two statues were erected in his honor. The Viet Cong awarded him the posthumous title of "Indomitable Loyalty and Magnificent Bravery."

The problem was, Nguyen Be had not martyred himself, but instead had surrendered. He was alive and well in a Vietnamese prison camp. He agreed to cooperate with the Government of Vietnam and told the true story of his capture in a 13 March 1967 interview. He said that the battle lasted just a few minutes and he had never fired a shot. Instead, he dove into a canal in an attempt to escape, but was captured when a Vietnamese soldier grabbed him by the hair.

The Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) produced leaflet 1775 in February 1967. The front of the leaflet depicts Nguyen Van Be holding a newspaper with his picture on the first page. The text is "The ‘Late Hero’ Nguyen Van Be reads about his own death." The back is all text, "A very strange story indeed. According to the Communists, Nguyen Van Be died a glorious death in the service of the cause. Supposedly, after the South Vietnamese Army forces captured him he detonated a mine killing himself and 69 American and Vietnamese Government troops. Glowing accounts of his death were printed in communist newspapers and read over Radio Hanoi and Liberation Radio. Many poems and songs were written about his exploits. A statue was even built in his honor. However, as can be plainly seen, Be is very much alive. He is shown reading about his own death in the Hanoi newspaper Tien-phong. The Communists say he chose a hero's death. Be says that he never fired a shot and did not even think about exploding a mine."

This should have been a defeat for the enemy, but they simply denied that Be was alive and said that it was all an American plot. This is a case where the enemy made a major propaganda mistake, but never had to pay for it. The people believed the North Vietnamese Communist Party more than they believed the Americans.

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Don Rochlen Flying Be to his Home Village

Monta L. Osborne was the Chief of Field Development Division in the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) in Saigon in charge of the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) program during the Vietnam War. His letters home recall the campaign:

One of my assistants, Chief of Special Projects Don Rochlen, found that Nguyen Van Be’s family (father, mother, brothers and sisters) were living in an area where they could be captured by the Viet Cong, in retaliation for Be’s anti-Hanoi propaganda. Don proposed that he visit the contested area in which they were living, and with the help of a U.S. Army company enter the area and remove the family from their danger. We were able to gain approval for this project.

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Does Anyone Have a Map?

Continuing with the strange campaign of Nguyen Van Be, the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office had one more little fiasco in its bag of tricks. The continuing disaster is told by civilian psychological warfare advisor John R, Campbell and 6th PSYOP Battalion member Nelson Voke. JUSPAO decided to hold a big propaganda ceremony at Nguyen’s home village. There would be a welcoming banner over the entrance to the village, his mother would be greeted and honored, Be would be introduced to the press, the villagers would enjoy a feast, they would be entertained by music and dance, medics would offer attention, and all this would be observed and photographed by the media. Two planeloads of reporters were flown in to observe the action. They noticed that there was little excitement among the villagers. When one was asked why, he was told that it was a nice party, but Nguyen Be was not from that village, he was from the next one over.

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Don North with Vietnamese cameraman Ngia near Da Nang.

Don North was hired as a staff correspondent for ABC radio and TV News following several years of freelance photojournalism in Vietnam. He was one of the members of the press that took part in the propaganda junket to the village of Kim Son on April 21, 1967. He told me:

The Army filled two “Huey” helicopters with about thirty journalists from Saigon, which included all three networks and the major newswires and newspapers. We were already familiar with the Nguyen Van Be story since he and his family had been presented to journalists at the so-called “Five O'clock Follies;” the daily news briefings.

Earlier that day four companies of the United States 9th Infantry Division had landed to secure Kim Son Village along with the Regional Forces stationed in and around the village. Loads of rice and gifts were brought in and distributed. There was a band and strolling musicians. A big attraction was a tent where Army medics extracted bad teeth and gave out medicine. A large crowd of villagers assembled around a makeshift stage and Nguyen Van Be was brought out with his family. He was greeted with puzzled stares. The Government Planning Director of PSYOP tried to generate enthusiasm for the miraculous return of Be, but nobody recognized him. Be had been taken to the right village but his own Hamlet was more than three kilometers away. One old man recognized Be as coming from another Hamlet. In rural areas like this there is little contact or transportation between Hamlets. The Army considered moving the troops to secure the correct Hamlet but it was too late in the day to mount a new operation.

I actually wrote a script about this operation and sent it back to the United States along with film. I called the story “Psywar Goof.” I sent background notes for Peter Jennings to read. Some of my comments were:

“This is the largest assault on a Viet Cong village by the Free world press in Vietnam. The hoped for objective – a major psychological warfare victory for the government…

Finally the star of the show arrived with his family, but he was greeted by puzzled, unfriendly glares. Bewildered eyes flashed between Be and the villagers…

Although this hamlet was held by the Allies for a few hours while the futile charade was acted out, there’s little doubt where the loyalties of most of the villagers lie. Some of them are undoubtedly Viet Cong agents. Even if they had recognized Be and his family it could have meant severe Viet Cong punishment for those who admitted it…

American and Vietnamese Psy-warriors go back to their maps and planning boards having lost face by the mistake of geography and lack of prior checking. In PSYWAR you can never afford to be wrong about anything. It was a bold psychological warfare move to bring Nguyen Van Be to his village, still effectively controlled by the Viet Cong. But, just like in military operations, one slip up and the battle was lost.”

This was not a story that interested U.S. news agencies. They wanted war stories about American troops in combat. I don't think my story was ever broadcast in the United States on television. However the film should still be on file at ABC News in New York City.

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Is that you Tran? You look different!
The Original Photograph of Tran Do

Brigadier General Tran Do, (real name Ta Ngnoc Phac), a deputy commander-in-chief of the so-called "Liberation Army of South Vietnam," (the Viet Cong Armed Forces), and a Major General in the North Vietnamese Army, as well as Alternate Member of the Central Committee of the Lao Dong Party (formerly Indochinese Communist Party). This photo is believed to have been taken in South Viet Nam. It was discovered during Operation "Junction City" in War Zone "C" (Tay Ninh Province), in March 1967.

Lieutenant General Tran Do was a hero of the Vietnamese resistance. He helped defeat the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and later commanded all the resistance in the South against the Allies during the Vietnam War. He was one of the leaders during the Tet uprising of 1968. During that battle, the Americans believed that they killed him and prepared several propaganda leaflets to display the corpse.

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Leaflet 2448

Leaflet 2448 depicts the general as he looked in 1967 and his body with face shot away in 1968. The text on the leaflet is:

The Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces has completely crushed the Viet Cong's general offensive against the cities.

From 30 January 1968 to 15 February 1968, over 34,000 North Vietnamese Regulars and Viet Cong soldiers paid for their crimes. Among them was Major General Tran Do, who was killed in an action at 46th Street in Cholon in the outskirts of Saigon City.

The death of Tran Do, Tran Van Tra and Nguyen Chi Tranh proved that the Communist aggressive policy to take over South Vietnam has severely failed. It was not their inability or incompetence, but the Communist adventurous acts that cause their deaths.

Why do you still hesitate? Try to find an opportunity to return to the National Community and rejoin your families, as tens of thousands have already done.

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Leaflet 96

The same images were used on leaflet 96 dropped during the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. The text on that leaflet is:

Dear Fellow Citizens in North Vietnam

Lieutenant General Tran Do was killed at the corners of Nguyen Tieu La and Trieu Da Streets in Cholon (on the outskirts of Saigon) while he was personally commanding the “general offensive” against Saigon and other cities in South Vietnam during the recent TET holiday.

Together with the death of General Tran Do, from 30 January to 29 February 1968, over 42,000 North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong were killed, 7,000 others captured, and over 12,000 pieces of assorted weapons seized.

Fellow citizens: He who sows the wind reaps the tempest! The deaths of Generals Nhuyen Chi Tranh and Tran Do and the recent heavy casualties on the Communists constituted a blow of the Republic of Vietnam people and Army, and revealed the complete failure of the Communist plot to take over South Vietnam.

Fellow citizens, be determined to thwart all the attempts of the North Vietnamese Communists who aim to send poor children to die foolishly in South Vietnam.

Under the two photos are the captions:

Photograph of Lieutenant General Tran Do taken last year. The photograph was captured in February 1967 in South Vietnam.

The body of Lieutenant General Tran Do after the battle in Cholon during the attack of the Viet Cong on the occasion of Tet.

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1993 Painting of General Tran Do on a piece of Bark by Marcelino Truong

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General Tran Do in in Study in Hanoi in 1993

There was a problem. General Tran Do was still alive. We don’t know if this was a clever disinformation ploy with fake documents placed on a body since the Phoenix Program had put a bounty on his head, or simply a terrible mistake by the Americans who wanted to believe that they had killed their most dangerous enemy. At any rate, the old general lived on well after the war. Curiously, in his old age he became quite democratic and an enemy of the people. In January 1998, he wrote a letter to the Vietnamese Communist Party asking it to reform and implement democracy for all the people of the nation. He quoted Ho Chi Minh in his letter:

An independence without freedom and happiness is a meaningless one. Freedom and happiness require democracy!

In 1998, General Tran Do revealed he has been transformed from an idealistic youth fired by revolutionary zeal to a disillusioned old man, shocked by what he saw as a government worse than its former colonial state. Some of his comments were:

We have a huge public security machine equipped with more modern and variegated instruments of terrorism than the security forces of older regimes could ever dream of. All the things that we held in contempt, cursed out and opposed, we now repeat, but at a more perfect level, a level which is made more and more sophisticated.

On 15 November 2000, The Communist Party retired the old general who was once the head of the Party's ideology and culture Department. He was expelled from the party in January 1999 for advocating that it give up its monopoly on power. On 9 August 2002, 78-year-old Tran Do died after more than a month in a hospital.

Perhaps it would have been better for Tran Do if he had died in the Tet uprising of 1968. He would have died a happy revolutionary without disillusionment or questions about the Communist regime.

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Will I be Rich or Poor?

The use of an absolutely accurate translation of a propaganda message is essential. The United States discovered this in Vietnam. A one-dong propaganda banknote was prepared to attack the inflation of the money of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam. PSYOP specialists called these notes "The inflation series." The campaign was meant to convince the Vietnamese that the cost of the war would lead to the destruction of their economy. The notes were coded 4540 and 4543 (horizontal). They differed in size ever so slightly, just enough to change their drift patterns when airdropped over the enemy. The original leaflet description sheet is dated 20 July 1972. The leaflet theme is “Hardship of war – Survive the War inflation.” The rationale is “To cause the target audience to think about the adverse effects of war upon the economy.” The original one-dong notes were found to have an error in the text. The error was discovered and the leaflets were printed again with the same code numbers, but now printed vertically instead of horizontally.

The intended text on the front is "Hay coi chung mot cuoc cai cach tien te nua. Cac ban co the mat tat ca tai san, cong lao mo hoi nuoc mat cua ban." ("Beware of another money reform. You may lose all your wealth, fruit of your sweat and tears.") The intended text on the back is "Dang thi vung-phi tien cua dong-bao vao mot cuoc chien-tranh tuyet-vong. Khi chien-tranh con tiep-dien thi tan-pha que-huong dong-bao. Tien dong-bao de danh se tro nen vo gia-tri." ("The Communist Party is spending your money on a hopeless war. If the war goes on, there will be nothing for you to buy. The war is destroying your country. All your savings will be worthless.")

Two errors in the Vietnamese dialect crept in – one detected and corrected at an early stage, and one that somehow escaped detection for over 30 years! The first error is the omission of the word "cach" between "cai" and "tien" in the first sentence on the front of the 1 dong with horizontal code numbers. This omission renders the sentence meaningless, and was corrected in the 1-dong notes with vertical code numbers. The second error, at best ambiguous, is the presence of "vo-gia" instead of the correct "vo gia-tri" at the end of the text on the back of all the notes. "Vo-gia" translates to "priceless" instead of "worthless," thus changing the meaning of the last sentence to "All your savings will be priceless." Discussions with native Vietnamese and Vietnamese-speaking Americans reveal that, although Vietnamese would understand the intent of the message and would accept the error with mild amusement, the error would have been an embarrassment to the Americans had they known of it. Perhaps this explains why the error has not been reported earlier.

I asked an expert about these language errors and he said:

Your description of the language errors in banknote leaflet is perfectly correct, as are the translations you gave of the Vietnamese text.   Frankly, as a psywar trick the banknote seems a waste of time because the target was the North Vietnamese population, which had absolutely no power to exert any public opinion pressure on the North Vietnamese communist regime.

Years later I talked to a veteran Military Assistant Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MAC-V SOG) member about some of the leaflet problems that occurred during his tour in Vietnam. He could only think of two minor ones. He said that in one case the Americans produced a leaflet for the Australians that depicted burning Viet Cong. He didn’t exactly recall the message but he said it was something like:

Surrender! We would much rather treat you humanely rather than the way we now treat you.

Of course, the message meant, “we don’t want to burn you alive with napalm.” Apparently a reporter with the Australians saw the leaflet and wrote an article implying that the message proved that the Viet Cong were being treated inhumanely. Apparently the Vietnamese did not have an exact word for “humanely,” so another term was used that did not quite mean what the translator thought it meant.

Dead or Alive…We have a Choice?

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Leaflet 72

The leaflet is coded 72 and that shows that it was dropped on North Vietnam during President Nixon’s bombing campaign. The back is a statement by United States Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. It has the message on the front in inch-high letters:


50 Taels of Gold


The SOG veteran told me that the problem with this message is that it did not indicate that the Americans wanted their airmen back alive. A Vietnamese reading the front of the leaflet could kill the airman and then bring him in for the reward in gold. He said that shortly after someone took a close look at this text, the message was changed to indicate that the reward was for a live airman.

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The PSYOP-POLWAR Newsletter

Nguyen just went Chieu Hoi with his three wives and 36 Children

The PSYOP Newsletter was printed by the United States Military Assistance Command to inform commanders, PSYOP personnel, and PSYWAR advisors of psychological operations in Vietnam and to exchange idea and lessons learned. Later Vietnamese POLWAR personnel were added and the name was changed to the PSYOP-POLWAR Newsletter. Looking through my copies from 1967 and 1968 I find the following comment:

October 1968: OOPS! A Goof! JUSPAO printed three million sheets of weapons rewards and Returnee benefit stationary (leaflet 2623). One side lists the prices paid for weapons and the benefits given to the Hoi Chanh; the reverse side is left blank for local use. Where it reads that $1000VN will be paid to the Hoi Chanh and each member of his family, it should read that the $1000 will be paid to the Hoi Chanh only. No additional monies will be given to him for members of his family.

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An American Air-dropped Radio to Vietnam

A similar error is reported to have occurred on the small black radios that were dropped over Vietnam so that the Viet Cong and the people could hear Allied propaganda broadcasts. According to an American CIA psywarrior who served in Vietnam during the war years:

The fixed-tuned Special Operation Group “peanut” radios are a case in point. I had one of the black brick varieties and instantly saw that its on/off switch was marked with the Vietnamese words meaning “fat” and “off.”  The first was the Vietnamese word "mo" with a “~” over the vowel, instead of the correct diacritic mark, which looks like a small “?”

The wrong mark completely changed the meaning from on to fat or lard.  I guess that before the radios were manufactured, the Special Operation Group guys asked the nearest South Vietnamese to write the labels. A Northern Vietnamese would not have made that stupid mistake, because Northerners spell and write more correctly.

How do these errors occur? Several American PSYOP officers in Vietnam during the war spoke of the impossibility of knowing exactly what their Vietnamese counterparts were writing on propaganda leaflets. A former Army Captain who was assigned to MACVSOG from February to August in 1964 said:

Are these people [Vietnamese nationals working with the Americans] on the other side really with us or against us? You never know that and I never knew, I don’t have any idea personally other than we tried to double test so-called known people that belonged with us but they were still Vietnamese. I’d write up the leaflets in English and take them over and get translated, and they’d say that means this, but did it really? I don’t know and the people back in Washington will never know.

A former Army Major assigned to MACVSOG OP33, which provided staff supervision to OP39 (PSYOP) from June 1969 to June 1970, adds:

However, since neither we nor the US civilians in OP 39 were proficient in Vietnamese, the content, context, and scope of the various PSYOP products (radio broadcasts, leaflets, mail, etc.) were always sus­pect, in my mind. We really didn’t have a way of ascertaining the quality of the product that was being put out or the nuances in a political sense.

Second Lieutenant Winston Groom of the 245th PSYOP Company in Vietnam talks about the problems that sometimes occurred when using local interpreters and translators:

One curious situation arose when I received word from Nha Trang not to use the standard surrender tapes they had made for us in Saigon and which we played over the bullhorn or over the loudspeaker system in the U-10 aircraft if the enemy were encountered. Somebody had discovered that the Vietnamese who translated the tapes was apparently Viet Cong, because he told the guerrillas not to surrender but to fight on. After that, we made our own tapes on a small and unreliable recorder using our own interpreters, who hopefully were not Viet Cong. I believe that after a month or so, they sent us new vetted tapes out of Saigon. It should not have taken that long. It should have taken only a few days.  

Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CW3) Robert Vaughan told me:

We had a colonel who was, to put it mildly, an exceedingly difficult officer to work for. Among his idiosyncrasies, was his insistence to put his personal stamp on the battalion, and he chose to do that by giving the battalion his personal motto. He chose as his model, the 7th Cavalry. In the 7th Cavalry, officers and enlisted men greet each other by exchanging salutes, and saying “Garry Owen.” The 7th Cav may be the unit with the most esprit de corps of any regiment in the army. “Why,” the colonel asked, “shouldn’t the 365th have the same degree of esprit de corps?”

The colonel decreed that every helicopter, vehicle, generator, air compressor, and battalion generated correspondence use his personal motto, which was “Straight Arrow.” To do this, he had stencils cut, applying a small, yellow, arrowhead pointing up, just above the motto. But instead of the English, “Straight Arrow,” he asked one of the battalion clerks to find out how to express that in Vietnamese.

The clerk acquired the information from a bar girl with whom he had established a relationship during his time in country. Then, he gave the phrase to the colonel….and every piece of equipment and correspondence from that day on, bore the motto, Mong Cua Ban. But soon after, we began to encounter a strange reaction from the Vietnamese who read the motto. They would laugh. Then, the enlisted men began saluting, using the words, Mong Cua Ban, going out of their way to greet the officers in such a way. Sometimes they would say, “Mong Cua YOUR Ban, sir!”  The colonel was pleased that his idea had caught on so well, and he bragged about lifting the morale with the simple phrase.

We soon learned that Mong Cua Ban was Vietnamese for “Up Your Ass.” The colonel didn’t learn that until he had returned to the States.

A Vietnamese friend told me about another translation misunderstanding:

An American officer was drilling a group of Vietnamese cadets and ordered, “Left, face!” They did so; and, “Right, face!” and they did that, too. But when he barked “About, face!” the cadets seemed confused and there came a timid question from a cadet: “What about our faces, sir?”

One of the best examples of a translation problem is mentioned in Noel Barber’s The War of the Running Dogs – The Malayan Emergency 1948-1960, Weybright and Talley, NY, 1971. The author tells of a guerrilla ambush that caused the British commander to immediately fly to the nearest village where he harangued the collected inhabitants:

“You’re a bunch of bastards,” shouted Templer; and Rice, who spoke Chinese, listened carefully as the translator announced without emotion: “His Excellency informs you that he knows that none of your mothers and fathers were married when you were born.”

Templer waited, then, pointing a finger at the astonished villagers to show them who was the “Tuan,” added “You may be bastards, but you’ll find out that I can be a bigger one.” Missing the point of the threat completely, the translator said politely, “His Excellency does admit, however, that his father was also not married to his mother.”

The U.S. Naval Institute mentioned another translator gaffe:

After the surrender of Japan, Admiral Chester Nimitz decided to visit wounded Japanese servicemen in a military hospital as an act of goodwill. However, the patients were terrified to learn that the U.S. Navy's "head man" was coming because they interpreted it to mean that he was a sword-wielding executioner.

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Wrong Colors in a Viet Cong Flag

Leaflet with the Correct Viet Cong Flag Color

Note that the corrected leaflet has a Vietnamese code number which indicates that one was disseminated by them. The short message on the back is:

Attention All Residents of This Area


Do not run and try to hide from the Allied army as it conducts ground or helicopter operations. Stay where you are right now until you receive an order broadcast by loudspeaker, then do as you are instructed. If you follow the orders you receive over the loudspeaker you will not be harmed.


The above leaflet was produced by the U.S. Army 245th PSYOP Company in 1967. It depicts a heroic South Vietnamese soldier on horseback carrying his colors and trampling the flag of the Viet Cong on the ground. The enemy flag should have been a gold star on a field of red at the top and blue at the bottom. Instead the colors are red and green. The leaflet was later corrected with the proper color blue. Note that the code number on the back has been scratched out. We know it is the 245th PSYOP Company in Nha Trang and we know the year was 1967, but they have blacked out the center leaflet number. It may be that they were embarrassed by the error so just covered the number, but that does not make a lot of sense.

Although it is impossible to say if this has anything to do with the color mistake, my translator tells me that The Vietnam word for blue is XANH. The VN word for green is also XANH. Both are the same. No separate word for each. I suppose if the printer was Vietnamese this could make a difference. I would think there would be an American close by checking the work.

This image is interesting. The 245th PSYOP Company in Nha Trang apparently had a lot of paper which they call Knight Paper in one place and Horse Paper in another. They decided to make a second version of a leaflet with this image in 1968 but with Vietnamese text below the image. Where they ask who requested the leaflet the answer is the 245th itself. Where they ask the purpose, it is to Use up the knight paper. The leaflet, coded 245N-136-68 has the following text:

Why keep throwing yourself under the pounding hooves of the Government of Vietnam forces? Give up this hopeless struggle and return by the road of Chieu Hoi. Use this leaflet to rally to any Government of Vietnam of allied unit.

The Americans made other minor PSYOP errors during the Vietnam War. For one, the early JUSPAO leaflets all had the printed code “SP,” for “special project” plus a number. The Americans wanted the target audience to believe that these leaflets were Vietnamese in origin. However, there was no Vietnamese equivalent for “SP,” so it was obvious that the Americans produced the leaflets. The letters were soon removed and only a numerical code printed on subsequent leaflets.

Another problem occurred when the printers tried to “clean up” the Vietnam-language leaflets of various spots and holes. One former printer says:

There was also the tricky business of “opaqueing” the Vietnamese negatives. When shooting a negative of the mechanical art prepared by the graphics branch, there were inevitably pinholes that must be painted out on the negative before it is used to make plates. Vietnamese has all those diacritical marks which are crucial to reading the language correctly. As none of us knew any Vietnamese, it was always a risk that we might wind up painting out one of those marks thinking it was a dust spot on the negative. I don't know if there were any consequences of this but maybe some of those leaflets read just a little different than was intended.

There were also some problems with the photography used in the printing of leaflets although I suspect these were just in selected areas and perhaps early in the war. For instance, in the Operation Report - Lessons Learned, Headquarters 4th Psychological Operations Group, period ending 31 January 1968, we find complaints about Army-issued Polaroid cameras. The report claims that 95% of the pictures utilized in leaflets in Vietnam are taken by Polaroid cameras and careful judgment must be made on the scene when the picture is taken. It recommends that several pictures be taken to insure proper pose, contrast and most important of all, that the picture tells its own story as far as possible. Six months later in the DA Army Contact Team in Vietnam Study – Employment of US Army Psychological Operations Units in Vietnam, 7 June 1969, there is a complain that in many cases the Polaroid film received for use in PSYOP has passed the expiration date and the resulting picture are often of poor quality. The report goes on to say that on an experimental basis 35mm film has been used and the results have been favorable. The film has longer shelf life and is cheaper to use. Some of the problems of using 35 mm film are the inability to develop the film on the spot and insure that the picture is good and the fact that the camera must be returned to the photo shop so the exposed pictures can be cut from the film so that the rest of the film can be used.

When I read these complaints they didn’t make much sense. I asked a photographer who was assigned to the 7th PSYOP Battalion in 1970 if he had been issued a Polaroid camera. He said:

I never heard of issued Polaroid cameras for anything that the Army did, except for laboratory work. We did all of our lab work (leaflet and wanted posters) with a brownie 4X5. I was issued a Nikon F W/55mm lens. I bought other lens from the PX and other sources. All after-action reports (official) were done with Nikon 35mm cameras. Pictures taken at the Interrogation Center were all 35mm cameras. Also note that some of the pictures that were on leaflets were from original pictures taken from Viet Cong bodies or from Hoi Chanhs (ralliers).

A photographer from the 10th PSYOP Battalion in 1968 agreed in part with the report:

Polaroid cameras were super slow, big unwieldy boxes, and yes, poor quality. Often, the photographer didn't follow the directions and wait the right amount of time. Color was more sienna ranging with faded greens and blues, lots better tans and Indian reds. I had a personal Minox that was even worse. Got a Miranda Sensorex 35mm after Tet and it was great.  I still have it. It still works when you use an outboard meter. The 1.9 lens was rated the same as or better than Nikon at the time.

I can only assume from the differing statements this shortly after the second report much better cameras were issued to the Army photographers.



512                                                          514 

This is not a terrible error because the leaflet can simply be turned upside down. But, the Cambodian, Lao, and Thai languages use symbols that are very strange to American printers. On rare occasions, on leaflets that need several runs through the printer to add captions to pictures, the captions have been upside down. Sometimes if there are two captions, one is correct and the other not. When the 7th PSYOP Group made leaflets for Laos several had this error. Leaflet .512 depicts a former Pathet Lao officer and his men. The text on the front is upside down. Leaflet .514 is another leaflet that mentions the 25th Battalion defectors. Once again, the text is printed upside down.

JUSPAO Field Memorandum 42, Lessons Learned from Evaluation of Allied PSYOP in Vietnam, dated 13 December 1967 mentions some Vietnam War Allied PSYOP mistakes that had occurred and should be avoided. There are a great number of recommendations and we show just a few:

A few examples of errors of this sort are shown below. They are intended to be illustrative only, not a complete list:

Items have been issued which referred to Chinese Communist weapons in terms of their caliber, rather than in terms of metric scale. Since neither the North Vietnamese nor the South Vietnamese measure anything in terms of inches or feet, “caliber” car readily identify the PSYOP item as originating from a source other than the Government of Vietnam.

Direct translations from English employ a sentence structure that is easily identified as coming from a non-Vietnamese source. Vietnamese sentence structure differs so grossly from English sentence structure that it does not require a highly perceptive expert to see that something is wrong with the text.

Leaflets have been issued which encourage the Viet Cong to rally to the U.S. Army. A phrase such as this readily gives the impression that the message came from the Americans…that the Americans are the real sovereign power in the South.

Do not include anything in a PSYOP message which may directly or indirectly lend credence to Viet Cong propaganda. For instance, numerous items have been distributed which contain statements such as “The people no longer support the National Liberation Front.” There is at least an implication that the Viet Cong had the support of the people…

Do not distribute items which might facilitate the job of the Viet Cong political cadre. For instance, a leaflet which contains a flattering likeness of Ho Chi Minh may well end us as a useful tool of the Viet Cong cadre. The pictures can be cut out of the leaflets and serve as wallet sized photos for the Viet Cong troops to carry. The same thing could happen with a leaflet that incorporates a colorful picture of a Viet Cong flag…the primary impact could be detrimental to the Allied forces.

Other propaganda problems appear when you read through various operations reports. For instance, an October 1969 report says:

Leaflet requests accompanied by photographs of Hoi Chanhs, villagers, families etc., in groups of three have been submitted on occasion for propaganda development. Testing and evaluation panels and field testing show that the use of three people in a photograph is counter-productive because the Vietnamese people think this is a symbol of bad luck. Two or four people in a photograph are acceptable, but three should be avoided.

Another problem is the use of the nation’s colors. When some Operation Phoenix posters and leaflets were prepared the Vietnamese colors of red and gold were used around the borders to add authority. It was found that the Vietnamese saw these national colors and assumed that the government was backing these terrorists and bombers. The colors were quickly removed.

There were also problems with stationery ordered for Vietnamese officials and military officers. Someone made a decision to place Chieu Hoi symbols on all the writing paper. Many of the Vietnamese officials refused to use the paper because they thought it should only be used on Chieu Hoi topics. A decision was made to order all those people to order their own stationery locally and an order went out that nobody was to add images to any writing paper ordered by Group.

There was also a problem with producing photographs of dead Viet Cong. The people could take the products and make martyrs of the terrorists. Worse, many Viet Cong were pointed out as murderers and bombers on posters and at the bottom it would offer them money for defecting. Somebody figured out that the people would complain about some murderer who just blew up an orphanage being given thousands of dollars to defect. Who knew leaflets and posters could be so difficult?

It also appears that many of the products that were printed outside of Vietnam got lost upon arrival. I see constant complaints about having to hunt for 10 million or 20 million Tet leaflets. The final conclusion was that all products printed outside of Vietnam should be delivered at least a month before needed so the Army would have time to find where they were sent.

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This is not so much a mistake as an error that led to death. It is a good lesson learned for the PSYOP trooper. Staff Sergeant Leo E. Seymour was assigned to Command and Control Detachment, MACV-SOG in 1967. On 3 July 1967, Seymour was a team leader of a joint U.S and indigenous reconnaissance patrol on a combat mission in Laos. The team was called “Recon Team Texas” and was operating about ten miles inside Laos in Attopeu Province.

During the mission, the patrol observed a number of enemy forces moving down a trail 25 meters from their position. SSG Seymour directed an air strike on the enemy location. Following the air strike, Seymour prepared an ambush on a small secondary trail. Meanwhile, two sizeable enemy columns converged at the trail junction and noticed a PSYOP propaganda poster which had been tacked on a tree by a member of the “Texas” patrol. Realizing the poster had not been there before; the enemy began searching and spotted the patrol. An intense firefight followed and SSG Seymour was lost.

The lesson seems simple enough now in retrospect. Put up your posters and leave your leaflets as you exit an area, not as you enter.

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Leaflet 2316

This is a fairly common Vietnam leaflet depicting Viet Cong guerrillas firing at a U.S. helicopter and then receiving return fire. The text on the back is:


The Viet Cong are misusing your lands and your home for hostile activities against the people. The Government of Vietnam must destroy the Viet Cong. It will destroy them unless they see the light and come to the cause of justice of the Government of Vietnam.

Because the Viet Cong are hiding in your homes and on your land, you might be affected by the Government effort to destroy the Viet Cong. The Government of Vietnam has urged you not to collaborate with the Viet Cong. The Government of Vietnam does not want to hurt you. As best you can, stay away from the Viet Cong. Do not help them or shelter them so that you will not be hurt when the Government of Vietnam destroys the Viet Cong.

This is a very straight forward leaflet and one might ask why we show it in it an article about mistakes? An early version of this leaflet had the two images in a horizontal format and in the wrong order. In that leaflet printed in the Army Printing Office in Japan, the helicopters appear to shoot up a poor innocent Vietnamese farmer’s house, and then the heroic Viet Cong show up to chase away the American invaders. As you can imagine, that was not the message the United States wanted to pass on. The images are now in a vertical format and can be clearly understood by anyone, even if they are illiterate and cannot read the message on the back.

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Is it a good idea to stir the enemy up?

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Portrait of Ho Chi Minh

It is always dangerous when non-PSYOP personnel decide to create and disseminate leaflets. In early May 1967, a 2nd Lieutenant (Assistant S-5) with the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, announced to his Brigade Commander that he had dropped 10,000 full page portraits of Ho Chi Minh (on his own initiative, that had on the other side:

Soldiers of Ho Chi Minh: The 1st Infantry Division invites you to come out and celebrate your leader's BATTLE!

The Commander told him that his initiative was stupid and that the enemy had the capability to overrun the Brigade at Phouc Vinh if he went all out.

Even the professions can err. For Tet 1971, JUSPAO prepared a leaflet coded 4450 that was disapproved. The leaflet text said in part:

The Communist forces are unable to mount a major attack anywhere in South Vietnam. Your food, medicine, weapons, supplies and men have decreased considerably.

A reviewing PSYOP officer wrote on the page from intelligence information he had gathered:

Since they are planning a major high point in January, this would seem ill-advised.

Leaflet 4465 was disapproved because it talked to the Viet Cong about “ever since 1962…” and “are not 10 years of survival in the Communist ranks…” The approving officer stated:

Forget it. The overwhelming majority of our target audience is composed of young conscripts, not time tested veterans exposed to a decade of lies. The leaflet would not be credible to the audience.

Leaflet 4466 was considered too accusatory so it was disapproved too. It said in part:

“Why follow the Communists, the murderers of our compatriots, even your wives and children would not be spared death at their hands.”

Apparently, the U.S. did not want to talk too badly about the Communist leaders. At any rate, it is good to see that there were people looking over every leaflet and checking the text to assure that it was appropriate.

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(C47 Equipped with Loudspeaker)

In modern psychological warfare one of the favored weapons is the loudspeaker aircraft. Many different airplanes have been tested along with many types of loudspeakers and sound equipment. The advantage of such a system is that the aircraft can fly over the enemy, generally safe from most small-arms fire, and broadcast a PSYOP message that cannot be censored by his leaders or political commissars.

The C47 “Dakota” equipped with a loudspeaker was first tested during the Korean War at 8,000 and 10,000 feet. It was discovered that at those heights it was impossible to hear the message on the ground. The best results were at about 1,500 feet but that put the crew at risk. A compromise was reached and the missions were generally flown from 2,000 to 4,400 feet.

Robert Chandler says in War of Ideas, The US Propaganda Campaign in Vietnam, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1981:

One technique developed in 1967, used 2,100-watt loudspeakers that could be heard in a two mile radius from altitudes of 3,000 to 4,500 feet. This was important because early in the conflict airborne broadcasts from equipment developed during the Korean War were generally inaudible on the ground. The new system permitted thousands of hours of taped messages to be aired during the remainder of the war. Particular was the use of them at night against Communist troops in the jungle to try to wear down morale and persuade them to give up the fight. 

Such PSYOP flights were not always successful. Occasionally, scheduling errors caused confusion. One such case occurred in 1968 when a PSYOP officer in the 1st Australian Task Force arranged for a US loudspeaker aircraft to fly over a planned infantry operation. The officer says:

The PSYOP officer of the 1st Australian Task Force and his staff were coordinating all the psychological warfare aspects of the operation.  An aerial loudspeaker broadcast mission was scheduled once the operation had started. A U.S. PSYOP aircraft was requested and confirmed.   The PSYOP officer then went to Vung Tau on business for a couple of days.  The operation was delayed for a day and all the coordination was shifted to fit the new operation timetable.  The only activity that was not cancelled was the U.S. PSYOP aircraft coming from Bien Hoa.  On the original day of the start of the operation the U.S. loudspeaker aircraft flew over the area of operations broadcasting the message about the current operation underway, warning the Viet Cong of impending death and calling for them to surrender. The actual operation started the following day according to the new schedule, but the Viet Cong had left the area. They had been warned of the attack by the loudspeaker aircraft. Naturally, the military being what it is, the PSYOP officer (who was not even in the AO) was blamed, but in fact it was the Operations Officer who failed in his role as coordinator.

We Kill our Customers!

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Why Won’t Anyone Listen to Me?

When you talk to numerous PSYOP veterans, certain stories seem to be heard repeatedly. One is their reaction to receiving fire while flying overhead and dropping leaflets or broadcasting messages. I have been told by several PSYOP troops that after receiving ground fire they began following their leaflet or loudspeaker aircraft with a blacked-out gunship. This is all very cool as far as killing the enemy goes, but if we were trying to gain their trust and have them read our propaganda, this firing on the readers and listeners was counter-productive. No Viet Cong guerrilla is coming out of the woods to pick up a Chieu Hoi leaflet and possibly defect if he fears being shot to pieces by a blacked out gunship hiding just out of sight. One member of the 8th PSYOP Battalion in Vietnam told me that they called these "Chicken Hawk" missions.

Huey Helicopter M60 Door Gunner Prepares to fire

Vietnam veteran Bob de Groff veteran told me:

When I was in 2/7 Cavalry in 1970, I got assigned as the Battalion S5. We dropped leaflets from a Huey helicopter using the containers that opened via a static line. We were told to drop the leaflets and then hose down the area with M60 fire. I suggested to the CO that it seemed to me it would be more effective to shoot first and then drop the leaflets. It seemed to me counterproductive to zap a guy who had picked up a leaflet and might be considering surrender. I thought it made us look somewhat insincere. I was told to shut the fu*k up.

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AC-47 “Spooky” gunship

This use of PSYOP to kill the enemy had been practiced often in Viet Nam. In 1966, under an operation known as "Quick Speak," the USAF 5th Air Commando Squadron flew C-47 aircraft equipped with 3000 watt loudspeakers over the enemy. They would fly over a target at 3,500 feet broadcasting a propaganda message. When the enemy fired at the aircraft, an AC-47 “Spooky” gunship flying escort behind and below the loudspeaker aircraft would open fire with three 7.62 mm mini-guns that loosed 16,000 rounds a minute.

An Army PSYOP Lieutenant recalls:

I remember when the PSYOP squadron I worked for got shot up particularly bad one night while playing Robert Brown's "Fire" to the Viet Cong over the big University 1000-Watt speaker. The next night they went up again but “Spooky” flew with them. Our speaker plane flew a wide orbit playing "Fire" again, and Spooky flew opposing orbit. It was night and the speaker plane was lit up like a Christmas tree to draw attention. Spooky was blacked out. The enemy opened fire with everything they had. Spooky opened up with all three miniguns on at high cyclic rate and mysteriously all of the ground fire suddenly ceased.

Specialist Fifth Class Paul Merrell was stationed in Vietnam from April 1968 until August 1970. He was a member of the 8th PSYOP Battalion of the 4th PSYOP Group trained as an 83F20 offset press operator. During his three tours in Vietnam he worked in both HQ and the field in a number of diverse operations and positions. We talked about these missions and he told me:

One mission that was unique in my experience was reconnaissance-by-PSYOP. That operation used a recording distributed by Group HQ named "Tintintabulation," a title that was either a misspelling of or perhaps a deliberate word-play upon "tintinnabulation." The recording was designed to draw enemy fire so we could call in the artillery on them. The single such mission I did was on a moonless night, about 2 a.m., using the 1,000 Watt speakers broadcasting from a Huey helicopter. It worked. We drew fire from a North Vietnamese Army 50-caliber machine gun. The aggressive warrant officer piloting the craft violated orders and decided to engage in a duel with the enemy from about 300 feet altitude rather than withdrawing and immediately calling in artillery.

If we hope to have the enemy believe in our message and our sincerity, it is probably a bad idea to shoot at him when he reads or listens to our message. This is good war-fighting and can kill many enemies, but it is lousy PSYOP.

Everyone seems to hate PSYOP loudspeakers. In WWII, the Germans and Japanese would open fire on them. Sometimes the American combat troops would shoot their own loudspeakers because they knew they drew fire to a quiet area of the front. In Vietnam we see that “Charlie” regularly opened fire on loudspeakers. Here we find another American PSYOP specialist being shot at because the message annoyed the hell out of the North Vietnamese.

Former Sergeant Jerry C. Bowman landed in Vietnam on 3 October 1967 assigned to the 8th PSYOP Battalion. He supported the 173rd Airborne. He learned early that you have to be careful what kind of tapes you play at the enemy. His first battle was at Dak To in the Central Highlands. It was an area of triple canopy jungle and hills and it was infiltrated by the North Vietnamese army regulars. Discovering that the enemy lines were porous, a commander ordered Bowman and his interpreter to make their way to a village of Montagnards, Vietnam’s mountain people who were American allies. Bowman said:

We set up our speakers on a hill and started playing tapes to the North Vietnamese. I asked my interpreter what we were saying in Vietnamese, and he told me a mother was telling a North Vietnamese soldier a baby crying on the tape was not his. It was a psychological game. She was basically telling the soldier that she had cheated on him while he was away at war.

The ploy was not successful:

It upset the enemy and they started mortaring the village and shooting rockets at us. It was like the Fourth of July. We had really pissed them off. I had two other tapes with me, one was the Mamas & the Papas and the other was the Four Tops from Motown. I started playing them and it was echoing all over the place. I guess the echoing kind of confused them and they stopped shooting.

Perhaps the North Vietnamese simply enjoyed hearing the latest American hits rather than the annoying sounds of a crying baby.

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Are These Leaflets for Us or For Them?

There are numerous cases of mistakes occurring during leaflet drops. We mention just a few here:

In one operation where the mission was to drop propaganda banknotes in Vietnam from the back of an aircraft a problem arose. The operation did not go smoothly and the plane returned with thousands of the banknotes scattered all over the cargo area. The local airport security spotted the banknotes as the plane opened its cargo doors and immediately assumed that they had discovered a currency smuggling operation and placed the crew under arrest. It all got smoothed over of course, but better mechanical methods were clearly needed.

A similar calamity is mentioned in Air America. William Wofford is on a mission to drop CIA-forged banknotes over Laos:

They were just in paper bags and had these devices the kicker pulled which ignited a small charge and blew the bag apart. When we got back to Vientiane, we had to spend two hours cleaning the airplane because some of the bags burst before we could get them out and we had counterfeit money from one end of the airplane to the other.

Not exactly the same thing, but sometimes you run across that leaflet mess on the ground. One veteran told me that sometimes out on patrol deep into enemy country he would run into a sight to behold:

We'd find areas along the border with thick layers of leaflets both old and new. I was afraid they would make us come back after the war and police them up. That stuff is not biodegradable. It is still a foot deep in some places as far as I know.

It is funny that this soldier talks about biodegradable leaflets. Retired Major Ed Rouse told me:

I was with the 1st PSYOP Battalion in 1973. They were testing different types of paper. For instance one type made of a biodegradable material that was supposed to break down in a matter of a few days after getting wet from the morning dew. The idea was they would not have to waste time after a training exercise walking through the woods picking up leaflets.

Another type could not be torn. Someone with a sense of humor came up with printing calling cards on that very strong paper stating:

Smile if you want to have sex with me.
If not, tear up this card.

The Thomas L. Ahern, Jr. declassified “Center for the Study of Intelligence” secret publication Undercover Armies – CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos 1961-1973, discusses the hazards of using a firecracker to open a sack of leaflets:

Even the most routine mission could provide moments of genuine fright, as when a giant M-80 firecracker, intended to open a sack of leaflets being dropped from the air, blew back into the aircraft before it exploded.

Speaking of explosives, Retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel Robert D. Childre flew leaflet drops out of airbase K-16, (Seoul City), from January 1952 to Late May 1952 during the Korean War. The majority of the missions were leaflet drops. The leaflets were tied bundles with a dynamite squib and a timed fuse to explode them open at about 500 feet. Because of the uneven terrain some obviously would impact on the ground unopened. Apparently if you lived on a hill in Korea at 700 feet attitude you had a good chance of having a bundle of leaflets crash through your roof.

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Killer Leaflet Boxes

When the United States decided to take part in the humanitarian feeding of the starving Bosnian people in 1992, it was understood that the people might race out into the drop zone and be crushed. As a result, two leaflets were prepared and dropped over Bosnia. They both depict a Hercules C-130 USAF cargo plane in front of a faint United States flag. Both leaflets picture crates falling by parachute marked with a bright Red Cross and both are written in Serbo-Croat text, in Latin script on one side and Cyrillic on the other side.

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Provide Promise Warning Aerial Leaflet Dropped on Bosnia

On the first leaflet, the C-130 drops four containers. The leaflet tells the Serbs not to fire on the aircraft. They drop food for all the people. The text is:

American aircraft will be dropping humanitarian aid for all people. Do not fire on American aircraft. Food and medical supplies are intended for all people.

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Provide Promise Warning Aerial Leaflet Dropped on Bosnia

On the second leaflet, the C-130 drops three containers labeled "500 KG." This leaflet was prepared because of accidents that occurred in Somalia that same year when starving people rushed mindlessly into the drop zone only to be crushed by falling food crates.  The leaflet text is:

Danger! For everyone's safety, let humanitarian aid land before approaching.

PSYOP troops understood the danger of the large crates of food weighing hundreds of pounds, but did they understand the danger of a simple box of leaflets falling at high speed. These boxes are generally taped and when leaving an airplane, a rope pulls the box apart and allows the leaflets to fall.

Sometimes the leaflet box did not work exactly as designed. Pat Carty mentions some of the problems in Secret Squadrons of the Eighth, Ian Allen Ltd., London, 1990. Carty says that on one occasion the 60mph winds at 30,000 feet were so strong that leaflets destined for Paris were dropped over Brussels. Another problem was the bundle failing to open. Carty adds:

The Manchester Guardian reported that one bundle fell solidly on a small German barge, went through the bottom and sunk it. Another bundle crashed through the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral.  

On the 75th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in 2020, a 103-year-old former British prisoner named William Brown, of Norfolk, England, recalls a similar case. He was being held in Osaka when, one morning, the prisoners discovered all the guards had disappeared. Almost immediately US aircraft were overhead, dropping leaflets and then food. One of the food packages hit a prisoner who was from Norwich. A Japanese doctor who was still in the camp stitched his wounds. “When the prisoners ventured out of camp to the Japanese village there were no males about. The females and children were starving so the prisoners were able to help them too.

CPT Charles V. Nahlik had a similar problem during a Cold War leaflet drop over Korea:

Once over Korea, one of the leaflet boxes shipped from Ft. Bragg did not open properly.  We had already released about 50 boxes so there were lots of static lines hanging out the back.  The weight of the box dangling out behind the plane made it impossible to pull the lines back in.  They attached an additional static line around me and with oxygen mask pumping away; I crawled out under the lines, foot, legs and hands until I could reach the line.  I took out a knife and cut the box loose to fall into the ocean below--- fortunately we were not over land so we didn't have to worry about messing up the roof of a South Korean family home. We kept several of the boxes on board so we could check them when we got back to Okinawa and found out that the static lines were not properly wrapped around the box. 

On another occasion, a leaflet box scored a direct hit on a Korean house. I was told:

The box that went through the roof of a Korean home happened somewhere along the DMZ in Korea.  It busted the hell out of their tile roof and landed in their kitchen and right on the table.  The US repaired the home and replaced the table.

Navigator Captain Bob Wyatt was a member of the 35th Troop Carrier Squadron during the Vietnam War in May 1968. He says:

In late 1968 or early 1969 we had a few drops where the static line did not open the box of leaflets. From then on we navigators had to be extra careful on our position while dropping.  I wonder what the terminal velocity is on one of those boxes.

Jack Jolis was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for the book Back, about Special Forces mission in Vietnam. Jolis said that the unopened leaflet boxes were not always an accident:

The idea, of course, was to cut open the bales and drop the many thousands of leaflets over contested villages and hamlets, in this particular case in Gia Dinh province outside Saigon. But from time to time we’d take fire from one of these villages, in which case, if the PSYOP guys were particularly honked-off that day, they’d bung the 50-lb bales of leaflets out the Huey doors and onto the Charlies’ sorry asses un-opened. This was my first introduction to Vietnam’s famous “Sorry ‘bout that” ethos – and it was certainly fine by me.

Former aircrew member James D. Trozzo mentions another Vietnam War operation that didn’t exactly go as planned:

On a mission somewhere over Cambodia we spotted two small boats beached on a sandbar. Black pajama clad people were unloading or loading boxes but they never looked up as they heard us fly over. I was aghast; here was Charlie out in the open, and we couldn't even get a shooter to go after him. Since we were truly alone, unarmed and not necessarily afraid, we did the next best thing a "Goony Bird" crew could do. We made another pass over the boats with a "steady on course 072 degrees, correct to 1 left, drifting, drifting, left 2, steady, steady, bombs away!" At the command of bombs away, someone kicked out 5 unopened boxes of “Chieu Hoi” leaflets stored under our door netting. I tried to watch the impact to report damage at our debriefing, but the pilot said, "We’re getting the hell out of Dodge," as he dove away for airspeed before the fireworks started.

Richard Arent mentioned a similar case he heard about while flying EC-47 missions out of Pleiku in the summer of 1969:

On several missions I would be handed a cardboard box of leaflets and told to drop them wherever I could. I remember reading a Time Magazine article about a Viet Cong member who surrendered after his friend was hit in the head by such a box of leaflets. I recall seeing it upon my return to Okinawa.

Helicopter Attack Squadron Three’s publication Wolfgram said on 1 June 1969:

Here at Detachment 4, where we developed gunship tactics, regardless of what others might say, another breakthrough has arrived. It deals with aerial dissemination of psychological leaflets, fondly known throughout the Delta as “Oh Gee, not PSYOP again!” Our new method was innovated by gunner Jake Jacobs, who felt our leaflet drops needed more concentration to really bring the point home. We can now drop 25,000 pamphlets, weighing close to 50 pounds, packed into a three-square foot area. The results have been heartening. Local officials give Detachment 4 credit for one VC tax collector and two cadre workers, who recently decided that it was time to switch. We have also been given credit for 2 Viet Cong KBB (that is “Killed by Bundles”), which proves once again that the pen is mightier than the sword.

In spring of 2004 the United States Army published a “lessons learned” book on the second Gulf war entitled On Point: the United States Army in Iraqi Freedom. The book describes an interesting action in regard to psychological warfare and the use of the leaflet box. According to the authors, in the early hours of active combat, an Iraqi soldier was killed during a PSYOP operation:

The cause of death was a box of leaflets that fell out of a Combat Talon aircraft when a static line broke. The box impacted on the Iraqi guard's head, and the 9th PSYOP Battalion may have achieved the first enemy "killed in action" of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A similar death occurred on 23 June 2009 when a Royal Air Force C-130 Hercules transport plane accidentally killed a young girl in Afghanistan by dropping a box of leaflets on her. According to the BBC, the leaflet box was supposed to open in mid-air, spreading pro-coalition propaganda over rural Helmand province, but the container failed to break apart, landing on top of the girl, who died later in the hospital. The RAF said it deeply regretted the incident and has launched an investigation into how the box, which could have weighed up to 40 pounds, hit the girl.

When the Israeli Air Force dropped leaflets over the Gaza Strip another accident occurred. According to one Muslim website:

On Monday the 25th of May, heavy boxes of leaflets were dropped over residential homes across Gaza, from the northern parts of Bait Hanoun and Bait Lahia, Khan Younis and Gaza City, to the southern parts of Kerem Shalom and Rafah. A child, the 12-year old Muhammad Dughmush from Tel Al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City, was struck and injured in his neck and back by a box of leaflets which was dropped by Israeli helicopters.

The U.S. Government apparently figured out that aerial leaflet drops were hazardous because in the draft document Psychological Operations at a Tactical Level we find the comment:


When PSYOP leaders plan a leaflet drop using an M-129 or a PDU-5/B leaflet bomb, they must take noncombatant injuries into consideration. The positive effects of a leaflet drop may be undermined if the spent casing of one of these bombs injures or kills people on the ground.

I suppose the conclusion of this section is that you cannot win the hearts and minds of a friendly people by dropping leaflets in boxes that cause damage and death. I assume that this is just the tip of the iceberg and over a period of 60 years of heavy leafleting there have been hundreds of such unreported accidents.

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Know Your Movie Audience

We were talking recently about how important it was to know your target audience and we all had examples of mistakes. The first was during the Vietnam War.

The Montagnards (French for "Mountain People") were the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The Montagnards were looked down upon by many of the Vietnamese as savages due to their aboriginal lifestyle. After all, these were people who still used crossbows to hunt. On the other hand, the United States Army Special Forces were quick to recognize them as excellent trackers and fighters and began to recruit them for military service. By the end of the war approximately 40,000 had been recruited to help fight the North Vietnamese.

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Montagnard Village

In the effort to impress one Montagnard Village, a PSYOP Team was sent in to win their hearts and minds. Since the tribe lived in Stilted Huts with no modern conveniences, the PSYOP team thought that they would entertain the tribe members with a movie. The team members brought a 16 mm film projector, screen and portable generator. Since the Montagnards did not speak English, the Americans selected an action-packed western “oat burner.” As might be expected, the Montagnard villagers were thoroughly engrossed with the action on the screen. Then came the fateful scene where the wagon train full of settlers was attacked by Indians. The villagers watched intently as the Indian’s arrows struck the settlers. Suddenly, the sound of a bugle playing “Charge” was heard as the U.S. Cavalry came riding in to the rescue, charged heroically and opened fire on the Indians. The excitable Montagnards rose as one, grabbed their crossbows and started firing arrows at the screen. As might be expected, the Montagnards, who dressed similarly to the Native Americans with loin cloths and carried bows, had identified with the Indians in the film. The morale of the story is simple. Know your target audience.

You also have to know your viewing audience. Jimmie Gonzalez was in the 41st Civil Affairs in Pleiku. When we talked about movies, he told me his own favorite story about such an occasion:

Our PSYOP support consisted of one grizzled old guy, a Sergeant First Class. Since I was the language and intelligence guy I went out with him a few times to show movies. He would usually go out on his own. One of the times I was with him he decided to wait for darkness to show a movie. Just after he started showing 3 armed Viet Cong came in and watched the movie from the back of the crowd. When I finally asked if he was aware of them, he very nonchalantly said, “Oh yeah, they do it all the time.” Afterwards we got on Highway 1 and drove without lights back to Pleiku.

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A U.S. Soldier sets up a movie projector and sound system to show pro-government films to civilians in Phan Thiet

Dick Elgin had a somewhat similar experience. He flew for the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (Americal) and sometimes worked with a PSYOP Captain and some enlisted men who dropped leaflets from his light observation helicopter. On other occasions he would load up the PSYOP guys with their projection gear and fly to a village about dusk. He said:

We went to Tam Ky, and also to Thang Bien, a few miles to its north. Movie night really brought out the locals. They usually showed some old spaghetti western. I remember the Vietnamese getting all worked up and laughing and pointing at the screen. I have no idea what they thought or what they were saying, but they really enjoyed those crappy movies. And, they always seemed to be pulling for the Indians, and cheered for them.

Specialist 5th Class Pasquale Vallese who was in Vietnam from November 1968 to November 1969 as part of the U.S. Army 7th PSYOP Battalion attached to the 3rd Marine Division also showed western movies to the locals:

At night we would travel down Highway One towards Quang Tri, and get into those back-road villages for MEDCAP (Medical Civic Action Programs). We were just one truck with a movie projector, a generator, a screen, an interpreter, a reel of the latest Armed Forces TV show (usually “Wild Wild West”), and a Vietnamese language film or two about good health practices. I have no idea how they knew what “James West” was saying, but the people really enjoyed watching our shows. 

That reminded me of a similar case where shortly after the war I sat with a group of sullen Japanese as we watched “Flying Leathernecks” together. There was not a peep out of them as we reclined on the straw mats drinking our sake. John Wayne and his fellow Marines killed the Japanese by the hundreds. Then came that one scene that was in every WWII war movie where Hollywood depicted the enemy as barbaric savages that must be killed on sight. A young blond American pilot’s plane was hit. He heroically climbed out on the wing and parachuted to what should have been safety. But then, the evil grinning Japanese pilot with thick glasses and buck-teeth opened fire on the Marine, killing him in midair as he helplessly hung from his parachute. The entire audience cheered. It was the only victory for the Japanese in the entire movie and they enjoyed every bit of it. It taught us a valuable lesson. What worked very well as domestic American propaganda worked awfully when shown outside the United States.

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Know Your Listening Audience

During the Vietnam War, an attempt was made to terrify the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. They believed that if they died far from home and their bodies were never found or properly buried, they would become a cursed soul forever walking the Earth. The operation was code-named “Wandering Soul.” U.S. PSYOP troops spent weeks recording eerie sounds. These cries, wails, special effects and funeral dirges were intended to represent souls of the enemy dead who had failed to find the peace of a proper burial. The tapes that were produced were quite scary and even the Americans noticed that they sometimes got goose-bumps and shivers down their spines when they listened to them.

There was one problem. The troops of the Army of South Vietnam had the same general beliefs, and as a result we scared the “dickens” out of our allies as much as we did the enemy.

Raymond Deitch, former commander of the U.S. Army 6th PSYOP Battalion said:

The tape was so effective that we were instructed not to play it within earshot of the South Vietnamese forces, because they were as susceptible as the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army.

Bill Ogle, a U.S. Navy Seawolf pilot who flew a number of PSYOP missions in 1968-1969 recalled playing what he called “The Howling Ghost” tapes many times.

We had a short Vietnamese-language tape made that said, "Drop your weapons and stand up." The idea was to play it from our 1400-watt broadcast system on a U.S. Army Huey helicopter which would fly over the area just ahead of the South Vietnamese Marines as they hit the beach.

At the nightly briefing later that evening we were told the operation was a success and that our broadcast resulted in five enemy Viet Cong dropping their weapons and surrendering to the Marines. Unfortunately, the bad news was that it also resulted in several Vietnamese Marines dropping their weapons and raising their hands.

It was not only the Vietnamese that were superstitious. Kenneth Conboy says in Shadow War – The CIAs Secret War in Laos about an operation to convince the Pathet Lao that one of their dead generals was talking to them:

Ghost music and recordings allegedly in the general’s voice were played from airborne loudspeakers; on one of these flights, the broadcasting aircraft passed too close to a Royal Laos Army garrison, causing the spooked Royalist troops to desert en masse.

During the Korean War, a 1952 campaign called Operation Heartache was designed to lower morale and combat effectiveness by increasing the Chinese soldier’s anxiety over loved ones at home. The early programs built up a listening audience by playing news and music. Once the audience was captured, the broadcasts became very emotional with alleged letters from home and offers of good treatment and a safe return after the end of the war for those who surrendered. It is unknown how the messages affected the Chinese, but the sad messages worked on the South Korean soldiers who heard them. Allegedly, some broke down in tears over the loudspeaker broadcasts designed to induce nostalgia, thoughts of home, and worry about conditions at home. The lesson learned is to warn your own people when you are going to broadcast very emotional messages…or get them out of hearing range.

As long as we are mentioning recordings, we should point out that the Army PSYOP teams had problems with the issued tape recorders. According to the Department of the Army Contact Team in Vietnam Study – Employment of US Army Psychological Operations Units in Vietnam, 7 June 1969, under field combat operations PSYOP HB (Loudspeaker) teams encountered many problems with the AN/UNH-10 issued tape recorder. The battery charge sometimes lasted less than an hour and since they did not use standard batteries they became useless. The size and weight of the AN/UNH-10 was another problem when they were used on backpacks. The fidelity was limited and would not provide suitable reproduction capability. The report pointed out that the Sony recorder model TC-800 had been used by the HB teams with excellent results and none of the problems of the AN/UNH-10. The Sony TC-800 also cost one-tenth of the cost of the AN/UNH-10 recorder. Further studies were recommended to see if the Sony recorder should replace the AN/UNH -10.

An officer who was assigned to the 10th PSYOP Battalion in 1968 apparently used the Sony already. He does not mention if the tape recorder was issued or bought by the unit. He said:

We had Sony's cassettes in 1968 and they worked flawlessly. I have logged many hours in a U10 with one on my lap. We never played more than 20 min on a mission. You orbit too long and the Viet Cong wake up and perforate your perfectly good aircraft. The batteries were not a problem that I remember. I guess we changed them as a routine maintenance protocol. There is a button that you can push that shows battery strength! Woe unto the operations Air Lieutenant who doesn't check the batteries before a mission.


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The Vietnam War leaflet above is uncoded which indicates that it was very early, perhaps before the coding of leaflets was authorized. The front depicts a young boy being shanghaied into the Viet Cong, one fighter threatens him with a big club while the rest of the VC laugh and smirk. The back shows Republic of Vietnam soldiers appearing on the scene and shooting at the Viet Cong as they cowardly run away. The boy and his mother are ecstatic. The text is:

If you do not want your son abducted like this...

Help the ARVN protect you!

The Field Development Division of the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office issued a 62-page booklet in 1968 called Communicating with Vietnamese thru Leaflets. The booklet was developed to help PSYOP staff produce meaningful leaflets and posters and avoid mistakes. One of the mistakes mentioned was exaggeration about the evilness of the Viet Cong, The leaflet above was used as an example of this mistake:

The leaflet above shows a young recruit being marched off to war at gunpoint by Viet Cong Cadre. Most Hoi Chanhs who have been interviewed report that such illustrations are exaggerated and will not be believed. They say that the VC methods of recruiting while forcible are much more subtle and that the VC normally used psychological pressures to persuade people to “volunteer.”

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Leaflet SP-1427

This early Vietnam War leaflet depicts a falling bomb and was meant to scare the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. The code has the “SP” for “Special Projects” and that was soon removed when the Americans understood that every leaflet that was seen with those letters was known to be American, and thus suspect. The text is:

The area where you are living could be bombed at any time if the Viet Cong travel through it. For your own safety you should protest to the Viet Cong to force them to go somewhere else and should report immediately to the Government of the Republic of Vietnam if the Viet Cong arrive in your area.

The image on the leaflet appears to be a good one. A frightening falling bomb was depicted on WWII leaflets against Japan and Germany, and when it was time for the Americans to raise money for war bonds and such similar leaflets would be dropped over American cities with the text “This could have been a bomb.” So, I think this is an excellent leaflet.

But, psychological operations panels that studied this leaflet hated it because of the text. It apparently broke two rules. They are explained in the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office booklet Communicating with the Vietnamese thru Leaflets. The author states:

This leaflet is not effective because it vaguely warns that villages in a general geographical area may be bombed at some point. Warning leaflets should tell when and where to expect the bombing and give the people a chance to evacuate.

The U.S. warned the enemy in WWII and again in Desert Storm that they would be bombed, and they were bombed. A vague warning of a bombing that never comes makes all the Allied leaflets seem less then credible.

The panel also found that when we ask unarmed farmers in a village to throw out the Viet Cong, or North Vietnamese Army soldiers to turn against their officers or throw out their Communist regime, we are clearly asking them to do things which they cannot do. One comment is:

When we advise unarmed peasants to forcibly evict armed Viet Cong from their homes, in other words, when we advise them to commit suicide, we should not expect their friendship, because they know that no friend would advise such action.

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Know Your Colors

As strange as it may seem, the use of color in a leaflet can make it more or less effective and in fact can make the carefully worded propaganda message worthless - should the target audience refuse to pick it up simply because of its color. There have been some classified studies on this subject and data is hard to locate. However, I have found some contraindications in various military manuals.

Red to an American or an Arab may signify danger; whereas, in communist countries red may signify loyalty and patriotism. During Operation Desert Storm it was discovered that the color red signals danger to an Iraqi and he would be hesitant to pick up a leaflet with red in the image or text. Many early leaflets that used red were found to be unsuccessful, and the color might have been a contributing factor. Allegedly, there was an official recommendation to remove any trace of the color red, which is a danger signal to Iraqis. Canary yellow is favored in China, and green in Ireland. Colors included in the national flags of countries are considered safe colors to use. In some countries, red may be used to suggest violence, blue or green for peaceful scenes, and black or white for death. Colors can have religious connotations. Green is universally “the color of the faithful” in the Moslem world. In the west, it is often associated with health and nature and generally has no religious significance.

If the psywarrior wants to attract attention, color in a leaflet might contrast sharply with the predominant color of the terrain over which the leaflet is to be disseminated. At other times, to protect the finder of the offending leaflet, the color may blend with the terrain in areas where punitive or other sanctions have been imposed to limit the reading of enemy leaflets. When the British fought Communist insurgents in Malaya they ingeniously developed the light yellow sand and the deep brown earth colors for leaflets to be thrown near streams and rivers to enable the comrade soldier to secretly glance at them without undue attention from his commissar. Sometimes the leaflets were bright to attract attention, sometimes dark to avoid it. Another Malayan expert added:

Leaflets were printed in a mixture of bright colors like red, yellow and orange and dull colors like grey, blue and green. This was because terrorists would not dare pick up bright leaflets for fear of being caught by their leaders, and would only risk picking up the less obvious colors.

Former Major Nelson Voke did two tours in Vietnam, one with the 6th PSYOP Battalion and the second as a Senior Advisor with the Vietnamese Army 17th Armored Cavalry Regiment. He told me how his men studied the use of color in propaganda to the Vietnamese people during his first tour:

We started using color after doing some research into the meanings of colors to the Vietnamese; not long after I left the research was redone and my S2 (Intelligence) Section Sergeant sent me a copy of the report. We found that lavender implied emotion associated with love; love of family, etc. The popular Vietnamese romantic magazines of the day used a lot of lavender ink.  So, when we designed a leaflet urging the soldier to think about the conditions faced by his faraway wife and children, we put the message in lavender.  

According to American advertisers, the following colors have the ability to bring forth the following emotions.


Emotionally powerful, exciting.

YELLOW Intensity, intellectual, attention-getting.
GREEN Nature, refreshing, wealth.
BLUE Calming, focus, loyalty.
PURPLE Luxury, wealth, romance.
WHITE Purity, cleanliness, innocence.
BLACK Authority and power.
PINK Soothing and relaxing.
BROWN Earthy, genuine, wistful.

However, it is important to remember that these are the emotions felt by an American. A non-American can have very different or even completely opposite emotions.

In 1962, a paper was published by the U.S. Army Special Warfare School titled “Color Significance.” It looked at all the countries of interest to the U.S. and discussed colors of importance. Some of the comments were:


Use with discretion in Cambodia and Laos because it is connected to Monks robes, but good in South Vietnam since it is part of the National Flag.
BLACK Denotes death in Burma and Thailand, lower classes and poverty in Cambodia, denotes tribal people in Laos, evil in South Vietnam.
WHITE Denotes the elite in Cambodia, purity in Burma, mourning in Laos and South Vietnam, virtue and purity in Thailand.
RED Courage in Burma, associated with Communists in Thailand, Joy and happiness in South Vietnam.
GREEN Success and peace in Burma, sometimes unlucky in South Vietnam

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Know Your Paper Weights

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Leaflets were dropped by helicopter over the mountains along the lines in red,
but the light paper and stiff breeze caused all 50,000 to fall into the ocean (Blue box).
Derrill de Heer Master’s Dissertation

Leaflet paper comes in various weights. Some paper is very light and you can carry many more leaflets in a single aircraft mission, but the drift patterns are much greater and you need to use different formulas. The normal leaflet weight is 20 pound paper, and of course there are heavier weights and even cardboard or paper coated in plastic. Some of the paper weighs used In Vietnam was 9, 13, 16, 20 and 60-pounds. The term “60 pounds” means that 500 sheets of 25 x 38-inch paper weights 60 pounds.

In Vietnam the Australians found that on a few leaflet drops using the wrong paper made the entire mission fail. We can forgive the Australians for this error because even though the Americans were using formulas that had been determined years earlier by my pal Lieutenant Colonel Dave Underhill in his manual Low, Medium, and High Altitude Leaflet Dissemination Guide, apparently that information was not forwarded to the Australians. Sergeant Derrill De Heer of the Australian 1st PSYOP Unit tells about one such mission in his Master’s Dissertation.

Fifty thousand leaflets were dropped over the Long Hai Mountains which was a heavily fortified area occupied by the Viet Cong. On occasion aircraft were fired upon when flying over these mountains. On this mission the helicopter flew at a higher than normal altitude and this plus a light offshore wind carried all the leaflets out to sea. It was established later that had the leaflet been printed on heavier grade paper, the leaflets would have dropped at a faster rate and could have landed on the planned target area.

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Know your Enemy’s Signs, Symbols and Gestures

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The Captured Crew of the USS Pueblo

When preparing PSYOP campaigns it is important to understand any gestures or hand signals that your featured captives might make. It is very easy for an alleged penitent war criminal to make a sign to show his people that he is alive and confident and has not mentally surrendered to the enemy. In both Korea and Vietnam there have been cases where the enemy put Americans before a Camera to confess to their sins and read lines of repentance.

After the North Koreans captured the US Navy intelligence ship Pueblo in international waters on 23 January 1968, they placed the crew in front of camera to confess their crimes. The Americans extended their middle finger in what some comedians have called “Half a Victory Sign” or the “Hawaiian Good Luck Sign.” Of course, Americans know that the gesture basically told the North Koreans to perform an act of sodomy upon themselves, but the North Koreans had not a clue. A newspaper at the time displayed the photograph with the caption:

The North Koreans are having a tough time proving to the world that the captive crewmen of the USS Pueblo are a contrite and cooperative lot. Last week, Pyongyang’s flacks tried again – and lost to the U.S. Navy. In this class-reunion picture, three of the crewmen have managed to use the medium for a message, furtively getting off the U.S hand signal of obscene derisiveness and contempt.

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Navy Commander Paul Galanti

In June 1967 American POW Paul Galanti was filmed by an East German film crew in North Vietnam. To show his disdain for being used in a propaganda event, he unobtrusively gives the Communist propagandists the finger. He said later:

I gave a catcher’s signal with both middle fingers extended and glared at the camera the whole time. I extended my middle finger on each hand to make certain that anybody who saw that picture didn’t think in any way, shape or form that I was doing it voluntarily.

The lesson for any good PSYOP expert is that you must know all the symbols, signs and gestures that your enemy can use as a sign of contempt. Otherwise, you can make a hero of your prisoner and an idiot of yourself.

The Falkland War – TO SINK OR NOT TO SINK

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Invincible silhouette on Argentine aircraft

This is an interesting story that could be a major mistake or a clever deception operation. Governments might be involved or it might be wishful thinking on the part of excited pilots and patriotic citizens.

There is an Argentine study of the Falklands War sea battle by Rolando Mendez entitled, “30 May 1982 - Not so Invincible – The story of an Attack Denied by the British.” Mendez claims that on 30 May an Argentine Super Etendard armed with an AM39 Exocet missile piloted by Lieutenant Commander Alejandro Francisco and two A4 Skyhawks each armed with three 500-pound bombs piloted by First Lieutenant Ernesto Rubén Ureta and Subaltern Gerardo Guiller attacked the British aircraft carrier Invincible. They allegedly used information stolen from a Russian satellite relay station to pinpoint the carrier. They attacked from the south after refueling twice from C-130 Hercules tankers. The Super Etendard navigated to find the target and fired the last Exocet in the Argentine inventory at a distance of approximately 24 miles. The Invincible was allegedly struck by the missile. The A4s followed the wake of the missile and bombed the carrier scoring three hits. Allegedly, the pilots were questioned in detail after the raid and were absolutely positive that they had hit the Invincible. The author says that the British later claimed that the target was the Atlantic Conveyor, a giant container ship that might look like an aircraft carrier. The British say that the Invincible was never attacked. Still, the author’s article depicts an Argentine fighter bearing the symbol of a hit on the Invincible on its fuselage so it appears that the Argentine Government, or the aircraft commander or crew chief was convinced.

So, what are the options? The Argentines might have claimed to hit the Invincible to shore up their morale. The British might have hidden the strike to shore up their morale. The mission might have never happened. One conspiracy theory claims that there were two aircraft carriers Invincible. What could be the origin of such a story?

The theory that the Invincible was sunk or severely damaged during the Falklands War has been on the internet for years and may be widely believed in Argentina. There are some conspiracy theorists that even go so far as to claim that there were two identical Invincibles and one was sunk, or that press photos of the Invincible returning home at the end of the war are fake. Let’s assume that the pilots genuinely believe they had hit the Invincible. Could there be two of them? During the Second World War the British started a rumor campaign that there were two identical Ark Royal aircraft carriers. The idea was for the Germans to think that the perfidious English had cheated on the Washington Naval Treaty and the Royal Navy had twice as many capital ships as they were authorized to have. Could it be that some Argentine General recalled the old British deception of the two Ark Royals from WWII? After the Argentine pilots claimed to have sunk the Invincible and the BBC depicted the Invincible sailing into harbor intact, he might think that it was just like WWII when those crafty British had two identical Ark Royals. Now they have two Invincibles. He might believe that his pilots were right and did sink one of them. So, we must ask, is it British or Argentine disinformation?

The website El Malvinense (The Falklander) adds that according to the British official history, on 17 September 1982, the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible returned to Portsmouth after 166 days on the high seas. It then says:

Curiously, there aren’t any photos of the arrival. However, you can see lots of photos of the Hermes and other important ships that returned to England. The Queen of England, accompanied by Prince Philip visited the supposed Invincible that day, but no photo exists. It was the last ship to get to port. (The others arrived between June and August).

The only investigators of the mystery, the Yahoo group “Malvinas, seguimos ganando” (who maintain that the ship sank), have discovered that the Invincible was replaced after the war by its twin, the HMS Illustrious, in order to hide what really happened on 30 May 1982.

I don’t know who is fooling who and am not sure that anyone is fooling anyone. I leave it for the reader to put together this puzzle. Until proven otherwise I must assume that the Invincible returned home safely and the Argentine claim of a strike on the carrier is either deception or error.

The Belgrano

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Sinking of the Argentine Cruiser General Belgrano

From a PSYOP standpoint, it was not only the Argentines that may have made an error during the Falklands War. The British scored a military victory that cost them dearly in the public relations war. At the beginning of the conflict the British announced a 200 nautical mile maritime exclusion zone around the Falklands to take effect on 12 April. Any Argentine ship found in the area after that time would be attacked without warning. On 2 May, the British nuclear submarine Conqueror located the Argentine Cruiser General Belgrano just outside the exclusion zone. The ship was clearly outside the zone and sailing away from the Falkland Islands. The Conqueror promptly put two Mark 8 torpedoes into the Belgrano and sunk her with the loss of 323 crew. There was world outrage at the sinking of a ship leaving the scene of battle and the attack was debated in the British Parliament. The families of the slain seamen threatened to sue the British Government in the European Court of Human Rights. The Argentine relatives argued that the cruiser was outside the theatre of operations, and therefore the attack violated wartime conventions set down in The Hague in 1907. However, the British Admiralty explained that at any time the warship could have turned around and attacked the British fleet. Whether or not the Belgrano should have been attacked is argued in Argentina to this day.


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Fort Amador, Panama 1989

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What did you say…I can’t hear you…

This story is not exactly a mistake, but an interesting error that reminds us to think about what we are doing and how our actions might affect the enemy.

On 20 December 1989, the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division conducted their first combat jump since World War II onto Torrijos International Airport on Panama. The 1st Battalion of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment had the mission of securing Ft. Amador, an installation shared by the American and Panamanian Defense Forces. PSYOP loudspeaker teams were a key asset. The battalion sealed off the Panamanian Defense Forces portion of Ft. Amador and ensured that all noncombatants were safe. After daylight, the task force set about systematically securing the area. When initial appeals failed to persuade the Panamanians to surrender, the American commander modified the broadcasts. The holdouts were warned that resistance was hopeless in the face of overwhelming firepower and a series of demonstrations took place, escalating from small arms to 50 caliber machinegun and 105mm howitzer rounds. A scout who took part in the operation told me that after the 105s were fired directly into the buildings at Amador, the Americans asked the Panamanian Defense Force survivors why they didn't surrender when the PSYOP loudspeaker kept calling for them to come out and not be harmed. They replied:

After that first 105 round hit, we couldn't hear anything!

A comical lesson learned. Don’t blow out enemy eardrums before you call for their surrender. Subsequent broadcasts convinced the PDF to give up. The entire process allowed Ft. Amador to be secured with few casualties and minimal damage.



A U.S. Propaganda Christmas Card for Panama

One of the troops who was present during the Panama operation told me a story about this Christmas Card. He said:

When the card was printed and ready to be loaded for distribution at midnight on the 25th a fluent Spanish speaker from Panamanian descent started laughing after proofing it. He inquired if the typo was on purpose. No one knew what he was talking about. The card as written said, “Merry Christmas and prosperous A*s hole.” They forgot the line above the N called “a tilde” - ñ - That changes it to sound like “an yo” which indicates “year.” Hundreds of soldiers spent Christmas eve putting the line above the N and saved the day. ALL the cards have a hand-written line above the N changing “anus” to “year.”

Gulf War

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The "Star of David" Leaflet to the Iraqis

This "mistake" is not so much an error as it was simply a bad idea. During a deception campaign in Operation Desert Storm the U.S. forces produced a leaflet showing the symbol of the VII Corps. There was nothing wrong with this idea, except that the VII Corps symbol is the Roman number "VII" inside of a 7-pointed star. The symbol looks very much like the Jewish "Star of David," a six-pointed star. This was apparently a symbol that the Coalition thought might be found offensive by its Arab members and thus they hurriedly printed a second leaflet showing VII Corps’ "Jayhawk" logo. Curiously, although not offensive to the Arabs, the Jayhawk was a derogatory term used by pro-slavery residents of Missouri to identify murderous anti-slavery raiders from Kansas in the pre-Civil War days.

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What’s That Over His Head?

In the United States when an artist wants to show what a person is thinking in a caricature or cartoon, he draws a series of bubbles over the person’s head to imply thought. This is understood by most Americans, and one need not use any descriptive phrases like "He thinks…" During Desert Storm the Coalition produced a number of leaflets using such "thought bubbles" to show Iraqi soldiers thinking about home, their families, or the overwhelming might of Coalition forces. One of the early leaflets depicts an Iraqi and an Arab soldier facing each other with weapons at the ready. Both have the little bubbles rising from their head to a depiction of Saddam Hussein. The idea was that both men were thinking of the Iraqi dictator. A second picture shows both men shaking hands, their weapons on the ground. The text on the back is, "Brother Iraqis, all we want is peace." The only problem with this leaflet is that apparently there is no history of little bubbles meaning "thought" in the Arab world. If true, the Iraqi finder of this leaflet must have studied it in complete puzzlement for some time wondering, "Why is Saddam’s head floating in the air?"

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You Want Me to What?

During Operation Desert Storm Coalition leaflets were disseminated from both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. One of the European Command (EUCOM) products from Turkey was a full-colored leaflet that depicted an Iraqi soldier thinking of the overwhelming power of the Coalition tanks and aircraft, then thinking of his wife and children. The back of the leaflet depicted the Joint Forces Seal and the 27 flags of the Coalition in full color.

There were many printing errors with this leaflet. I probably have seen more errors on this single item than any other Coalition leaflet. For instance, numerous color shifts exist. Both the front and back are sometimes wholly or partially color shifted, and the front and/or back sometimes are missing the red, yellow or blue color. These errors probably arise because of the need to make four separate runs through the color press.

Worse, there was a problem with the text. The Coalition propagandists wanted to say, "Brother Iraqi soldiers, our great tragedy is we do not want you to come back to Iraq dead or crippled." That is a rather nice and comforting thought, but what the leaflet actually says is "Brother Iraqi soldiers, our great tragedy is to want you to come back to Iraq dead or crippled." We may hope that the Iraqis ultimately figured out what the Coalition meant to say.

There were other surprises for US PSYOP troops in the Gulf. Early leaflets depicted Coalition soldiers as clean-shaven, meeting all the standards of US military grooming. However, to the Arab that clean-shaven chin represented immaturity and lack of trust.

The psywarriors were advised to show Allied soldiers with chin beards rather than clean-shaven faces because beards convey trust and brotherhood in the Iraqi culture. Another recommendation was to remove any trace of the color red, which is a danger signal to Iraqis.

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February 29th, February 30th…

This leaflet is not exactly what I would call a mistake. Perhaps it is better called a "misunderstanding" or "miscommunication."

A PSYOP printing unit does more than just print leaflets. It is called upon to print certificates, awards and other printed products. Some of the jobs during Desert Storm were "access badges," "5th Group pads," 9th Battalion Christmas cards" and "SOCCENT stickers." There are also many morale-building certificates, cartoons, promotion certificates, and of course "end of tour" certificates. These are all for internal use and not to be showered upon the enemy. For instance, one such document I have depicts Saddam Hussein being covered by leaflets dropped from an overhead aircraft and the words "In appreciation from the Combined PSYOP Task Force JTF Proven Force."

Now it gets interesting. A small PSYOP leaflet dropped on Iraqi troops from US PSYOP forces in Turkey depicts Saddam Hussein swinging a sword and cutting off his own head with the comment in English "Oops." The head hitting the ground makes the sound "thud," also in English. The cartoon is signed [Tim] "Wallace." Text on the back of the leaflet in Arabic is "30 February 1991 – Saddam’s prediction – Be assured that I will solve the problem of Kuwait on 30 February…"

There are a few things wrong with this leaflet. The text in the front is in English. Worse, there is no February 30, so it is obviously meant to be a gag. Why would we drop such a confusing leaflet over the Iraqis? We wrote Ft. Bragg in September 1991 and asked that very question. The answer is as follows:


The copy of the leaflet you provided in your letter was drawn by an artist in the 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne). It was not distributed to opposing forces but was done as a cartoon within the command. The point of the cartoon is that nothing will occur on 30 February since 30 February does not exist. This point would certainly be lost on Southwest Asian audience given their use of an Arabic calendar.

The spokesman was partially correct. The leaflets were not disseminated from Saudi Arabia. However, the PSYOP cell in Riyadh mistakenly beamed the image by satellite up to the EUCOM group in Turkey who didn’t get the joke. They printed the leaflet and disseminated it over Northern Iraq. Can you imagine the confusion of the finders?

We spoke to Tim Wallace about this leaflet in 2009. He said:

I had been sending the various political cartoons back stateside to the Ft. Bragg newspaper “Paraglide” and someone mistook it for a PSYOP product when they saw it in my work-area. It was mass produced without my knowledge, and dropped somewhere North around the Turkish border.

Whoever swiped it off my desk did not realize that it would not make an effective leaflet in that region. In our culture we see the image as a secession of frames describing an action, i.e. Saddam rattling his sword at us and then cutting off his own head in the process. Westerners get the joke. From what I understand people in the Mideast see it differently. Not as a sequence, but as three separate Saddams. Therefore, it made no sense to the Iraqis and the image only caused confusion. Worse, it had my signature in big bold letters on it. While I like that kind of exposure for my work in the U.S, I could not think of a worse location where I would want to advertise my name than Iraq.

Later a reporter from U.S. News and World Report found the leaflet on the ground and had it published in their news magazine of 16 March 1992. Back in those days one of my goals was to have my work published in national magazine like U.S. News and World Report, and I guess I did reach that goal, just not the way that I imagined. 

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Close Shave

Some leaflet concepts were considered too crude or too bloody to be used by the Coalition during Operation Desert Storm. This oversized leaflet did not make the cut. An arm labeled "The world" in Arabic holds Saddam by the throat while a knife labeled "UN January 15" in English prepares to behead him. Text on the back is in Arabic, "Time is not going to help you. 15 January will arrive soon." Because of the mixed languages this leaflet was likely made by the Americans for the Coalition as a morale booster.

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It's the law

A similar leaflet in full color with all Arabic text showing Saddam's hand cut off was approved by the Coalition. The all Arab text on the back of this leaflet is: It is the law, Saddam will not continue with his crimes unpunished. On December 4th, 1990, 35,000 copies of this leaflet were printed. There is no record of this leaflet being disseminated.

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Bart Simpson is Having Sex With Your Wife

The Iraqis were having problems with their own psychological operations. They had a propaganda radio station that broadcast to Coalition troops. They wanted to use anti-morale messages, and historically the way to do that is to tell the enemy that while he fights the slackers are at home with his women. The Germans did this in WWII telling the British and the Australians that while they were at the front the Americans were having sex with their wives and girlfriends. The British produced leaflets telling the German troops that the foreign workers imported into Germany as laborers were in bed with their women. The Iraqis thought this was a wonderful idea. So, who can they say is with the wives and girlfriends of American troops in the gulf? They allegedly decided to use some names that any American would recognize. They selected Tom Cruise, Tom Selleck and Bart Simpson.

The British newspaper The Guardian wrote in 1991:

BAGHDAD BETTY, Iraq's English-language radio service, has taken a credibility nosedive. Over the weekend Betty indulged in some mischievous bitchery by telling US soldiers that their wives back home were committing adultery by sleeping with movie stars. Big-screen heartthrobs like Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bart Simpson. The first two might have presented some cause for anxiety, but who initiated the deviant practice of molesting under-age, primary coloured cartoon characters?

However, according to, the entire story is just an urban legend. Snopes says:

On February 1 host Johnny Carson opened the show with what he called a retraction. He recalled that some time previously his writers had manufactured a gag about an Iraqi announcer called "Baghdad Betty" telling soldiers their womenfolk were being romanced at home by "Tom Selleck, Tom Cruise and Homer Simpson."

The story spread, Carson said, and soon it was being retold, even on wire services, as fact, with one change — Homer Simpson, the father in the Simpson’s animated cartoon series, was replaced by Bart Simpson, his 9-year-old son. Said Carson: "It was a joke. We made it up."

The problem is, there are soldiers today who swear that they heard the broadcasts. Whatever the truth, Baghdad Betty was a bust. She began broadcasting in English to allied troops in Saudi Arabia in early September 1990. Her broadcasts were believed to originate in Baghdad with transmitters in southern Iraq and Kuwait. Col. Jeff Jones, commanding officer of the Army’s 8th Psychological Task Force said Betty’s broadcasts were laughable. "Her broadcasts proved the Iraqis didn’t understand us at all. Her ignorance was pervasive. She was never sure of her sources, and broadcast old information based on dated news." Saddam Hussein wasn’t impressed with Betty’s efforts either. In mid-December 1990 she was sacked after only three months of broadcasting, and replaced by a collection of announcers who called themselves "The Mother of Battles Radio."

So, did they or didn’t they? President Bush believed the story and used it in one of his speeches. The Iraqi leaflet propaganda was so bad that it is easy to believe that they could have made the broadcasts. Either you believe or you don’t.

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There is a Daddy for You!

The Iraqis constantly made mistakes in their campaigns to win the hearts and minds of the CNN audience. On 23 August 1990, Saddam went on television with a young child named Stuart who was being held hostage against Coalition bombing. Saddam thought that it showed his fatherly side. Americans and British viewers were incensed that he would use and frighten a child, and the Kuwaiti government-in-exile immediately prepared a brochure comparing Saddam with WWII photographs of Adolf Hitler in a similar fatherly pose. Besides the photograph of Saddam with the hostage, the brochure also depicted dead Shi’ite and Kurdish children, the destruction of buildings in Kuwait, and other illustrations of Iraqi inhumanity.

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U.S. Navy Lieutenant Jeffrey Zaun

When the bombing of Iraq started Saddam Hussein had a captured American aviator shown on Iraqi TV. U.S. Navy Lieutenant Jeffrey Zaun was shot down on 17 January 1991 in an A6 fighter-bomber from the carrier Saratoga. His face was injured as if he were beaten and the words he spoke seemed to be scripted for him. Once again the Coalition was incensed. Every time the Iraqis tried to use psychological operations to gain sympathy they simply made the Coalition partners more angry.

Philip M. Taylor discusses this in Munitions of the Mind: A history of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day, Manchester University Press, UK, 2003:

Saddam Hussein, who believed in the Vietnam Syndrome decided to allow journalists from coalition countries to remain behind once the bombing started so that they could report from the Iraqi capital under fire in the hope that anticipated stomach-churning casualties would repel the western audiences to the point of protesting that the war should stop. Just like the North Vietnamese, the Iraqis hoped to win the war on the domestic fronts of their enemies, and even tried Vietnam-style propaganda ploys such as parading of captured coalition airmen on Iraqi television. Allowing western journalists to stay behind in an enemy capital under fire seemed, as David frost pointed out in disgust, the equivalent of dr. Goebbels permitting British and American journalists to remain in Dresden while Allied bombers torched the city.

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Can you say "Baby Milk Plant?"

Perhaps the Iraqi's worse faux pas was when an American bomb struck a building that was allegedly hiding a biological weapons facility. The Iraqis invited the CNN to see the carnage and sitting amidst the rubble of an Arab factory was an English-language sign "Baby Milk Plant." In fact, the workers wore jackets that had hastily been marked "Baby Milk Plant" on the back. Curiously, Peter Arnett even found the blueprints for the milk factory conveniently on the ground near where his guides placed him. It was such an obvious prepared photo opportunity that few people were fooled. The Iraqis never understood PSYOP and made one blunder after another.

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Blacked out page 26 of Print Company Leaflet Magazine

I will end this section on Desert Storm with a comment that I never intended to print because it was a minor embarrassment for the PSYOP troops at the time. As I write this comment 15 years have passed and I think it is safe to talk about something that a unit tried to keep secret in 1991.

Many of the leaflets during Desert Storm were printed by the Psychological Operations Dissemination Battalion. To commemorate their success they produced a souvenir booklet entitled Print Company Leaflet Magazine – Operation Desert Shield / Desert Storm. Almost immediately the booklet was ordered destroyed. Many of the issues survived. A 4th PSYOP Group Captain told me that the problem was that one leaflet had encouraged the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and that was against U.S. Congressional policy at the time. As a result, issues that had been salvaged were overprinted with black ink so that half of page 26 was covered. That seemed reasonable at the time.

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The original Page 26 of the Print Company Leaflet Magazine

Other PSYOP officers later told me that because the leaflet depicted on page 26 had an Iraqi soldier surrendering while holding a white cloth over his head, the page had been defaced because it looked like the soldier was holding a diaper and it might infuriate or embarrass the Iraqis. No Iraqi male would change a diaper and to be holding one was the ultimate insult. Not quite so good a story, but still acceptable.

I finally saw the page without overprint. There was no discussion of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. There was a surrendering Iraqi holding a white cloth. But most important, there was the following text next to the leaflet:

Arabic is read from right to left. We didn’t realize that until we started printing in Saudi Arabia. Several times, we almost printed the leaflet backwards, until we learned to look for the periods and exclamation marks on the left end of sentences. If the text had no punctuation, well, then we were out of luck.

So, although I cannot prove it, I will believe to my dying day that some officer read that printed statement and was so embarrassed at the idea that Americans could not tell where a sentence started or ended that he had the comment covered and attempted to have all the booklets destroyed.

On the other hand, I should point out that the leaflet in question was never disseminated. As stated above, it shows an Iraqi soldier with a white cloth on the front and the text:

Raise a white flag

The back is all text:

Saddam’s armies expose you to great danger. The Coalition forces are getting closer to you with great speed. Your positions will be bombarded soon and we do not want cause innocent civilian casualties. We ask you to vacate the area and move north. The civilian areas of Baghdad will not be bombed. Flee immediately!!!

So, you must make a choice. Was the page blackened because the soldier held a diaper or because the Dissemination Battalion was embarrassed by the text?

When I asked the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kelliher about the booklet he was not familiar with it. He said:

I think this was a Print Company internal project, not a PSYOP Dissemination Battalion or PSYOP Group effort. I am guessing that in the young Company Commander's enthusiasm, they included a leaflet that should not have been in there.I see the word “Thugs” in one caption and I don't believe we would have used a word like “thugs” in our verbiage. I may have seen it while delivering or receiving an ass chewing but I can't recall. I don't have contact with any print company folks any more.

By the way, notice this is not the first instance where there was confusion. Earlier in this article we mention Korean text being printed backwards.

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Oops - Right to Left

Curiously, 20 years later, what was a disaster for PSYOP troops was turned into a cartoon featuring a cola salesman:

A disappointed Cola salesman returns from his Middle East assignment.

A friend asked, "Why weren't you successful with the Arabs?"

The salesman explained:

When I got posted in the Middle East , I was very confident that I would make a good sales pitch as Cola is virtually unknown there. But I had a problem I didn't know to speak Arabic. So, I planned to convey the message through three posters...

First poster: A man lying in the hot desert sand...totally exhausted and fainting.

Second poster: The man is drinking our Cola.

Third poster: Our man is now totally refreshed.

These posters were pasted all over the place

Then that should have worked! said the friend.

The hell it should have! said the salesman. I didn't realize that Arabs read from right to left


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The Slave Nations

A host of local petty warlords and clans ruled Somalia. They fought bitterly to control their small parcels of barren land and starving citizens. This was especially true in the capitol city of Mogadishu. The situation was so bad in that city that it was estimated that 500,000 Somalis would die of starvation in 1992. American President George Bush found himself under tremendous pressure to send troops to protect humanitarian relief workers and the food shipped to the starving nation. He authorized the deployment of American troops in an operation called Restore Hope. As part of that operation a number of leaflets were prepared to introduce the Somalis to their American benefactors. One leaflet had a spelling error, which was widely publicized and caused some criticism of the American PSYOP effort.

The front of the leaflet is a handsome full-color depiction of an American soldier and a Somali citizen shaking hands. The leaflet was normally dropped two to three days before United Nations forces arrived in a Somali town. The back depicts the flag of the United Nations and the United States. The official translation of the text is, "The forces of the world (United Nations) are here to assist in the international relief effort for the Somali people. We are prepared to use force to protect the relief operation and our soldiers. We will not allow interference with food distribution or with our activities. We are here to help you."

The San Francisco Chronicle of 12 December 1992 said about this leaflet:

The Marines are here, and they may need a few good men who can translate. A leaflet the U.S. forces are using to win over the Somali people bears an almost incomprehensible message, muddled by at least three misspelled words, one word that does not exist and poor syntax…the first word is the most noticeable error. It was supposed to read ‘aduunka’ or ‘world’ in the phrase ‘world forces.’ The word appears as ‘adoonka,’ which means "slave."

Even the experts seem to be unsure about the words that should have been used. In another report, David Evans said:

If you look at the back, there are a number of physical spelling errors in the text. And the first word here, "adunka," literally translated means "slave." It should have been spelled "avonka" for "United Nations." So, you have the first two words, instead of reading "United Nations," reads "slave nations."

The commander of the United States Army 8th PSYOP Battalion told me, "This error was a result of poor communications and a failure to double check the final product before we printed it. We sent a facsimile of the English message to Norfolk where the sailor (a native-borne Somali who left home at age of twelve) was based. After he translated it into Somali and sent a facsimile of the translation, we then typed the leaflet into our computer. After the Central Command and the Joint Chiefs of Staff changed some of the words, we passed the changes verbally over the telephone to the sailor, and received the changes to his translation back over the telephone. We then produced the leaflets. We should have sent him a facsimile of the final product before we printed it."

Americans are great ball-busters so this tiny spelling error came back to haunt the 8th Battalion. Some of the members of other PSYOP units got to calling them the Adoonka Ciidanka Battalion. I am informed by an attendee that at the 1993 4th PSYOP Group “Dining Out” there were a skits where the soldiers performed Rap Songs disparaging the other Battalions. When they got to the verse about the 8th PSYOP Battalion the lyrics brought down the house. They went something like this:

8th Battalion is our name
Adoonka Ciidanka is our fame.

Balkans - Serbia. Bosnia & Kosovo

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Waiting for Godot…er...Superman

During the recent troubles between Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo the United States disseminated a 12-page Superman comic book entitled "Deadly Legacy" that was produced pro-bono with DC Comics. The Implementation Force (IFOR) distributed over 1 million of the magazines in their first year in Bosnia.The cover shows the man of steel swooping down to save a two young boys who are about to pick up an explosive device on the ground. The back of the book shows Superman flying the children to safety and the text:

Superman has come to help the children of Bosnia-Herzegovina! But even when he can't be here, you can keep yourself safe from land mines! Mines kill kids! For more information on how you can prevent these accidents, call the mine action center.

Lieutenant Colonel Nick Swayne was the liaison with DC Comics in New York tasked with the mine-awareness project that had the blessing and backing of then First Lady Hilary Clinton. The military paid for the materials, ink and transportation, but not the art or concept work. It supplied the photographs of Bosnians, local homes, landscape and backgrounds and the comic book artists did the rest.

The French were not enamored with the comic book, apparently disturbed that Superman represented “Truth, Justice and the American Way.” Superman was very popular among the youth of Bosnia, but was the subject of consternation among certain allies. 

Philip M. Taylor criticized this leaflet in Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day, Manchester University Press, UK, 2003. He claims:

A classic example of how such well-intentioned propaganda can backfire, this comic had to be withdrawn when it was discovered that some young children were deliberately walking into minefields in the hope that Superman would come and save them.

The Landmine Monitor seems to agree. They don’t exactly say that young children might enter a minefield, but they do say:

Most attention, however, has been focused on the Superman comic book, with concerns being widely expressed as to both its technical accuracy and cultural appropriateness. The comic book has apparently been used to advantage as one of a number of media items in Guatemala but overall the reaction has been extremely negative. As a result, the original version produced for Bosnia-Herzegovina has now been withdrawn from distribution; a Spanish version was not distributed in Colombia; and a version planned for Mozambique appears to have been shelved, at least for now. Independent testing of the Superman comic book in Kosovo concluded that it was suitable for children in the 10-14 age group but not for children in the 7-9 age group, who might infer incorrect and dangerous messages.

These comments are rejected by Major Jeffrey White who told me that it was never withdrawn from circulation, and definitely not as Phil Taylor suggests, based on the rationale that he cited. Major White never saw any comic books returned to Sarajevo.  He did feel that there was a significant undercurrent of anti-American sentiment among the NATO Forces, but the criticisms did not bear out in any of the post-testing in Bosnia. There was never even one incident where it was ever reported that a child went into a known minefield hoping to be rescued by Superman, nor were there any other incidents provoked by the comic book.

LTC Swayne states that he recalls two minor negative reactions to the Superman Comic Book. The first occurred when he coordinated with the United Nations Mine Action Center in Sarajevo prior to putting their phone number on the back cover of the comic book and matching poster. They were not prepared for the number of calls that flooded their office.  Overnight their office went from a “Sleepy Hollow” to a place where the phone never quit ringing.

The second was something that did not come out in pre or post-testing among the 10 to 15-year-old target audience.  It was brought up by the International Press Corps at the unveiling of the comic book in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. They posed questions about the sexist nature of the comic in that the girl was always the subordinate character. The comic was made for an audience and culture where that is the case whether we like it or not. As a result, although it was an overwhelming success among the target audience, it was scrutinized by the international press because it did not depict an unrealistic dominant role for the female characters.

On one occasion there was a problem with a mine awareness coloring book. U.S. Army Reserve Major Thomas Bergman was activated in December of 1995 for a tour in Bosnia as the PSYOP Support Element Commander attached to the 18th Military Police Brigade at Camp Comanche, near Eagle Base. He says:

Mine awareness among children was a big priority and we were pressed to arrange visits to schools and distribute mine awareness coloring books which we had never received. When they did arrive, (with crayons), the coloring books were printed on glossy paper rendering them useless to be colored on!  I literally had a pallet of coloring books that had to be destroyed. Needless to say, the MP Brigade Commander was not impressed.

This is a problem easily fixed. Hopefully all propaganda coloring books are now being printed on a flat pulp paper that takes crayons well.

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Apache leaflet

Another propaganda “miscalculation” apparently took place during the NATO attack on Yugoslavia in 1999. The United States advertised the fact that they were about to send their deadly Apache attack helicopters to bases in neighboring Albania to be used against Yugoslavian troops in Kosovo. The U.S. was very public about this deployment, sending announcements to all of the mainstream news media to spread the story. There was probably some hope that the knowledge of the helicopters would demoralize Yugoslavian troops. As part of the PSYOP campaign they produced a propaganda leaflet with a picture of an Apache helicopter bristling with weapons and hovering just above a targeted Yugoslav tank on the ground. Underneath the picture, was the caption “Don’t wait for me.”

In answer, a Yugoslavian graphic artist, patriot and propaganda expert by the name of Andrej Tisma obtained the leaflet and simply transposed a picture of a crosshairs, as viewed through a circular gun sight and centered it on the helicopter, totally changing the meaning and destroying the intended effect of the leaflet. Instead of being an object to be feared, it was depicted as an easy target. It is alleged that this altered image was placed on pro-Yugoslavian Internet websites and sent around the world. 

Worse, from the standpoint of veracity, the Apache attack helicopters were never used in combat. The entire fleet was grounded for most of the war after several of them crashed during training exercises in Albania

Philip M. Taylor criticized the Apache leaflet in Munitions of the Mind: A history of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day, Manchester University Press, UK, 2003:

Given that the Apache was never deployed during the air campaign because of orders to fight the war from above 15,000 feet, the failure to deliver what was promised in the messages was symptomatic of a defective PSYOP campaign that failed to break either the Serb military or civilian morale.

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Lincoln...the Bosnian?

Other minor mistakes are mentioned in the report, Target Bosnia: Integrating Information Activities in Peace Support Operations – NATO-led Operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This report reminds propagandists how important it is to use media, concepts and images that the target audience responds to, and not one that it simply convenient to the PSYOP organization.

However throughout the operations, IFOR and SFOR PSYOP campaigns were not adapted to the local populations’ media consumption habits. The PSYOP campaigns relied primarily on printed material (newspaper, newsmagazine and posters), while the Bosnians’ preferred medium was television. In addition, few Bosnians read newspapers regularly because they are expensive and tactical teams found that posters did not appeal much to this audience. Meanwhile, newspapers, posters and leaflets constituted the core of the PSYOP effort. Likewise in the radio field, IFOR/SFOR radios transmitted on AM while most Bosnians listened to FM radios.

Lack of strong regional expertise and available cultural data generated some problems, such as products not adapted to the local environment. For example, during 1996, the Combined Joint IFOR Information Campaign Task Force developed a “checklist” of what was done and what had to be achieved. After the product was disseminated, the CJIICTF realized that Bosnians don’t do checklists. In another example, they developed a poster with a chess game to encourage voting. Bosnians interpreted it as the international community playing with Bosnia’s future. Other products did not take into account the local populations knowledge and were, perhaps, too Americanized. For example, SFOR developed several products on the role of the military, the police, and the media in a democracy. These product used quotes from Western historic figures (for example, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Clausewitz, or Clemenceau) which some did not believe appropriate for Bosnia-Herzegovina. These products did not appeal to the Bosnians’ culture or history, nor did they dwell on recent examples of national reconciliation or mediation. This limited the PSYOP products’ relevance to their target audiences.


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Coupon for a Chicken Dinner?

Psychological Operations is known for winning the hearts and minds of the target audience, but in at least one country, Afghanistan, some of the PSYOP leaflets were winning stomachs. Some of the leaflets disseminated depicted a dove as a symbol of peace. Many of the Afghans, unfamiliar with the symbol, believed the bird to be some type of chicken and they assumed that the leaflet could be used as a coupon that entitled them to a free bird or meal provided by the Partnership of Nations.

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Who’s that Mullah?

It is rare that the wrong individual is placed on a leaflet. Even rarer when that person is made a marked man with a price of 25 million dollars on his head. This seems to have been the case in some early leaflets dropped on Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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In a number of American "wanted" leaflets, an unnamed Taliban member is shown at the right in profile, and again at the left behind bars. U.S. $20 bills are pictured at the center of the leaflet. The text is "Taliban and al Qaida leadership - Reward." The back of the leaflet is all text, "Reward for information leading to the whereabouts or capture of Taliban and al Qaida leadership." Some of the leaflets using this vignette are AFB29P, AFD29P, and a handbill coded AFG06, with the picture reversed.

Although the individual portrayed is not named, he was assumed to be Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the former Taliban government. Mullah Omar shunned having his photo taken, perhaps for religious or perhaps for security reasons, and this shrewdness on his part allegedly led to a photograph of the wrong man appearing on thousands of U. S. reward leaflets.

Doubt was first raised in the 14 October 2002 issue of Newsweek. In an article entitled, “Trouble: Mistaken for the Mullah” author Sami Yousafzai says:

Maulvi Hafizullah is hiding in the remote Afghan countryside in fear of his life. ... Mullah Omar was rarely photographed during his time in power, and in a case of mistaken identity, Hafizullah says it’s his picture - not Omar's - on the hundreds of thousands of leaflets that have been dropped all over Afghanistan offering $25 million for the capture of Omar and Osama bin Laden. Hafizullah fears that thousands of Afghan soldiers and villagers - not to mention U.S. troops - are looking for him. "I'm afraid to leave my house," he told Newsweek. ... His troubles began early this year when he fled to his village in Maidan province after the Taliban’s collapse. An elderly neighbor approached him, showed him the leaflet and asked if he was in fact Mullah Omar. "I looked at the photo and it was me," says Hafizullah. "Now we are even more proud to know you.

Other newspaper accounts indicate that Hafizullah is a former protocol officer for the Taliban who has not softened in his opinion of the U. S. He says, “I looked at the photo and it was me. The CIA is blind and stupid.” An official government spokesman said, “We don't know anything about this man. There aren't that many pictures of Mullah Omar around anyway. What this does show is that this kind of poster drop certainly is effective as people are chasing it up on the ground.”

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What makes this story possibly true is that the U. S. Government later prepared and disseminated a new leaflet coded AFD130c. This leaflet is almost identical to the previous Mullah Omar reward leaflets, except that a different picture was used, one that shows the subject looking upwards at the right, and behind bars at the left with an arrow pointing through $20 bills. The back depicts a heap of $1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100-dollar greenbacks. The individual appears to be different than the subject featured on the earlier leaflets. This would seem to verify the fact that the wrong individual was pictured on the earlier leaflets.

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Afghanistan Flag

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Friendship Leaflet -   Horizontal flag error

On November 19, the Army Times reported a new leaflet dropped in Afghanistan. This leaflet displays an American family on the left and an Afghan family on the right. Beneath the American family, a map of the United States is in the form of a flag in red, white and blue. Beneath the Afghan family, a map of Afghanistan is in the black, red and green colors of their national flag. Light-skinned and dark-skinned hands are clasped together at the center of the leaflet beneath the word "Friendship." The back of the leaflet has the following text:

No one should tell you how to live. The Partnership of Nations will help rescue the Afghan people from the Taliban criminals and foreign terrorists.

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AFD030b - vertical flag correction

There is no code on the "Friendship" leaflet, but we know from Army documentation that a leaflet AFD30a exists. 2,540,000 were disseminated by M129 leaflet bombs up until September 2002.That first "Friendship" leaflet may have a significant error. Notice that the map of Afghanistan is covered by a three-color flag in a horizontal format. The actual Afghan flag has the three colors in a vertical format. A second almost identical leaflet with the same text was printed and coded AFD30b. This leaflet depicts the flag of Afghanistan over the map in the proper vertical format. A third variety coded AFD030c exists and is identical to AFD30b except that the frame around the vignette on the front and the back is a thick black line.


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The Foreign Warriors…friend or Foe?

Translations problems can be right even when they are wrong…or wrong when they are right…or whatever. In May 2008, John D McHugh published an article entitled “You build a school, then find propaganda against you” for The author tells of U.S. troops finding anti-American propaganda leaflets in the town of Rabat.

“Sir, ACM [insurgent] pamphlets.” He had in his hand a little piece of paper about the same size as a dollar bill. Printed in color on both sides with a message written in Pashto and Dari, it looked very professional for insurgent propaganda. The message read: “The foreign warriors are killing our Muslims” according to the interpreters. Further investigation turned up more leaflets…

Outside, the children had been edging closer to the soldiers. One of them had a flier in his pocket, and a soldier asked to see it. This flier was pro-government, showing the Afghan flag and telling the people than the Afghan government army was here to help and protect them. Then things took a turn for the weird side. Both fliers carried identifying codes, and somebody noticed that they were almost identical. So, it appeared the government and insurgents were using the same printing company. It got worse. The interpreters asked the children where each of the leaflets came from. Each time, they got the same answer: the Afghan government army. Then one of the interpreters looked again at the flier. “Ah, it says the foreign JIHADIST fighters are killing our Muslims."

There was much discussion of this new and more favorable, if somewhat obtuse, interpretation. If two well-educated interpreters couldn't decipher the flier, how were the farmers and laborers of Rabat supposed to?

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Don’t touch that food kid…It can kill you

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Leaflet AFD16g

The bombing of Afghanistan began on 7 October 2011. Along with the bombing, the United States Air Force also dropped food packets for the Afghan refugees. On October 29, the U.S. Government dropped leaflets coded AFD16g with four cartoons in full color. The first shows an American aircraft dropping humanitarian daily rations (HDR) food packets. The second shows an Afghan picking up one of the packets. When turned over, the leaflet shows the Afghan tearing open the packet. The word "Halal" is at the upper right. This term shows that the food was prepared in accordance with the Koran. The final illustration shows the Afghan sitting with his entire family and enjoying the feast sent by the Americans.

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The food Packet Colors are Changed

There was a major problem when the United States realized that the bright yellow color of the food packets was exactly the same as the yellow color and the cluster bomblets. Children thinking they had found food might pick up an explosive bomblet. And, the Taliban could claim that the Americans were trying to kill children by dropping yellow bomblets. This was a major error that could have led to multiple deaths in children. In order to preserve lives, the humanitarian daily ration color was changed to orange. In the picture above, we show an exhibit from the JFK Special Warfare Museum at Ft. Bragg where the new orange-colored packet was displayed, along with a poster, leaflets and the PSYOP radio given to the Afghans.

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Another problem with food is mentioned Dr. Daniel L. Haulman in an article titled USAF Psychological Operations, 1990-2003. America wanted the Afghans to know who was feeding them so they told them…but in a language they could not read or understand:

During Operation Enduring Freedom, USAF C-17s dropped thousands of food packages over Afghanistan with printed messages stating, “This is a food gift from the people of the United States of America.” Unfortunately, they were printed in English, Spanish, and French, none of which the average Afghan could understand. The packages had been prepared without reference to where they would be delivered.

Who gets the Money?

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I cannot absolutely swear to this one, but two Afghan translators cracked up when they saw the final text in this comic book and said that the words were in the wrong bubble. This is a pro-government comic book meant to enhance the reputation of the new Afghan Army and the soldiers are supposed to be handing the civilians who informed on Taliban bomb-makers their reward. According to the translators instead of the soldiers, the civilians are saying:

This is your baksheesh for providing information about the criminals.

Baksheesh is an interesting subject. In the United States it is generally illegal and considered a bribe. In the Middle East (and much of the rest of the world) it is considered a common courtesy and little gets done without the payment of cash. Wikipedia says about it:

Baksheesh is a term used to describe tipping, charitable giving, and certain forms of political corruption and bribery in the Middle East and South Asia. Leo Deuel sardonically described baksheesh as “lavish remuneration and bribes, rudely demanded but ever so graciously accepted by the natives in return for little or no services rendered.”

Biblical Quotations in Warfare

This is an interesting subject and really has nothing to do with the United States military or the 4th PSYOP Group. In fact, God and the Bible have been brought into recent warfare by politicians and commercial interests. We have debated adding this section to the article but I believe it is important.

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German Army Belt Buckle

Gott Mit Uns

Even as the British were generating WWI propaganda rumors of German soldiers raping nuns and murdering Belgian babies, the Prussians knew that they were in the right. They only had to look down at their belt buckles that told them “God With Us.” The early Jews, Russians and Romans also used a similar motto. By WWII, all enlisted men in the German Wehrmacht had Gott Mit Uns on their belt buckle along with an eagle and swastika. 

Bob Dylan - With God on Our Side 

When the Second World War came to an end
We forgave the Germans and then we were friends
Though they murdered six million in the ovens they fried
The Germans now too have God on their side

Should God and the Bible be used in warfare? This is an interesting question. It turns out that some American Christian leaders seem to feel the need to make Biblical statements and place them on weapons and documents. This is understandable with the history of the Crusades and the numerous Holy wars proclaimed by the early Church and of course the Muslim Jihads. Still, in this time of political correctness and in a nation that prides itself on the separation of Church and State, these strange Biblical sayings and symbols have caused some confusion and possibly even some problems with our non-Christian allies. I leave it to the reader to decide if this is a mistake.

President Bush originally called the operation against terrorism "Infinite Justice." When informed that Islam believed that infinite judgment came from Allah, the name was immediately changed to "Enduring Freedom."

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The Secretary of Defense implies that Saddam Hussein is a Foolish Man.

A week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush said in an unscripted moment: 

This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while. 

There was an immediate uproar from Muslims around the word who still thought of the Crusade as a Christian attack on their faith. Realizing his gaffe, President Bush immediately removed all traces of a religious crusade in his comments on the war on terror.  

In 2003, Biblical sayings were placed on the U.S. Department of Defense top secret Worldwide Intelligence Update Military Intelligence Reports. The decision to put the biblical quotations on the cover pages was allegedly taken by Major General Glen Shaffer, a director for intelligence serving both Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Some of the comments with patriotic pictures of American soldiers at war or at prayer were: 

Their arrows are sharp, all their bows are strung; their horses’ hoofs seem like flint, their chariot wheels are like a whirlwind. 

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 

Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed. 

Pentagon officials were concerned that if the cover sheets were ever made public they could be interpreted as a suggestion that the war was religiously driven; a battle against Islam.  

In 2005, the Pentagon’s inspector general recommended “corrective action” against Lieutenant General William G. Boykin, the Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence who likened the war against Islamic militants to a battle against Satan. 

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Is this a “Jesus” Gun-sight? 

Biblical quotations used by Americans were thought to be a dead issue but in February 2011, it was discovered that the same sort of quotations were being placed on some American weapons. U.S. gun-sights were found with inscriptions with biblical references that might lead some to believe that Americans are using “Jesus weapons” against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

The inscriptions apparently do not break military rules on proselytizing because the equipment is not distributed beyond the troops who are actually using them. Trijicon makes the sights and their director of sales and marketing told Associated Press: 

We don’t publicize this. It’s not something we make a big deal out of. But yes, it’s there.  

According to an American Broadcasting Corporation report, one of the citations on the gun sights, “2COR4:6,” is an apparent reference to Second Corinthians 4:6 of the New Testament, which reads:  

For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 

Other references include citations from the books of Revelation, Matthew and John dealing with Jesus as “the light of the world.”  

John 8:12, referred to on the gun sights as JN8:12, reads,  

Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life  

I spoke directly to Trijicon to discover if the government or the military had influenced them to add the symbols. They did not. Their spokesman told me:

We have always placed the scripture references on our optics. It is a tradition started by our founder and we continue it as a reflection of our company values. Although Trijicon has now offered to remove these references for military issued products, we will continue to inscribe our consumer products with biblical references.

The Company seems to have a strong Christian ethic because at the end of the address block is:

When ye are in service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God

So, it appears once again that the press has taken a non-story and tried to make a scandal of it. Hopefully, our military understands that the use of Christian symbols on documents or military items is very questionable and certainly does nothing to win trust among the Muslim nations of the world.

Iraq - Operation Iraqi Freedom

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Bosnia or Iraq?

The Coalition leaflet IZD7519 has been reported to bear an error. Allegedly the guard post depicted on the front of the leaflet was actually a military guard post in Bosnia. The photograph was featured on the leaflet to Iraq with Arabic text over the photograph. Once the Coalition realized that the photograph was from Bosnia they reportedly stopped disseminating this leaflet. There is no proof to verify this error claim and I have not seen this photograph used on any Bosnian PSYOP, but a soldier who took part in the operation claims he saw the leaflets being shredded by a sergeant of the 8th PSYOP Battalion who told him the story.

Surrender leaflets need to be very clear in their message. One of the problems with standardized surrender leaflets is mentioned in a U.S. military “Lessons Learned” after-action report on Iraq and Afghanistan. A U.S. Army captain checked an enemy prisoner of war cage and found that most of the individuals were people in civilian clothes who had “surrendered” because they were confused by leaflets that PSYOP had dropped on the city and believed that the Americans wanted them to come out of their homes and surrender. It appears that if you only want military prisoners, you need to clearly say “military” somewhere on the leaflet.

Legal Limbo

During WWI and WWII when the world was at war and the enemy was hated and vilified, there was little thought of the legal ramifications of photographs or images depicted on propaganda leaflets. In the modern days of undeclared small wars and police actions, people are more critical and the military has to be on guard against litigation from the copyright holders of images. The following three leaflets are all cases where problematic legality and possible copyright infringement made the leaflets questionable.

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Leaflet IZD022a

This is not so much a mistake as a misjudgment or miscalculation on the part of the U. S. Government and the head of an Iraqi household. IZD-022a depicts a tank in front of a civilian building at the left; a happy Iraqi family and an artillery piece at the right. The text is "FOR YOUR SAFETY – Stay in your homes and avoid driving your vehicles at night." The back of the leaflet pictures a Coalition tank at the left and a helicopter and troops at the right. The text is "Do not interfere with Coalition Forces – The Coalition wishes no harm upon the people of Iraq."

There is an interesting story about the Iraqi family depicted on this leaflet. It may or may not be true, but allegedly the family first agreed to be photographed having no realization that their pictures would appear on millions of propaganda leaflets. After the leaflet drops, when they discovered that their picture appeared on numerous leaflets such as IZD022, IZD022a, IZD022b, and IZD023, they apparently put in a financial claim for a million dollars or some such fee to be paid by the United States government for the use of their image, their loss of privacy, and probably the danger they found themselves in due to their appearing to be helping the Allied cause.

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Leaflet IZD023

Although most of the leaflets depict the family in a much-reduced photograph in the upper right or lower left corner, IZD023 features the family in close-up over the entire leaflet in full color. The picture is very clear and the father could certainly be identified from this photograph. It is easy to see why he is unhappy.

Accordingly, these leaflets are supposed to be a bit scarcer because after a short period of dissemination they were removed from stock and destroyed. I heard this story at Ft. Bragg and from Air Force sources, so it could be true.

A second explanation for the destruction of the leaflets was told to me by a USAF Technical Sergeant who says:

While attending the Joint Psychological Operations Course at the Joint Special Operations University at Hurlburt Field, Florida, the class was informed that the leaflet was destroyed for copyright violation.  The family was actually living in the U.S., possibly not even of Arab descent.  The father figure pictured was a semi-professional photographer, who had posted the image on the World Wide Web.  Use of the image without permission of the owner was a violation of copyright.  While discussion of the cost of reproduction did occur in the class, it was not made clear whether the photographer had actually asked for the money, or had simply asked that the image not be used.

So, although we are not sure exactly what went wrong with this leaflet, it does seem clear that it was withdrawn and destroyed.

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Leaflet IZL-003

Before leaving this item it is worth noting that the Australian PSYOP unit in Iraq also used the same vignette in their leaflet coded IZL-003.

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Leaflet IZD-019

Leaflet IZD-019 shows a group of Iraqi soldiers standing in line wearing gasmasks and full protective gear.  A mushroom shaped fireball is in the background. The symbol for biological hazard is at the lower left. The text is:

Do not use weapons of mass destruction.

The back is all text:

Any unit that chooses to use weapons of mass destruction will face swift and severe retribution by Coalition forces. Unit commanders will be held accountable if weapons of mass destruction are used.

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The Original Photograph

The depiction of an explosion on this leaflet was taken from the photograph of an explosive thermal decomposition of a peroxidizable compound originally taken by Explosive and Reactive Chemical Specialist Thomas Gundlach in the early 1980s. It appears on his website

It is interesting to note that the 4th PSYOP Group discussed the ethics of using this picture in one of their legal briefings. They point out that the use of this photo could be considered copyright infringement because of use without authorization, the image was altered, and the original photographer was not credited. However, there was no infringement because the owner of the copyright gave permission for the photographs use.

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Ranger Calling Card Leaflet "Freedom Endures"

On 20 October 2002, two hundred elite American Rangers and four PSYOP soldiers night-assaulted Objective Rhino on Vengeance Drop Zone in Afghanistan. This was a remote Desert Landing Strip approximately 105 miles Southwest of Kandahar, the home of the Taliban spiritual leader, Mullah Omar. The raid was a warning that America could strike when and where it chose, even at the center of the Taliban spiritual strength. The American troops carried leaflets featuring a photograph of New York City firemen raising the American flag over the ruins of the World Trade Center, with the text “Freedom Endures.” During the successful raid the Rangers gathered intelligence and killed 25 enemy troops.

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Ranger Calling Card Leaflet on Rucksack

The leaflet was depicted in a Discovery Channel TV documentary entitled “Commando Solo Afghan Skies.” It was attached to a soldier’s rucksack and was identified as a “Calling Card.” One of the Rangers who took part in the mission said:

The Fireman leaflets were actually attached to the kit bags that we left behind on the drop zone for the locals to police up. To the best of my knowledge every Ranger that was on that jump had one.

The leaflet is mentioned again in the 2005 book One Bullet Away – the Making of a Marine Officer, by Nathaniel Fick, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA. Second Lieutenant Fick tells of landing at Camp Rhino well after the battle. As he walked up a small hill to get a better look at the camp he notices a small piece of paper stuck against a desert bush. He picks up the paper and says that it was note paper, about the size of a “thank you” card. It depicted the three firemen raising the flag at the World Trade center and had the words, “Freedom Endures” in both English and Pashto. Later, as his platoon leaves the site on foot he passes an enemy truck that was destroyed in an ambush. He leaves the leaflet on the truck as a warning to the Taliban.

Once again there is some question as to the legality of using the image on the leaflet. The original “Flag Raising at Ground Zero” photograph was taken by Thomas E. Franklin and published in The Record of Bergen County, New Jersey. I have a large “legal” copyright print of this photograph on my living room wall. However, the Army never attributed the photographer on the PSYOP leaflet. I suspect that Tom Franklin was rather proud when he heard about this operation, but unless they requested permission in advance, this would seem to be a PSYOP mistake.

Sometimes problems occur because the reader does not understand the meaning of a leaflet. An example is mentioned by Captain Charles L. Pritchard Jr. of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division. At one stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom Captain Pritchard entered an enemy prisoner of war cage only to discover that most of the “prisoners” were people in civilian clothes who had “surrendered” because they were confused by PSYOP surrender leaflets and believed that the Americans wanted them all to come out of their homes and give themselves up.

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The Eyes have it

Leaflet IZG-7525

No matter where you run, no matter where you hide,
Coalition Special Operations Forces will find you and bring you to justice

During Operation Iraqi Freedom the Coalition printed an entire series of leaflets showing two eyes on the front and various text or scenes on the back. As the war went on, the eyes became more sinister. These leaflets were meant to terrify the insurgents and show them that they were under surveillance all the time by agents, snipers and satellites. According to a Rand National Defense Research Institute study entitled “Enlisting Madison Avenue - The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation,” this leaflet might have offended the general population more than it frightened the insurgents:

…A message that offended its recipients shows a coalition PSYOP leaflet dropped to intimidate insurgents in Iraq. However, this airdropped leaflet did not just reach insurgents; it also reached noncombatants. And, while its message implies that insurgents deserve to be brought to justice, in cultural fact, it gave everyone who picked it up the “Evil Eye.”

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Night Vision Glasses

This is not exactly a mistake but during Iraqi Freedom the Coalition produced a leaflet depicting an American soldier fitted with night vision glasses. The leaflet warned the insurgents that they could not hide from the American led forces. This apparently gave rise to a belief among some Iraqis that the night vision glasses could see through a woman’s burka. This of course made both the men and women very nervous around the American troops after dark.

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“I Voted” or “Kill Sunnis?”

After the American invasion of Iraq, the people were asked to vote to enjoy the true freedom of democracy and the experience of electing one’s own leaders. To be sure that nobody cheated, after voting their fingers were dipped in ink so they could not vote a second time.

Leaflets were prepared showing the smiling woman and pointing out how she was part of the new Iraq, or did it? FM 3-05.301, Psychological Operations Process Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures tells of a mistake made in the leafleting image.

In January 2005, following the first general elections in Iraq, the 1st Cavalry Division sought to capitalize on the election's success by disseminating PSYOP products on the streets of Baghdad as soon as possible. Within 24 hours, the 307th Tactical PSYOP Company produced several prototypes, which were then translated and subsequently approved by the 1st Cavalry Division's commander. Due to the short notice requirement, the PSYOP company had to forgo pretesting the prototypes prior to approval to meet the division commander's suspense. Once approved, the products were electronically sent to a contracted local printer. The following morning, the PSYOP company found time to pretest the products and received the exact opposite response than the one intended. One handbill contained a picture of a Shi'a woman holding her right index finger, which was covered with voting ink, in the air with the phrase, "A lifetime of waiting, a day of reckoning." Unfortunately, Sunni target audience members interviewed thought this product was a Shi'a rallying call for retribution against Sunnis for the years of subjugation the Shi'as experienced at the hands of a Sunni-dominated government. Once the pretest results were assessed, the PSYOP company immediately contacted the local printer and canceled the print order for this handbill, preventing a potentially embarrassing situation or violent reaction from the Target Audience.

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That Candy will cost you a Beating!

Sometimes operations are not really mistakes, but they lead to more harm than good. Everybody loves candy. It is sweet and makes you feel good. It has often been used in PSYOP campaigns to win the friendship of both children and adults. American soldiers will always give chocolate to young children and have done so in every conflict since WWII. A U.S. Army Civil Affairs Colonel recently told me that the gift of candy did not always work just as expected. He had witnessed cases during Operation Iraqi Freedom where American soldiers distributed candy to young Iraqi children. As expected, they reacted with gratitude and happiness. However, as soon as the soldiers moved on, older Iraqi boys physically attacked and beat the younger children taking their candy and leaving them in a crying heap. We cannot say if they were beaten for their candy or for accepting gifts from the occupying American soldiers. We wonder if the beatings resulted in pro or anti-American feeling amongst the bloodied children.

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Allah hand towel

In 2009, we first heard of a strange 12 x 30-inch hand towel that was produced with a PSYOP message to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. The text is:

God (Allah) is great
We all (heart) Iraq

God (Allah) is great

Unfortunately, no one realized that a religious Muslim would not wash himself with a towel that has “Allah” written on it!   As a result, they were discarded by the very people the Coalition wished to impress and used only by non-Muslims. I suspect the idea of someone wiping their butt with the name of Allah was rather insulting, as would be wiping one’s privates with a towel inscribed “Jesus” would be to a Christian. The campaign occurred about 2008-2009 and was quickly and quietly ended.

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Iraqi Flag Gummed Label

It was not just the “Allah” that was a problem. Apparently the symbolism with the heart was also troublesome. This vignette was inspired by the famous “I Love New York” slogan with the heart where the word “love” should be. This 6.5 x 4.5-inch gummed sticker shows a modified Iraqi flag and the text:

We all love Iraq

In the past, I often noticed tourists to New York City confused by the symbolism of the heart in the center of the text. Eventually, the phrase got so popular and was placed on so many items (cups, towels, etc.) that most people recognized the meaning of the statement. The heart meant “love.” When the symbol was later used in Iraq it was thought that the target audience would understand the meaning of the message, but that may be incorrect. I was told by a PSYOP veteran of the war that:

There was a campaign in Iraq with stickers that said “We all love IRAQ,” with “love” depicted as a heart. In 2005, just after the election, the symbolism was attacked by Al Jazeera and local newspaper editorial cartoons to illustrate and mock the confusion created by the heart symbol. This confusion was capitalized by Arabic media sources with different possible meanings for the symbol, such as; the “heart” means “We club Iraq,” “We spade Iraq,” “We own Iraq,” etc. The lesson learned was not to use American symbols on propaganda to the indigenous population. The saying began to mean “We all AMERICAN Iraq”, and took away from the intended message of all tribes coming together for a united Iraq. Our interpreters told us about the news reports and criticisms. We tacked the stories to the wall of the Tactical Team Office as a reminder.

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What the Hell does that mean?

Leaflet IZD045a

In another entry above we illustrate an obvious propaganda error where the Iraqis in order to gain sympathy printed the words “Milk Factory” in English on a bombed building. This sort of error can occur easily, as the propagandist thinks in his own language and uses word that he knows, but the target audience does not. An example is two Iraqi Freedom leaflets coded IZD045 and IZD045a. Both of these leaflets depict an Iraqi boat dropping mines on the front with the warning that any boat found laying mines will be attacked and destroyed. The back of both leaflets depict a burning ship and bags on the seabed below marked “FOOD” in English. Three problems with that scenario: First of all, the obvious message is that the boats on the back have been destroyed by the Coalition as promised on the front. However, that is not the case. They are apparently supply ships bringing food to the Iraqi people that hit their own mine. That is very confusing.

Secondly, The text on the back of the leaflet says:

Mining the Kor Abd Allah or Umm Qasar waterways will not affect Coalition vessels. They will only hurt the Iraqi people.

If I was an Iraqi reading that leaflet I would wonder “if the mines are not a threat to the invaders, why do they want it stopped?” That seems to make no sense.

Third, why are the bags marked “food” in English rather than Arabic? Did some propagandist think they would recognize the English word? That is something that should have been corrected before dissemination. One propagandist told me:

>I've seen this exact error before, though it was corrected in the approval process.

So, although this is an attractive leaflet with a good image and color, the text seems to be a mixed and confusing message. Apparently it was air-dropped because the U.S. Army’s Products Disseminated by the Psychological Operations Task Force as of 7 April 2003 lists both leaflets.


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Colonel Gaddafi’s Orders…

Civil War erupted in Libya on 15 February 2011. The situation began as a series of peaceful protests. On the evening of 15 February, between 500 and 600 demonstrators protested in front of the police headquarters in Benghazi. The protest was broken up violently by police, resulting in 38 injured. The fighting increased in fury until 19 March 2011 when a multi-state coalition began a military intervention in Libya to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973. As part of the NATO PSYOP mission, numerous leaflets were dropped over the Libyan government troops. One depicted Gaddafi at the right and Libyan citizens near a bomb blast at the left. The text is:

Colonel Gaddafi’s orders to attack civilians are illegal and as a result he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

The leaflet has a problem. It is wrong. At the time of dissemination Gaddafi had not been indicted. The prosecutor has requested an indictment, which is issued by a panel of judges, but at the time the leaflet was dropped no such indictment had been brought forward. It is a well-known fact that propaganda leaflets that are not truthful lose credibility for the issuing force. NATO needs to do a better job of vetting its text before placing such messages on leaflets.

Press Mistakes

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Loudspeaker Humvees in front of Papal Nunciatura

As long as we are on the subject of PSYOP mistakes, I would be remiss if I did not mention some of the mistakes that the radio and television press have committed during recent conflicts. The most famous blunder occurred in December 1989 when TV broadcasters all over the world reported that American PSYOP troops were playing loud "rock and roll" music outside the Papal Nunciatura in Panama in an attempt to drive General Noreiga from the Vatican grounds where he had claimed sanctuary.

The press loved this story. Every anchor-person commented on it, and there were arguments about whether or not the United States was playing fair. Is "rock and roll" a cruel and unusual punishment? Diplomats, Catholics, and Vatican officials deplored the practice as a clumsy effort to harass Noriega that inflicted needless stress upon the papal nuncio and his staff.

The Washington Post News Service said, "With U.S. troops at the Vatican embassy continuing to wage psychological warfare against Noriega by blaring rock music over loudspeakers and greeting him with a hearty "Gooood Morning Panama," the general's small circle of supporters shrank further…."

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Setting up more loudspeakers at Papal Nunciatura

Newsday critic Marvin Kitman said, "During the following days, what is surely the most ridiculous psychological operation in U.S. history took place outside the embassy. High-power loudspeakers blasted rock music at the building."

An unsigned article entitled "Radio Noriega, or the Many Moods of Manny," added, "Down in Panama, outside the Vatican embassy, the U.S. Southern Command -- armed to the teeth and encircling the whole compound -- is licking its chops. Manuel Noriega is inside. United States forces have heard that he is superstitious, that he wears red underpants to ward off evil demons. And so, to irritate and intimidate him (and to enjoy themselves in the process), the Americans set up their "ghetto blasters" or some Latin American equivalent, and blast the Vatican embassy with some good ol’ kickass American rock ‘n’ roll – Guns ‘n’ Roses, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ is the first song to come roaring through the speakers."

The criticism became so vehement that President Bush had Secretary Powell contact the Panama commanders to find out why the music was being used. Powell eventually ordered the music stopped. It was not that the campaign was unsuccessful; it was just embarrassing to the United States.

Of course, the music was never meant to drive Noreiga out. In fact, it was meant to block the use of parabolic microphones by the hundreds of press outside the building hoping to hear the secret negotiations between General Cisneros and Papal Nuncio Monsignor Laboa. Noreiga did eventually leave the Vatican grounds and surrender to United States forces, so all's well that ends well.

Bad Music

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Speaking of music, sometimes it is just a bad idea. The American military will sometimes use music to soften up prisoners, disorientate them, and make it more difficult for them to communicate with each other. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Here is an example of the latter.

David Peisner mentions music in an article entitled “Music as Torture: War is Loud” for SPIN, 30 November 2006. He mentions a problem that occurred at Guantanamo Bay when music was played to the Muslim inmates. Shortly after Tom arrived at Guantanamo, some PSYOP soldiers convinced the guards to play Neil Diamond’s “America” over the loudspeakers. Tom, who requested his last name be withheld for security reasons, began working as an interrogator in the late ’80s. He served in a senior position at Guantanamo in early 2002 and in a similar capacity in Afghanistan. He tells what happened next:

It was to try to keep the prisoners agitated and from talking to one another. We wanted to prevent them from keeping each other’s spirits up and emboldening one another to resist interrogation. The results were disastrous. It just about caused an all-out riot. Strict interpreters of Islam are forbidden from listening to music. The whole place basically erupted.

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Sexy Saddam

The second misguided story broke more recently on 18 August 2003. Newspapers all over the world printed a story that American 4th Infantry Division troops in Tikrit (Saddam's hometown) were about to post altered photographs of Saddam Hussein's face superimposed on the bodies of Veronica Lake, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rita Hayworth, Elvis Presley, and Billy Idol.

LTC Steve Russell of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment said, "Most of the locals will love them and they'll be laughing, but the bad boys are going to be upset, which will just make it easier for us to know who they are." The humorous images were depicted on the television news, and once again commentators argued about the correctness and value of such a plan. The story grew to such proportions that I was called by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for an interview on the subject. I told the host that he had a non-story. The officer with the plan was not trained in psychological operations. He was an infantry commander. He had a fertile imagination and a desire to succeed, but higher headquarters would not approve the plan and none of it was going to happen. It was just an unofficial bit of propaganda thought up by a local commander and it as we say in the military; it was a "no-go."

The radio host was not happy with my statement and told me that he had scheduled four minutes for the interview. I advised him to select another subject quickly, because this one was going nowhere. Curiously, Canada has not called me since! The press is much happier when you lie to them!

The Newspapers Love Old Women

On occasion the insurgent Muslim forces attempt to smear their enemy by showing propaganda pictures of crying women in the throes of grief due to some barbaric act by their opposition. The press, in its ignorance, rushes to print these photographs although even a few seconds of study would generally prove how false they are.

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There are two infamous photographs from the Israeli-Lebanon conflict where the same crying woman appeared in two totally different scenes. Hezbollah obviously took her from bombed building to bombed building preparing heart-breaking photographs of her alleged grief. Of course, the newspapers jumped at the photographs.

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These bullets were fired?

It worked once, so why not try it again? The caption for this first photograph from Iraq states that the Coalition forces had raided a Shiite section of Baghdad and apparently shot up the neighborhood. The Arab woman holds two bullets which were allegedly fired at her house by the Americans on 15 August 2007. The photograph was supposed to enrage the Arab population, but if you take a close look at the M-16 5.56 rounds she is holding, you will notice that they were never fired. So, if in fact they did hit her house they must have been thrown by some Allied soldier. Perhaps a slingshot? Even worse, the same woman made a similar claim that bullets had hit her bed on 10 July 2007. According to her stories, she must be the unluckiest woman in all of Baghdad.

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Never poop on a Landmine

Sometimes Americans have to be careful with the images that they use on leaflets. The leaflet above shows a young boy studying a mine and the text warns him to stay far away from such things. It is a fairly standard Western image and most of us would understand from the big “X” that it is a warning not to approach explosives on the ground. The anti-mine image was placed on both leaflets and T-shirts. In is standard procedure to show PSYOP images and text to the local inhabitants to acquire feedback on how the message is perceived. An interesting anecdote was told about this image by Lieutenant-Colonel Ayers who oversaw the landmine awareness program in Cambodia. He pre-tested the image that depicted a boy squatting over a mine that he was poking with a stick. The result of interviews was surprising:

In our mind's eye, it said “don't poke a landmine with a stick.” But when we tested it, the Khmer villagers said, “Why do you have this person defecating over a landmine?” The kid was in a position that they typically use for a bowel movement. We had to pull the boy back a little bit and make changes based upon what we found.

It may seem that I am attacking the sloppiness of PSYOP specialists in this article. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that if we point out two or three errors committed during WWII that is out of many thousands of different leaflets. If the best we can do is point out a half dozen that contained minor errors from close to 100,000 leaflets, that is a pretty good record. Besides, as any military person knows, you learn more from the "lessons learned" after a mistake than you ever learn when things are perfect.

Think of the campaigns that never got off the ground. In WWII there was a plan to drop bats from B-29 bombers over Tokyo with incendiaries tied to their bodies. The bats would fly into the eaves of Japanese wood and paper houses and the incendiaries would explode, burning the homes to the ground. In reality, a bat dropped from 20,000 feet would probably hit the ground like a frozen stone.

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You wanted to paint what?

The United States also considered using foxes against Japan. The Shintoists in Japan believe that the fox, when illuminated is a harbinger of bad times. The OSS first experimented with fox-shaped balloons covered with luminous paint and later painted live foxes with a radiant chemical so they would glow in the dark. The war came to an end before “Operation Fantasia” could be put into operation.

Another plan recommended by the OSS for China was for partisans to spray a fecal smelling fluid on the back of the pants of Japanese officers. The officer would be so shamed and lose "face" that he would be forced to commit immediate seppuku (belly splitting). The plan never came to fruition. The same plan was studied in a 1944 project, called “Who Me?” The idea was for French resistance fighters to use foil tubes packed with chemicals that produced a fecal odor on the Germans. The plan never came to fruition because: “It was found that people in many areas of the world do not find ‘fecal odor’ to be offensive.” Apparently there would be no German suicides either.

An OSS report says: The OSS called the fecal spray “Who Me?” Its use was short-lived since it had a high concentration of extremely volatile sulfur solutions that were difficult to control and often left the sprayer smelling as bad as the sprayed. After several weeks it was decided that the spray was a failure and discontinued. One individual said that the spray smelled like, “the worst garbage dumpster left on the street for a long time in the hottest summer ever.”

The craziest plan came to light after the OSS had their in-house psychologists do a long-range psychoanalysis of Adolf Hitler. They determined that Hitler had sexual perversions and the way to win WWII was to drop a bomber-load of pornography over the Wolf's Lair. The Führer would come out for his morning walk, be surrounded by photographs of naked woman and immediately go insane. It is rumored that this plan went all the way to Air Force headquarters, where the commander blew his top and refused to risk a bomber on such a silly stunt.

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Soccer Balls - Look out below!

As recent as the American intervention in Haiti the military developed a plan to win the friendship of the local people by dropping soccer balls from helicopters to children below. It is alleged that the CIA bought 1,030 soccer balls, painted with crossed Haitian and American flags on each, and planned to air drop them over Port au Prince before the invasion. Somebody apparently did the math on the weight of a soccer ball falling at high speed from the sky and that plan was quickly dumped. Do you remember that classic line from "WKRP Cincinnati" when the station owner Mr. Carlson dropped Thanksgiving turkeys on terrified bystanders and later said:

As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.

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Soccer Balls for Afghanistan

During Operation Enduring Freedom the idea of dropping soccer balls was revived. In 2008, American  troops obtained colorful soccer balls that were dropped from low-flying Blackhawk helicopters to gain the trust and friendship of Afghan children. There were three different styles of soccer balls and one depicted the flags of many Coalition nations to show their strength and Commitment to the new nation of Afghanistan. However, the Saudi Arabian flag has the Shuhada (declaration of faith) written on it: There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Messenger. Some Muslims felt that kicking the holy statement was heresy. Allegedly, the military apologized to the Saudis and the Afghans for the gaffe.

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Aviators hold some of the donated soccer balls

After I wrote the above paragraph, an Afghan Veteran wrote to tell me that PSYOP was not to blame for the mistake. He said:

That was not a PSYOP product or a PSYOP unit involved. What happened was some members of an Aviation unit thought it would be a good idea to drop balls to these isolated villages they flew over all the time. They apparently requested those balls from family/friends in the states that sent them out. They dropped them and that was picked up by enemy propaganda and they really pushed the story. Many of the illiterate villages could have cared less about the flag, and would be lucky to know what it was. However it spread through the internet and other means and became quite a problem, even if it was a manufactured one. I had to deal with the ramifications of that incident hundreds of miles away.

All the Volley balls and soccer balls we have are checked to make sure there is nothing which could cause the above problem. For instance, the Afghan flag has a similar saying in the crest at the center. Any PSYOP products which could be assumed to come in contact with the ground have this crest removed or blurred. We worked to make sure that didn’t happen.

Years later, I heard from Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Scott who put a different twist on the story. He said: 

The soccer ball incident was not done by PSYOP personnel. The balls were donated by a private company to an aviation unit that distributed the balls on their own. I know because in 2007 when the incident occurred, I had to deal with the “claimed offense” and was responsible for PSYOP product development and distribution/dissemination in Afghanistan. 

The real issue is lack of continuity between PSYOP units and the units they supported. Each supported unit wanted to start over with a new plan and in most cases threw out (removed all plans, products, and MOE from the server) to create space for their new plans. 

As Psychological Operations Task Force Afghanistan Commander from January 2007 to January 2008, I stored everything we had done and the unit before us on a separate hard drive and handed off to our replacements. When I returned in June 2009 everything was gone. 

So, apparently this PSYOP problem, like the “Sexy Saddam” problem mentioned above, were both caused by regular combat troops trying to delve into PSYOP without an understanding of the ramifications of their actions.

Staff Sergeant Jack Lewis mentions giving away soccer balls in Iraq in Nothing in Reserve: true stories, not war stories, Kindle Edition, 2011:

I whiled away the rest of our on-station time by rationing out what wampum I had brought along—candy and school supplies, mostly, leavened by the occasional precious soccer ball—to kids who would come by to wave and grin at us. We gave out Crayolas and little plastic backpacks and erasers, but no pencils. Pencils could be weapons.

Bill Putnam talks about the Iraqi love of soccer in Tales from the Tigris, Kindle Edition, 2012. Bill headed an Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) Cell that produced a report for American officials entitled “What’s the Word on the Streets of Baghdad?” This soccer anecdote is not a mistake as much as a missed opportunity. Bill believes that the United States could have made some powerful Iraqi friends if it had supported the Iraqi soccer team, or at least showed that the top American military people were fans. He says in part:

There is only one “real” sport in Iraq and that is soccer, and anyone who wants to better understand the Iraqi people needs to grasp this. We could earn a lot of good will with the Iraqi population by simply placing a bumper sticker – yes, a bumper sticker – on U.S. military and civilian vehicles that said, in Arabic, “We support Iraqi Soccer” (or words similar). He worked the problem up the chain of command, but in the end, the signs were never made and we will never know what effect they might have had…

However, despite soccer’s obvious popularity in Iraq, the Coalition failed to use soccer in a concerted campaign to build bridges between it and the Iraqi people. The men’s senior coach for the Iraqi national team constantly criticized the Coalition for failing to provide any help to the team as far as equipment or anything else was concerned…

In January 2004, I wrote a point paper for a senior Combined Task Force Seven officer about how the Coalition could use soccer to build inroads with the Iraqi people. I queried my Iraqi linguists about how they would feel seeing U.S. and other Coalition vehicles with stickers in Arabic saying, “We support Iraqi soccer,” or “Bring the Asian Cup to Baghdad.” They responded that this would be an excellent idea for improving Iraqi-Coalition relations. They also told me they would be quite angered if a Coalition vehicle with a pro-Iraq soccer sticker was attacked.

It was all for naught. Nobody in the United States military hierarchy had any interest in Iraqi soccer.

The military booklet: BUILDING BRIDGES: Commander’s Guide to Face to Face Communication mentions soccer balls and mentions other gifts that can help to win hearts and minds. It says in part:

It addition to deploying personnel to augment the force, the Commander can bring expendable supplies that may assist the mission. These items are intended to establish or enhance rapport with some of those deserving (or difficult) target audiences. Whether used as formal gifts or free handouts, material items may have a big impact on your success in communicating with critical target audiences…Here are a few suggestions which may be squeezed into the corner of the last pallet, or in the top of an A-bag:

Host nation flags, small American flags, soccer balls, baseballs and softballs, Frisbees, school notebook paper, coloring books, pencils/pens/crayons, old T-shirts, patches and pins, and hackeysack balls

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Spc. Jessica Stephenson, a psyop Soldier assigned to the 362nd PSYOP Company, gives a soccer ball to a youngster during a humanitarian mission to southern Afghanistan villages on August 17, 2004.  A much better way to distribute them.

Where do these ideas come from? I asked one of the top PSYOP people that very question many years ago. He told me that he would let his concept people come up with 100 crazy ideas rather than stifle their imagination and perhaps never hear that one winner that might turn a battle...or a war.

Let me conclude this section with an Arturo Munoz comment in U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001–2010, Rand Corporation, 2012:

Several examples can be provided of PSYOP initiatives that failed because of lack of understanding of cultural norms and sensibilities. To highlight the un-Islamic ideology and behavior of the terrorists, various leaflets have been designed with Koranic verses printed on them, admonishing the faithful to avoid violence and maintain peaceful relations with everyone. Although the messages themselves were perfectly acceptable, it was questionable in the eyes of the target audience whether unbelievers should be quoting the Koran.

Worst of all, these Koranic verses being printed on a leaflet to be dropped from an airplane or a helicopter was not acceptable. It was considered blasphemous to drop pieces of paper with Koranic verses on the ground, because the holy verses of revelation were sullied with dirt. Likewise, U.S. PSYOP personnel dropped colorful soccer balls from low-flying Blackhawk helicopters depicting the flags of coalition nations. However, the Saudi flag has the shuhada (declaration of Islamic faith) written on it. Some Afghans and Arabs felt that kicking the holy statement was blasphemy, and the military reportedly apologized to the Saudis and the Afghans for the gaffe.

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You need to know the meaning of the images that you choose to use

Many years later, in September 2017, the Coalition prepared a leaflet depicting a white dog running from a lion. On the side of the dog was a statement from the Koran (the Shuhada) that appears on the white flag of the Taliban. The leaflet also provides phone numbers for people to contact the coalition with information. It is possible that the people preparing the leaflet did not know the meaning of the Arabic statement on the flag:

There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his Messenger.

The image seems very clear. The Taliban is cowardly and runs from the Afghan Lion. Above the image, the text in the Pashto language urged people to report insurgents to the authorities:

Take back your own freedom from the terrorist dogs. Help coalition forces until the enemies are killed or wiped out.

Take back your own freedom. Live freely in your own home. Call this number.

Yet, when it was realized that the dog is considered unclean by some Muslims, not from anything said the Koran but from some religious commentaries, and they might object to the leaflet, all hell broke loose. Major General James Linder said in a statement from the Headquarters, Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan, 6 September 2017:

On September 5, U.S. Forces conducted a leaflet drop in Parwan Province. The design of the leaflets mistakenly contained an image highly offensive to both Muslims and the religion of Islam. I sincerely apologize. We have the deepest respect for Islam and our Muslim partners worldwide. There is no excuse for this mistake. I am reviewing our procedures to determine the cause of the incidence and to hold the responsible party accountable. Furthermore I will make appropriate changes so this never happens again. Resolute Support remains committed to Afghanistan’s future, and I offer my sincerest apologies.

The Taliban responded to the leaflet, saying it proves America's “hatred” of Islam and makes clear that the war in Afghanistan “is a war between Islam and unbelief.”

The governor of Parwan province, Mohammad Hasem, also condemned the leaflet as “unforgivable,” adding that an investigation would be held:

Those who have committed this unforgivable mistake in the publicity, propaganda or media section of the coalition forces will be tried and punished.

Apparently, political correctness still rules in psychological operations.

This has been a look at some of the problems that can occur in a psychological operations campaign. It is clear that proper translation and use of the correct terminology is crucial. We also see that the psywarrior must think with the mind of the target audience, and realize that things he believes as gospel are not necessarily believed by the enemy. The use of enemy nationals or prisoners of war to “vet” the propaganda is paramount, but even there one must be careful because many of those questioned will try to please their interrogator and tell them what they believe he wants to hear. It is important to test a wide spectrum of the target audience and do it in such a neutral environment that they cannot read the interrogator and attempt deduce the desired response. In PSYOP, truth is the most powerful tool. It leads directly to credibility. When the propaganda message contains an error that immediately identifies it as “enemy,” all credibility is lost. It can be very difficult to regain.

The Gray Wolf

Loudspeaker operations can sometime go wrong. In August 2020, the Canadian Army's 36th Canadian Brigade Group was training when their Reserve PSYOP people thought up a wonderful plan that could be used to demoralize and frighten an enemy force. Such things had been done in other wars, most notably the sound of tigers recorded and played against the Communist forces during the Vietnam War. The Canadian plan used loud recordings of WOLVES howling in the woods through a loudspeaker. To make the campaign more realistic and forceful, they also prepared a leaflet in the form of a forged letter that appeared to be from a government ministry. The letter used a forged logo of the province’s wildlife division and was signed be an official of that division. The letter stated in part:

On the 3rd of August 2020, the Department of Lands and Forestry of Nova Scotia in conjunction with the Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment and Climate Change Canada untook [sic] the significant act to reintroduce the Gray Wolf to the forests of Nova Scotia, Unfortunately, the ‘pack’ has migrated to the Annapolis Valley floor in search of easy pray [sic] and livestock…If a Gray Wolf is encountered, do not provoke, engage, or feed the animal. Back away slowly while remaining calm—do not turn and run.”

That is a common leaflet used in such operations and I have seen training leaflets that mentioned disease, spiders, ticks, poisonous snakes, and similar creatures meant to scare the enemy. Of course, the PSYOP specialists edit the text carefully to be sure it is correct. Misspelled words immediately point it out as a fake and the PSYOP unit producing such an item loses all creditability.

The letter somehow got out into the public who flooded the ministry with question which led to the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry stating on Twitter:

Alert: This letter has been showing up in some mailboxes. It’s fake. We do not know who circulated it or why. There have been no Gray wolves released anywhere in Nova Scotia by any government agencies.

In this case, Reserve troops put together a campaign that embarrassed the Canadian Army and the PSYOP unit. The Canadian Army’s 36th Canadian Brigade Group apologized for the fake letter. The entire operation was investigated by the government to make sure such a panic was not created again. 


These are not exactly mistakes. We might say that these were unauthorized projects that sometime were slightly inappropriate. PSYOP people take themselves pretty seriously, but because they are made up of very imaginative artists and writers something they go off the tracks a little bit. Some examples of humorous products they have produced.

We Will Litter your Community with Leaflets

The first is a poster using the symbol of Smokey the Bear. I would think the U.S. Government would have slapped their hand for using that image in a satiric PSYOP poster, but I am sure this was produced in small numbers and nobody knew about it. This poster was created about 2010 after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

PSYOPBirthday.jpg (27693 bytes)

The Final Indignity

This has been a comical look at all the things that can go wrong in a PSYOP campaign. Now we look at the final indignity, the graduation of PSYOP students to their new MOS and a cake with PSYOP spelled Pysop. What, no spell checker on that cake? Major Ed said to me, “Let’s see if they have a sense of humor.” If not, blame that officer and gentleman.

Readers who know of other such mistakes and errors that they feel should be added to this article are encouraged to write to the author at

© 20 January 2004