The Village Voice: Forked-Tongue Warriors by Ian Urbina

An interesting look at at an army battalion we seldom hear about. The one that spends colossal amounts of money on things like dropping leaflets on populations with extremely low literacy rates. Or getting American soldiers killed because they screw up.

Often more confusing than convincing, psy-ops can suffer hugely from the smallest graphical errors. A T-shirt used in Cambodia to try to deter kids from entering certain unsafe zones featured a boy squatting over a mine that he was poking with a stick. The silk-screened shirt was yanked from production, according to one account, when angered villagers kept asking why American personnel were distributing images of kids defecating over land mines. The squatting boy was eventually redrawn.

Bigger mistakes mean bigger consequences. Leaflets dropped in Somalia in 1992 prior to the UN troop arrival were meant to assure the populace of the mission's humanitarian intentions. Unfortunately, of all the personnel the U.S. initially deployed in the country, only two were native speakers, and one turned out to be the son of the country's bloodiest warlord. Pamphlet proofreaders, needless to say, were in short supply, and the result was sometimes quite embarrassing. Instead of announcing help from the "United Nations," the pamphlets spoke of help from the "Slave Nations," and as anyone who has seen the movie Black Hawk Down can certainly attest, neither the blue helmets nor the boys with stars and stripes were welcomed with open arms when they eventually landed ashore.

The backflow of misinformation can also be a serious problem. Though the Pentagon and the CIA are barred by law from propaganda activities in the United States, during the mid 1970s increased scrutiny of military intelligence operations revealed that programs planting fake leaks in the foreign press had resulted in false articles running back through the U.S. media. But sometimes the false articles are intentional. When the American public seemed to be developing weak knees about the Nicaraguan contras, the Office of Public Diplomacy, part of the Reagan-era State Department, quickly leaked fake intelligence to The Miami Herald that the Soviet Union had given chemical weapons to the Sandinistas.
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