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May 26, 2004

Psyops In Fourth Generation War


by William S. Lind

I recently received an invitation to speak at a conference at Ft. Bragg on psychological operations, or psyops. Regrettably, a schedule conflict prevented me from accepting, but the invitation got me thinking: what are psyops in Fourth Generation war (4GW)?

It is clear what they are not: leaflets saying, "No on can hope to fight the American military, surrender now," or "We are here to liberate you." After the Iraq debacle, those messages will be met with open derision. The only way such leaflets are likely to be useful is if they are printed on very soft paper.

Colonel John Boyd said that the greatest weakness a person or a nation can have at the highest level of war, the moral level, is a contradiction between what they say and what they do. From that I think follows the basic definition of psyops in Fourth Generation war: psyops are not what you say, but what you do.

If we look at the war in Iraq through that lens, we quickly see a number of psyops we could have undertaken, but did not. For example, what if instead locating the CPA in Saddam’s old palace in Baghdad and putting Iraqi prisoners in his notorious Abu Ghraib prison, we had located the CPA in Abu Ghraib and put the prisoners in Saddam’s palace? That would have sent a powerful message.

What if, when we get in a firefight and Iraqis are killed, General Kimmitt the Frog, our military spokesman in Baghdad, announced that with regret instead of in triumph? We could use every engagement as a chance to reiterate the message, "We did not come here to fight." That message would be all the more powerful if we treated Iraqi wounded the same way as American wounded, offered American military honors to their dead and sent any prisoners home, quickly, with a wad of cash in their pockets.

Years ago, my father, David Lind, whose career was in advertising, said, "If the day World War II ended, Stalin had sent all his German prisoners home, giving them a big box of food for their families and a wallet full of Reichsmarks, the Communists would have taken all of Western Europe." He may have been right.

In Fallujah, the Marines just showed a brilliant appreciation of psyops in 4GW. How? They let the Iraqis win. At the tactical level, the Marines probably could have taken Fallujah, although the result would have been a strategic disaster. Instead, by pulling back and letting the Iraqis claim victory, they gave Iraqi forces of order inside the city the self-respect they needed to work with us. Washington and the CPA seem to define "liberation" as beating the Iraqis to a pulp, then handing them their "freedom" like a gift from a master to a slave. In societies where honor, dignity and manliness are still important virtues, that can never work. But "losing to win" sometimes can.

The CPA’s complete inability to appreciate psyops in 4GW was revealed in a recent episode that suggested Laurel and Hardy are in command. It seems our Boys in Baghdad decided the "new Iraq" needed a new flag. Never mind that the new flag suggested Iraq is still a province of the Ottoman Empire and also conveniently included the same shade of blue found on the Israeli flag. What giving any new flag to Iraq’s Quisling government in Baghdad really did was give the Iraqi resistance something it badly needed – its own flag, in the form of the old Iraqi flag. Couldn’t anybody over there see that coming? Hello?

Perhaps our most disastrous failure (beyond Abu Ghraib) to realize that psyops are what we do, not what we say, is our ongoing fight with the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. At the beginning of April, Sadr had almost no support in the Shi’ite community outside Baghdad’s Sadr City, while Ayatollah Sistani, who has passively cooperated with the occupation, had overwhelming support. Now, thanks to our attacks on Sadr and his militia, polls taken in Iraq show Sadr with more than 30% support among Shi’ites while Sistani has slipped to just over 50%. The U.S. Army has been Sadr’s best publicity agent. Maybe it should send him a bill.

Some of our psyops people probably understand all of this. Unfortunately, the people above them, in Iraq and in Washington, appear to grasp none of it. The end result is that, regardless of who wins the firefights, our enemies win one psychological victory after another. In a type of war where the moral and mental levels far outweigh the physical level, it is not hard to see where that road ends.


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  • William Lind is Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former Congressional Aide and the author
    of many books and articles on military strategy and war.

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