The Word at War

In the past month, hundreds of thousands of leaflets have been dropped on Afghanistan, urging locals to abandon the Taliban. It's an old trick. Andrew Buncombe looks back on a century of airborne psychological war
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They can fall in the shape of decidu- ous leaves. Golden-brown, parchment-thin, tumbling earthwards in the autumn to warn of an impending invasion. Or they can come in the shape of $50 bills – green and bold, offering rewards for information or for co-operation. They can be evil, they can be kind. They can offer blunt advice ("Flee and save your life, or remain and meet your death"). But above all else, they are designed to play on the mind and to work on one's fears.

These are the messages of the psychological soldiers – those little-known troops whose task is to fight battles not with guns but with their brains. The messages are contained within leaflets that are dropped on to enemy territory, designed to weaken morale and encourage dissent, to create panic and anxiety and to make the enemy a less effective fighting force.

It was confirmed recently that US "psy ops" soldiers were dropping hundreds of thousands of such leaflets into remote parts of Afghanistan with the aim of convincing large swathes of the local population that the Taliban – and not the US or Britain – were their enemy.

But such tactics are nothing new. For as long as wars have been fought, opposing commanders have done their best to outwit and trick each other, realising that the mind can be worth more than sheer might. As the Emperor Napoleon once reflected, "There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind."

As far back as 1806, the Royal Navy used kites to carry notes into France, and balloons were used during the Siege of Paris to get messages behind the lines. But the history of leaflet drops really dates to the beginning of the last century, and, in particular, to the First World War. Suitably enough, the masters of the disingenuous, deceitful and downright untrue were the British. It is estimated that about nine million leaflets in some 90 different designs were dropped into the German trenches in the belief that if the resolve of just some of soldiers of the Kaiser's army could be broken, the course of the war could be altered.

The creation of such leaflets is a science carried out by teams of linguistic and cultural experts. Not only must they be written perfectly in the language of the enemy, they must also take into account various cultural nuances and the mindset of those they are designed to influence. They must strike the jugular.

"The leaflets that were dropped in the First World War talked about fair treatment that soldiers would get if they surrendered, often written by German PoWs back in Britain extolling the conditions," says Dr Rod Oakland, a member of the Psy War Society, a group of enthusiasts that collects psy ops leaflets. "They would talk about the conditions in Germany and the shortage of food."

But the vernacular used in the leaflet is just as important as the message itself. "You have to communicate in a language they accept," says Oakland. "If it's in German, it has to be in a form of German that infantry soldiers are going to understand. You have to know your enemy's problems. Cultural mistakes will destroy the effectiveness of a leaflet – they have to be credible."

In the Second World War, particularly after D-Day, such was the determination to create credible leaflets, psy ops officers would go into PoW camps and talk to prisoners about recent conditions within the Nazi forces, often gathering names of real people and using them in leaflets to try to create an air of authority.

But it was not just the British who resorted to such tactics. The Nazis also knew a thing or two about playing on the worst fears of Tommies and GIs – namely, what the old lady back home might be doing. One of the most famous German leaflets dropped was "Mirror-Wise", a cunning cartoon that showed a vivacious blonde in the arms of a man, while reflected in a mirror is the image of a soldier being choked by the Grim Reaper.

The accompanying narrative tells of "Joan" going to the cinema with "Bob", a friend of "John", who is away fighting at the front. The story continues: "Neither of them knew how it happened... she felt his strong body leaning gently against her... and then they kissed... for a long time."

Oakland says that of all the leaflets the Germans dropped, this was deemed to have been the most effective. "Veterans I have spoken to say that this was the only one that ever made them stop and think."

Over the years, the preparation of such leaflets has become more scientific. Mistakes, however, are still made: a leaflet dropped on Somalia by the US had to be withdrawn after a simple spelling mistake completely altered the meaning of the message.

Jim Noll, a former psy ops colonel who served with the US 4th Psychological Operations Group, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was involved in leaflet drops during the Gulf war and the conflict in Panama. He remains convinced they can be useful – if they are aimed at the right people. "The problem during the Gulf was that some leaflets were aimed at the wrong people – at the senior commanders. These are not the people who are going to surrender," he says. "The person they should have been aimed at was the 19-year-old Iraqi soldier on the front line. If you can, you affect the soldier so that he does not fight, does not fight as hard, or he deserts."

The extent to which this lesson has or hasn't been learnt may have a considerable influence on the outcome of the current campaign.