Thinking man's soldiers win day without fighting 'Psyop' specialists blossom for U. S.

September 17, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- Bradley Stevens looks as deadly as a high school prom king. All tan, blond hair and smile.

But in the classrooms of Fort Bragg's JFK Special Warfare

Center and School, Mr. Stevens, 22, has become one for the textbooks.

He's the soldier who took on 150 rock-throwing youths in the Somali city of Baraawe.

No gun. No knife. No threats. Just Mr. Stevens doing what the Army's little-known psychological-warfare specialists do best: persuasive communication.

In this case, Mr. Stevens just started talking, and within 20 minutes, the mob was convinced a game of "Duck, Duck, Goose" was more fun than stoning a squad of American soldiers.

"It was incredible. We played for 2 1/2 hours, and they must have told their friends, because two days later we had 250 kids show up, wanting to play," says Mr. Stevens.

"The thing about psychological operations is you have to have an open mind. You can't learn that kind of thing in a course. You have to think your way out of situations. We tried everything, then we thought: 'They're just kids. How about teaching them a game?' It worked."

Soldiers of the Fort Bragg-based 4th Psychological Operations Group, or 4th Psyop, have a knack for getting into such predicaments and are masters at getting out with their skins intact.

Conquerors, diplomats, entertainers and baby-sitters. The 1,200 active-duty members are all of the above, with a mission straight out of science fiction that is now being carried out in 25 countries: To convey selected information to foreign audiences; to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately their behavior.

By any means necessary is the unspoken addendum.

During the 1989 invasion of Panama, psychological-warfare soldiers used heavy metal music blasted over 250-watt speakers to hasten Gen. Manuel Noriega's departure from refuge in the Vatican Embassy.

They also invented a way to use TV commercials to persuade enemy soldiers to surrender in Panama and perfected the fax machine as a weapon of intimidation in Kuwait.

Even more ingenious was the 4th Psyop's use of plastic water bottles during the Persian Gulf war.

The Army wanted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to think Kuwait would be invaded by sea, so psychological-warfare soldiers spent a day stuffing cartoons of men marching up the beach into 12,000 bottles, then hired a smuggler to dump them off shore.

The invasion came by land a few weeks later.

"It was proved in Panama and in the Gulf War that psychological operations saves lives," said Col. Jeffrey Jones, commander of the 4th Psyop Group.

"When you can get tens of thousands of enemy soldiers to surrender or defect without firing a shot, you can shorten a conflict. The ground war in the Gulf was four days . . . Almost 87,000 surrendered without firing a shot."

The 4th Psyop has been in every U.S. armed conflict since Vietnam, though Colonel Jones says its motives have often been misunderstood, mistrusted and maligned, even by the Army.

Despite the group's successes in Panama and Kuwait, some continue to think of its techniques as sinister, nefarious brainwashing, Colonel Jones says. Then he adds: "It's not. We only deal in the truth."

Historians note this country's use of psychological warfare dates to the Revolution, when patriots tied offers of free farmland to rocks and threw them at British soldiers.

Still, most Americans never heard of the 4th Psyop Group until December 1989, when loudspeaker teams made headlines for their rock music tactics in Panama.

The goal was to prevent the international media from eavesdropping on negotiations for the surrender of Noriega, who had taken refuge inside. But many saw the 24-hour-a-day entertainment as harassment.

Before the standoff, 4th Psyop activities were downplayed by the Army and overlooked by the media, even when they were as high-profile as the taking of a Panama City TV station during the invasion known as Operation Just Cause.

Soldiers broke in on Christmas Eve and began broadcasting Christmas specials, with commercials for such things as how to claim the $1 million bounty on Noriega's head.

Colonel Jones says it takes a special breed of soldier to think of such things: college-educated, multi-lingual and willing to look at the world a little differently.

The goal is to have the enemy surrender, or at least stop shooting.

In the Gulf war, 50,000 enemy soldiers surrendered in the first four days, and Army surveys of the prisoners showed 70 percent did so as a result of 4th Psyop leaflets promising refuge, food and water.

Such results did much to change the perception within the Army that a non-lethal weapon is useless in war, Colonel Jones says.

Now the 4th Psyop Group is out to prove to congressional budget-cutters it can be just as powerful at preventing some wars from ever starting.

Currently, 4th Psyop soldiers are involved in "peacetime activities" in 25 countries.

They're in embassies in Beijing and Moscow; aiding drug enforcement in Bolivia; separating warring factions in Somalia; helping deliver humanitarian supplies in Bosnia; and working for AIDS awareness in Senegal.

The results are high-impact, low-cost contributions to peace at a time when the military is shrinking and overseas bases are being shut down, Colonel Jones says.

"We are unique in that we influence everybody from presidents, ambassadors and four-star generals to providing hope for Somalis on the street," says Colonel Jones.

"We're attempting to prove that this is a kind of contribution that the U.S. can make that's non-lethal . . . Gone are the days when we are simply defending our national interests. We should now ** be promoting U.S. national interests . . . helping to shape the future."

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