Faceless people, invisible hands: Army video targets PSYOP recruits

by Vern Evans

FORT LIBERTY, N.C. — The video is unsettling, with haunting images of faceless people, fire and soldiers. The voiceover is a cascade of recognizable historical voices as the screen pulses cryptic messages touting the power of words, ideas and “invisible hands.”

Hints of its origin are tucked into frames as they flash by: PSYWAR.

The Army’s psychological warfare soldiers are using their brand of mental combat to bring in what the service needs: recruits. And if you find the video intriguing, you may be the Army’s target audience as it works to enlist soldiers to join its Special Operations Command.

Released in the early morning hours Thursday, the video is the second provocative recruiting ad that, in itself, exemplifies the kind of work the PSYOP soldiers do to influence public opinion and wage the war of words overseas. Called “Ghosts in the Machine 2,” it is coming out two years after the inaugural video was quietly posted on the unit’s YouTube site and generated a firestorm of online chatter.

“It’s a recruiting video,” said the Army major who created it, speaking with The Associated Press before the release. “Someone who watches it and thinks, wow, that was effective, how was it constructed — that’s the kind of creative mindset we’re looking for.”

The soldier, a member of the 8th Psychological Operations Group based at Fort Liberty, North Carolina, also made the first video. He asked that his name not be used to protect his identity, as is common among special forces troops.

PSYOP units are used for an array of missions that can range from simple leaflet drops to more sophisticated propaganda and messaging aimed at deceiving the enemy or shaping opinion on foreign soil. It’s illegal for the U.S. military to conduct psychological operations on Americans.

Army Special Operations Command leaders and special forces recruiters hope that a new stream of chatter inspired by the video will help bring in recruits to an often unseen and little known job.

“From a tactical level, the PSYOP mission is extremely hard to show and tell,” said Lt. Col. Steve Crowe, commander of the Special Forces Recruiting Battalion. And it’s the job in Army special forces that recruiters say is the hardest to fill.

Across the military, the armed services have been struggling to meet enlistment goals, with most falling far short of their targets in recent years. The Army, which is the largest service, has had the most trouble, missing its goal by about 15,000 soldiers for the past two years. But most of the services say things are improving this year.

The Army’s Special Operations recruiters who recruit from already-serving soldiers say they are making about 75% of their overall goal, which is between 3,000 and 4,000. Of that, they have to bring in about 650 active-duty soldiers to psychological operations per year.

Officials blame the nation’s low unemployment, increased competition from corporate businesses, which can pay more and offer similar benefits, and a sluggish return from several years of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that prevented recruiters from visiting schools and attending other public events.

Recruiting struggles in Army Special Operations Command have mirrored those of the larger Army. The recruiters said they are responsible for bringing in several types of special forces — the most well-known are the Green Berets and Delta Force, but there are also Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Knight Stalkers.

The Army has said it intends to trim the number of PSYOP soldiers, but still has struggled to fill the ranks.

Perhaps the most celebrated PSYOP was in World War II, when the so-called U.S. Ghost Army outwitted the Germans using inflatable tanks, radio trickery, costumes and impersonations. In what was dubbed Operation Viersen, the soldiers used the inflatables, sound trucks and phony headquarters to draw German units away from the point on the Rhine River where the 9th Army was actually crossing. Several of the last surviving members of the unit were recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony in Washington.

These days, PSYOP activities are often classified. But one of the last U.S. service members to die in Afghanistan — killed by a suicide bomber at Abbey Gate during the chaotic evacuation in 2021 — was a PSYOP soldier: Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tennessee. His task that day was largely crowd control and influence, by using a bullhorn to communicate with the frantic throngs of Afghans and get them moving in the right direction.

A more recent example would be assistance to Ukraine. U.S. psychological operations soldiers have advised and assisted Ukrainian troops in their efforts to counter Russian disinformation campaigns since 2014. After the Russian invasion in February 2022, Ukrainian forces used a range of tactics — including leaflets and social media — to entice Russian troops to surrender and tell them how and where to give themselves up.

About half of the psychological operations troops are young people who join when they enlist. The rest are recruited from within the Army’s existing ranks. The command’s recruiters focus on the internal audience, which has its own challenges.

A growing hurdle, according to Crowe and Army Maj. Jim Maicke, executive officer of the Special Forces recruiting battalion, is that these days regular soldiers across the Army have less interaction with special operations forces than they did during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In those conflicts, soldiers often worked side-by-side with commandos, or were deployed at the same bases and had a better view of what they did.

“Business was generally pretty good. And the reason, we believe, was all the interaction that was happening between special operations and conventional forces,” said Crowe, adding that soldiers “got to see behind the curtain, how we operate. We don’t have that anymore.”

It’s particularly difficult for PSYOP soldiers, whose work is often less visible than that of the more celebrated Army commandos and not always understood.

“We’re all nerds for sure,” said the Army major who created the ad. “But we’re all nerds in different ways.” Usually, those who are drawn to the job are “planners,” he said. “They’re writers, they’re great thinkers. They’re idea people.”

Often, he said, they are creative, such as artists and illustrators, but others are tech experts who can bring those ideas to life in videos or online messaging.

The new “Ghosts in the Machine” video is aimed at that audience.

Recruiters say the first video was successful.

“I think what he does with ‘Ghost in the Machine’ is it tells you what psychological operations is, and shows you it, without telling you in words,” said Crowe. “You watch the video and you’re like, okay, this is how I’ll influence and change behavior.”

On a recent recruiting trip to the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, the recruiters brought a PSYOP officer and a civil affairs officer along to speak with the cadets.

“We had a very limited amount of time to engage about 450 cadets,” said Maicke, a graduate of the college. “And the PSYOP officer chose to give a brief introduction and then immediately turn on the ‘Ghost in the Machine’ video. He ended with, ‘if anyone has any questions about this, I’m right over here,’ and business was booming.”

In fact, about six months after the first video was released, the command began surveying soldiers who applied for the PSYOP mission and got into the assessment and selection course. More than 51% said the video had a medium to high level of influence on their decision to try out for the job, recruiters said.

That, said the Army major, is the goal of the second video, which ends with a crescendo of music, shots of marching military troops with their arms raised in surrender, and a question streaming across the screen: “Do you believe in the power of words and ideas. Will You. We Believe.” The final frames say PSYWAR and show the website: goarmysof.com.

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