A new and somewhat unnerving recruiting pitch from the Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group asks viewers one simple question: “Have you ever wondered who’s pulling the strings?”
The three-and-a-half minute, movie trailer-esque video was released by the 4th PSYOP Group on Youtube on May 2. Since then it’s brought in almost 250,000 views, and it’s not hard to see why: This is not your father’s recruiting commercial.
Complete with eerie whistling in the background and suspenseful music, the video is far from the sometimes-cheesy Army recruiting commercials we often see on television. It’s dark and palpably tense, the clips of old cartoons and radio segments from world events combining perfectly to create something that is both intriguing and unsettling.
It accomplishes exactly what psychological operations soldiers set out to do: Influence an audience. As one commenter on Youtube pointed out: “Everything is a weapon. Even this video.”
Col. Chris Stangle, commander of 4th PSYOP Group, told Task & Purpose on Friday that the video was created in-house, both as a recruitment effort but also to literally show people what they can do — part of psychological operations is creating persuasive media. Stangle said that the artist behind the video tailored it a bit after iconic horror film JAWS, where the filmmakers showed restraint in actually showing the shark. Instead, viewers knew it was lurking just below the surface.
“Drawing on this approach, we kind of sought to create a piece that doesn’t show what a PSYOP soldier does necessarily, because it’s so complicated and there’s so much about it — quite honestly. It’s just not incredibly sexy — but what it feels like to do our craft when we’re successful,” Stangle said. “And we think that kind of allows the audience to immerse into what our world is, and what our craft is.”
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Psychological operations, or PSYOP, is all about influencing governments, people of power, and everyday citizens. The Army’s website explaining the field says PSYOP soldiers’ key missions are to influence “emotions, notices, reasoning, and behavior of foreign governments and citizens,” “deliberately deceive” enemy forces, advise governments, and provide communications for disaster relief and rescue efforts. It’s a small, niche community; Stangle said there are only around 1,000 active duty PSYOP soldiers.
As part of the special operations community, PSYOP soldiers are described as “adaptive thinkers” who have language and cultural expertise, specialize in deception and cyber warfare, and work in small teams to “persuade and influence” populations in support of the U.S. military. And, much like other members of the special operations community, the qualification course is lengthy and demanding.
The course, which Stangle said was recently extended to 56 weeks total, is broken up into five phases. It includes a five-week prep and conditioning course, Stangle said, followed by a PSYOP assessment selection that runs for roughly two weeks, though he said they never give a determined end-date as part of an additional mental aspect to the training. After that, soldiers go through a two-week orientation course about Army special operations, a 10-week PSYOP qualification course during which they learn the fundamentals of psychological operations and behavioral theories, and a 16-24 week language course.
Throughout the world, Stangle said, psychological operations are occurring “literally everywhere, every day, in every component of our lives.” We’re seeing it play out in real-time in eastern Europe, where Ukraine is proving much more successful in the information war than the Russians.
That’s no coincidence. Stangle said after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the U.S. PSYOP community, along with other NATO allies and special operations communities around the world, got to work helping Ukraine build their own abilities.
“We’ve helped them build their PSYOP force,” Stangle said. “We’ve helped through [military-to-military] partnerships, us as well as more than 12 allies and partners. And what we’ve been able to do is just sit and watch how amazing their arguments are … Ukraine has done a masterful job, they’ve taken the training and the work we’ve done with them, as well as their own inherent skill, and have just really blown it up.”
As for the video, Stangle said they’ve seen an increase in activity on their social media, with some accounts doubling in followers. The response has been positive not just from civilians watching it, but for soldiers in the field. They finally feel like someone is really telling their story, Stangle said, which isn’t typically the case.
The point of psychological operations is that it’s happening behind the scenes. When it’s successful, no one talks about it. The Army doesn’t “necessarily want people to know that we were involved,” Stangle said, especially considering the places they’re often working in.
“We’re overcoming a lot every day against our adversaries as they operate,” he said. “And knowing that you could be ostracized … and in many cases where we put folks, death, and kind of living in this eternal purgatory of lost souls. It exists, that’s where we are. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it but we operate in difficult conditions on a routine basis.”
That won’t be changing anytime soon. Army PSYOP soldiers are working daily with over 40 countries around the globe, according to Stangle. And those partnerships will be critical to success both in preventing future conflicts, and in future conflicts as they unfold.
As the video says: “Warfare is evolving, and all the world’s a stage.”
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