Published: July 26, 2007
By Kevin Maurer
Col. Curtis Boyd and his commanders last week spent an afternoon discussing the definition of psychological operations.
For Boyd, who commands the 4th Psychological Operations Group, the answer is simple.
“Everybody has a different way of looking at it, but if you really want to get your head around it, it’s marketing,” he said. “We inform a foreign audience of the good things and bad things about activities in the name of them for their future.”
Boyd’s soldiers — part of the only active-duty psychological operations unit — are on the front lines of the war of ideas. The soldiers’ mission is to modify the enemy’s behavior, make them surrender or make them support U.S. interests. Through leaflets, newspapers, television broadcasts and radio programs, the soldiers try to discourage would-be rebels from picking up a weapon.
“It is all truth-based. As of anything media or otherwise, truth seems to be a matter of perception,” Boyd said. “However, you drill down into any of our activities, you’ll find they’re as good as anything in the local news.”
Before taking over the 4th Psychological Operations Group, Boyd was the assistant chief of staff for the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command.
A New Englander, he is a 1984 graduate of Norwich University in Northfield, Vt. He also has a master’s degree in national security affairs with a concentration in special operations and low-intensity conflict from the Naval Postgraduate School.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Boyd about the role of psychological operations and the challenges these soldiers face.
Q: The global war on terror is really becoming an information war. How important is psychological operations?
A: Confronting the adversary physically, of course, is difficult. Obviously, it is more feasible to do it in a manner that is more indirect and at a distance. Psy op offers that advantage. We’re in the information game targeted at foreign audiences. So, in this particular instance, we are uniquely suited for the global war on terror.
Q: As the war continues, is it becoming harder to influence the population because it sees you and understands what you are trying to do?
A: It is like fishing. I am going to toss the line in the water, and you’re either going to enjoy that bait and take a nibble, or I’ll have to try another piece of bait. I am going to have to keep alerting the message.
Q: Do conventional commanders understand what you are doing?
A: Absolutely. I just recently returned from Leavenworth (Kansas). That, of course, is the center of the universe for Army doctrine. They recently published Army operations doctrine which features how the Army is going to fight, and psychological operations and civil affairs will take a leading role in how the Army is going to fight in the future. They recognize that there is an adversary out there, but he looks like you or I. He is in civilian clothes hiding amongst the population. He may go to work every day and not adhere to terrorist or insurgent ways, but find opportunities whenever they might present themselves. But, they could be persuaded from doing it as a result of some good psy op or civil affairs type activities.
Q: Special operations is expanding. You can add a lot of soldiers, but you need NCOs and junior officers. Do you have the NCOs and junior officers to lead the small teams you operate in?
A: The best development is the establishment of psy op as an Army branch. That allows an officer corps to fully commit to a career field where there are enlisted soldiers that we could lead into the future. Before, I was an infantryman and I could not be sure the infantry would not pull me back. Today, I can be assured that can’t happen.
There is not enough of anything in the Army today. The reality of this particular craft is that we are trying to grow the Army while we grow in this community. That is not easy to do.
Q: What kind of person does it take to be a good psychological operations soldier?
A: A young psy op guy or gal is not your routine, run-of-the-mill solider. Clearly everyone thinks of a Special Forces person along those same lines. For many years before Special Forces came into being, there was an effort to recruit unique, innovative, imaginative and intelligent young people to do this business. You have to have a certain intellect to do it. So, to become a civil affairs of psy op practitioner, you have to essentially have scores that are in excess of getting into Officer Candidate School. Many already have college degrees. The average age for this particular graduating class is about 26 years old and many of whom have also had experience with a foreign language and traveled abroad.
Q: U.S. forces no longer are working in a vacuum in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both countries now have governments that are taking more of a role. Does this make it more difficult for your soldiers to operate?
A: One of the special things in the community is the whole “by, with and through.” We understand we are the invited guest of any host nation regardless of how immature a government might be. Of course, it is the objective that these activities transition to the host nation. Like in regards to Kabul, the ministry of information would assume the role for psy op and that is a good thing to reach out into communities so that the government can have an impact.
Q: These are very foreign cultures. How do you deal with a population like in Afghanistan that can’t read?
A: The objective is to always find the key communicator that is willing to essentially use your particular products as a means to further their own credibility in their own community. Like anywhere, information is power. So, if that local leader has the capacity to communicate U.S. intentions or foreign intentions, that is good for us and good for them. It is just a matter of creating mechanisms to make sure they are an adequate ally. That is what our soldiers do. It is all about relationships.