Ever since it invaded Iraq and toppled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein nearly five years ago, the U.S. military has been promoting a system of democratic governance and civic responsibility. One of the most important players in that effort has been the U.S. Army's Psychological Operations, or PsyOp units, whose soldiers wage daily battle for the hearts and minds of average Iraqis. Adam Allington gets a front-line view of the military's pro-democracy campaign.
In a small office tucked behind 3-and-a-half-meter concrete blast walls at Camp Victory, Army Major Jerry Wilson points to map of Iraq. He says Anbar Province, in western Iraq, has been a remarkable PsyOp success story…ever since the "Anbar Awakening" when the region's sheiks rejected Al Qaeda and supported peace.
He says the job of "selling peace" is really a lot like marketing any other product. He gives Coca-Cola and Pepsi as an example. "There's people who drink Coke and people who drink Pepsi and you have to ask the question, Why? [Is it] the product, the quality of the product, the advertisement, the message, the theme, the jingle… all the things that go along with that?" He says the same thing applies to what his teams do, "except we go after a specific group of people in order to intercept the possibility of them becoming part of the problem versus part of the solution."
PsyOp teams operate in tandem with other military units by spreading information, providing services and promoting trust. After close to five years of war, building that kind of relationship is a difficult process.
Specialist Tyson Demerest from Leavenworth, Kansas, is part of a three-man PsyOp team in the town of Ramadi, in central Anbar. "Ramadi is mostly Sunni-populated," he explains, over the rumble of the humvee. "It's got about 800,000 people. A lot of the Sunni Arabs here, they were supported by Saddam Hussein and his regime, so a lot of what we have to do is work them back into a more democratic society where they're not just favored all the time."
Once they get to their destination, the team speaks through an interpreter and engages people on a variety of topics, from electricity to security to fuel vouchers. PsyOppers call this 'face-time.'
Demerest says a problem often comes up that the Iraqis expect the Americans to handle every aspect of their welfare. One man has been waiting to join the Iraqi police. "Unfortunately for him, the Iraqi police is run by Iraqis. It is not an American association; it is not a part of our government." The translator explains that to the man, who responds that he was told it is the responsibility of the Americans. "I told them this is not right," the translator says, and Demerest agrees, "No, it is not true."
Staff Sergeant Eric Beckman is from Lafayette, Missouri. He's been doing PsyOp since he joined the army at age 17. "In the civilian world, actually, if you're going to try to transfer over army psychological operations training for college credits, it's usually for a marketing degree. Really, all we're [doing] out here is selling ideas and thoughts and a way of life to try and follow."
But what happens if the people you are marketing to just don't believe in your product?
Sheik Raad Sabah Alwani is one of the influential Sunni Sheiks responsible for the Anbar Awakening. When asked what he thinks needs to happen for Iraq to have a strong central government that can manage the whole country, he answers without hesitation, "A powerful government without democracy." He says he has no faith about the democracy, that it's not good for the Iraqi people.
Alwani adds that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki is in the pocket of Iran and Syria, and the doesn't believe the government would last if the Americans leave.
The U.S. Army, however, maintains that the process of democratizing Iraq has been a success. It just takes time.