The Propaganda War

NATO Bombs Serbs With Leaflets

By David Abel  |  The Boston Globe  |  05/09/1999

WASHINGTON -- On one leaflet, the caption beneath a picture of a low-flying A-10 attack plane warns Serbs: "Don't wait for me!''

Next to photos of a burning building in Belgrade and of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, a different flyer asks, "Is it really his to gamble?''

And on another, NATO offers Serbs a blunt equation: ``No fuel, no power, no trade, no freedom, no future = Milosevic.''

Since April 3, officials said, allied planes have taken to the Balkan skies at least 14 times to unload one of NATO's nonexplosive weapons on Yugoslavia: propaganda. The alliance has dumped more than 36 million leaflets on at least 12 cities or areas throughout Serbia.

"The goal is to get the true story of what's happening to the Serbs,'' said Navy Captain Stephen Honda, a spokesman for US forces supporting the Yugoslav campaign, Operation Allied Force. "We are bypassing the government-controlled media to provide factual information to the Serbs. We want to tell the people what their government is doing.''

But leaflets with pictures of buildings in flames and streaking helicopters do little to inform or rally support for NATO, critics said; they do more to threaten and spread fear.

Furthermore, provocative leaflets make strong statements without citing evidence. Leaflets that say, "Heads of families have been pulled from the arms of their wives and children and shot,'' are probably viewed more as propaganda than credible information, says longtime observers of propaganda campaigns.

"The military doesn't have a particularly good track record when it comes to dropping leaflets,'' said Jarat Chopra, chairman of the international relations department at Brown University in Providence. "You have to consider who the target audience is.''

Chopra cited several examples of failed leafleting. In the 1992-1994 Somalia intervention, US forces ignored two important factors before dumping thousands of flyers in English: Few Somalis speak English and fewer can read the language.

In Namibia during the 1980s, Chopra said, leaflets were written in Afrikaans, then the official language of South Africa, which was offensive to many Namibians. And they were so poorly dispersed they drifted past population centers and ended up as fodder for goats.

"In Yugoslavia, the philosophy that the truth will prevail might very well work,'' said retired Army Colonel Douglas Lovelace, director of research at the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute in Carlisle Barracks, Pa. "But it might have the reverse effect. Serbs are used their own administration, which operates by delivering propaganda. So the more you drop, the less they might believe.''

But even if the Western perspective pervades Serbia, it is unlikely to dent public opinion, Lovelace said. Months of continuous bombing have increased support for Milosevic, despite popular resentment of his rule.

NATO propaganda efforts have not been limited to scattering literature. Every day an Air Force EC-130 Hercules cargo plane flies along the perimeter of Serb airspace, beaming at least four hours worth of radio and TV programming into Yugoslavia.

The $70 million flying broadcast station began its mission in this conflict shortly after NATO's bombing campaign started on March 24, when Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who spent part of her childhood in Belgrade, recorded a message in Serbo-Croatian that was aired in Yugoslavia.

Since then, the Hercules has beamed daily still images onto Serbia's Channel Two, showing pictures of Kosovar refugees and advertising the one AM and three FM radio stations that carry the US government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe Serbo-Croatian services.

"The radio and TV campaign tries to address the atrocities in more detail than the leaflets,'' Honda said. ``But there's no guarantee the signals will always make it through. And it's pretty difficult to gauge the numbers of people actually listening.''

Yugoslav jamming of NATO's signal and the alliance's own bombing of electrical grids makes broadcast an unreliable source of propaganda. So NATO has resorted to dropping leaflets, a practice refined since at least World War I, when airplanes became a fixture of war.

Today, the US military psychological operations units have special equipment to design and drop leaflets. Years of experimenting, propaganda experts said, have found a leaflet will fall closest to its targets if it's 6 inches by 3 inches and weighs slightly more than normal paper.

"You can't put enough information on a leaflet,'' said retired Lieutenant Colonel Mike Furlong, who commanded the Army's 6th Psychological Operations Battalion in Bosnia until 1997. "But the goal is to plant a seed of doubt. If a soldier in the field has a second thought, if for a minute he thinks he might die if he stays and fights, then the goal of the leaflet has been accomplished.''

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