First of all, lest you misjudge how it feels to have psy-ops used on you, the p is silent. According to this article in an evidently self-impressed Rolling Stone, Lieutenant General William Caldwell ordered members of his Information Operations unit to use psychological manipulation techniques on senators and congressmen visiting Camp Eggers* in Kabul. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Holmes claims that Caldwell told his unit to gather background information on John McCain, Al Franken, Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin and other legislators, in order to use psy-ops tactics to convince them to devote more money and troops to the Afghan War. “How do we get these guys to give us more people?” Caldwell demanded. “What do I have to plant inside their heads?” As one might expect, the Army is prohibited from using propaganda and/or psychological warfare techniques on US citizens—much less members of Congress—and this shit is totally illegal. Also, it doesn’t take a military background check to figure out what will break John McCain’s psyche. Tiger cage: no; woman with nice jawline: yes.
It’s unclear what is most disturbing about this story—that an Army general allegedly repurposed a military unit to target US lawmakers, or that we have thus far been unsuccessful in making psy-ops work in freaking Afghanistan, of all places. The country has a 28% literacy rate and spent the last fifteen years ruled by a theocracy; that’s like failing to make bacon work on the dog. But let us consider only the first problem, and the news that Caldwell’s deployment of Holmes’s psy-ops team against McCain, Franken et al cost an estimated $6 million, and also that three weeks after Holmes complained to a JAG lawyer that Caldwell’s orders might be illegal, he became the subject of an internal investigation ordered by Caldwell’s chief of staff. Sure, that’s a series of corrupt manipulations. But do they even make sense for anyone?
The original plan made a sort of superficial sense for General Caldwell, who stood to advance his career by increasing the troops and resources placed under his command. His careerist motives were at least evident to his subordinates, who referred to the project as Operation Fourth Star. Even for him, though, the prospect of hypnotizing legislators into apportioning more money and lives to causes they might not otherwise support had to have obvious limitations. Say Caldwell successfully uses Holmes and his men to trick John McCain’s brain into giving him extra troops and money. Wouldn’t the presumption that trickery was necessary also imply that the troops were more likely to fail, and that the money was more likely to be wasted? And wouldn’t that ultimately expand the scope of Caldwell’s failure rather than guarantee his success?
Yes, but only if you presume that the right decision is the one that visiting congressmen might gather from an unvarnished presentation of the facts. If you believe our US lawmakers are so stupid or misguided that they will only make the right decisions when psychologically manipulated, then Caldwell’s plan is super. I hardly need to say this, but that kind of thinking is poisonous for a democracy when it takes hold in the military. You want your military to respect free inquiry and the democratic process more than everybody else, for the simple reason that they have tanks and planes and guns. Once the military decides that they’re right and starts looking for ways to convince people, they will find ready tools to hand.
You know what the second-worst entity that could adopt such an ends-justify-means attitude in a democracy is? The press. The news from Rolling Stone is depressing, but this response from The Huffington Post is plain crass. You can blame search engine optimization for Steve Clemons’s craven headline, “Did General Caldwell Point His Psy-Ops Team at POTUS?”—a possibility substantiated by exactly zero evidence—but search terms don’t optimize themselves. I submit that Clemons’s willingness to present the purely hypothetical “news” that Army mind-control teams might have targeted the President, presumably justified by his outrage over what Gen. Caldwell did, is symptomatic of the same poisonous thinking that motivated Caldwell in the first place.
Not everything a right person does is right. We can’t have a society in which the Army uses psychological warfare to convince senators to send more troops to Afghanistan, no matter how sure some general is that such troops are necessary. We also can’t have a society in which the press “wonders” in headlines whether Army mesmerists hypnotized the President, no matter how much they believe people should get worked up about the possibility. Or rather, we can have such a society—just not for very long. Tic tic, assholes.