"Mess With Their Minds and Their Hearts Will Fallow"

By George "Sonny" Hoffman

Psychological Operations, or Psy Ops, go back a long way in warfare. Propaganda springs to mind, but dirty tricks qualify as Psy Ops. The Trojan Horse was a good example of a dirty trick. Trojans thought so, but Agamemnon called the prank a tactical ploy. Tactical ploy or dirty trick, the effect on the enemy is to demoralize, neutralize, render idle, dormant, fallow.

During the Second Indochina War, better known to Americans as the Vietnam War, both sides were busy playing tricks on each other. The North Vietnamese and the puppet, aggressor, guerrillas known as the Viet Cong were wily little rascals that loved playing tricks on the big, slow, heavily-armed Americans and their puppet, aggressor, counter-insurgency allies. Booby traps were their stock in trade, and those nasty devices rendered many combat units fallow.

All branches of the American armed forces have units who specialize in propaganda and dirty tricks. They litter battlefields with their leaflets, and aircraft broadcast messages by loudspeakers. Sometimes, they flew super-quiet airplanes and broadcast scary ghost noises at night in the hope that such acts would render the enemy units fallow by making their fellows afraid to sleep in the woods.

The men and women of America's Psy Ops units were professionals, but ordinary, everyday soldiers and sailors dabbled in Psy Ops with equal, if not more amusing, results. As one of the amateur dabblers, I can attest to the effectiveness of Psy Ops. My proficiency at the craft, more than combat proficiency, led to my being here as opposed to, say, Arlington.

The majority of my combat experience came from serving on recon teams. Recon teams were popular in Vietnam--not as popular as they are now--and recon teams had special Psy Ops needs. A four- or six-man team, operating far from friendly areas, in the enemy's back yard so to speak, needed a big bag of tricks to survive.

We planted booby traps, of course, but we also planted phoney plants. We planted shrubbery with ears and a voice that could call out for many miles over a secret radio frequency, "Hey, wake up you schmucks! There's bad guys walking around me. Do something!" Minutes, sometimes hours, later, a firebase would answer with a few salvos of HE Quick, to which the plant would respond, "Thanks."

If the plant did not respond, another recon team would be dispatched to plant another plant. Enemy soldiers would sometimes wander off the beaten path to relieve themselves, sometimes relieving themselves on our talking shrubs. These delicate electronic vegetation wonders didn't take well to acrid water. A message such as, "Hey, you guys! There's elephants in my BVD's." was a clear indicator that another recon team needed to be dispatched.

If a recon team was discovered, another type of Psy Ops was called for--the deception type. The team will try to make the alert enemy think they are someplace they are not, or bigger than they are. We actually had fire-fight simulators, a cluster of fireworks that could be ignited and tossed. The resulting racket often created a real fire-fight as the enemy encircled and engaged the fireworks display. Meanwhile, the wily recon team made good its escape.

Recon teams were often tailed by trackers, sometimes with dogs. Pepper sprinkled on the backtrail confounded dogs. CS (tear gas) powder, sprinkled on the back trail confounded dog and handler. Careless sprinkling of CS powder confounded the sprinkler.

Persistent trackers, or teams of trackers, could be discouraged by grenades primed with a blasting cap on a length of time fuse. They would see the blue smoke rising from the grenade and wait for the grenade to go off. After a few real grenades, all we had to do was toss out lighted lengths of time fuse in the undergrowth along the trail. Blue smoke kept the bad guys at bay while the wily recon team made good its escape. Tricky, huh?

In the category of we're-much-bigger-than-you-think, the sawed- off M-14 took the prize. This modified weapon, when fired on semi-automatic using practiced trigger manipulations, sounded exactly like (I mean EXACTLY like) a fifty-caliber machinegun. In dense jungle, I defy anyone to tell them apart.

Imitating a fifty-caliber machinegun was so effective, because it created great confusion. Fifties are only encountered in large units; even then, they are usually track or jeep mounted. To hear one in mountainous jungle makes one pause, call Hanoi, break for lunch, or dig a deep hole. Regardless, the crafty recon team, struggling to contain their laughter, makes good its escape.

The ubiquitous hand flare was another light, compact item that could be modified to sound big. By pulling the rocket from its launcher, removing the flare and parachute, one could pack the hollow rocket with plastic explosive. Put the rocket back in its launcher and prime with a grenade fuse, spoon and all. The spoon hangs on the outside, held in place by a rubber band. Pull the pin, aim down a trail, and smack the base. You get a whoosh and a bang, four and one-half seconds later. This makes the bad guys think you have anti-tank weapons.

Instead of explosive, fill the canister with CS gas and fire the rocket down the back trail. With the light CS powder as a filler, the rockets fly an erratic course until striking something. After hitting a tree or the ground, the wild gas bombs fling the shit everywhere. This was very good for turning back pursuers or hastening a recon team's withdrawal when the stupid things headed back toward the launcher.

Some teams used enemy weapons or carried at least one RPD light machinegun with green tracers. Fired over the heads of encircling enemy forces, this made them pause to wonder, "Who are those guys?" Sometimes, just a few bursts from an RPD was enough to break contact.

For trackers, we had subtle tricks. Walking backwards for a stretch made trackers stop and scratch their heads. Sometimes we wore our socks over our boots, or had NVA boot soles strapped to our boots, or soles in reverse direction, or big foot soles. A size twenty boot will cause a Yard tracker to stop and think.

Tiger paws worked great on Vietnamese city-boy trackers. A good Montagnard wood carver could carve a tiger paw on the end of a walking stick. Pounding that stick across the trail you just passed will usually make a tracker look for you elsewhere.

Some psy ops was just for shits and giggles. I once carried a special services activity calendar out on a mission and tacked it to a tree beside a well-worn trail. The calendar was a round cardboard disc with the activities on it, covered by another disk with a pie wedge cut-out. When the cut-out was placed at a date, the activity could be read inside the cut-out. The calendar looked official, like a code reader.

I chuckled over the image of this thing making it all the way to Hanoi where, after long hours, they discovered how the Americans suffered under their relentless war of national liberation. "A different movie every night? Bingo? Talent night? Filipino rock bands? Choi Oi!"

RT Montana stole a klaxon siren off a telephone pole at Long Tranh Air Base. We humped that forty-five pound hunk of red metal for six days just to stand in the LZ on the day the choppers were inbound and make the jungle reverberate with the wail of an air raid siren. Trust me - it was cool. I guess you had to be there.

Playing the psy ops game kept us sane, sorta. Making your enemy laugh, cry, or run away in terror was often more therapeutic than simply stopping his brain waves. But again... I guess you had to be there.

Copyright © 1996 by George "Sonny" Hoffman