Surveying Public Opinions During Stability and Support Operations:
PSYOP Support to the First Marine Division in Iraq

by MAJ Calvin C. DeWitt
Commander 312th Tactical PSYOP Company

A Cavalry Squadron’s mission is to paint a picture of the battlefield for the division commander. Air and ground scouts report the enemy’s movements, giving maneuver elements time to react. Timely and accurate information is the hallmark of the cavalry, and this information can be the difference between a battle won and a battle lost.

On the outer edges of the low intensity spectrum, when the battle for dominance is fought in the hearts and minds of the civilian population, it takes a different kind of cavalry to depict the battlefield. In these operations a division commander is concerned with responding to potential flashpoints, be they food distribution, fuel shortages, or payments to government workers. The commander understands that the failure to respond adequately to even a seemingly innocuous incident could create a tipping point that turns the population against a foreign presence.

In these environments it is in the commander’s interest to stay attuned to shifting opinions of the locals. He must identify incidents and conditions that could become flashpoints before these incidents are widely publicized – a task that is increasingly difficult in an age of instant communication. To be truly successful, a division commander must accurately assess a target audience’s attitudes, and react to trends before they reach a critical mass. In this environment his picture of the battlefield can best be painted by his Tactical Psychological Operations (PSYOP) Company.

The PSYOP mission is to shape the attitudes and behaviors of foreign populations. Small specialty teams armed with leaflets, loudspeakers, posters, radio commercials, and television spots are trained to influence foreign populations in the commander’s area of responsibility. PSYOP teams possess valuable skill sets, but none of their tasks are specifically designed to get information on the psychological state of a target audience back to the division commander. In most cases, the commander’s perceptions are based on input from subordinate commanders, single-source intelligence reports, and the media, each of which only provides a piece of the picture. And too often the PSYOP commander does not weigh in with reports from the front lines, even though his teams are dealing directly with the very people the commander hopes to influence. Instead, the PSYOP company commander provides Target Audience Analyses and other studies that can be useful but fail to provide the division commander with the snapshot of public sentiment. For this, nothing is better than a survey.

In a political campaign, surveys are used to determine where a candidate’s message is working, with whom it’s working, and what part of a message needs to be reinforced or explained differently. A campaign will evaluate responses and decide where to focus its limited resources. Likewise, a division commander armed with similar data can spot movements in opinions and identify potential flashpoints, which will assist him in focusing the staff effort, Civil Affairs assets, and troop strength. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 312th Tactical PSYOP Company (TPC) set out to provide this tool to the 1st Marine Division (1st Mar Div).

The 312th TPC’s relationship with 1st Mar Div was ideal for exploring the limits of PSYOP capabilities because the Marines have a tradition of taking the assets provided them and finding new ways to use them. With the concurrence of the division commander, the TPC developed and conducted surveys to confirm the veracity of our preconceptions. The surveys conducted by the 312th TPC allowed us to see what part of the message had been accurately received, and which part we might need to emphasize or clarify.

The questions that the Tactical PSYOP Teams included in surveys were a combination of specific questions about the target audience’s concerns, habits, and standards of living, as well as more general questions common to surveys conducted by US political polling firms – questions that measure a respondent’s confidence in the economy, the government, and the future. In many instances the responses ran counter to conventional wisdom and allowed us to adjust fire and tailor our message for better effect.

PSYOP Survey Questions

Survey Results

Some of the responses we collected differed from the reports we were getting through the international media and command/intelligence channels. Because the company set out to survey a larger, more diverse cross section of the population, we were able to get a more accurate picture of the local mindset, a picture that often varied from the worst-case projections of single source reports. Specifically, we found that the mood of the population was far more positive than we had come to believe. The data suggested that regardless of which of the provinces in the division AOR the respondents lived, the majority believed they were as well or better off than people in neighboring provinces. Additionally, we found that more than 90 percent of respondents believed the government was on the right track – a level of satisfaction rarely seen in US populations. Both of these responses pointed to a general optimism that belies the Iraqis’ demands for better services. We quickly realized that although Iraqi requests for improvements in their infrastructure and way of life often seemed urgent, this is as much of a cultural phenomenon as a demand for immediate action.

This is not to say the Iraqi population did not expect the Coalition to solve the problems they faced in the wake of Saddam. They clearly expected things to get much better. As one Iraqi put it, "The United States put a man on the moon, so why would delivering fuel be such a problem?" But in fact, their actual expectations were far more realistic and had been somewhat tempered by years in a totalitarian state. In most cases they were satisfied simply knowing there was a plan being developed to address their concerns

We later surveyed the local population before reacting to propaganda being broadcast from what we believed to be an Iranian-based AM station. In so doing we learned that though respondents were familiar with the station, most gave the reporting little credence and weighed it against the good work the marines and Civil Affairs soldiers were performing in their communities. As a result, we determined PSYOP efforts could be put to better use elsewhere.

Survey data also proved useful when we found ourselves faced with lengthening fuel lines and a potential shortage of all fuel. In surveying the population we found that while fuel deliveries were below a sustainable level, the perception by the population was that fuel supplies was getting better. We understood that although the reality showed fuel shortages were on the horizon, there was no immediate need to respond publicly to this reality. Because in PSYOP perceptions are often more important than reality, we instead continued to monitor these perceptions while our Civil Affairs counterparts worked behind the scenes to avert a crisis.

The Future

The first survey conducted by the 312th TPC was to determine what concerns the population had regarding the 1st Marine Division’s transfer of authority to the Polish Multi-National Division. It became readily apparent that the respondents didn’t have confidence in the follow-on forces because they didn’t know enough about their training and experiences on similar operations. At the same time we learned we had succeeded in advertising the successes of the Marines to that point. This information caused us to readjust the campaign associated with our departure to focus on the capabilities of our successors while downplaying what the Marines had accomplished, successes that if referenced could have served to exacerbate any anxiety. Within a week a majority of the local population understood how the transition would occur, who would be replacing the Marines, and what specialty units they were bringing to the region. At the same time we initiated several other surveys across the battle-space. In a matter of weeks some of the company’s surveys were getting attention well above division level.

Surveys are a natural extension of what PSYOP teams already do. Much of the science of survey development is incorporated in the surveys PSYOP Product Development Detachments conduct in the pre and post-testing of products. But while useful to the PSYOP commander, these surveys are usually focused on a single product and are too specific to benefit the division commander’s decision process. By expanding these skill sets, tactical PSYOP companies will go even further in closing the gap between the ground commander’s goals and the behaviors of foreign target audiences.

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