Psyop On You


They Did Not Belong Amongst the Obsolete  

I remember being scorched. Driving down Richmond Highway sometime during late July. The back of my thighs stuck to my leather car seat as I blasted “American Teenager” by Ethel Cain. The volume was maxed and its grainy audio rattled through the frame of my compact car. I drove past a gate for Fort Belvoir, an Army base nudged between Mount Vernon and Lorton, Virginia. The presence of police cars increased near the base’s gates so I turned down the volume and pulled into the parking lot of a rundown strip mall. A Redbox kiosk stood outside of the retired Kmart whose signage had been neglected to be taken down. A brick propped open the door to a thrift store I had known about for a while, but had been reluctant to pay a visit to. I hated coming to this area. It felt removed and unloved. I assumed its proximity to the Army base was unsavory to many, leaving it vacant to passersby. The doorbell chimed me in and the familiar thrift store smell of funky mothballs swarmed my nostrils. I skimmed the racks; I usually start at the men’s t-shirts. The typical culprits were hung: A neon green 5k race tee made from synthetic material that made me cringe at its sleek, staticky touch; a local high school gym uniform top with the last name “Lee” written in with a thick black marker; five or so “2017 Graham family reunion” shirts; a gray XXL tee with a mysterious stain on its collar; and tons of auto shop and landscaping company t-shirts. I continued down the rack. I found nothing I liked. 

Then I saw them. 

Four military jackets in that digital camo print. They were sharp-polished, and at odds with tattered shirts they shared the rack with. Each jacket still was patched with the last name of whoever its former owner was, along with other numbers, symbols, and pins I didn’t recognize. The most unpleasant feeling moved through me. “Why were they here? What atrocities had these coats borne witness to? What happened to the person whose last name remains adorned on its left chest?” I could not move, my body was concrete. I’m not sure if I wanted to cry or scream, or both. I moved away from the men’s section. 

My attention was brought back when I heard shrieks of excitement from two girls who had come across the jackets too. I eavesdropped, “Maybe I can use the pins of the belt? I’ve been wanting a jacket like this–I need to add lace to its trimmings!” I was frozen again. I don’t disagree with the upcycler – that jacket would be cute with the addition of tiny pink bows and lace lining. I felt weird about the dissonance. The detachment she had to why those jackets may have been there, and what they stood for: Imperialism, destruction, blood.   

I felt myself spiraling. I needed to leave. 

I bought four ceramic dishes, detailed with daisies and ladybugs, marked down, tagged with red stickers, and left. On my way out I saw one of the girls clutching one of the jackets to her chest, as her tote bag swung against her trendy low-rise jeans.

Have we become numb to it all?

Yes, we have. Military presence has been intentionally woven into society, making involvement in wars the United States should have no part in seem normal. We perceive the profession of a soldier to be one that makes heroes, instead of the honest truth of a grueling job that commands atrocities to be carried out: Complemented by tragic treatment. Massive defense budgets are created by Congress, who make self-serving deals with weapon contractors for big cash. These projects are based on resource control, geopolitical gain, and ideological fantasy. 

The collective numbness towards the truth of the US military-industrial complex that we’ve come to adapt is a result of subliminal influence on our psyche, a tactic referred to as psychological operation or “psyop.”  In the simplest terms, psyop aims to create an alternative reality for both American citizens and people in targeted countries, resulting in the silencing of dissent at home and the perceived honorable expansion of U.S. influence abroad. Psyop is not just a theory discussed amongst academics, but rather an actual program with an entire committee dedicated to its practice run under the Department of Defense. Would you be surprised if I shared that the “Psychological Operations Committee” was established under the devilish muck that is Ronald Reagan?  I feel irate to the entirety of what psyop is, there is no ethics, no moral righteousness to creating propaganda so successful it flies under the radar and becomes second nature thinking. 

We cannot evade the constant mind numbing when even entertainment turns out to be made with malicious intent. The Freedom of Information Act recently exposed that the CIA and Pentagon had editorial control over 2,500 films and television shows, according to the Defense Department. I was mostly disappointed, but not shocked, to see a jarring amount of Marvel movies listed. “Iron Man” – the first one – is the personification of the military-industrial complex. Marvel Studios was required to ensure that their script was fully approved by the Pentagon in exchange for using their weapons throughout the film. However, the most formidable form of government manipulation in the film is its heavy reliance on American exceptionalism and portrayal of the people of the Middle East as terrorists: A common trope in American films that attempt to capture the War on Terror. 

This messaging is sinisterly evocative. The majority demographic of Marvel movie viewership are impressionable youths. Military enlistment is open to 17-35 year olds, while 32% of all Marvel movie franchise viewers are 19-24 year olds.  Viewership of children between the ages of 13 and 18 is estimated at 15%.  However, this percentage is skewed, as most Marvel movies are rated PG-13, causing the actual percentage of youth viewership under the age of 13 to be unrecorded.  In many cases, a Marvel movie may be a child’s first introduction to what war is. Now with Disney owning Marvel Studios, the franchise can be streamed on Disney +, making its access to children a thousand times easier. With these viewership statistics and the poignant messaging promoted throughout the franchise, it becomes obvious who is being targeted – young minds barely tickling adolescence. A perception of what war is and what a “good” and “bad” guy looks like is created and signed off by the  U.S. Government and streamed right into your living room for your ten year old cousin to absorb. 

While “Iron Man” cannot bear all the responsibility for the ever growing islamophobia in the United States, it does contribute, along with dozens of other often subtly and outwardly “American military can do no wrong” movies, to the daily, digestible propaganda generated and aimed at young people by the Government.

I Just Wanted a Cheese Stick.

The ickiness continues when I recount the countless times my senior year I walked into my high school lunchroom, and at the center of the cafeteria sat military recruiters and a pull-up bar. Without failure, there were always hormonal juniors eager to show off how the weight room had been “paying off.”

Diverging eye contact from the uncomfortable scene was a skill I developed while waiting in the lunch line.

The constant presence of military recruiters in high school lunch periods is the most obvious predatory behavior practiced. Recruiters consistently present an opulent image of military life. For 17-year-olds, especially those with limited non-college alternatives, promises of scholarships and the opportunity to “serve” the world with “honor” and “respect” can be very alluring. What is not shared by recruiters to juvenile minds, is the loss of all sense of self once entering the Armed Forces. It ceases to matter if you no longer believe in the war you are fighting. You must bite your tongue if you have any embittered feelings towards drug abuse, sexual misconduct, ineptitude and corruption that the U.S. Government allows and perpetuates. You are just a body now, regardless of the good heart you may have. The government owns you, but does not love you. 

Teenagers’ societal and financial anxieties are purposefully exploited by recruiters in order to increase the number of bodies the U.S. Government can then in turn exploit. This is a phenomenon called the “poverty draft”, which targets economically disadvantaged youth. In inner-city areas, there is a heavy presence of recruiters who preach about the Army GED Enlistment Plus Program, which has applicants without high school diplomas enlist while they complete a high school equivalent certificate. Black and brown communities have suggested that the military has targeted their communities through campaigns and promises of financial stability. The Bureau of Labor reflects statistics that prove their claims: “Non-Hispanic blacks—with an Armed Forces enlistment rate of 6.7 percent—were more likely to have enlisted in the Armed Forces soon after graduating from high school than were non-Hispanic whites (3.9 percent) or Hispanics (4.5 percent)”. 

A 2007 Associated Press analysis stated that, “nearly three-fourths of [U.S. troops] killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. More than half came from towns where the percentage of people living in poverty topped the national average.”  While it may not be stated clearly that recruiters target “the poor,” there is undeniable evidence that they do target people whose employment possibilities are severely constrained. Still a great opportunity to fulfill a sense of duty? 

A Familiar Feeling

I was walking through Monroe Park earlier this semester, taking in the smells of Richmond: Exhaust, skunk, and cigarette smoke. Lovely. A girl walked past me in the most dismaying skirt – it was ankle length and tiered with what looked like dozens of different materials and prints. Velvets, cream and opaque pink lace, denim, flannels, satins, jerseys, purple sequence, tweed, and material that looked incredibly coarse and itchy. 

I stopped her and asked where she had gotten it from and she explained how she was a fashion student and had made it out of thrifted fabrics from second-hand stores in the area. As she fervently rambled through her creative process she told me how each piece of fabric had been someone’s “something.”  

A pair of sturdy jeans, a revealing costume top, dress shirts, a child’s tee with a bedazzled cartoon monkey kicking a soccer ball. I recognized a familiar print within a tier of the handmade skirt: digital camo. I felt my eyes grow twice their size and struggled to keep my expressive face from making her insecure. A pair of Army pants – that she explained had “seen better days” and felt was “appropriate” to include in her work, as it showcased the strife of American society in contrast to the other materials used. I was flustered and brought back to the initial feeling I had when I first saw the sharp-polished jackets at the uncanny thrift store. Later, I gave more thought to the two interactions: The jackets and fashion student. The fashion student had not been numbed by the thrifted Army camo she now wore around her waist. She understood what it meant: The carnage carried and deprivation of identity that came with wearing that pattern as uniform – as a profession. How this was a very real, inescapable reality for many. There was no unawareness, no brainwashing. We parted ways.  

Leaving Disillusioned America

Frustration fills me and I begin to feel hopeless. We’re in a cycle, a seemingly never ending one. The cost of war is played and mastered by those who sit behind desks in mansions, and place guns in the hands of others.  A military caste system is gradually instilling itself in contemporary society, extending from rural America to the urban centers of deindustrialized cities. Economic class determines whose body gets to be put up for U.S. Government grabbings. 

Psyop on you is the manipulation is in the language used: Telling young people repeatedly, till it is ingrained, that bloodshed abroad is too complex to discuss and find a solution to, all while the U.S. Government spends billions on bombs for those very imperialist governments causing the bloodshed and then has the Pentagon go and spend millions on recruiting even more young bodies to help with carrying out these atrocities.  

What can you, a college student at some art school, 

living off of last week’s leftovers and instant meals, 

attempting to balance relationships, 

barley breaking a month’s rent, 

struggling to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to do with the rest of your life and if you even like your intended major, possibly do to free all people from the villainous grips of the unseen puppeteers of imperialist, capitalists, tyrannical governments? 

Young people will always be impressionable and prone to influences from forces unbeknownst – however, the renovation of perceived knowledge is always being challenged.  The ability to be vigilant, to interpret and to critique what is being perceived as the ultimate truth, is an adeptness our generation has grown to leverage, as a result of having an abundance of information being chucked at us all at once in the day and age of social media dependency.  

Continue to question and critique. Your voice matters, so be vigilant. 

Graphics by: Khoi Le