Issue 7, Past Issues
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Leaflet Drop: The Paper Landscapes of War

Jennifer Gabrys

War. The possibility at last exists that war may be defeated on the linguistic plane. If war is an extreme metaphor, we may defeat it by devising metaphors that are even more extreme.
–J. G. Ballard, “Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century”1

Leaflets were first deployed as a tactical weapon of war by the Germans during World War I to announce their imminent descent upon Paris [Fig. 1]. From that time forward, paper has rained from the skies during nearly every war (including the Cold War) to persuade the enemy to abandon its position [Fig. 2].2 More recently, a storm of text inundated landscapes in Iraq, where millions of leaflets were routinely dropped by the United States military both prior to and during the war to demoralize soldiers and civilian workers. According to the Guardian, one leaflet warns Iraqis that by repairing damaged communication infrastructure: “‘you are risking your life,’” because “‘the cables are tools used to suppress the Iraqi people by Saddam and his regime, they are targeted for destruction.’”3[Fig. 3] The leaflets, which blanket the ground to ensure easy visibility, create a literal terrain of propaganda: an environment that destabilizes by surrounding the adversary. With a deluge of millions of leaflets, often in a single day, it seems the sky is nearly falling; in the littered, war-strewn landscape is the material register of engineered and endless doubts.

As missives of threat, information, or persuasion, leaflets are a critical medium in the U.S. military’s Psychological Operations (PSYOPs). During the Gulf War almost 30 million leaflets were distributed, including the coveted “surrender passes,” some of which were designed as full-color 25-dinar bank notes to attract soldiers’ attention [Fig. 4].4 Leaflets in the form of fake money were also littered on Vietnam, and in Afghanistan blue leaflets the size of dollar bills announced an award of $5 million for information on the location of Taliban leaders and al-Qaeda allies. Since October 2002, in the months leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. dropped over 33 million leaflets urging Iraqis not to support Saddam Hussein. A psychological campaign intended to destabilize and conquer opposing forces, these “weapons of mass persuasion” are part of an ongoing campaign to spread ominous information. The intent of psychological warfare, as the authors of Shock and Awe (an influential text focused on military strategies for psychologically disabling the enemy) indicate, is to “destroy, defeat, and neuter the will of an adversary to resist; or convince the adversary to accept our terms and aims short of using force.” To neuter is to render powerless through amputation, where shock numbs and destroys the adversary’s perception through “deception, confusion, misinformation, and disinformation, perhaps in massive amounts.”5 Part of a wartime strategy of “rapid dominance,” these attempts to deploy dubious communications capitalize on structures of doubt (as well as the capacity of media to render the real), where the unknown and unverifiable devise a contested terrain. The leaflet drop activates doubt at three primary levels: first, through its materiality—both light and easily distributed—which contributes to the construction of fact; second, through the forceful, direct and descending delivery of the leaflet, which renders information at once convincing and nearly mythical; and third, through the landscape, which as both battlefield and “outside” condition, challenges the authority of the text.

Idea Bombs

What has been called, “bombing the enemy with ideas,” the leaflet drop is a carefully orchestrated campaign to cast doubt in enemy territory, and to force the surrender of troops by a bombardment of “facts.” Indeed, leaflets are often accompanied by photographs that serve as forewarning or “proof” of destruction wreaked in nearby territories [Fig. 5]. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) indicates, “credible and verifiable facts whether favorable or not, are the backbone of the leaflet message because they demand attention.”6 While some leaflets document destruction, others attempt to goad soldiers into desertion and surrender by convincing them that their lives will improve under a new regime. Facts mutate in this context, where the basis for verification is thrown into disarray. “Verbal unanchoredness,” as a condition of war, occurs by withholding and manipulating information, a strategy that Elaine Scarry describes where “the utter derealization of verbal meaning” may generate “the presence of fictions or, more drastically, ‘lies.’” Lies are like wounds, an injurious strategy where the ability to “make real” is a sovereign operation used to define territory and ideology.7 In an effort to counter the endless air-dropped messages that define both the real and its landscapes, the Iraqi government has announced that the leaflets are contaminated with deadly chemicals, and to prove its point has sent out Iraqi soldiers in chemical warfare suits to collect the leaflets. At the same time, the Iraq Ministry of Information has dropped its own leaflets in an attempt to discredit the U.S. military campaign and to play on the anxieties of American soldiers. A performance of fact takes place on the battlefield where the warring factions each attempt to discredit the other, going to elaborate lengths to manipulate the landscape of information [Fig. 6Fig. 7].

Within the context of war, text contains explosive possibilities, staking out a veritable minefield. Oscillating between fact and fiction, text expands the realm of the possible. As Scarry suggests, “each verbal utterance has at all times the explosive duality of being at once very possibly true and very possibly false.”8 Yet the force with which information is conveyed is equally critical to its sense of certainty, which may explain why Paul Virilio argues that “news is dynamite, information explodes like a bomb, opinion polls or war propaganda are time bombs.”9[Fig. 8] While leaflets explode through the deployment of leaflet bombs, text verges on fulmination in other contexts. In fact, Peter Schwenger suggests this may have been a condition of language all along, where text often verges on “undecidability.” When sentences burst, as he cites of Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of Disaster, truth is also thrown into question, a moment when “‘knowledge becomes finer and lighter,’” and finally abandons its position of mastery to efface itself.10 Here are two sides to truth: a strategic dismantling and controlling to garner success in war and a suspension and revocation to arrive at creative possibility. This continuum, as will be discussed below, is not by accident. But as Blanchot indicates, before truth explodes it becomes lighter [Fig. 9].

Paper and print are ideal media for controlling space because they are “light, easily reproduced and disseminated, and quickly replaced.” Jody Berland, expanding upon this concept from Harold Innis, writes that these media “enable the acquisition, transmission and control of information over an ever-expanding geographic space.”11 Paper—with its loose and fast facts—is a communications technology that may be dispersed and distributed, and easily employed as an agent of empire to the extent that it may even take the place of war. The span of the territory corresponds to the reach of communication technologies, which are able to produce space littered with a rain of data. Within the “imperial fact factory,” a phrase Cildo Meireles uses to expose how ruling entities render “information” real through circulation, doubt may be engineered through these same circuits. Moving between information and disinformation, Meireles stages “ideological insertions” by printing statements—often false—on bank notes, to suggest the generation of swerving truths. Using money as a structure of verification, Meireles notes that “the container always carries with it an ideology,” and that “an ‘insertion’ into this circuit is always a form of counter-information.”12 Like Marshall McLuhan’s proposed “counter-environments,” which reveal the dominant environment of operations, Meireles’ insertions demonstrate how the materiality, speed, and distribution of information are bound up with its claims to authenticity.13

Suspended Reality

And now that internal subversion has joined the ranks of ‘thinkable’ topics in Vietnam and Santo Domingo (not to mention Harlem and Georgia) don’t the departments of State and interior wish there existed some opinion-forming gizmo (guts by IBM and RCA, boxwork by Eliot Noyes, graphics by Paul Rand) that could be parachuted down, untouched by human hand, to spread sweetness and light and democracy and free-enterprise for fifty miles around ground zero. It would beat ugly Americans any day.
–Reyner Banham, “The Great Gizmo”14

As leaflets drop, text swells and truth ruptures, we find in war the stirring and suspending of communication and information. This process, as Scarry writes, is part of the purpose of war as a “huge structure for the derealization of cultural constructs and, simultaneously, for their eventual reconstitution,” where war decides what will become real. In this sense, “the declaration of war is the declaration that ‘reality’ is now officially ‘up for grabs,’ is now officially not only to be suspended but systematically deconstructed.”15 Facts waver and become deliriously buoyant, shot through with holes. They play at immediacy, at once singular and direct. Walter Benjamin suggests in “Filling Station” that because facts carry more weight than convictions, our literary work should also be modified to take up the “active” form of “leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards.” It is “only this prompt language,” he writes, that “shows itself actively equal to the moment.”16 Facts are fast and furious, and demand instant, light, and even airborne circulation. What we take for truth—and the lightness it acquires—seems to be located as much in the medium (and its porosity) as the message. While Innis argues that print, through its double capacity for realism and delusion, has thrown “truth” into disarray, Benjamin implies that truth is as much a product of our media as any divine decree. Facts in the form of leaflets cleave to paper arguably because their heavenly source affirms a sovereign vantage point [Fig. 10].

  1.  J. G. Ballard, “Project for a Glossary of the Twentieth Century,” in IncorporationsZone 6, eds. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 279.
  2.  Like pennies from heaven, air drops occur in other guises, from food aid (including Pop-tarts) to fleas and prosthetic limbs. The mechanism of the airdrop (releasing manna, salvation), will be explored in an expanded version of this essay. For more on wartime flea drops, see Yoshio Shinozuka, “We Took Down Two Today,” Harper’s 306, no. 1835 (April 2003), 23-26.
  3.  Ewen MacAskill and Brian Whitaker, “Allies strive for Arab hearts and minds,” Guardian(London), (Saturday November 30, 2002),,3604,850936,00.html.
  4.  The Falling Leaf, Journal of the Psywar Society, According to CBC news online, over 98 percent of Iraqi prisoners of war carried surrender passes. See “Reality Check: Psychological Operations–Cheaper Than Blood” (March 26, 2003),
  5.  Shock and Awe,
  6.  “Leaflet,” Based upon “Psychological Operations Field Manual No.33-1” published in August 1979 by Department of the Army Headquarters in Washington DC; and “Psychological Operations (PSYOP) Media Subcourse PO-0816” by The Army Institute for Professional Development, published in 1983.
  7.  Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 134-140.
  8.  Ibid., 136.
  9.  Paul Virilio, “The Data Coup d’Etat,” in The Art of the Motor, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 24.
  10.  Peter Schwenger, Letter Bomb: Nuclear Holocaust and the Exploding Word (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 102.
  11.  Jody Berland, “Space at the Margins: Colonial Spatiality and Critical Theory After Innis,” in Topia 1 (Spring 1997), 59. See also Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1951).
  12.  Cildo Meireles, “Statement,” in “Conceptual Art under the Military Regime,” Reprinted from Paulo Herkenhoff, Cildo Meireles (New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999), 110-113. For more information, see “Ideological Insertions” and “Cédula Project” in Cildo Meireles.
  13.  Marshall McLuhan, Counterblast (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), 4-5.
  14.  Reyner Banham, “The Great Gizmo,” in A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 114.
  15.  Scarry, 137.
  16.  Walter Benjamin, “Filling Station” in “One-Way Street,” Reflections (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 61.

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