I first heard the term “caca” as a kid growing up in Stillwater. It was used liberally by my French-Canadian mother and my father’s English-Scandanavian relatives. I quickly figured out it was a noun or adjective depending on usage and context. Its origin is Spanish and equivalent to the English language profanity “BS” — better defined here as “blue smoke.”
Caca, in its broadest interpretation, characterized whatever was perceived to be less than legitimate, and beyond that, as repulsive as human waste and excrement.
As a young U.S. Army Ranger lieutenant in the 1950s, I was fortunate to be accepted at the Fort Bragg special forces center to attend the Army’s psychological warfare school. I say fortunate because at that time, I had no civilian academic or other scholarly credentials that qualified me for study in psychology — although employment as a junior reporter for the Gazette and the associated on-the-job education might have been all the Army needed for the assignment. It turned out to be one of the most intellectually and professionally enlightening experiences of my life.
Psychological warfare is all about changing your adversary’s hearts and minds without violent conflict or use of multi-faceted armed intervention. In simple terms, its purpose is to achieve a strategic or tactical objective without killing the real or perceived opposition. The weapons used are carefully chosen print and broadcast words and images, cultural and ethnic symbolism, nuanced semantic interpretations and exploitation of existing historic, political, economic, social and religious vulnerabilities.
I learned the U.S. military and other government agencies involved in national security matters spend billions of dollar studying countries worldwide to determine their vulnerabilities for the potential use of psywar weaponry should the need and use be appropriate. There are analytical experts at the highest level who grind away at this 24 hours a day.
The psywar mission is highly sophisticated in practice, requiring extensive study and thorough research of the demographic-racial-tribal characteristics of the target population and imaginative, delicately crafted application. The underlying principle in practice is credibility, the antithesis of the Rush Limbaugh-Fox News approach to influencing public opinion.
On the tactical level, psywar is less complex, and a battlefield tool that has been generally ignored in the recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and low level insurgent and terrorist engagements in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Back to Fort Bragg. Early in the course, Maj. Senter, the chief instructor, began using the term “credible caca” in reference to various psywar techniques. Familiar with the term, it put into practical framework the fundamentals of psychological warfare, the idea of cultivating and nurturing an idea or perception favorable to the desired outcome. Here is a simple example from my experience where I was able to apply the concept on a tactical level.
It’s 1958. My assignment was that of staff officer responsible for tactical planning and air-ground operations with an infantry regiment in Bamberg, Germany (3d Infantry Division, 15th Infantry regiment, Col. Leonard commanding). Bamberg is about an hour drive from the Czechoslovakian-German border. One of my tasks was to monitor the cavalry unit patrolling the so-called Iron Curtain and collect and forward whatever intelligence was developed.
The cavalry had an outpost in the small, medieval border town of Coberg in northern Bavaria, not far from Hitler’s historic Nazi heartland. Our troops were vulnerable and subject to a variety of threats from the locals, not to mention whatever the Communist border guards might present.
Still resentful of the American presence 20 years after the end of the Third Reich, there had been a series of incidents involving Coberg citizens and our patrols. The primary instigators, besides the locals, were Soviet infiltrators sent across the border to observe our activities, stir up trouble and create a situation that would jeopardize the fragile German-American relationship in the area. Our intelligence showed the people threatening our outpost resembled the skinheads of today and they apparently found friendly shelter in a small village outside Coberg.
There was considerable top-command concern that the animosity would erupt in violence involving our solders and interfere with our capability to patrol the border. The old-school Nazi loyalists focused on our black and minority cavalrymen. We couldn’t pull out and leave the border without 24-hour surveillance. The situation was explosive.
We had to relieve the pressure in the most unprovocative way possible. Fort Bragg psywar training kicked in. After getting approval from my regimental commander and division operations, I set up a mock air strike on the enclave where the anti-American rabble rousers were holed up. The forward air controller from Ramstein helicoptered in and we drove to Coberg in my air-ground radio equipped Jeep. Once there, we set up day-glo red, friendly force marking panels about a half mile from the target.
The FAC then called Ramstein to scramble the fighters. He briefed the operations center about what was up, giving all the necessary target information. About 45 minutes later, two jet fighters appeared overhead and the FAC called them in.
The F-100s, while state-of-the-art, were the most imposing, noisiest, aerodynamically ugliest close air support fighters of the day. They made two very low passes over the anti-American rabble compound, and mock dive-bombed our locator panels. I could feel the heat as the pilots, tuned on to the charade, stood on their tails and activated their afterburners.
That put an end to Coburg’s anti-American uprising. Intelligence reports indicated the skin-heads left and the locals were subdued. The faux Coberg air strike was classic “credible caca” and it accomplished its purpose. No shots were fired. There was no bloodshed and a new respect for our people as they patroled the border. The cavalry unit gave me a certificate of appreciation I cherish today.
Since that experience, I’ve used my psywar knowledge in a variety of ways during my career in the military, CIA and DEA. One does not have to lie to accomplish the objective, and that brings me to the essence of my message. As with trying to define quality, maybe caca is just as abstract, both good or bad, subject only to the perceptions and purpose of the beholder.
Bradley E. Ayers is published frequently in the Gazette. The 77-year-old Stillwater native is semi-retired and lives near Frederic, WI. His latest non-fiction book, “Zenith Secret,” will be released soon to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination.