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    Ghosts in the Machine: Irregular recruitment for an irregular force

    Ghosts in the Machine

    Courtesy Photo | All the world's a stage. read more read more

    You’re an Army Psychological Operations officer. Faced with a recruiting challenge, you’ve been given the unenviable task to package and market a military specialty that is based on an abstract skillset to the next generation of Army soldiers. You must develop an appropriate means to reach Gen Z recruits who are not usually interested in planes, tanks, or guns. What do you do?

    If your immediate thought is to create the most disruptive recruiting teaser of all time — and then do it again, you’re on the right track.

    This conundrum presented itself to officers of the 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne) in late 2021 as leaders sought to attract the next generation of PsyOp enlistees. Experts in persuasion and influence, PsyOp soldiers don’t often fit the mold of an average Army recruit. There are similarities to be sure, but a PsyOp candidate must meet a few additional requirements to excel in the specialty. These individuals live and think outside traditional norms, and recruiting efforts need to meet them through non-traditional means.

    “There is a little bit of a change with the newer generation,” said Master Sgt. Matthew Johnson, the non-commissioned officer in charge of U.S. Army Special Operations Recruiting. “A lot of people who join the Army these days — they like to see the steps of the process and they want to know what is out there for them.” he said.

    “If the (recruit) feels like you are pandering, you’ve lost them,” added an identity protected Army PsyOp officer who led the charge to meet the recruiting challenge. He will be referenced by the pseudonym Gray.

    Johnson explained that recruiting techniques have had to adjust to a changing world, especially following 20 years of war, a global pandemic, and an ever-changing and divided political landscape. That starts with arming recruiters with the tools to speak the language to their recruits, but also meeting the need to communicate the intentionally vague characteristics of an Army specialty that deals in persuasion and influence, and is not well known, both in the force and the general public.

    “The challenge there is how do you sell an intangible art form,” said Gray.

    “I mean, Special Forces has (recruiting) easy,” he continued. “You show some guys on a plane, or in a halo jump, or on a stack and there's an infinite amount of ways to make that look appealing. With an intangible concept, you do it through art.” he explained.

    This is what inspired Ghosts in the Machine, a thought provoking video produced by Gray and his team, which made its debut in true PsyOp fashion — unannounced, in the middle of the night — on a brand new YouTube channel, May 3, 2022. Following unprecedented success, reaction, and discourse from the first video, U.S. Army Special Operations Command has commissioned a sequel video, which extends the messaging and theme of its predecessor and leaves the viewer with a powerful call to action.
    Do you believe in the power of words and ideas?

    As in the first video, Ghosts in the Machine 2 leads the viewer on a journey of deep introspection. Quotes, both audible and in text, sound, images and ideas are layered in a fashion that creates tension while drawing the viewer in. Much like the PsyOp discipline, the video is persuasive and intended to elicit an emotional response. Emotion has power. Each scene has a purpose, every sound an objective. Which emotions are triggered varies depending on the viewer and it is developed in a way that each subsequent watch can trigger different emotions, Both videos are written deliberately to garner curiosity. They want the viewer to question why the content makes them feel a certain way. The objective is to harness the power of thought to find the next PsyOp candidate.

    “The person who asks why is the kind of person that we’re looking for,” said Gray. “They want to understand how people work, why they do the things they do. That will help them (PsyOp soldiers) to do their job.” he said.

    He continued, “So posing that in the video at the meta level, I thought, was a good exercise.”

    Thought provocation is the driving factor in Ghosts in the Machine. The series is designed that way. Gray explained that his team took creative inspiration from the 1975 film Jaws where suspense is built through the knowledge that danger is lurking just out of sight, beneath the surface.

    “We took the ethos that we don’t show the shark,” he said. “By creating emphasis and a vibe through sound design and imagery, the human mind takes that and makes an image far more evocative than anything we can put on screen.”

    Using the power of the mind to persuade opinion and discourse is a key functional area in PsyOps. It’s fitting that the recruiting tool is designed to ignite curiosity through imagination. They seek those who seek to know more.

    “Ghosts in the Machine has a two-part intent,” said Col. Mike Burns, a Public Affairs Officer with U.S. Special Operations Command. “We want to attract the candidate off the street, however we also want to attract the soldier who is currently serving, and wants to push their career even further.”

    “The ideal (PsyOp) candidate is one who is very cerebral and analytical,” added Johnson. “They are people who can dive into creative problem solving.”

    A military specialty that focuses on creative thinking like Psychological Operations naturally attracts a wider array of individual soldiers than a prototypical career such as infantry or human resources. Due to this variance, there is not a simple solution or demographic for recruiters to focus on. They have to attract the right candidate, and as Johnson alluded to, they have to let the candidate know what is in it for them. Being upfront and informational is key to attracting the type of talent that can excel in the power of persuasion. Finding that talent means casting a wide net.

    “I feel like I can go into any high school in America and say — whether you’re in the robotics club, or the STEM club, or you're a middle linebacker, or you build sets for the drama club — if you want to make a difference in the world, we’ve got a place for you,” said Burns.

    “You’re going to be welcomed, you’ll be part of a diverse team, and you’re going to make a difference,” he added.

    Ghosts in the Machine is not your run-of-the-mill Army recruiting video series. In fact, it is unlike any other public facing video the Army has ever produced. It has spawned debate on social media, and traditional media, while many did not believe it was an official U.S. Army product. The use of non-traditional imagery caused Army leaders to question the initial utility of the video.

    “There were little things we got pushback on like the dancing ghost,” said Johnson. “That’s not the actual logo, or crest of the Psychological Operations Command. They use the knight chess piece. So that caused pushback for us to be able to stamp that as an Army product,” he said.

    There were other obstacles faced through the release as well. The use of esoteric topics, and the fear of the unknown pose a different posture than the public image the Army strives to maintain.
    Through some persuasion and explanation, it was assured to those with concerns that recruiting is the perfect vehicle to break traditional norms. Both videos use irregular means to address real stakes in an inspired fashion.

    “We screened (Ghost 1) for a few audiences prior to the release,” explained Gray. “We wanted to see if the recruiting angle came across and the language was appropriate. It was close enough to the line that it created a sense of urgency.”

    Following a few more screen tests, Gray and his team received approval to launch the video to the entire force. It was in the middle of the night, sitting on top of a dryer in the Middle East, that he published the video. Since that time it has gained 1.6 million views, nearly 8,000 comments, close to 23,000 followers, and spawned numerous debates in both social media and traditional media about the subject matter. Ghosts in the Machine got the public to do what they had not done before, which was talk about Psychological Operations in the Army. Success of the first video led to the creation of the sequel, which has been met with enthusiasm and a signoff from the powers that be.

    “With this (video), PsyOps is all in, USAREC is all in. Once it is released, it has backing and we can really capitalize on it,” said Johnson. “We will be able to get it out to the masses without the red tape of the first one.”

    Gray has been an Army officer for most of his adult life. He has been a self-proclaimed “video nerd” since his teenage years. Dating back to the mid 2000s, when he would watch movie trailers online, he developed a passion for video production. Gaining inspiration from motion pictures, he built a skill set that, at first glance, seems incongruent with an Army officer.

    “My whole career I’ve heard from the outside, ‘You can’t make videos in the Army’, " he laughed. “I took the mindset of, yes, I can do this. I will do this, watch me.”

    Video production has been a driving factor in his career as a PsyOp officer and he has been able to spearhead multiple large products through his passion. The ability to “talk shop” has enabled him to impact the force through his fervor.

    “I work with a high percentage of Combat Camera specialists,” said Gray. “Knowing the skill set gives me the ability to give these guys direction. I can talk the creative process and can get down and dirty with the actual discipline in a way that typical officers can’t,” he said.

    Gray and his team produced both videos in-house. Some elements in the project were purchased, such as stock footage and sound effects, but most of the scenes and images are original and were shot and produced in the woods surrounding Fort Liberty. Props such as a mannequin head, cassette tape and Army challenge coins were acquired and used to create a professional product that looks like a production house would have created, only they were able to do it autonomously while maintaining complete creative control.

    The defining feature of Ghosts in the Machine 2 is the call to action. While the first video focuses on psychological warfare and the unknown, the sequel follows the theme that words and ideas are effective weapons, and empowers the viewer to embrace their thoughts and feelings. The final scene within the video displays the text “See you at Selection” and directs the viewer to the U.S. Army Special Operations Recruiting website ( From here they can find more information about PsyOps, Civil Affairs or Special Forces, along with prerequisites, requirements and how to reach a recruiter.

    “We love the video, it looks really great,” said Johnson. “We want to do everything we can in recruiting to get it in front of as many folks as we can, to promote the 37F Psychological Operations MOS,” he said.

    Once contact has been made, the recruitment staff is prepared with the tools to give recruits an in-depth view on their future path. Johnson mentioned that his team has also created a PsyOp related video intended for the recruit once they enlist, or for the current soldier who decides they want to join PsyOps. This video delves into training requirements, life at the schoolhouse and day-to-day duties of a PsyOp trainee.

    “We took a camera behind closed doors, in the areas where these individuals do their training,” he said. “Our product explains the pathway to becoming a Psychological Operations Specialist. They’re gonna see Ghosts in the Machine 2, and that will engage their interest, but when they want to see how to do it, they’ll be led to a recruiter who is equipped with our video to walk them through the steps to become a 37F Psychological Operations Specialist.”

    Since the release of the first video, there has been chatter among newer trainees who were influenced after seeing it, said Gray. “I was able to see the group of recruits that was in the class following the launch of the video. It showed the impact of what we did.”

    While it is critically acclaimed, ultimately the measure of success for Ghosts in the Machine will show up in the recruiting classes over the next half decade or so. Much like the specialty of PsyOps itself, this recruiting tool uses intentionally vague messaging to reach a very specific purpose. The message is beneath the surface, but the intent is crystal clear: fill the nation’s call and recruit the next generation of PsyOp soldiers.



    Date Taken: 04.26.2024
    Date Posted: 05.02.2024 15:27
    Story ID: 469482
    Location: US

    Web Views: 1,425
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