By David Hambling
The Royal Air Force has accidentally killed a young girl in Afghanistan — by dropping a box of leaflets on her. The British Ministry of Defence is carrying out a full investigation. Meanwhile, the seemingly antiquated practice of leaflet bombing continues. In the 21st century, it remains one of the primary tools of psychological warfare; U.S. Special Operations Command is even looking to build leaflet-carrying missiles. And while top American commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal has virtually banned “kinetic” air strikes, paper bombs are in regular use.
According to the BBC, the leaflet box was supposed to open in mid-air, spreading pro-coalition propaganda over rural Helmand province. But the container failed to break apart, landing on top of the girl, who died later in the hospital.
Leaflets have been used by militaries since at least the Napoleonic wars, when the British navy dropped them over France using kites. And they continue to be employed, because leaflets have some advantages over other media. Radio and TV are fine if the audience happen to be tuned in at the time, but printed matter is durable. As the U.S. Army’s Psychological Operations Field Manual explains, a printed leaflet has the advantage that it can be passed from person to person without the message being altered. It can convey a complex message which can be reinforced with pictures if the recipient is illiterate. And a leaflet can be hidden and read in private, and shared around with others.
Delivery methods have ranged from artillery and mortar shells to loose airdrop by hand to “leaflet landmines.” The M129E1/E2 Psychological Operations Leaflet Bomb weighs 200 pounds and can disperse some 60,000 to 80,000 leaflets which are scattered by a length of detonator cord.