It feels like a lost cutscene from Metal Gear Solid V. The camera pans through pine barrens and focuses on a cartoon ghost tied to a twig. Letters float on the screen while Danica Dora sings Last Goodbye. “Born from the ashes,” the words say. “Of a world at war.” Then comes a jumbled collection of images and words, all while the background music builds intensity. A ghostly cartoon from the 1930s, a train car, Chinese troops marching, and American soldiers walking through the woods with white masks over their faces.
This is no video game cutscene. It’s a recruitment ad for the Army’s 4th PSYOP group.
As first spotted by Task & Purpose, the ad—titled “GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE”—dropped on the 4th PSYOP Group’s YouTube page on May 2, 2022 and has racked up 255,000 views since then. It’s less of a direct pitch to join the U.S. Army than it is a collection of images and sounds that evoke a strong emotional response. The song, images, and message create a creeping sense of dread in the viewer.
“We are everywhere,” the ad says before showing a dancing cartoon ghost on a TV engulfed in flame. “A feeling in the dark. A message in the stars. Ghosts in the machine. What, are we? PSYWAR.”
The U.S. Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group are part of the Army’s broader Psychological Operations field, which is a specialization of the Special Operations Forces. The goal, according to the recruitment website, is to bring in “unconventional minds” to “persuade, change, and influence” the world.
Colonel Chris Stangle, commander of the 4th PSYOP group, told Task & Purpose that the group created the video itself. According to Stangle, the goal was to make a video that explained what PSYOPs did while also serving as a recruitment ad.
The ad is certainly affecting. It’s memorable in a way that many American military recruitment ads haven’t been since a Marine fought a lava monster back in 1998. All branches of the U.S. military are having trouble meeting their recruitment goals. It’s led them to try some interesting new methods of reaching young people like streaming on Twitch.
Even in a world of streaming video games and on demand TV, a short video on YouTube still has the power to go viral and bring millions of eyes. Especially when it plays on latent fears and questions young people have about the world. “Have you ever wondered,” GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE asks at the top. “Who’s pulling the strings?”
The answer implicit in the ad is that the Army’s 4th PSYOP group is pulling the strings. For a young person looking for answers in an increasingly complicated and weird world, the promise of secret knowledge and the power to act on it is a compelling offer.