January 10, 2023 / Günseli Yalcinkaya / Dazed - “I’m not the American dream, I’m more like the American nightmare,” beams the influencer known as Haylujan in a video to her 363k TikTok followers. With full-face E-girl make-up, drawn-on freckles and a rosy nose, the 20-year-old is the face of an unsettling new breed of E-girl garnering millions of views online. She posts thirst traps inside choppers and pouty selfies with assault rifles, with hashtags like #pewpew and #militarycurves. She shares cutesy unboxing compilations and make-up tutorials, Get Ready With Me videos and lip syncs. She jokes about war bunkers and plays with remote control tanks, which she overlays with sparkly filters and heart emojis.
Known in esoteric meme circles as the psy-op girl, Haylujan, also known simply as Lujan, is a self-described “psychological operations specialist” for the US Army, whose online presence has led to countless memes speculating that she is a post-ironic psy-op meant to recruit people into the US army. Lujan, who’s actually employed by the US army psy-ops division, posts countless TikToks and memes that play into this (her official website is called sikeops). “My own taxes used to psy-op me,” says one commenter. “Definitely a fed (I’m signing up for the army now)” writes another.
But Haylujan isn’t the only E-girl using Sanrio sex appeal to lure the internet’s SIMPs into the armed forces. There’s Bailey Crespo and Kayla Salinas, not to mention countless #miltok gunfluencers cropping up online. While she didn’t document her military career, influencer Bella Porch also served in the US Navy for four years before going viral on TikTok in 2020, and is arguably the blueprint for this kind of kawaii commodified fetishism in the military. An adjacent figure, Natalia Fadeev, also known as Gun Waifu, is an Israeli influencer and IDF soldier who uses waifu aesthetics and catgirl cosplay to pedal pro-Israel propaganda to her 756k followers. She poses to camera, ahegao-style, with freshly manicured nails wrapped neatly around a glock, the uWu-ification of military functioning as a cutesy distraction from the shadowy colonial context: “when they try and destroy your nation,” she writes in one caption.
We’ve entered an era of military-funded E-girl warfare. In what would’ve felt unimaginable only a few years back, influencers are the hottest new weapon in the government’s arsenal. Here, cosplay commandos post nationalist thirst traps to mobilise the SIMPs, attracting the sort of impressionable reply guys and 4chan lostbois who message “OMG DM me🔥” on every post. Sanitising the harsh realities of US imperialism with cute E-girl-isms, it promotes the sort of hypersexualised militarism that reframes violence as something cute, goofy and unthreatening – a subversion of the beefy special forces stereotype in the mainstream. Arguably far more unsettling than any 20th-century CIA covert ops, there’s no hush-hush to this operation. Rather it hides in plain sight, capitalising on online irony to lull you into a false sense of security with #relatable content and the sort of tapped-in memery that can only come from years of being terminally online (she’s just like me, fr).
“Don’t go to college, become a farmer or a soldier instead,” Lujan urges her audience in a recent TikTok, before going on an anti-liberal rant about the metaverse and Impossible Burgers. Realistically, it’s not that the US army is actively funnelling trad ideology via a 20-year-old influencer – posting hot girl content as a soldier online benefits Lujan’s personal brand too – but when you consider how enlistment rates among Gen Z have plummeted, unofficial pro-military content like Lujan’s undeniably plays into the US army’s motives. See: “When the Army spends $100 million on advertisement each year just to get ratio’d by a 21-year-old girl with a Tiktok.”
A logical next step in the military entertainment complex (the US army has long collaborated with Hollywood to provide equipment and funding to promote patriotic war cinema), the popularity of army influencers suggests new ways in which online culture can be manipulated to sway Gen Z. Last year it was reported that the US Army allocated millions of dollars to recruit Twitch influencers to “create original content videos showcasing the wide range of skill sets offered by the Army”, and to use influencers to “familiarise [their] fans on Army values and opportunities”. While this was mainly focused on eSports and Call of Duty, it’s no far stretch to imagine this marketing drive aimed at E-girls too – a theory that becomes all the more convincing when you consider the US psy-ops motto to “persuade, change, influence”.
“The targeted attempt (by the US Army specifically) to recruit Gen Z has led to several online gaffes, but social media remains one of their most powerful recruitment tools,” says David Noel, an internet researcher and former army vet. “The open-secret nature of these influencers is part of the intrigue. Other militaries use E-girls influencers who deny any official connection, whereas someone like Lunchbaglujan capitalises on the speculation. While people debate what’s real and what’s fake, the real psy-op is the normalisation of military recruitment through social media. E-girl army influencers undermine the reality and history of the US military while changing our conception of what it means to be a soldier.”