Hearts and Minds: History of Psychological Warfare
As with conventional warfare, innovation and technology open the door to new kinds of psychological offensives.
With today's communications technology, information travels faster and farther than ever. This advance has changed the way we communicate with one another, how we exchange goods and services, and even how we wage war.
Take the actions of the Russian government ever since it launched its not-so-clandestine offensive into Ukraine last year. Over the past month, several stories have emerged about how the Kremlin manages the "information war." Writing in The Atlantic, author Jill Dougherty explains how media is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's most powerful weapons. Similarly, Peter Pomerantsev for The Guardian finds how Russian military strategy is increasingly focused on winning not on the battlefield but in the "psychophere."
Psychological warfare may be a modern construct, but its origins trace back thousands of years. As with conventional warfare, innovation and technological advances lead to new kinds of psychological operations. Often conventional and psychological military operations go hand-in-hand.
Invented more than 5,000 years ago as a means of animal-powered transport, the chariot found its way into military use centuries later. Initially heavy chariots were used to trample enemy infantry, until lighter, two-wheeled vehicles emerged to support archers.
The chariot no doubt proved valuable for its tactical use on the battlefield. It also had the added benefit of being a means of psychological intimidation. By ancient standards, chariots, particularly those of the lighter variety, were fast, agile and durable. They also made noise and kicked up dirt and dust. Combine these characteristics together and a line of chariots charging all at once on an ancient battlefield would have been an intimidating sight for many Bronze Age adversaries.
Like the chariot, the catapult is an ancient weapon of both practical military and psychological value. Catapults are designed to weaken an enemy's fortifications during a siege, which took far longer prior to the invention of this war machine. The Greek siege of the city of Troy in 1200 B.C., for example, lasted for 10 years, according to legend.
As fortifications adapted to siege weaponry, campaigns against walled defenses took more time. In addition to the physical damage inflicted to city walls, catapults also psychologically wounded a city's inhabitants. As related in "Ancient Machine Technology: From Wheels to Forges," ancient catapults were large, with some reaching the height of a modern-day telephone pole. They could launch arrows up to 13 feet (four meters) in length or heave stones 172 pounds (78 kilograms) in size.
Soldiers would bombard cities day and night, preventing any rest for the inhabitants within the walls. Greeks and Romans also weren't above launching the heads of slain soldiers into opponents' fortifications as a means of sapping the morale of anyone inside.
Sun Tzu's "The Art of War," arguably the most famous war manual in history, contains 13 chapters dealing with governing philosophy, military strategy and battlefield tactics. Most of the book deals with the practical aspects of warfare, such as determining strategic opportunities for an attack and launching an offensive from the best terrain.
"The Art of War" also includes guidance on gaining a mental advantage over an opponent, as in this excerpt:
All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
Sun Tzu's claim that warfare is based on deception elevates the psychological element of the battlefield over the physical component.
Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general considered among the greatest military strategists in history, famously crossed the Alps in the third century B.C., bringing with his armies a number of war elephants to intimidate his Roman opponents. What soldier after all would even consider standing his ground against a giant, charging, tusked war beast?
Hannibal's use of war elephants was bold, but not completely original. The history of war elephants starts a century before Hannibal's armies entered the Iberian peninsula. The forces of Alexander the Great faced off against the military of Darius III, who had 15 elephants in his service, at the Battle of Gaugamela. The Persians borrowed the idea from the Indian armies to the east.
Although Alexander was triumphant in battle, the sight of the elephants rattled him initially. Following his victory, he incorporated the the 15 elephants from Gaugamela into his own armies, and gradually expanded the elephant corps as he won more battles against the Persians.
Whatever psychological value the elephants held in battle, Hannibal never used these animals tactically quite as effectively as they were originally intended. Most of Hannibal's war elephants perished in the Alps, and the ones that survived were ineffective against a Roman military that had developed defenses against these war beasts, their shock value diminished through experience and counter-strategy.
Genghis Khan didn't conquer more land than any human being in history with brawn alone. He used psychological tactics as a means of gaining an advantage over his opponents.
Prior to invading a new territory, Genghis would offer its rulers an opportunity to surrender, provided they pay him a tribute, often in the form of gold and manpower. If the rival government acquiesced to the Mongols' demands, they would be spared. If not, the Mongol armies would slaughter nearly everyone on the opposing side, sparing only a few to tell neighboring cities and states of what happened in order to spread fear.
Genghis also knew how to divide his opponents. Spies for the Mongols would actively gather information on a potential rival along with any weaknesses. If there were tensions among different groups, Genghis would seek to exploit them. For example, if class divisions were present, he would declare himself a liberator for the poor. But for the wealthy, he would define himself as a friend of commerce.
How did Francisco Pizarro manage to bring an entire empire, the Inca, to its knees with only 168 men? As HowStuffWorks' Josh Clark explains, the answer lies in gunpowder, horses and disease, the combination of which took a brutal physical and psychological toll on the Inca. These same factors helped explorers and conquistadors overwhelm indigenous populations throughout the Americas.
Guns and cannons are no doubt deadly, but they're also noisy and emit a bright flash upon firing. The Inca would have no precedent for these kinds of weapons and fled at the sight of them. Although Pizarro only brought 37 horses with him, these were trained military animals ready to charge an opponent, and the Inca again had never seen anything like it. Disease finally proved to have the biggest impact, destroying an estimated 95 percent of native populations within 130 years, which left psychological scars for generations.
The American Revolution was won by the colonists not simply because of military might, but also effective propaganda. The American revolutionaries' information campaign was two-pronged: casting the British army as agents of a tyrant and defining American identity, which didn't yet exist. After all, if the colonists weren't English subjects, who exactly were they? And more importantly, what did they stand for?
"The Boston Massacre." "The Boston Tea Party." "The Intolerable Acts." These were names given to the actions of and responses to a tyrant, dramatized and embellished effectively to gain public sympathy and eventually support.
The colonists also aimed their psychological operations at opposing troops. American forces would distribute leaflets comparing conditions in British camps unfavorably with those in Revolutionary bases in order to demoralize the red coats.
When the British crown enlisted tens of thousands of Hessian mercenaries for the war effort, for example, the Founding Fathers hatched various plans to encourage them to desert or defect. According to "Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency", one such plan included a letter by Benjamin Franklin written in German claiming to be from a Hessian count to a battlefield commander. The letter urges the commander to increase the number of Hessian casualties to increase the count's payment from the British. These tactics -- as well as inducements by colonists for the Hessians to abandon the British -- contributed to thousands of soldiers deserting.
World War I saw a number of advances in the science of warfare. One of the inventions devised during war was a new kind of bomb, the leaflet bomb.
A tactic tracing back to the colonial era, the use of leaflets, often written by a commander to a targeted enemy military or civilian population, expanded in World War I through various means of distribution. The British and Germans would drop leaflets from airplanes or balloons, or launch leaflet bombs using modified artillery.
The use of leaflets was so widespread by the Allies in particular that they were referenced in the memoirs of German generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff.
By the start of World War II, psychological tactics were used by all sides in order to demoralize troops and confuse or intimidate the enemy. All sides employed old technologies, such as leaflets, as well as emerging innovations. One of the most famous examples of psychological operations in the Pacific theater employed radio, a technology in its infancy during World War I but widespread by World War II, to target Americans servicemen.
"Tokyo Rose" was the name given by American GI's to a group of female, English-speaking broadcasters who served as propaganda agents on behalf of the Japanese. With the aim of encouraging American sailors to give up and go home, Tokyo Rose would tell of Japanese victories and Allied defeats.
The search for "Tokyo Rose" became a sensational story in the United States following the conclusion of the war. Two reporters eventually tracked down one Japanese American, Iva Toguri, who participated in the broadcast. Although her role was minimal, American courts convicted Toguri of treason and sentenced her to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. In 1977, President Gerald Ford pardoned Toguri after evidence surfaced that vastly undermined her conviction.
The Cold War showed how far nations were willing to go to control the "psychosphere." This era created an arms race not only in nuclear capabilities but also psychological operations. Paranoia led to all kind of bizarre experimentation to test psyops capabilities.
One of the most famous and controversial experiments during this time was Project MKUltra. MKUltra was a CIA-funded program involving dozens of American university and research institutions to identify drugs that could be used for the purposes of mind control. Tests on human subjects included combinations of hypnosis, sleep deprivation, verbal and sexual abuse, involuntary LSD administrations and even torture.
Cold War psychological operations borrowed heavily from the successes of World War II and influenced modern psyops. Both the United States and the Soviet Union set up propaganda infrastructure meant to win the information war. The United States, for example, created radio and broadcast agencies, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and Voice of America, which still exist today. In fact, the success of these networks in advancing American interests abroad and the desire for a similar outlet led the Russians to create Russia Today, or RT, in 2005, which now serves one of Moscow's major propaganda arms in the West today.