In warfare, psychological warfare refers to tactics intended to reduce an opponent’s morale and will to fight. This can include tactics related to fear and intimidation, deception, and surprise. Militaries have long used psychological warfare to gain an advantage over opponents, allowing them to accomplish more without risking their soldiers’ lives or valuable armaments. Psychological warfare can also be used during peacetime to intimidate rivals into delaying or abandoning military intervention. Here we will look at both the ancient and modern eras of psychological warfare and how various militaries gained powerful advantages over opponents, even when they were militarily weaker. Today, psychological warfare, or ‘psyops’ is a common tool of modern military planning.
Ancient Psyops 1: War Elephants
As the tallest terrestrial animal on the planet, few creatures are as intimidating as an elephant. Add body armor and some blades or spikes to tusks, and you have a fearsome battle beast! Used in Africa and India, both African and Asian elephants were incorporated into armies. In India, war elephants were so common that they were entire corps of militaries. While not completely invincible, an elephant could easily sweep individual soldiers aside by swinging its massive head. Famously, horses were often intimidated by larger elephants and could refuse to charge into battle facing them.
However, the psychological warfare inflicted on opponents by war elephants could be countered. Famously, flaming pigs were used to terrify war elephants, which could turn around and trample their own soldiers in an attempt to escape. If an elephant panicked, it could cause almost as much damage to its own troops as the enemy! Thus, using war elephants was a high-risk strategy. Although the Romans successfully overcame war elephants–at tremendous cost–when fighting the Egyptians and Carthaginians, they came to adopt some for themselves, although mainly for entertainment and spectacle.
Ancient Psyops 2: Mongol Deal-Making
Over a thousand years after war elephants terrified the Romans, the cavalry forces of the Mongol Empire terrified cities from the Pacific Ocean to present-day Ukraine. The Mongols used effective psychological warfare against targeted cities by offering a deal: surrender and pay tribute to the Mongol Empire or face total destruction. The offer of a relatively generous deal made the prospect of brutal combat against highly trained and disciplined Mongol forces that much more painful. As a result, many cities and fortresses chose to become vassal states of the Mongol Empire–taxation rather than combat. To help ensure that most decided to surrender, the Mongols made sure to leave some survivors of each massacre who could spread the word of how brutal the Mongols could be.
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The Mongols expanded much more rapidly by being able to pacify potential foes with their deal-making. Similarly, cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar in Colombia in the 1980s used the deal of plata o plomo (silver or lead) to convince many law enforcement officials to turn a blind eye to his illegal activities. By offering the proverbial carrot or stick, Escobar benefited when most potential opponents chose the carrot. Like the Mongols, this allowed Escobar to expand rapidly and avoid armed conflicts that could have taken him down sooner. But just like how the Mongol Empire eventually fell apart, so did Escobar’s drug empire. The drug lord was shot dead on December 2, 1993, while fleeing police in Medellin, Colombia.
Ancient Psyops 3: Vlad the Impaler’s Showmanship
If challenged, the Mongols had the military might to conquer virtually any foe and could be plenty brutal about it. However, Vlad the Impaler takes the term “brutality” to another level entirely. In 1456, at about age 25, Vlad III of Walachia defeated his primary rival for leadership, Vladislav II, in hand-to-hand combat and became the leader of the Transylvania region of present-day Romania. He ruthlessly executed just about anyone he did not like, ranging from petty criminals to potential political rivals and their families. Famously, he used impaling as his favored punishment, possibly learned during his childhood with the Ottoman Turks.
Having victims impaled on vertical poles allowed Vlad to visually intimidate potential foes. Despite his brutality, Vlad was tolerated–and even celebrated–throughout Europe for militarily defeating and otherwise terrifying the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. Famously, invading Ottoman sultan Mehmed II turned back when he encountered thousands of impaled bodies outside the city of Targoviste. Vlad’s sickening showmanship prevented a bloody showdown…at least that time. Later, Vlad the Impaler’s violent ways ended with his own violent death in 1476, when he was ambushed and beheaded on his way into battle.
Modern Psyops 1: Boer War & Siege of Mafeking
During the late 1890s, Britain wanted to unite all of South Africa into one colony. Inland, the Boer republics, of primarily Dutch heritage, resisted the influx of British people. In the autumn of 1899, war erupted between the British Empire and the much smaller, but highly skilled and determined Boer republics. The Boers laid siege to several British towns and garrisons and upset the military reinforcements who came to relieve them, which shocked the world. Using modern weapons and guerrilla tactics, the Boers were able to outmaneuver British forces that were used to fighting poorly armed natives.
One of the forts that the Boers besieged was Mafeking, where the roles were reversed. Here, a handful of British soldiers used clever deceptions to trick the surrounding Boers into thinking the garrison was more heavily defended. The Brits, including the future founder of the Scouting movement, Robert Baden-Powell, pretended to establish minefields and barbed-wire fences, which convinced the Boers not to attack. After 217 days, British reinforcements arrived and broke the siege in May 1900.
Modern Psyops 2: World War I Propaganda & Leaflets
While most people are familiar with the use of propaganda to bolster support for a war on the home front, World War I saw the use of anti-war propaganda intended to sap enemy morale and convince them to surrender. Already suffering from the industrialized war that saw the wide-scale introduction of machine guns, modern artillery, poison gas warfare, and even the first armored tanks, German troops were bombarded with leaflets announcing their efforts were futile. Some German troops surrendered and asked for the rations promised in the leaflets, perhaps hastening the war’s end.
Future wars saw the use of propaganda leaflets on both sides. They could be dropped by planes or released from artillery shells. World War II saw both Axis and Allied powers try to convince soldiers from the other side to surrender and that they were being used as pawns for the elites. In addition to leaflets, both Germany and Japan used English-speaking radio broadcasts as propaganda. Both Allied and Axis broadcasts (and leaflets) tried to reduce enemy morale by claiming that the war was going according to plan for their side.
Modern Psyops 3: Nazi Rallies Fake Military Might
After World War I, Germany was forced to disarm. In the early 1930s, Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany and embarked on a policy of rearming the nation. Part of the Nazis’ aesthetic was massive rallies that featured displays of strength and vigor, intended to both inspire Germans and intimidate potential foes. Famously, the rallies featured over a hundred powerful searchlights aimed at the sky. This cathedral of light used most of Germany’s searchlights, but their use at political rallies tricked nations like France and Britain into believing that Germany must have had many more not in use.
The use of Nazi rallies and aggressive propaganda likely led to Britain and France not trying to check Germany’s rearmament. Germany re-occupied the Rhineland and took control of Czechoslovakia in 1938. In retrospect, Germany was not militarily prepared to fight France and Britain in 1938, and the appeasement shown to Germany at the Munich Conference only led Europe further down the path to World War II. However, the Nazis’ skillful propaganda during the 1930s convinced many that it was ready and willing to fight and win.
Modern Psyops 4: Ghost Armies vs. Nazi Saboteurs
While World War I saw largely static trench warfare for much of the conflict, especially on the Western Front in France, World War II was much more maneuverable and complex. After the D-Day invasion of France in June 1944, the US used ghost armies of lightweight, artificial equipment, including inflatable tanks, to fool the enemy. In addition to physical decoys, ghost army units also used fake radio chatter and sounds of military action on loudspeakers to convince the Germans that forces were elsewhere than they actually were…or much larger than they actually were. Believing they were facing large units up to 35-40 times their actual size, the Germans chose to disengage rather than fight, potentially saving tens of thousands of Allied troops.
However, the Germans had their own tools of psychological warfare. In late 1944, as Germany planned a final major offensive to re-take lost territory in France and Belgium, it enlisted commando leader Otto Skorzeny to run an ambitious sabotage operation. Skorzeny, famous for rescuing imprisoned Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in September 1943, was a feared opponent. Operation Greif was intended to sow fear and confusion in the American lines during the Ardennes Offensive by implanting German agents in American uniforms who were fluent in English. These agents could then destroy equipment, plant false information, and basically run amok. Discovery that this was occurring did lead to temporary panic among US forces, but fortunately had little effect on the military situation.
Modern Psyops 5: Nazi Wunderwaffe
After its unsuccessful Ardennes Offensive, known in the United States as the Battle of the Bulge, there was only one possible way for Germany to end the war in anything other than total defeat: Wunderwaffe. These “wonder weapons” were high-tech aeronautical wonders that included the Me-262 fighter jet, Me-263 rocket fighter, V-1 jet-powered buzz bomb, and V-2 long-range rocket. From September 1944 until late in the war, the V-2 rocket inflicted painful gouges on the London landscape. The V-2 was terrifying because it was supersonic and unstoppable; it could not be heard coming and could not be intercepted.
Although the V-2 only killed some 2,700 people in Britain, it was feared that the V-2 could potentially be launched from ships in the Atlantic at American cities. While Germany undoubtedly hoped that fear of its Wunderwaffe would bring the Allies to the negotiating table, it likely only increased their resolve to push for unconditional surrender. Ultimately, the capture of Me-262 fighter jets and V-2 rockets at the end of World War II in Europe greatly advanced aeronautic technology in the United States.
Modern Psyops 6: Espionage Rings & Red Scare
While espionage has long been a part of war, few were more active in modern espionage than the Soviet Union. At the end of World War II, it was revealed that spies had helped the Soviet Union gain secrets from the Manhattan Project. Active Soviet spy rings helped the USSR develop its own atomic bomb by 1949, erasing the American “trump card” that it had held. It was revealed in late 1945 that Soviet spying was not limited to atomic secrets but general classified information as well. In 1952, it was discovered that a wooden carving of the Great Seal of the United States given to the US ambassador by the USSR contained a listening device.
The early Cold War saw a sweeping hysteria about communist infiltration of American society. This Second Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s saw politicians investigate alleged communist links of fellow politicians, government employees, and media figures. The communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, resulting in the rise of Red China, only amplified tensions. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea a year later, resulting in the US leading a military response in the Korean War, fear of communism grew further. Fortunately, none of the espionage–real and suspected–led to war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Modern Psyops 7: Spooky Recordings vs. Booby Traps
After the Korean War, America next took up arms against communists in Vietnam a decade later. This time, the conflict mainly saw guerrilla warfare in a jungle environment rather than conventional warfare. Both the US military and the North Vietnamese military (and their Viet Cong guerrilla allies) looked for psychological warfare advantages to sap the morale of their enemies. The US used spooky tape recordings in Operation Wandering Soul to play on the superstitions of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, hoping to get them to desert their positions. Success was mixed, with enemy soldiers sometimes discovering the ruse and firing on the speakers or the recordings, spooking South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians as well as the intended targets.
For their part, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong also played on Americans’ anxieties. They used deadly booby traps to sap soldiers’ morale. Knowing that you could be maimed or killed anywhere, even with no sign of an enemy present, made many soldiers question the war effort. Between 1966 and 1971, US military morale plummeted as the Vietnam War dragged on, and little seemed to be accomplished. Some soldiers in Vietnam turned to illegal drug use to cope with continual anxiety and harsh conditions.
Modern Psyops 8: Loud Music Breaks Enemies’ Will
While much of psychological warfare is intended to frighten or deceive an enemy, some is just intended to tire them out. In December 1989, the US invaded Panama to oust drug-dealing dictator Manuel Noriega, whose police forces had just brutalized and threatened Americans in the country. With 13,000 American soldiers already in Panama thanks to the American-controlled Panama Canal, the additional 13,000 troops brought in during the swift invasion had little trouble defeating Noriega’s forces. But Noriega himself managed to flee to the Vatican City embassy in Panama City.
Storming a foreign embassy is a sociopolitical no-go, so the US had little choice but to wait and see. To break Noriega’s will, the military blasted hard rock at full volume at the embassy. Sure enough, Noriega eventually surrendered. The US continued using loudspeaker psyops during the Gulf War (1990-91), using Humvee-mounted speakers to convince Iraqi soldiers to surrender. A notable success was a combined loudspeaker and leaflet effort convincing 1,400 Iraqi soldiers to surrender to a much smaller force of US Marines.
Modern Psyops 9: Shock and Awe Air Wars
In early 1991, Operation Desert Storm commenced with a massive US-led bombing campaign against Iraq. The mass coordination of computer- and satellite-guided smart weapons decimated Iraqi military targets. This swift campaign featuring the most modern military technology became known as “shock and awe,” with enemy forces having little hope of defending themselves with obsolete, Soviet-era weapons. The speed, precision, and impact of expensive American air weapons convinced many Iraqi forces to surrender quickly when ground forces rolled in.
The US repeated its shock and awe air attacks in Afghanistan after September 11 and in Iraq again in early 2003. In both cases, the enemy surrendered quickly: the Taliban regime in Afghanistan put up little organized resistance, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein saw his forces surrender en masse after the US invasion in March 2003. Shock and awe undoubtedly helped demoralize these enemy forces, both of which were touted beforehand as hardened fighters. Few things can frighten an enemy like showing you can strike fast and hard without being hit back in return.
Summary: Keeping the Enemy on Their Toes Can Exhaust Their Will to Fight
Not all psychological warfare is intended to hurt enemy soldiers. Some, such as Winning Hearts and Minds initiatives, can help US forces by appealing to local civilian populations. If locals begin to sympathize and side with American troops, enemy forces will have fewer resources to work with. From false shows to strength to undetectable booby traps to spooky and anxiety-inducing audio recordings, there is a myriad of ways to wear an enemy down by keeping them constantly guessing. Soldiers can handle tremendous odds, but the anxiety of not knowing what sort of threat is coming can wear down even the toughest warrior.
Today, psychological warfare, or psyops, is a regular part of all military planning. The US Army has posted positions in this field, ideally for those skilled in communications and diplomacy. Those with extra skills, such as foreign language skills, may be recruited to do psyops as part of special forces. Whenever there are potential foes, you can be assured that the US military and intelligence communities are analyzing ways to psychologically weaken and intimidate them.