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by James Corbett
October 23, 2012
Psyops, or psychological operations, is a term used to describe the techniques of psychological manipulation used in warfare. These operations are used to deceive, confuse, disrupt and demoralize the enemy, with an aim toward weakening enemy resistance or even causing enemy forces to surrender and enemy populations to capitulate.
As the flip-side to the ancient wisdom that knowledge is key to all successful warfare strategies, the art of deliberately sewing deception has been understood and practiced for thousands of years.
Over 2000 years ago, the use of deception and psychological manipulation as a tool of combat was detailed in Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:
“All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, when capable of attacking, feign incapacity; when active in moving troops, feign inactivity.”
More than a mere theory, though, psychological warfare has been used since the dawn of recorded history.
One of the earliest and simplest examples of psyops trickery occurred over 3000 years ago in the Trojan War. In a bid to end the war, the Greeks pretended to sail away, leaving a giant wooden horse as an offering to the goddess Athena. The Trojans, believing themselves to have finally won the battle, took the horse into Troy as a victory trophy. As the legend goes, the horse in fact contained a team of Greek soldiers, who slipped out of the horse in the night, opening the city gates for their compatriots who had sailed back under cover of night. The Greeks took the city that night and ended a 10-year siege with one simple act of psyops trickery.
Another oft-recounted tale of psychological warfare from the ancient world revolved around Alexander the Great. Contemplating a retreat during one of his Asian campaigns, he was worried that the enemy forces would pursue his army. He is said to have had an oversized suit of armor casted and left behind when his forces withdrew, so that when the enemy found it they would believe him and his men to be giants, dissuading them from pursuit.
Genghis Khan’s marauding Mongolian hordes were likewise helped by coordinated psyops campaigns. In advance of those campaigns, he would send emissaries to targeted settlements to spread word of the fearsome Mongolian army and to demand surrender. When facing an enemy, Genghis Khan would order his troops to light three torches at night to give the impression of greater numbers, and attach instruments to horse’s tails so the dust clouds in their wake would make a small force appear much larger.
But in the modern age, just as the 20th century gave rise to new techniques of warfare, so too did it see the birth of new methods of psyops, deception and propaganda. The dawn of the age of air travel began the age of the aerial bombardment. So, too, did it give rise to the idea of dropping leaflets on enemy installations urging enemy forces to surrender. Nationalists in the Spanish civil war used loudspeakers to broadcast messages into Republican areas urging them to give up the fight. In the Pacific theater in World War II, Tokyo Rose broadcast Japanese propaganda messages meant to demoralize American GIs. Many of these simple techniques of propaganda dissemination are still used today, like this NATO propaganda broadcast from Italy via shortwave dissuading Libyans from resisting the NATO invasion last year.
In modern times, the violent, destructive and immoral nature of psyops have been sanitized for mass consumption by domestic populations and conquering armies alike. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the modern American army, which has been producing propaganda on the benevolent, helpful nature of psychological warfare for decades now.
Although the method of presentation may have changed, the core methods and practices at the heart of US psyops have remained essentially unchanged for much of the last century. Modern psyops techniques include many of the same ideas that have been used since the formation of the modern psychological warfare program. With the advent of cyberspace, however, militaries around the world are preparing themselves to fight a new form of information warfare in the newest battlefront: the internet.
Just as the airplane and the radio opened up new channels for disseminating propaganda and false information, so too has the advent of the internet allowed militaries around the globe to bring psyops tactics into the cyber arena. In the American context, this cyberwarfare concept is coordinated under CYBERCOM, a sub-unit of STRATCOM, one of the nine unified commands under the Department of Defense. Although little is directly known about the current operational tactics and methods that are being deployed to bring psyops campaigns to the digital domain, numerous treatises, papers, articles and open discussions are taking place in military journals, strategy documents, and congressional subcommittees over the vital role that the internet is set to play in 21st century psychological warfare campaigns.
There are many aspects of the psychological warfare program that we will examine in coming weeks: the controversy over its use domestically; the manipulation and creation of fake news; the use of psychological warfare in modern conflicts. But one of the most striking elements of modern psyops is how much of it is aimed at the troops themselves.
For decades now, troops have been trained to believe that psyops are little more than an adjunct to the PR campaigns that are used to sell military campaigns abroad. Inherently neutral, or even positive, in nature, they help in the creation of good relations between the marauding imperial forces and what is euphemistically referred to as the “host” nation. In reality, modern psyops tactics are the same as they have always been: the use of deception and persuasion to gain advantage over enemy forces. Just because we live in a unipolar world with just one military force capable of projecting its power and deploying its troops anywhere in the globe does not mean that that military is not constantly engaging in deception and psywar tactics to gain strategic advantage over its erstwhile “allies” and “partners” across the globe.
In an ironic twist, perhaps it is the soldiers themselves who are the first victims of the psywar propaganda.