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Psychological warfare (PSYWAR), or the basic aspects of modern psychological operations (PSYOP), have been known by many other names or terms, including Psy Ops, Political Warfare, “Hearts and Minds,” and Propaganda.[1] Various techniques are used, by any set of groups, and aimed to influence a target audience's value systems, belief systems, emotions, motives, reasoning, or behavior. It is used to induce confessions or reinforce attitudes and behaviors favorable to the originator's objectives, and are sometimes combined with black operations or false flag tactics. Target audiences can be governments, organizations, groups, and individuals.

The U.S. Department of Defense defines psychological warfare as:

"The planned use of propaganda and other psychological actions having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives."[2]

During World War II the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff defined psychological warfare more broadly stating "Psychological warfare employs any weapon to influence the mind of the enemy. The weapons are psychological only in the effect they produce and not because of the weapons themselves."[3]


Alexander the Great

Although not always accredited as the first practitioner of psychological warfare, Alexander the Great undoubtedly showed himself to be effective in swaying the mindsets of the populaces that were conquered in his campaigns.

To keep the new Macedonian state and assortment of powerful Greek tribes from revolting against their leader, Alexander the Great left some of his men behind in each city to introduce Greek culture, control it, oppress dissident views, and interbreed. Alexander paid his soldiers to marry non-Greek women. He wanted to assimilate people of all nations.

The Mongols

Chinggis Khan, leader of the Mongols in the 13th century AD, united his people to eventually create the largest contiguous empire in human history. Defeating the will of the enemy was the top priority.

Before attacking a settlement, the Mongol generals demanded submission to the Khan, and threatened the initial villages with complete destruction if they refused to surrender. After winning the battle, the Mongol generals fulfilled their threats and massacred the survivors.

Examples include the destruction of the nations of Kiev and Khwarizm. Consequently, tales of the encroaching horde spread to the next villages and created an aura of insecurity that undermined the possibility of future resistance.

Subsequent nations were much more likely to surrender to the Mongols without fighting. Often this, as much as the Mongols' tactical prowess, secured quick Mongol victories.

Chinngis Khan also employed tactics that made his numbers seem greater than they actually were. During night operations he ordered each soldier to light three torches at dusk to give the illusion of an overwhelming army and deceive and intimidate enemy scouts. He also sometimes had objects tied to the tails of his horses, so that riding on open and dry fields raised a cloud of dust that gave the enemy the impression of great numbers. His soldiers used arrows specially notched to whistle as they flew through the air, creating a terrifying noise.

The Mongols also employed other gruesome terror tactics to weaken the will to resist. One infamous incident occurred during Tamerlane's Indian campaign. Tamerlane, an heir to the Mongol martial tradition, built a pyramid of 90,000 human heads in front of the walls of Delhi, to convince them to surrender.

Other tactics included firing severed human heads from catapults into enemy lines and over city walls to frighten enemy soldiers and citizens and spread diseases in the close confines of a besieged city. The results were thus not only psychological since in 1347, the Mongols under Janibeg catapulted corpses infected with plague into the trading city of Kaffa in Crimea. The dismayed Genoese traders withdrew, bringing the plague back with them to Italy and beginning the European phase of the Black Death.[citation needed]

Vlad Tepes

Vlad Tepes physically and psychologically tortured his enemies. His most well-known psychological tactic was an incident involving impalement (earning him the title "Vlad the Impaler"), where he had the bodies of thousands of Ottoman soldiers suspended in the air, impaled through the heart or rectum with sharpened stakes.

Spanish Civil War: Queipó del Llano

After the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the Nationalist General Queipó del Llano started broadcasting transmissions to be heard by Republican zone listeners. He described in detail the horrors listeners would suffer if they resisted Nationalist troops. The fear he spread inflicted severe damage to Republican morale. His transmissions were shut down by Serrano Súñer.

World War II

File:8th Air Force psychological warfare leaflet.jpg

An example of a World War II era leaflet meant to be dropped from an American B-17 over a German city. Click here for a translation.

One of the first leaders to inexorably gain fanatical support through the use of microphone technology was Nazi Germany's Adolf Hitler. By first creating a speaking environment, designed by Joseph Goebbels, he was able to exaggerate his presence to make him seem almost messianic. Hitler also coupled this with the resonating projections of his orations for effect. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made similar use of radio for propaganda against the Nazis.

During World War II, psychological warfare was used by the military. The invasion of Normandy was considered successful in part because of the displayed fusion of psychological warfare and military deception.[citation needed]

As an example, before D-Day, Operation Quicksilver, one element of operation Fortitude, which itself was part of a larger deception strategy (Operation Bodyguard), created a fictional "First United States Army Group" (FUSAG) commanded by General George Patton that supposedly would invade France at the Pas-de-Calais. American troops used false signals, decoy installations and phony equipment to deceive German observation aircraft and radio interception operators.

When the actual invasion began, the success of Fortitude was that it misled the German High Command into believing the landings were a diversion and of keeping reserves away from the beaches. Erwin Rommel was the primary target of the psychological aspects of this operation. Convinced that Patton would lead the invasion, Rommel was caught off-guard and unable to react strongly to the Normandy invasion, as Patton's illusory FUSAG had not "yet" landed. Confidence in his own intelligence and judgement rendered the German response to the beachhead ineffectual.

Modern psychological warfare operations

Most uses of the term psychological warfare refers to military methods such as:

  • Distributing pamphlets, e.g. in the Gulf War, encouraging desertion or (in World War II) supplying instructions on how to surrender
  • Propaganda radio stations, such as Lord Haw-Haw in World War II on the "Germany calling" station
  • Renaming cities and other places when captured, such as Ho Chi Minh City
  • Shock and awe military strategy
  • Projecting repetitive and annoying sounds and music for long periods at high volume towards groups under siege. In Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops used music, most commonly American heavy metal or rock music, to confuse or scare insurgents.
  • Use of loudspeaker systems to communicate with enemy soldiers
  • Direct phone calls to intimidate enemy commanding officers and their families

Most of these techniques were developed during World War II or earlier, and have been used to some degree in every conflict since. Daniel Lerner was in the OSS (the predecessor to the US CIA) and in his book, attempts to analyze how effective the various strategies were.

He concludes that there is little evidence that any of them were dramatically successful, except perhaps surrender instructions over loudspeakers when victory was imminent. It should be noted, though, that measuring the success or failure of psychological warfare is very hard, as the conditions are very far from being a controlled experiment.



The other side of the above leaflet. This is the text of a speech given by Franklin D. Roosevelt, translated into German. Click here for a translation.

In the German Bundeswehr, the Zentrum Operative Information and its subordinate Bataillon für Operative Information 950 are responsible for the PSYOP efforts (called Operative Information in German). Both the center and the battalion are subordinate to the new Streitkräftebasis (Joint Services Support Command, SKB) and together consist of about 1,200 soldiers specialising in modern communication and media technologies. One project of the German PSYOP forces is the radio station Stimme der Freiheit (Sada-e Azadi, Voice of Freedom),[4] heard by thousands of Afghans. Another is the publication of various newspapers and magazines in Kosovo and Afghanistan, where German soldiers serve with NATO.

United Kingdom

In the British Armed Forces, PSYOPS are handled by the tri-service 15 Psychological Operations Group. (See also MI5 and Secret Intelligence Service). The British were one of the first major military powers to use psychological warfare in World War II, especially against the Japanese. The Gurkhas, who are Nepalese soldiers in British service, have always been feared by the enemy due to their use of a curved knife called the kukri.

The British used this fear to great effect, as Gurkhas were used to terrorize Japanese soldiers through nighttime raids on their camps.

United States

See also Psychological Operations (United States)

The purpose of United States psychological operations is to induce or reinforce attitudes and behaviors favorable to US objectives. The Special Activities Division (SAD) is a division of the Central Intelligence Agency's National Clandestine Service, responsible for Covert Action and "Special Activities". These special activities include covert political influence (which includes psychological operations) and paramilitary operations.[5] SAD's political influence group is the only US unit allowed to conduct these operations covertly and is considered the primary unit in this area.[5]

Dedicated psychological operations units exist in the United States Army. The United States Navy also plans and executes limited PSYOP missions. United States PSYOP units and soldiers of all branches of the military are prohibited by law from targeting U.S. citizens with PSYOP within the borders of the United States(Executive Order S-1233, DOD Directive S-3321.1, and National Security Decision Directive 130.) While United States Army PSYOP units may offer non-PSYOP support to domestic military missions, they can only target foreign audiences. However, domestic Federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI are exempt from the above-mentioned law.[citation needed]

During the Waco Siege, the FBI and BATF conducted psychological operations on the men, women and children inside the Mount Carmel complex. This included using loudspeakers to play sounds of animals being slaughtered, drilling noises and clips from talk shows about how much their leader David Koresh was hated. In addition, very bright, flashing lights were used at night.[6]

The United States ran an extensive program of psychological warfare during the Vietnam War. The Phoenix Program had the dual aim of assassinating Viet Cong personnel and terrorizing any potential sympathizers or passive supporters.

When members of the VCI were assassinated, CIA and Special Forces operatives placed playing cards in the mouth of the deceased as a calling card. During the Phoenix Program, over 19,000 Viet Cong supporters were killed.[7]

The CIA made extensive use of Contra death squads in Nicaragua to destabilize the Sandinista government, which the U.S. maintained was communist.[8] The CIA used psychological warfare techniques against the Panamanians by broadcasting pirate TV broadcasts. The CIA has extensively used propaganda broadcasts against the Cuban government through TV Marti, based in Miami, Florida. However, the Cuban government has been somewhat successful in jamming the signal of TV Marti.

In the Iraq War, the United States used the shock and awe campaign to psychologically maim, and break the will of the Iraqi Army to fight.

Lerner's categories of psychological warfare

Lerner divides psychological warfare operations into three categories:[9][page needed]

White [Omissions + Emphasis] 
Truthful and not strongly biased, where the source of information is acknowledged.
Grey [Omissions + Emphasis + Racial/Ethnic/Religious Bias] 
Largely truthful, containing no information that can be proven wrong; the source may or may not be hidden.
Black [Commissions of falsification]
Intended to deceive the enemy.

Lerner points out that grey and black operations ultimately have a heavy cost, in that the target population sooner or later recognizes them as propaganda and discredits the source. He writes, "This is one of the few dogmas advanced by Sykewarriors that is likely to endure as an axiom of propaganda: Credibility is a condition of persuasion. Before you can make a man do as you say, you must make him believe what you say."[9]Template:Rp Consistent with this idea, the Allied strategy in World War II was predominantly one of truth (with certain exceptions)[citation needed].

See also


US specific:

World War 2:




  2. Phil Taylor (1987). "Glossary of Relevant Terms & Acronyms Propaganda and Psychological Warfare Studies University of Leeds UK". University of Leeds UK. Retrieved 2008-04-19.
  3. From "Overall Strategic Plan for the United States' Psychological Warfare, " 1 March 1943, JCS Records, Strategic Issues, Reel 11. Quoted in Robert H. Keyserlingk (July 1990). Austria in World War II. McGill-Queen's University Press. pp. 131. ISBN 0773508007.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Executive Secrets: Covert Action and the Presidency, William J. Daugherty, University of Kentucky Press, 2004.
  6. Waco footage at 3:00 minutes.
  7. Special operation - Phoenix
  8. "Is the U.S. Organizing Salvador-Style Death Squads in Iraq?". Democracy Now!. 2005-01-10. Retrieved 2008-12-16.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Daniel Lerner. Psychological Warfare Against Nazi Germany: The Sykewar Campaign, D-Day to VE-Day. ISBN 0-262-12045-3 or 0-262-62019-7 (1949). George W. Stewart, New York; Reprinted (1971) MIT Press.


  • Fred Cohen. Frauds, Spies, and Lies - and How to Defeat Them. ISBN 1-878109-36-7 (2006). ASP Press.
  • Fred Cohen. World War 3 ... Information Warfare Basics. ISBN 1-878109-40-5 (2006). ASP Press.
  • Gagliano Giuseppe. Agitazione sovversiva,guerra psicologica e terrorismo nel movimento del 68 e del 77 Editrice Uniservice,2010 .
  • Paul M. A. Linebarger. Psychological Warfare. International Propaganda and Communications. ISBN 0-405-04755-X (1948). Revised second edition, Duell, Sloan and Pearce (1954).

External links

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