Ronnie S. Stangler, MD


Medscape General Medicine. 2003;5(1) 

In This Article


Well in advance of any military invasion of Iraq, the United States has already deployed a weapon that recognizes the key nature of human psyche to the ultimate unfolding of any military campaign: psychological operations (PSYOPS) use information for its powers of influencing thoughts and emotions. This paper will address a brief history of PSYOPS, their current status in Iraq, and a perspective about their likely transformation in the Information Age.

"There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare."
      Sun Tzu, c. 500 BC[1]

"Psychological operations (PSYOPS) are operations planned to convey selected information and indicators to targeted foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of PSYOPS is to induce or reinforce attitudes and behavior that supports US national policy objectives."[2]

An understanding of human behavior, cultural and historical knowledge and sensitivity, and communication and technology expertise are elements of effective PSYOPS, the dissemination of truthful information to foreign audiences in support of national objectives during peace, conflict, and war. While still controversial in their application, PSYOPS are to be distinguished from "black propaganda," the propagation of frank untruths. Only last year, the Bush government was forced to abandon its plans for the controversial Office of Strategic Influence, closed when reports surfaced about its plans to place false news articles in the media of both friendly and unfriendly nations.[3]

PSYOPS recognize the psychological dimension affecting political leaders and their civilian populations, as well as those who may fight in battle, their military leaders, and staff. In any conflict, antagonists want adversaries unsure about their cause and capabilities, if not sure about impending defeat; adversaries who, even if unwilling to surrender, will exert little will to engage in combat. If properly employed, PSYOPS are designed to lower morale and efficiency in their target audience, creating dissidence and disaffection, isolation and alienation.[4,5,6,7,8,9,10] PSYOPS have the potential to serve as a critical nonlethal weapons system, as well as a force protector and combat multiplier. Arguably, PSYOPS have the potential to save lives.

"To seduce the enemy's soldiers from their allegiance and encourage them to surrender is of especial service, for an adversary is more hurt by desertion than by slaughter."
      Flavius Vegetius Renatus, c. 378 AD[1]