Ronnie S. Stangler, MD


Medscape General Medicine. 2003;5(1) 

In This Article



Sun Tsu

In about 500 BC, Sun Tsu, a noted Chinese thinker, wrote a seminal treatise entitled "The Art of War." The author evidenced a keen understanding of the importance of intelligence and psychology in both diplomacy and war. "To capture the enemy's entire army is better than to destroy it; to take intact a regiment, a company, or a squad is better than to destroy them. For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence."

Alexander the Great

By about 300 BC, Alexander the Great of Macedonia had conquered almost all of the known world. The brilliant and charismatic leader subdued adversaries by disseminating accounts of his savagery and prowess. Alexander instructed his armorers to construct oversized armor breastplates and helmets that would fit "giants," men 7 to 8 feet tall. In the evening before battle, the oversized armor was left out on the fields, inspiring terror and ultimately the withdrawal of his adversaries, who greatly outnumbered Alexander's forces.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte (c. 1800) was a commander of genius who boldly improvised on the battlefield. He believed in targeting hostile forces more on a psychological level than a physical one. He said, "There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind."[11,12] Psychological operations developed into a formal tool during World War II. PSYOPS were used extensively by both sides. Japan's Tokyo Rose and Germany's Axis Sally remain two memorable characters of the time. A compelling example of British PSYOPS was offered on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as English language lessons for the threatening German invaders. In flawless German, the following messages were presented:

".....and so it will be best if you learn a few useful phrases in English before visiting us...Now, just repeat after me: DAS BOOT SINKT. The boat is sinking. The boat is sinking...DAS WASSER IST KALT. The water is cold. SER KALT. Very cold...Now I will give you a verb that should be very useful. Again, please repeat after me. ICH BRENNE. I am burning. DU BRENNST. You are burning. ER BRENNT. He is burning. WIR BRENNEN. We burn..."

The German High Command believed that the British had a workable plan to set fire to the English Channel should the Germans proceed.

PSYOPS have been used in Korea, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Gulf War soldiers surrendering

In the 1990-1991 Gulf War, PSYOPS pamphlets were estimated to have reached 98% of Iraq's 300,000 soldiers. PSYOPS helped to induce large numbers of Iraqi soldiers (estimated at 100,000) to desert or surrender. Many soldiers were found clutching pamphlets or hiding them in their clothing.

Last year in Afghanistan, while bombs fell and ground troops fought, PSYOPS focused on engaging the Afghani people. Air-dropped leaflets and radio broadcasts attempted to educate, protect, and support.[13] In addition to dropping packages of humanitarian relief, the United States dropped flyers imploring the population to stay clear of likely military targets; advising the unacceptability of harboring terrorists and the consequences of doing so; and promoting distinction between US support of Islam and Afghanistan vs specific targets of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and Al-Qaeda.

Various messages offered justification of military action: "On September 11th, the United States was the target of terrorist attacks, leaving no choice but to seek justice for these horrible crimes." "We have no wish to hurt you, the innocent people of Afghanistan. Stay away from military installations, government buildings, terrorist camps, roads, factories, or bridges. If you are near these places, then you must move away from them. Seek a safe place, and stay well away from anything that might be a target." Other message were reflective: "Do you enjoy being ruled by the Taliban? Are you proud to live a life of fear? Are you happy to see the place your family has owned for generations a terrorist training site?"

The effectiveness of these various interventions is unclear. Many Afghanis were focused on essentials of survival rather than political struggle. High rates of illiteracy may have impeded real understanding of the messages. While Taliban's Radio Shariat was quickly silenced, efforts to air drop radios for new broadcasts were problematic, with many radios shattering on impact. There was little mechanism for feedback about the acceptability of content or the extent of distribution or comprehension.