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Psychological Warfare: True Coercion, or a Byproduct that has yet to be Mastered?

Lee Il-Woo

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Lee Il-Woo is an Associate Research Fellow at the Military Studies Program for Nanyang Technological University, in addition to the Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute, and in particular the Singapore Command and Staff College
Il-Woo, Lee, “Psychological Warfare: True Coercion, or a Byproduct that has yet to be Mastered?”, Military Operations, Volume 3, Issue No. 1, Spring 2015, pages 19-22.

By Jeremiah Johnson (Defense Visual Information Center official site) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Historically, the exploitation of an adversary’s mental and emotional state of mind has always been present in the human experience. To put a play on the ancient wisdom that knowledge is key to all successful warfare, the art of deliberately sowing deception has been understood by many and practiced by even more. To mislead, confuse, disrupt, and demoralize the enemy with the aim of weakening his resistance, causing rival forces to surrender, and even forcing contending populations to give in, has been an ancient (if not fundamental) characteristic of human conflict. Truth be told, one need not look further than Adam Elkus’ contribution (Continuing Relevance of Military Denial and Deception[i]) for such obvious points to be made clearer.

Yet, apart from classical illustrations, modern descendants of this practice have certainly borrowed much from their forebears, but have modified their delivery systems for today’s battlefields. Recent ‘memos of submission’ have taken the form of mass media, radio broadcasts, and of course the time-honored whispering agent used by the masters of old. In the heyday of WWI, the leaflet, the most widely used form of PSYOPS still in use to this day, was fashioned and disseminated on a striking scale.[ii] This particular form of stratagem conveniently made easy to read and delivered from the skies, was both used by the Allied and Axis forces with the aim of enemy demoralization, if not desertion. Examples of clever messaging included leaflets stating that German POWs would receive the same rations as the American Doughboy, with details of tinned fruit and fresh bread, along with coffee and sweets depicted in particular detail. To let the portrayal sink in even more, ‘verifiable’ operations were used according to some accounts, staging local ‘retreats’ and thereby uncovering a treasure chest of US provisions for the other side.[iii]

Still, it was during the Second World War that many innovations, PSYOPS not least among them, truly garnered the Henry Ford flavor of mass production. Though reluctantly at first, theater commanders eventually employed US psy-warriors. For the first time electronic platforms were properly utilized, and American PSYOPS, consisting of mobile broadcasting and mobile printing presses, soon became the latest tools to be projected at the enemy.

Sadly, in the wars that soon followed, US operators departed in some way from this effective trend when engaging Asian adversaries. Nowhere was this felt more than in the tragic rice paddies of Vietnam. Lack of coordination and much duplication of effort, not to mention the literally billions of leaflets that fell like confetti, resulted in nothing more than a strategic defeat. Whilst tactical PSYOPS continually reinforced impressions of communist atrocities committed against innocents, television’s depiction of napalmed children running alongside disfigured American troopers would be the definitive (even if unintended) means by which ‘hearts and minds’ would be decided.[iv]

In the end, although it could be said that the US had a respectable run in the tactical battles of such psywars, a fair verdict might be that it had a dismal one on the strategic front due to uninformed (cultural ignorance) and unanticipated (television) forces not accounted for.

PSYOPS = Propaganda?

Even so, since 9/11, other psychological themes have risen from the ashes of both those who lost their lives on that fateful day, and of those who have given them in the wars that followed. First, that military might, even with the patronage of the most powerful kind (US and Western backing that is), has limits. Second, traditional notions of deterrence are both too limiting and too naive to be applicable to wars against extremism. As a consequence, other forms of ‘suasion’ have been sought, with the hope of laying down the psychological foundations for long-term success.

Regrettably, information fratricide appears to be a common concern for all those involved in this cerebral scheme. Even though most conventional PSYOPS have used objectively true information in one way or another, the occasional deviation from the truth (or mere propaganda) necessary in psychological exploitation, can certainly come at a price.[v] It should be of no surprise that such potential ‘blowbacks’ have given life to the definitional debate that still rages as to what PSYOPS actually is; as compared to, say, its more Public Affairs relatives. Seasoned psy-warriors have of late voiced their concern in confusing disinformation (propaganda) and what they deem to be more efficient modes of influence; namely reliable facts.[vi] For disciples of this school, it is precisely trust from the target audience that gives way for successful shaping of people’s perceptions. Such trust, they argue, can only come with credibility.

Add to this confusion the fact that PSYOPS and other forms of mental maneuver have been branded as everything from influence operations, perception management, military information support operations (MISO), and perhaps worst of all ‘strategic communication’. This unceasing splitting of hairs as to what PSYOPS or propaganda ought to be has only obscured the bigger issue.

For sake of focus and lack of space, PSYOPS in this article, will largely adhere to those operations where selected information is used to influence human perceptions, attitudes, and behavior in combat environments. Though under such an overarching definition both truth-based operations and deceitful propaganda may result in the likening of the two, the argument here is that by and large it may not even matter. Both fact and fiction to varying degrees have been used in psychological battles of the past, and have certainly been used in recent conflicts for military purposes. Whatever label one chooses to instill, ‘PSYOPS’, ‘propaganda’, ‘MISO’ or otherwise, the sowing of misinformation and the reinforcement of truth will probably go hand in hand when trying to influence particular viewers. This fight over branding may at best only put a friendlier face on a practice that clearly tries to sway people’s opinions, using whatever messaging deemed is effective, be it factual or not.

Though the struggle amongst psy-operators as to how and when to lie or even not to lie will probably persist, the sheer presence of such murky jurisdiction is surely no great endorsement for this practice.

Promising But Still Tricky

That is not to say of course that PSYOPS should be considered worthless, or that leaflets are as useless except as ‘supplies of toilet paper for the adversary.’[vii] Truth be told, triumphant PSYOPS have been manufactured and efficiently dispersed by not just Western proponents themselves, but ironically by the antagonists toward the Western ideal. Consider Somali clan leader Mohammad Aideed’s use of PSYOPS, which ultimately won him the information war during ‘Blackhawk Down’; though he lost more than 15 times the number of US casualties. Aideed’s resourceful use of satellite and radio transmissions, bouncing off city walls and thus difficult to pinpoint, was no doubt a demonstration of his public relations understanding.[viii] However well intentioned and courageous the humanitarian mission may have been, broadcasts of US troops being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu undeniably accelerated the US withdrawal. Similarly, Ayatollah Khomeini’s overthrow of the Shah with the assistance of the cassette tape is another prime example of psychological subversion.[ix] The perfect blending of structural circumstance—an oppressive regime—in flawless sequence with clever means of communication, all aimed at a community ripe for the taking, is as much as any PSYOPS professional could hope to achieve.

Even when considering radical groups—the fashionable threat these days, often unrestrained by moral boundaries—advocates of this inexact art forever contend that ‘PSYOPS is still, in essence, more moral than conventional military methods.’[x] Given that modern democracies have put a high value in reducing expense whenever possible, an emphasis on winning wars at a discounted price (be it human or material) is undoubtedly an advantage, rather than a disadvantage, to PSYOPS enthusiasts. To this end, psywar fans have continued to suggest that they offer two distinct features not found elsewhere. Firstly, there is a high prospect of a non-lethal and, therefore, politically correct weapons system. Second, a suggestion that the potential force-multiplying and internationally accessible no-boots-on-the-ground option is generally done ‘on the cheap’. Compared with multi-billion dollar platforms that may or may not realize the sought after objectives, PSYOPS (with its pamphlets, radios, human agents, and much more) is by most measures reasonably priced.

Still, beyond the low-cost delivery now made easier via Internet, perhaps the most valuable contribution this enigmatic tool provides is its speed and anonymity. One can easily see how online sensations are just a click away these days, and how financial contagions can leapfrog across continents. The capacity for psychological products to tag along this informational spider-web, in a moment’s notice and undetectable, is surely simple to perceive. Indeed, one might say that with the extent of mass-media coverage we find today, much of the groundwork is already done. For psychological devotees, the only thing that is needed is (as one PSYOPS specialist coined it) to ‘piggy-back’ on what is already there. [xi]

By surfing the non-stop (and in all probability inextinguishable) tabloid markets, it may be worthwhile for war-fighters to tap into such potencies to try and make our enemies victims as well. Such enticements might be so much more inviting, given an age in which we, primarily the West, set too high of a standard for success, and where the narrative of the battle matters more than the battle itself.

Always A Catch

Had human beings not been so complex, psychological warfare might appear to be the panacea in this never-ending search for the right ingredients. The allure of using ideas in place of bullets to subjugate dissenters would surely be tempting for any risk-averse politician. Sadly, had such blueprints existed, the unfinished and certainly unsatisfactory developments of Projects ‘Iraq’ and ‘Afghanistan’ would probably not have turned out the way they did. Fresh bombings in Iraq, after nearly nine years of US investment, not to mention the steadfast carnage in Afghanistan, have without a doubt been a testament to the limitations of Western charm.

Modern cases aside, one need not look further than the historical episodes previously mentioned to notice such limits. Consider Allison Gilmore’s brilliant study of PSYOPS in the Pacific Theater during WWII. In this seminal piece, it is patently clear that, of the four main psychological themes used during the War (Enlightenment, Subversive, Divisive, and Despair), despair proved the most valuable. For Gilmore, attempts at enlightenment only telegraphed to the Japanese a more accurate picture of Allied capabilities. Equally, subversive propaganda pretty much failed in the beginning but grew in value only when the war tipped in favor of the Allies, which was true of divisive campaigns. Yet, despair, with its notoriety for Japanese misery and anguish, was the one message that hit home for the Allies. According to Gilmore, such gains were possible not because of its distinctiveness as a PSYOPS theme, but due to its psychological reinforcement of the other applications of pain.[xii] In summary, fundamental Japanese realities (such as economic hardships and a ceaseless rain of incendiary bombs) were the foundations that allowed for psychological notions to be planted with at least some chance of success.

Measuring Progress

All the same, despite this secondary and more supportive role, the biggest hurdle for PSYOPS may still lie within its own evaluation. Not surprisingly, commanders have admitted to a lack of accurate measurements leading to the production of bland messages for want of adequate information. If PYSOPS backers have endorsed ingenuities such as appraising the tenor of sermons in mosques, the street behavior of the locals (obscene gestures toward US troops, amount of anti-American graffiti, etc.), and trends (either upward or downward) in the number of intelligence tips from the populace, critics have been equally adamant in pointing out the impossibility of knowing whether it was the PSYOPS itself or something unrelated that caused the desired outcome.

Similarly, attempts at attitudinal research, such as target audience analysis or ethnographic investigation, have also been sought after with equally mixed success.[xiii] Based on the conviction that counterinsurgencies would ultimately be won on the loyalty of a people, Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) have been utilized by US forces with the hopes of providing commanders with societal if not psychological telescopes. Using everything from databases of local leaders and tribes to keeping catalogues of economic and social problems in a given area, specialized teams consisting of anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and much more have made efforts to provide soldiers with a better view as to how and why local inhabitants think and operate.[xiv]

Disappointingly, the question of whether better understanding can translate into creating better psychological products is still left largely unanswered. Unlike fixed urban objects or terrain, the human psyche has never been a static target for soldiers to pinpoint; let alone manipulate. Even the most hardcore of psywar loyalists, such as Ron Schleifer, have admitted that classical PSYOPS is toothless when tackling suicidal enemies; the trendy menace these days. Though much of this can be attributed to PSYOPS principles which assume that adversaries will try to survive, such unrelenting predicaments do lend credence to questions of how exactly one combats or dissuades a person already hell-bent on dying?

Considering all of the above, if there is one Achilles heel can be deciphered from such observations, it is this: psychological gambits only become convincing when the credibility and success of more conventional means are firmly ingrained in people’s minds.


While coercion as a strategy is to persuade the opponent to alter their behavior, like beauty, it is also in the eye of the beholder. The intent of the coercer matters less than the perception of the coerced. Needless to say, the outcome of coercive strategy is also difficult to appraise and even more difficult to predict.

In all likelihood, the debate as to whether the ‘shaping’ of people’s minds is viable or not will continue. The fact that truly dependable classifications and measurements have not yet been developed surely does not bode well for future psy-operators. It may very well be that mass desertion and surrender of enemy combatants, or even the changing of people’s perceptions, cannot be accurately predicted or controlled. At a bare minimum, they might just be an unplanned dividend of PSYOPS. This unintended spin-off, both the positive and negative sort, may simply be the best we can do when actively seeking to alter people’s opinions.

It looks as if for now, successful ‘storytelling’ belongs more to the novelist than any military personnel.


[i] Adam Elkus, The Journal of Military Operations, volume 1 Edition 1, August 2012, pp 21-4.
[ii] For a more accurate breakdown of the sheer amount see,
[iii] Stanley Sandler, “Army Psywarriors: A History of US Army Psychological Operations,” Special Warfare, no. October (1992): 19.
[iv] Sandler (1992), p. 22.
[v] Numerous accounts have been recorded of when PSYOPS did not work and have even backfired. See, Londoño, Ernesto. “Many Iraqis Dismiss High-Priced US Media Campaign as Propaganda.” The Washington Post, , sec. World, June 07, 2009. (accessed September 4, 2013); Pincus, Walter. “Fine Print: Contractors’ roles in psychological operations raise concerns.” The Washington Post, , sec. Politics, June 29, 2010. (accessed September 7, 2013).
[vi] Boyd, Colonel Curtis. “The Future of MISO.” Small Wars Journal. February 12, 2011. Accessed April 8, 2014.
[vii] Wing Commander Kevin Marsh, “The Psychological Use of Air Power: A Growth Area for The Future,” Royal Air Force Air Power Review, 13, no. Spring (2010): 13-34.
[viii] Martin C. Libicki, What Is Information Warfare?, (Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1995), chap. 6.
[ix] CAPT Timothy J. Doorey, USN, “Waging an Effective Strategic Communications Campaign in the War on Terror,” IDEAS AS WEAPONS, ed. G.J. David Jr. and T.R. McKeldin III (Dulles: Potomac Books, Inc., 2009), 147.
[x] Ron Schleifer, Perspectives of Psychological Operations (PSYOPS) in Contemporary Conflicts, (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2011), 7.
[xi] Lt. Col. Frank J. Stech, “Upheaval in Europe: PSYOPS Communications Lessons Learned,” Special Warfare, no. October (1992): 16
[xii] Allison B. Gilmore, You can’t Fight Tanks with Bayonets: Psychological Warfare Against the Japanese Army in the Southwest Pacific, (Lincoln Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).
[xiii] For an interesting read as to the problems associated with HTTs see, Lamb, Christopher J., and James Douglas Orton. Human Terrain Teams: An Organizational Innovation for Sociocultural Knowledge in Irregular Warfare. Washington, DC: Institute of World Politics Press, 2013.
[xiv] “The Human Terrain System.” The Human Terrain System. Accessed January 15, 2015.