Psychological combat, from early examples of it being used to put enemies off tilt during battle, to the development of contemporary psychological operations (PSYOP), is a cornerstone of human combat. There is a long history of people using psychological combat tactics in order to gain an edge on the battlefields of history. From eerie whistles to alternative methods, here are 38 of the most intriguing facts about the application of psychological combat strategies in history.
38. Set in Trauma
Psychological warfare offers those without the adequate resources an alternative way to fight their battles. Vlad the Impaler, you know, that guy who possibly inspired Dracula, was one such psychological tactician. However, his psychological taunts stemmed from a childhood trauma when he was detained by the Ottomans. It is thought that learned the technique of impalement during this time in his life.
37. Practicing Impalement
The most famous of Vlad III’s psychological combat tactics was...you guessed it: impalement! Vlad would impale his enemies, keep them alive, leaving them on whatever he'd impaled them on until they eventually succumbed.
The Winter Conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland didn’t prove fruitful for the giant empire, as they learned that the Finnish were not to be underestimated. One psychological technique the Finnish used in their guerrilla strategies was to shape fallen Soviets into scarecrows. When the Finnish discovered a frozen, lifeless body of their adversary, they positioned it upright in a certain area for other Soviets to witness.
35. Noble Examples
In order to maintain rule over his people, Vlad resorted to tactics of fear against noblemen. After a nobleman voiced his repulsion about the stench of decaying bodies, Vlad inflicted him with impalement on an even larger stake, thus ensuring he would expire above the foul odor, serving as a harsh illustration.
34. Food Fight
During the medieval times, many towns defending themselves from a siege would often catapult food over their city walls as a way to show their enemies that they had more than enough food to get by and outlast them.
33. Terrorizing the Ottomans
No sultan wants to live in a cage, but Tamerlane was able to show the Ottomans that by messing with him, that’s where they’d end up. After defeating an early incarnation of the Ottoman Empire, he tore down the gates of Constantinople and brought them home with him alongside the sultan, who was, of course, caged. The caged sultan was then put on exhibition in Tamerlane’s parlor.
32. Cat Fight
The Battle of Pelusium is famous for its use of cats. No, really. After the Persian Emperor Cambyses II requested the hand of the Pharaoh’s daughter in marriage, he found out that he had been sent the daughter of the previous pharaoh instead. As a result, he led a campaign against the Egyptians. The Egyptians loved felines, as evidenced by the forn of their god Bastet to their refusal to harm the animal, and Cambyses knew it. He etched cats onto his combatants' shields and supposedly even brought cats to the front lines as a strategic psychological maneuver.
31. Collection of Strategies
One does not simply come up with great psychological combat, but rather, tactics need to be tried and tested throughout the years. The 36 Stratagems of ancient China are a compilation of proverbs collected from the Warring States period and onward, occurring from about 403 BC to 5 BC. These strategies encompass gems like "Eliminate using a loaned blade," "use a lifeless body to revive a spirit," and "substitute the frameworks with decayed wood".
30. Lost and Found
You would think that a collection of proverbs of this stature would have been preserved through the years, but somehow the 36 Stratagems was lost to history. That is until 1941, when someone stumbled upon a beat up copy at a small stall of a book vendor in the Sichuan province. We owe all modern versions of 36 Stratagems to this one copy.
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29. Whistle While You Conflict
Sound can have profound effects on one's psychological well-being and when sound has been employed in conflict throughout history, there’s been dramatic results. One example is the Aztec warriors' end-of-life whistle, which, as you can deduce from its name, was a whistle that mimicked the sound of one's final moments. As the Aztecs prepared for combat, they would sound these small whistles, crafted in the form of skulls, naturally, as a strategy to instill profound fear in their enemies. Why would it induce fear? Because they were engineered to sound like agonizing screeches.
28. Widespread MKUltra
Without a doubt, Project MKUltra is one of the world’s most infamous, notorious, and downright creepiest psychological operation of all time, as their experiments detached from the conflict zone and took place in the US, on the public. Through the '50s and '60s, the CIA ran the MKUltra program, often on unsuspecting test subjects. Universities, prisons, and hospitals were all used, including one particularly sickening example of using terminal cancer patients for experiments. That way if there were any long-lasting effects, it wouldn’t matter.
27. Heart of Darkness
Apocalypse Now is one of the most celebrated and famous films of in history, in a large part due to its ability to translate the harrowing effects of conflict. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that Marlon Brando’s character of Colonel Kurtz is believed to be based on a real CIA operative named Anthony Poshepny. Poshepny was sent to train an army of the Hmong hill tribe in Laos during the Vietnam Conflict and was known for his psychological combat, which also included the scattering of decapitated enemy heads.
26. Revolutionary Tactics
The United States is one of the world’s great psychological combat practitioners, and their history is built on this type of manipulation, as it contributed greatly to their victory in the American Revolutionary Conflict against Britain.
25. Franklin’s Trickery
After the British hired Hessian mercenaries from Germany, the United States distributed fliers written by Benjamin Franklin in German. These flyers were forged to resemble a stolen command written by a Hessian count to a battlefield commander. The message ordered an increase of casualties in order to receive more payments from the British for more mercenaries and the hope was that the mercenaries would see it, and defect or desert the cause.
24. Tokyo Rose
During WWII, the Japanese recruited English-speaking broadcasters to run a radio propaganda campaign aiming to distress American service members. The goal was to persuade them of their effort's futility, to believe that Japan was dominating the conflict, and to encourage their return home. American servicemen named the broadcasts "Tokyo Rose," where the announcer shared stories of the great victories of the Axis powers over the Allies.
23. Hunting the Rose
After WWII ended, the United States media ran with the story of “Tokyo Rose,” and journalists went on a search to find the woman behind the broadcast. Following a witch hunt, Iva Toguri, an American of Japanese descent, was located, taken to trial, and handed a 10-year incarceration sentence along with a $10,000 fine. She was ultimately pardoned by Gerald Ford when proof of her innocence came to light. Whew, that understandably seems like a distressing ordeal.
22. Just Don't Harm Us
A form of psychological combat practiced by the wide-ranging Mongol Empire was to completely butcher entire towns in an effort to evoke fear in others. It worked, as word quickly spread of their devastating ruthlessness and many other towns would then permit Mongols to plunder their own towns to avoid being subjected to their severe and violent actions.
21. Pigs Did Fly
The name of the city of Carcassonne has its roots in a psychological conflict tactic after Lady Carcas defended her city from a 5-year siege by Charlemagne and the Franks with it. With provisions running low, she fattened up a pig and had it launched it at the Franks, who then believed that she had enough resources to last the sixth year, and subsequently backed off.
20. Writers for Hire
For the WWI, the British created a propaganda agency and hired some of the generations best writers to write the fliers being dropped in enemy countries. Members of this agency included H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
19. Dummy Combat
During combat, Mongols would actually tie dummies to the backs of extra horses, and have them run around in order to make the enemy believe that their numbers were far greater than they actually were. While these dummies were running amok, they would also light bonfires to make it seem like they were lighting towns on fire.
18. We’re Retreating
During battles, the Mongols would set a psychological trap to shock and jar their enemies by pretending to retreat. Once the opposing army was lured far enough into a certain territory, archers would let arrows loose to tear them up.
17. Alexander the Elephant
If you can put Alexander the Great on psychological tilt, you are not only doing something right but you also definitely belong on this list. At the Battle of Gaugamela, Darius III had 15 elephants with his army, and the tactic worked as it shook Alexander up.
16. Need More Than That
But shock alone can’t beat one of history’s greatest generals. Alexander soon overcame his rattled disposition and won the battle. The effects lingered on his brain, however, and immediately after the battle, he incorporated all of the elephants into his own army and went on a campaign to build his elephant corps afterward.
15. Modern Conflict Elephants
There is a guerrilla conflict going on in the most northern state of Myanmar, Kachin, between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar government. As the conflict persists, with Myanmar relentlessly maintaining their decades-long assault on the area, the KIA stands out as the only modern army that uses conflict elephants. The elephants aren’t classical combat elephants, however, and are instead used for stealth transportation purposes.
14. Myanmar Tradition
Myanmar is the last place where conflict elephants saw real combat, when in 1825, the royal dynasty of Burma tried to fight the British with the animal. The British didn’t care for it though and simply slaughtered the elephants with rockets.
13. New Subjects
Whenever Alexander the Great conquered a new region, he would leave men he trusted behind in order to root Greek culture in the newly acquired land and assimilate the population. He would also pay these men to marry local women in order to further mix the people into his kingdom.
12. Philip Was Great Too
Alexander the Great learned from his father, Philip II of Macedonia, the man who left Alexander with a foundation to build his empire upon. Philip was also an incredibly adept leader of armed forces, utilizing techniques of psychological conflict as well. During the Battle of Chaeronea, against Athenian and Theben rebel groups, instead of attacking the warriors head-on during the summer heat, Philip simply sat back and waited it out. The result was that the rebels were left blistering and exhausted in the sun as Philip lounged with his feet up. Then, when the time was right, Philip led a false attack to even further exhaust his enemies, whom he then easily disposed of.
11. To Cut Your Own Throat
While at conflict with the state of Wu, Goujian of Yue had a strategy to instill immense fear into his neighboring territory: To initiate the battle by having the front line of his army slice their own throats. Needless to say, it profoundly terrified his enemy's army, leading to the swift annexation of the Wu state shortly thereafter.
10. Sonic Boom
The sound of sonic booms was used by the United States army during their meddling in the civil conflict of Nicaragua, as it was a way to berate the Sandinistas into a weakened psychological state.
9. Home Field Testing
The United States didn’t start using sonic booms out of anywhere, however. First, they tested it on their own citizens, starting in Oklahoma City in 1964, where they would fly the sonic booms over the city and then assess their impact on the people living there.
8. Wandering Souls
Some Vietnamese people believed that their people had to be buried in their homeland, otherwise, they would be doomed to painful wandering for eternity. To exploit this belief, the United States army employed Operation Wandering Soul, which was the production of a spooky soundtrack that was supposed to sound like ghosts (called Ghost Tape Number 10), which was then broadcast overhead by helicopter during the Vietnam Conflict.
7. Siege at Waco
During the notorious standoff in Waco, Texas between the Branch Davidians and the United States, the government resorted to a tactic of psychological combat through the repetitive blasting of music. Upon hearing a range from "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" to the sounds of rabbits meeting their demise, the religious group retaliated with their own music, causing a broadcast dispute that continued until the power to the compound was disconnected.
6. You Love Me?
Psychological strategies employed by the United States have proven to be crucial in contemporary combat situations and have aided in the harsh interrogation methods at Guantanamo Bay, trying to utilize sound to destabilize the prisoners. Their choice of music spans from heavy metal to the "I Love You" song from Barney & Friends. Bob Singleton, the man behind the song, has come out and denounced the usage of his song, and after finding out that their music was used, the band Skinny Puppy sued the United States Defense Department for an appropriate $666,000.
5. Don't Mess With the Vlad
When the Ottomans attempted to invade our old friend Vlad the Impaler's territory of Wallachia, as many as 20,000 men, women, and children were found impaled and rotting away outside of the capital. After setting eyes on this sight, Sultan Mehmed had had enough and turned back toward home.
4. Pyramids of Horror
The last great nomadic conqueror of the Eurasian continent, Tamerlane attempted to restore the Mongol Empire and took on the brutal tactics of Genghis Khan in order to reach his desired results. During his rule, he caused massive destruction from Europe to China, leading to the loss of lives amounting to 5% of the world's population. As if this wasn’t enough, he would often build pyramids out of the skulls of his enemies, and leave them for others to witness. After causing the demise of over 90,000 people residing in Baghdad, he constructed 120 pyramids using their skulls.
3. Flying Heads
As their reputation preceded them, the Mongols didn’t have to fight as many battles as they could have over the years, and they further reduced this amount by another psychological technique: catapulting decapitated heads over city walls. This would strike fear into the people of the city, who would quickly surrender.
2. Beheaded Disease
An alternative and even more twisted purpose for catapulting these heads over walls was for the spreading of diseases to those living inside the confined area.
1. A Visit to the House of Ill Repute
One example of the aforementioned MKUltra's tactics was the Operation Midnight Climax project. If it sounds like a “Skinemax” movie, well that’s because it almost is exactly that. The CIA placed agents inside a certain establishment in San Francisco, where unassuming men were enticed, subsequently administered a strong hallucinogenic substance, and closely monitored behind two-way mirrors.