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Institute for National




Chapter 6

Psychological Warfare

Psychological warfare, as used here, encompasses the use of information Note 30 against the human mind (rather than against computer support). There are four categories of psychological warfare: (i) operations against the national will, (ii) operations against opposing commanders, (iii) operations against troops, and -- a category much respected abroad -- (iv) cultural conflict. Psychological warfare prompts the same questions asked about information warfare: Is it war? is it new?


The use of psychological war against the national will through both either the velvet glove ("accept us as friendly") or the iron fist ("or else") is a long and respected adjunct to military operations, with antecedents found in the writings of Thucydides. The recurrent "peace offensives" and May Day parades of the Soviets showed that they were familiar with its uses, as are we.

The Somali clan leader Mohammed Aideed appears (if symposia hosted by the DoD are an indication) to be a master of the uses of psychological warfare. In a confrontation that cost the lives of nineteen U.S. Rangers, Aideed's side reportedly lost fifteen times that number -- roughly a third of his strength. Photographs of jeering Somalis dragging corpses of U.S. soldiers through the streets of Mogadisho transmitted by CNN to the United States ended by souring TV audiences at home in the U.S. on staying in Somalia. U.S. forces left, and Aideed, in essence, won the information war. Note 31

Global broadcasters, CNN a leader among them, ensure that events anywhere on the planet, whether authentic or arranged for show, can be delivered to audiences in many countries. Those CNN broadcasts indicated the immediacy satellites can now provide to news organizations, but, this feature aside, the concept of international news was not invented by CNN. More than twenty-five years ago, the Vietnam War was broadcast nightly to U.S. living rooms, time-delayed for the dinner hour.

Using direct broadcast satellite (DBS), the leader of one nation does not need permission from overseas counterparts to speak live directly to the people in other nations. This capability is now available to anyone at low cost. The two-satellite 150-channel DBS constellation the Hughes company launched over North America, which began service late in 1994, cost roughly $1 billion, and subsequent versions will probably cost less. A DBS transponder over Asia might be profitably leased for an annual fee of perhaps $2 million (U.S.), well within the range of, say, Kurds, radical Shiites, Sikhs, Burmese mountain tribes, who could then afford to broadcast their messages to an enormous audience twenty-four hours a day.

As the five hundred channels of a supranational information superhighway eventually become reality, the proliferation of microbroadcasters may promote a precisely opposite effect of localizing, rather than globalizing, the way world events are viewed -- a de-CNNization of perception. Communities of interest, too small to be reached profitably by mass media, could be reached by targeted means. As each community's version of the news becomes subject to its own filters and slants, manipulating mass audiences will become increasingly difficult. Viewers might maintain computer agents, who would roam the Net to extract news and commentary of interest to them from archived and real-time material which they could then reshape into an individual's own news broadcasts. Affluent societies may soon suffer from Me-TV.

Given CNN, the arrival of DBS, and the possibilities of microbroadcasting and Me-TV, how far will one side go to manipulate news to affect the other. Affluent countries (and attractive victims) receive more attention than less well off nations, accessible news stories are covered better than inaccessible ones (starvation in Somalia compared with starvation in, for example, Sudan), and video cameras follow good pictures and human-interest stories. Staging demonstrations to maximize video coverage has a long history.

Yet, random, understandable biases do not equal a consistent ability to manipulate the presentation of events in a specific direction. The international media are a powerful and systematic influence in war but they rarely consistently favor one side or the other. Many in the DoD complain that unscrupulous opponents of the United States can persuade the American public by judicious manipulation of the media. The truth is that television is ubiquitous and that the United States gives as good as it gets (e.g., it exports political consultants and public affairs services, which together are a good proxy for skill at this enterprise.)

Oddly enough, given time the media may come full circle. As such movies as "Forrest Gump" or "Jurassic Park" have profitably shown, synthetic, manipulative events are possible (morphing figured prominently in the advertising of both sides during the 1994 Congressional races). Sophisticated newswatchers already understand how to use one channel to confirm flash reports on another; if manipulation goes further, the notion of a personally trusted news source may supersede current concepts of public news sources. The side wishing to manipulate the other through the media would find part of the target population predisposed to believing anything, part believing nothing, part predisposed to believe the opposite of whatever the media put out, and the rest floating in worlds of their own.


The use of psychological methods against the other side's forces offers variations on two traditional themes: fear of death (or other loss) and potential resentment between the trench and the castle (or home front). In the Gulf War, Coalition forces convinced many Iraqis that if they abandoned their vulnerable vehicles they would live longer. The Coalition's persuasiveness was fortified by weapons that had just destroyed such vehicles during the fighting.

How will technology alter the ability of one side to speak to forces of the other? Getting electronic messages to the other side dates back at least to World War II (e.g., Tokyo Rose). Like short- wave radio, DBS can beam from space to local TVs but with far greater effect. Battery-powered TVs can be taken into the field. Whether TV is more effective than radio is debatable; clearly, images offer an immediacy and credibility sound alone lacks. The burgeoning field of personal computer-based television (e.g., video toasters) permits special units in the field to assemble complex, believable video material for broadcast behind enemy lines.

The great shift in counterforce psychological operations would come when information technology permits broadcasts of threats or resentment-provoking information to individual opposing troops. When the destruction of a target identified by location can be made near-certain, surviving warfare will be a matter of evading detection, rather than evading firepower. What would happen if vehicle operators could be told they had been seen and were about to be targets of deadly munitions unless they visibly disabled the vehicles? The first few times the technique was used, demonstrations, rather than actual attack, might be used to indicate that discovery is the cousin of destruction and that warnings would be ignored at peril to life and limb. With every demonstration, the correlation might become clearer. Such psychological warfare might save ammunition (and avoid subsequent broadcasts by CNN of a grisly reality). Yet the demonstration must reflect underlying realities, not create them.

By the same logic, telling soldiers that their wives and lovers are sleeping around is more effective if those at home can be identified by name. Gathering the data on individuals in primitive societies might not be possible, but it would be easier in advanced societies, which these days generate enormous computer- kept files on almost everyone (e.g., from credit card histories, medical histories). Broadcasting information to individuals might be less difficult than it appears at first (even without the ability to locate individuals within units). No one needs to watch TV every minute to receive second-hand news of what is being said by the other side. At thirty seconds per soldier (the length of a typical TV advertisement), an entire division could be covered within one week of broadcasting without anyone losing sleep.


Nothing so much suggests the imminence of defeat than confused and disoriented commanders. Yet confusing them with words alone is a difficult task. In mass societies, commanders are the instruments that translate the will of those to whom they report into the duties of those they command. The commander neither originates the ends, nor, in theory, allows personal considerations to get in the way of optimizing military decisions. A good commander should be able to transcend unnecessary emotion and proceed directly to the tasks at hand.

Confusion and disorientation are cognitive as well as emotional states. Commanders make decisions on the basis of unexpected events. If reality is different from the basis used for decisions, it is difficult and time-consuming to reconstruct a cognitive structure (e.g., facts that lead to implications, actions based on conclusions) based on the new reality (rewiring interpersonal relationships and organizations to match the new reality may be almost impossible). Simulation, thought experiment, and generalized what-if thinking, which can prepare a commander to recognize wide alternatives (each with its own decision logic), would facilitate coping with the unexpected, but at a high price. Contemplating an assortment of possibilities necessarily detracts from contemplating deeply those presumably probable. Events of low probability are discarded entirely; should they occur, few know how to cope.

Unfavorable events always offer the possibility of unhinging the commander Note 32; but can information warfare compound a disorientation that events on the grand scale would have caused in any case? If so, among otherwise comparable courses of action, logic would seem to favor the course that would exacerbate differences between what the other side expects to see and what it actually sees. Note 33 In a World War II-ish metaphor, a direct tank assault may have a higher probability of success of throwing the enemy back compared to a parachute-led assault. If the opposing commander is confident that a parachute- led assault against him would fail, being wrong could force him to rethink the assumptions of his strategy. How accurate must this psychological portrait be before a parachute assault becomes the preferred approach? How likely is the commander's disorientation, and what is it worth in outcomes? The decision to adopt a strategy that trades immediate outcomes for increased confusion depends on how data affect the other side.

The attempt to mislead the other side's commander at the operational level Note 34 is an important part of information warfare. Historically, such deception has worked best when one side has a good idea of what the other side will and will not do. Note 35 In World War II, for example, the Germans were convinced that the Allies would try to breach the Atlantic Wall at Calais; the Japanese believed equally strongly that U.S. forces would strike from the Aleutians. In both cases, Allied forces played to those fears, keeping the opponent's forces pinned down where the opponent would need them least when the ultimate attack came. Similarly, Iraq was led to believe that the United States would use aerial warfare for only a limited time and only to soften the field immediately prior to ground attack (rather than, as it turned out, for forty days and nights). Iraq also believed that the United States would try to recapture Kuwait from the sea. U.S. quasi- public commentary carried over international media, such as CNN, was shaped to support the first belief; more conventional devices (e.g., having ships sail up and down the coast) supported the second.

Information warfare can also be applied to the everyday task of deceiving opposing bureaucracies -- diplomats and spies -- about one's intentions and capabilities. Weapons can be said to be more or less efficient or speedy than they actually are. A nation's preparations for war can either be highlighted for effect or downplayed for soporific value. Such activity is so common and historical that labelling it warfare rather than the everyday business of statecraft it has always been would prove difficult.

How could advancing information technology accentuate or mitigate operational deception? Institutions (e.g., CNN, again) and tomorrow's technologies (e.g., DBS) ease the dissemination of deception. In the future, a transition from CNN to narrowcasting might create the possibility that one side could generate different (perhaps even incompatible) messages to competing components of the other side's polity. Proliferating media would permit promulgation of confusion. As technologies of inspection become increasingly ubiquitous, however, more details must be correct to achieve deception. Note 36


Whether cultural struggle is a form of psychological warfare is a rich topic, yet many non-Western nations are disturbed by the extent to which their traditional cultures are being invaded by Western -- that is, largely U.S. -- popular culture (e.g., fast food, Hollywood movies, blue jeans). More than one seer has forecast a coming clash of civilizations Note 37 arising not because countries will take issue with the Madonna but, for example, because her present-day namesake is seen as assaulting a traditional value structure. The trip from fear and loathing to accusations of direct cultural attack is short.

Is cultural warfare a creature of the new information technologies? Hardly. The outcome of the cultural struggle between the Hebrews and the Syriac Greeks is celebrated every December, and fears of U.S. cultural imperialism certainly predate network television. Cultural challenges are facilitated by such instrumentalities as the multinational corporation (which require advanced communications to function), the Internet, satellite video feeds, or, most recently, DBS.

Is cultural warfare a form of war (that is, again, policy by other means)? Not as seen from Peoria. First, the entire concept of national culture simply remains alien to most Americans, bred, as they are, to the idea that this nation is defined by norms of political and social behavior, rather than by cultural habits. The U.S. Constitution (with antecedents in English common law) may be the best single expression of this socio-political behavior. Americans tend to be impatient with the whole notion of culture, unlike the French, who, at least to American eyes, imbue their language, arts, and cooking with heavy national responsibility. Steeped in national myths of pioneer and immigrant, Americans readily defend the right to pick and choose -- or invent -- cultural choices rather than settle for one set of them. If the Japanese, say, wish to try to sell Americans on calligraphy, family bathing, daikan, or karaoke here, they are as welcome as anyone else is to try.

Cultural warfare is something the United States is more likely to do to others. Cultural products are one of the only categories in which the United States enjoys a consistent export surplus. When the French or Canadians complain about U.S. cultural exports to their countries, the United States sees those complaints as threats to world trade and refuses to treat such cultural concerns as legitimate. Yet U.S. policy wants to see U.S. political culture (e.g., majority rule, minority rights) exported and adopted overseas; trade rules aside, policy is completely and properly silent about other cultural influences.

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