"Viet Cong! Continue
your struggle against
the National Cause and
you will surely die!"
Psywar Terror Tactics
by Jon Elliston
Fear is a weapon just as surely as is a rifle or a tank; if you frighten your enemy enough, you may defeat him without having to fight. Such is the logic behind psychological warfare -- a combat weapon that targets the mind. In full-fledged wars and quiet covert operations around the world, U.S. military and intelligence specialists have long practiced the art of intimidation through propaganda. Some of the most productive (and some of the most fanciful) psywar operations have sought to exploit ideas about the supernatural.
Many early U.S. psywar operations were conceived by a famous clandestine commander, Air Force Brigadier General Edward G. Lansdale (1909-1987). A firm believer in the efficacy of "psychological operations" (or PSYOP, for short -- the military's term for propaganda), Lansdale was a pioneering psywarrior.
Lansdale believed that the key asset of the psychological combatant is a thorough understanding of the target audience's beliefs and values. The mores and myths that shape a society's culture, he argued, must be exploited if a psywar campaign is to be effective. Lansdale applied his strategy ruthlessly in the Philippines, where he served as the CIA's chief operative during the early 1950s counterinsurgency campaign against the country's Huk rebels.
"To the superstitious, the Huk battleground was a haunted place filled with ghosts and eerie creatures," Lansdale later wrote. One of his favorite psywar stunts "played upon the popular dread of asuang, or vampire" to drive the guerrillas from Huk-held territory:
"A combat psywar squad was brought in. It planted stories among town residents of an asuang living on the hill where the Huks were based. Two nights later, after giving the stories time to make their way up to the hill camp, the psywar squad set up an ambush along the trail used by the Huks. When a Huk patrol came along the trail, the ambushers silently snatched the last man of the patrol, their move unseen in the dark night. They punctured his neck with two holes, vampire-fashion, held the body up by the heels, drained it of blood, and put the corpse back on the trail. When the Huks returned to look for the missing man and found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol believed that the asuang had got him and that one of them would be next if they remained on that hill. When daylight came, the whole Huk squadron moved out of the vicinity."
Another of Lansdale's spooky counterinsurgency tricks was what he called the "eye of God technique," wherein government troops, using information gathered from counterintelligence efforts, called out the names of Huk guerrillas over loudspeakers and threatened the rebels with death if they did not surrender. Lansdale devised a related scheme to intimidate civilians, using "all-seeing eye" graffiti to threaten constant surveillance. He later wrote: "[the method] was especially useful in towns where some of the inhabitants were known to be helping the Huks secretly. The army would warn these people that they were under suspicion. At night, when the town was asleep, a psywar team would creep into town and paint an eye on a wall facing the house of each suspect. The mysterious presence of these malevolent eyes the next morning had a sharply sobering effect."
After helping suppress rebellion in the Philippines, in 1954 Lansdale was sent to Vietnam, where he directed covert operations for the Saigon Military Mission (SMM), a small team of U.S. military and intelligence operatives. In 1955, the SMM hired North Vietnamese astrologers "to write predictions about coming disasters to certain Vietminh leaders and undertakings, and to predict unity in the south," according to Lansdale. This operation, he reported, was "based on our concept of the use of astrology for psywar in Southeast Asia."
Because of his work in the Philippines and Vietnam, Lansdale was regarded as the government's chief expert on suppressing incipient revolutions. In 1962, President Kennedy tasked Lansdale with designing Operation Mongoose, a secret campaign to undermine Cuba's firmly established revolutionary government.
Lansdale made extensive provisions for anti-Castro propaganda in his Mongoose plans; his top secret planning documents, now declassified, detail the use of "all media" in the campaign. Many of Lansdale's propaganda initiatives relied on the tried-and-true techniques of clandestine radio warfare, but some of his more grandiose psywar schemes approached the surreal.
For instance, he proposed a campaign to convince Cubans that Fidel Castro was in fact the anti-Christ, and to then spark a revolt by staging Jesus' return from the heavens. Lansdale's plan, which his colleagues dubbed "elimination by illumination," was to simulate the holy event by firing phosphorous shells into the sky above Havana. Though the anti-Castro/anti-Christ plan never came to fruition, the fact that it was considered at all by a U.S. military official is another indication of the important role supernatural themes can take in covert operations.
Another foreign hotspot that caught the attention of U.S. national security planners during the 1960s was the Republic of the Congo. The CIA and Defense Department deemed the country a test case for modern counterinsurgency methods, and financed numerous studies of Congolese society to probe the psychological strengths and weaknesses of the rebels.
In 1964, the U.S. Army commissioned one of the most extraordinary strategy papers ever produced in the history of unconventional warfare. Titled "Witchcraft, Sorcery, Magic, and Other Psychological Phenomena, and Their Implications on Military and Paramilitary Operations in the Congo," the report is a treatise on paranormal combat, discussing "counter-magic" tactics to suppress rebels who are backed by witch-doctors, charms, and magic potions.
The supernatural warfare report was authored by James R. Price and Paul Jureidini, two analysts at the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) at American University in Washington, D.C. As a center for military-sponsored research on the human dimension of counterinsurgency, SORO cranked out reports profiling the politics and other social forces at play in countries that concerned the Pentagon. In 1964 SORO also designed the infamous Project Camelot, a planned effort to scientifically measure the social factors that work to stabilize and destabilize developing countries. When news about Project Camelot seeped into countries that were proposed as targets for study, international protests erupted and the project was shut down. Critics called Project Camelot an egregious case of "sociological snooping," and SORO's report on supernatural subversives in the Congo merits the same classification.
The report is both anthropological and strategic, demonstrating the degree to which the study of human cultures can be employed as a weapon. Price and Jureidini worked for SORO's Counterinsurgency Information Analysis Center, which the Army hired to prepare an analysis of "the role of supernatural or superstitious concepts in a counterinsurgency in the Congo," according to the report's introduction. The study was thought necessary because of "the purported use of witchcraft, sorcery, and magic by insurgent elements." The report elaborated:
"Magical practices are said to be effective in conditioning dissident elements and their followers to do battle with Government troops. Rebel tribesmen are said to have been persuaded that they can be made magically impervious to Congolese army firepower. Their fear of the government has thus been diminished and, conversely, fear of the rebels has grown within army ranks."
After reviewing the phenomenon of supernatural insurgency, the report weighs the costs and benefits of trying to use "counter-magic" against the rebels -- to co-opt these ideas instead of trying to wipe them out. In regions "where insurgents rely upon 'medicines' and ritualistic practices to protect them from firepower, the suggestion to devise and employ magical practices in counterinsurgency operations is obvious and tempting," the report says. For example, "counterinsurgency planners will be able to concoct 'medicines' and other devices within in the superstitious framework of the target group, with which to neutralize and overpower the spells cast by insurgent witch-doctors."
But the SORO analysts warned that by pandering to paranormal notions in order to fight off insurgency, government forces might strengthen irrational ideas that could undermine stability. While "fear of magic and witchcraft can be reversed and used with telling effects against the insurgents," the report points out the threat of unintended consequences. "Should the central government successfully use occult methods to defeat a movement based upon such methods, the very concepts of sorcery and magic which lend impetus to the insurgencies of the moment may gain strength and acquire even greater trouble-making potential for the future."
In the end, the report suggests using traditional means -- namely, brute force -- to suppress the witchcraft warriors. "Any study of historical examples of uprisings supported by superstitious practices... will reveal that vigorous military counter-measures of a conventional nature have produced optimum results in suppressing the insurgency." Within the government ranks, the report advises that "unit morale and confidence... can go far to counteract superstitious fears" of magic-shielded rebels. Counter-magic would prove an unreliable, and unnecessary, counterinsurgency weapon. Price and Jureidini assured the Army that "there is every reason to believe that disciplined troops, proficient in marksmanship, and led by competent officers, can handily dispel most notions of magical invulnerability."
A few years later, when U.S. military involvement in Vietnam reached its peak, "winning hearts and minds" often meant spreading terror to persuade the Vietnamese that resistance was futile. Army PSYOP troops conducted massive leaflet, loudspeaker, and radio operations, which promised a gruesome death to those who contested U.S. and South Vietnamese forces, and sometimes employed paranormal themes.
One U.S. PSYOP leaflet pictured a dead Viet Cong guerrilla and a drawing of a skull and the "Ace of Spades" -- this brought to mind the practice of some U.S. soldiers, who left copies of that playing card with the bodies of their victims as a deathly omen. The message on the leaflet read: "Viet Cong! This is a sign of death! Continue your struggle against the National Cause and you will surely die a mournful death like this!"
The psywar in Vietnam took more surreal and frightening forms. In his book War on the Mind: The Military Uses and Abuses of Psychology, Peter Watson details some of the more innovative and outlandish psywar techniques developed by the United States. Reviewing what he found in declassified military reports, Watson describes the ghostly "Operation Wandering Souls," a PSYOP gambit that was "based on the reasoning that the [Viet Cong] were very superstitious about being buried in an unmarked grave." Propaganda troops used helicopter-mounted loudspeakers to blare haunted, wailing voices, supposedly coming from the spirits of fallen guerrillas doomed to wander the war zone.
At one point in the propaganda war, the U.S. military issued a policy directive on "The Use of Superstitions in Psychological Operations in Vietnam." The document, prepared by the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO), gave instructions for "the exploitation of enemy vulnerabilities provided by superstitions and deeply-held traditional beliefs." JUSPAO stated that superstitious ideas could come in handy, if the PSYOP troops adequately understood the Vietnamese psyche and made sure "that the audience against which a superstitious campaign is launched is sufficiently homogeneous in their beliefs to be susceptible to this kind of manipulation."
A decade after the United States pulled its forces from Vietnam, the CIA began a giant rebel effort of its own. The CIA-directed contra forces, who attacked Nicaragua's Sandinista government during the 1980s, often claimed the support of higher powers in their propaganda. The CIA chose to portray the contras not merely as anti-communist fighters, but as Christian combatants as well.
According to Edgar Chamorro, a Nicaraguan who served as the CIA's hand-picked director of contra propaganda, a "CIA man suggested that we publish a flier saying 'The Pope is a contra, too,' but I thought it was too crass, and suggested instead that we be more subtle." Chamorro altered the text slightly to say "The Pope is with us." Another contra leaflet featured a picture of the Pope with the caption: "Make up your mind! The Church or the Communist Sandinistas." A contra poster declared: "Christ is The Liberator!"
In October 1983, the U.S. military also invoked Christian themes in propaganda products disseminated during the invasion of Grenada. A PSYOP leaflet portrayed the Marxist leaders of Grenada's Provisional Revolutionary Army (PRA) as the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" -- characters described in a chilling piece of prophecy from the book of Revelation.
Does supernatural psywar do the job? Are enemy troops and civilians coaxed into submission by foreign propagandists using paranormal pranks? Based on the experiences of U.S. PSYOP specialists, the answers to these questions are ambiguous. Sometimes paranormal propaganda has swayed a target population, in other cases it merely strengthened the perception that U.S. forces were out of touch with the local reality. Whatever its effectiveness, supernatural psywar has been an oft-used weapon in the military's arsenal of fear.
(c) Copyright 1996 ParaScope, Inc.