In a previous article, I wondered: why would a soldier take off his military uniform and surrender his gun to leave his position to his enemies in the middle of a battle? And why would another soldier go to the battlefield when he knows very well that his colleagues had died in the same place?
One of the factors that can help to understand this phenomenon is the soldiers’ immunity to psychological tactics by the other party. The impact of this approach goes beyond the military’s fight to include the stability of societies, the cohesion of the national fabric, the confidence of citizens in state institutions, and the citizens’ commitment to the laws and decisions made by these institutions.
“Psychological tactics” is the use of false information and ideas, and distorted images to deceive, incite, guide, and provoke certain groups – civilian and military – to adopt certain behaviour. It contradicts with their interests. It also takes advantage of leaders’ mistakes, the ignorance of the people, and the opportunists.
According to this definition, psychological tactics are as old as humanitarian conflict itself.
Books and references present dozens of accidents and statements confirming people’s struggle against psychological tactics.
Allah says in Surat at-Tawbah or the Repentance surah: “Had they gone forth with you, they would not have increased you except in confusion, and they would have been active among you, seeking [to tempt] you. And among you are avid listeners to them. And Allah knows of the wrongdoers.”
This surah refers to planters of conflict as hypocrites and refers to those who have a tendency to be affected by them as “among you are avid listeners”. This is a direct reference to the meaning of psychological tactics.
Sun Tzu, the author of the oldest book of military strategy, said more than 2,500 years ago: “The surrender of the enemy’s army is better than destroying it. The surrender of a single troop of the enemy’s army is better than destroying it. The victory in a hundred battles does not mean the ultimate excellence. The greatest triumph over the enemy is defeating it without a fight or a single drop of blood, so the real challenge is not to destroy your enemy’s army, but to destroy its desire to fight.”
Napoleon Bonaparte added another dimension to the psychological operations: “There are two powers in the world: The power of the sword and the power of the mind. In the long run, the sword is always defeated by the mind. In war, the soldiers’ morale is three times more important than their weapons and quantity.”
The testimonies of those leaders who were defeated in war are as follows:
Gen. Erich Von Ludendorff, a leader of the German army in World War I in which Germany was defeated, said: “We were out of control as a result of the enemy’s propaganda like a paralysed rabbit facing a snake.”
In the same context, Field Marshal Hindenburg, a German army commander in the same war, wrote: “We have attacked the British with a barrage of bombs to destroy their bodies. But they also attacked us with a barrage of advertising papers to destroy our souls.”
When Hitler tried to explain the reasons of the German army’s defeat in World War I, he said: “Our soldiers have learned to think precisely the way the enemy wanted them to think, so they defeated us.”
Indeed, the use of psychological tactics is no longer linked only to wars; they also affect the stability of societies.
US President Abraham Lincoln had said: “It’s all about morale. The people with high morale cannot fail, those without morale cannot succeed. Those who build brains are stronger than others who formulate the laws.”
Gen. MacArthur, commander of US forces, said during World War II in Japan and Korea: “In such circumstances, no commander can wage a successful war without the support of public opinion, which is formed by newspapers and other methods of communication and advertising.”
If you wanted to control the minds of the people, your first job is to build your credibility.
Shakespeare said: “The minds of the public is in their ears”. Thus whoever controls what people listen to, controls their minds and valour.
Moataz Bellah Abdel-Fattah is an Egyptian professor of political science. He previously served as adviser to the prime minister of Egypt, and professor of political science at both Cairo University and Central Michigan University.