Psychological Warfare

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Psychological Warfare
You may know that psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Psychological warfare works on the psyche, or mind, of an enemy. Specifically the goal of psychological warfare is to gain an advantage by influencing an opponent’s thoughts and emotions.

Genghis Khan: The Feared Warrior

Genghis Khan was born around 1162 in Mongolia. He grew up in a hostile world, where war between rival clans was brutal. His father was a Mongol ruler. Genghis Khan was raised to be a warrior and great military leader. Among the lessons he learned was to take any possible advantage over his enemies. This included letting his rivals know just how powerful his forces were. He also let them know how brutal and merciless he could be to his foes.

Genghis Khan applied these tactics in his life as a warrior. When Genghis Khan was nine, a rival clan, the Tartars, killed his father. Around 1205 he avenged his father’s murder by wiping out the Tartars in battle. He ordered that all men taller than the wheels of an ox cart be killed, which left only women and children alive. The women and girls were enslaved. Their settlement was destroyed. His purpose in this battle was twofold. First he hoped to get rid of anyone who challenged his leadership. Second he wanted to influence the minds of the children, making them become warriors loyal to Genghis Khan. Early historians from the 1100s and 1200s wrote with horror about the tactics Genghis Khan used. Even today historians know that he was a brutal, but effective, leader.

This period of time, the early 1200s, was marked by Genghis Khan working to unite the Mongol tribes. Some leaders in history have united people by allowing them freedom and rights. This was not the case with Genghis Khan. He made the tribes of Mongolia come together, but he was ruthless in his approach. To create a united Mongolia, he killed the rulers of all the tribes, so there would be no one left to challenge his rule. With their leaders dead, many tribesmen offered their loyalty to Genghis Khan, likely because they feared their own death if they were to disagree with him. Genghis Khan used fear and intimidation to create a united Mongolia. By making threats and following through with them, Genghis Khan used people’s fear and successfully waged psychological warfare.

Creating Fear in Asia

By 1206 Genghis Khan had united the tribes of Mongolia under his rule. With a large fighting force, Genghis Khan was ready to expand his rule. He carefully selected generals whom he knew would remain loyal to him. Then he turned beyond his borders to add more territory to his kingdom. This involved even more brutal tactics of intimidation. For example he and his armies attacked and leveled the Tangut kingdom in northwest China using the tactics of a siege.

A siege involves cutting off the enemy's supplies to starve them. To further frighten the weakened population, the Mongols attacked the Tangut using military machinery like catapults and flame-throwers. When the Tangut still did not surrender, their city was burned, their buildings were destroyed, and most of their people were slaughtered. Word of Genghis Khan’s brutal tactics spread, and so did the fear they inspired. After conquering the Tangut, Genghis Khan conquered the Jin kingdom in northern China. His attack on the Chinese kingdoms lasted about 20 years, until he withdrew to Mongolia in 1223.

During those years, the people of northern China lived in fear of Genghis Khan’s advancing army. His troops did not just conquer people; they destroyed the way people lived and impacted every aspect of their life. His troops burned cities that. refused to surrender. Genghis Khan’s armies destroyed irrigation projects and ruined fields so the people would have no food. He forced the Chinese people to serve as the forward troops, making them fight their own people. He used his methods to affect the Chinese psyche and create a culture of fear.

Other Warfare Tactics

Genghis Khan used other methods to wage psychological warfare as well. Before a battle it was very common for the Mongols to send out scouts. Their job was to determine the strength of their opposition and to spread stories about Genghis Khan’s violent conquests. He would then send out soldiers to make a deal: surrender or die. While his opponents had the chance to think about their options, Genghis Khan’s troops would lead them to believe that they did not stand a chance against the Mongol forces.

When the Mongol warriors traveled, they dragged large objects behind their horses to create dust storms. The dust storms made the advancing troops appear to be much larger than they were. Genghis Khan ordered his soldiers to burn hundreds of extra fires at night, which also made the armies appear larger. Mongol soldiers fired arrows with a small hole in them, which made the arrows whistle as they traveled through the air. The whistling sound was intended to terrify the opponent. These tactics were psychological: they inspired fear in his enemies in order to gain an advantage.

Even after his death, Genghis Khan’s generals used other methods to both destroy their enemies and put fear in the hearts of those they wished to conquer. In 1236 one of his great generals, Subotai, began a campaign to take over territory in Russia. He used speed and surprise to destroy enemy cities quickly and thoroughly. In 1238 Subotai and his troops sacked 12 walled cities in only 60 days. In doing so, he made sure that nearby towns knew of the Mongols’ massive destructive force. The level of destruction also kept enemies from reorganizing to fight back. In addition the Mongol military also pursued enemy leaders who were not slain in battle. They wanted to remove them from power and neutralize their ability to rally forces. Genghis Khan’s psychological warfare tactics impacted the ways that future military leaders waged war.

Modern-Day Psychological Warfare

A more recent instance of the use of psychological warfare tactics bears a resemblance to the Mongols’ use of swift and deadly attacks. In 2003 the United States led a “Shock and Awe” campaign against Iraq and its ruler, Saddam Hussein. Much like the Mongol attacks in Russia, the United States-led forces planned a sudden and massive strike on Hussein’s army, designed to force the Iraqis to surrender quickly.

The plan targeted the capital of Baghdad, specifically Hussein’s command center. The goal was to strike with force and speed. The attack began with heavy bombing, during which 1,300 missiles and bombs fell on Baghdad. The night sky in Baghdad was ablaze as missiles fell for many nights. Undoubtedly the Iraqis living in Baghdad experienced fear and terror. People around the world watched as the war unfolded on live television and the Internet. The Internet allowed people instant access to the latest updates on the war. The media was able to control images of the war, which affected the ways people thought about the war.

Does the failure of the “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq bring into question the value of Genghis Khan’s tactics today? That is a good question, but asking it brings up a clear difference between the 1200s and current times. When it comes to psychological warfare, one of the most important tactics today is propaganda. Genghis Khan employed propaganda through use of spies and informants in his day, but propaganda today can have more far-reaching impacts with the use of radio, television, and the Internet. That means that control of communication is more important than it was 800 years ago. Today we know in seconds what is happening anywhere in the world. Of course Genghis Khan was not able to use the modern media that is a part of today’s psychological warfare, but he did create a place for himself in the history of warfare.


Question (8 points)

  1. Compare the tactics of psychological warfare used by Genghis Khan and modern-day military forces. How are the tactics alike, and how are they different? Provide evidence from the passage to support your answer.

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