Since ancient times, psychological warfare (PSYWAR) has been employed as a ‘nonviolent weapon’ to achieve military goals. The term is used to refer to any action which utilises psychological methods to evoke an intentional reaction in other people. The term psychological warfare may be a modern construct, but its origins trace back thousands of years. In the Battle of Pelusium (525 BC) between the Persian Empire and ancient Egypt, the Persian forces used cats and other animals as a psychological tactic against the Egyptians, who revered cats due to their religious beliefs.

The start of modern psychological operations dates back to World War I. Psychological warfare is the planned and tactical use of propaganda, threats and other non-combat techniques to mislead, intimidate, demoralise or influence the thinking or behaviour of an enemy. To achieve their objectives, the planners of psychological warfare campaigns will first attempt to gain total knowledge of the beliefs, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities of the intended target.

According to the CIA, knowing what motivates the target is the key to a successful PSYWAR. During the Vietnam War, the United States used tapes of distorted human sounds and played them during the night. This led Vietnamese soldiers to believe that the dead were back for revenge.

Psychological warfare is a form of indirect aggression. The purpose PSYWAR is to reduce an opponent’s morale or mental well-being by using manipulative tactics to intimidate and coerce a person or a group of people. Empty or true threats of violence, restrictions of freedom and control are exercised to instil fear in the target. This mentally damages the recipients over time, putting them in a state of constant fear, anxiety and terror.

A dummy Sherman tank, a tool of deception.

By exploiting primal human emotions, psychological warfare focuses on creating suffering in lieu of actual killing. Unlike other tangible weapons of war that cause physical harm, psychological warfare plays off our innermost insecurities and desires, and then uses this to achieve a particular objective. Emotions that are often considered the most vulnerable parts of human nature, that is, the darker spectrum of human emotion–fear, hate, deceit, pain, humiliation and loneliness–are systematically exploited until the enemy is mentally incapable of fighting. PSYWAR, in effect, impairs the target’s cognition and critical reasoning capacity.

Unlike physical wounds, mental wounds are more difficult to see, understand and heal. People can continue to suffer from psychological wounds long after the body has healed–which is what makes this form of warfare particularly damaging. It annihilates the psyche of the individual(s) in question. If we study the wars that have taken place in recent history, we know that what ensues in the aftermath of a war lasts considerably longer than the war itself.

The first step in breaking the mental bonds of psychological warfare is to become consciously aware of this silent killer. This is no easy task and takes a lot of mental rewiring to learn to see life from a new perspective. It can take months, years or even decades to emerge from this sort of war.

However, once the insidious psychological mechanism is torn away, regaining the knowledge of who an individual truly is–is what protects him or her from believing the coercive lie they have been persuaded into believing. After recovering elements of the identity that was lost, an individual is then in the position to regain the strength to strive for true healing, independence and perhaps even peace.

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