Head Strong

How Psychology is Revolutionizing War

Psychology and a Less Lethal Military Strategy

A new approach to war and peace.

In the two World Wars of the 20th century raw kinetic military firepower was essential to victory.  In World War I, rapid advances in chemistry led to more powerful traditional weapons, including explosives and nerve gas.  Physics, of course, played a key role in World War II.  It produced the atomic bomb – the use of which hastened the end of the war.  Arguably, the innovation of useful radar systems – also a product of physics – proved to be a decisive factor in the Allied victory over the Axis powers.  In any case, victory was obtained through the mass use of kinetic energy, from rifle fire to the atomic bomb.  The enemy nations surrendered when their military, industrial base, and in many cases their cities, lay in ruin.

Psychology played a key role in these wars, of course.  It was psychologists who developed the aptitude tests that the military so desperately needed during World War I to assign new soldiers to ever more complicated military jobs.  In World War II, psychologists refined these selection tests, clinical psychologists enhanced the understanding of how to treat psychological battle injuries, and applied experimental psychologists laid the groundwork for a new sub discipline of psychology, human factors engineering, as they helped design high performance military aircraft that accounted for strengths and limitations of human perception, cognition, and reaction time in aircraft operation.

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The historian Alan Beyerchen argues that all major wars since 1900 have been greatly influenced by different sciences, which he calls amplifiers.[i] Chemistry was the amplifier for World War I and for World War II it was physics.  In the cold war, information technology gave the edge to Western nations.  For the Global War on Terror (GWOT), Beyerchen argues that the social sciences are the amplifier.

So while psychology has always been important to warfare, it is only recently that it has risen to the level of being the difference maker in who wins and who loses. The most fundamental reason that kinetic energy alone cannot win the wars we currently find ourselves in is there is no enemy state or nation, per se, against which to unleash megatons of kinetic power. Suppose that the 9/11 attacks had clearly been perpetrated by a specific nation.  Once a nation launches an attack of that sort, there is little likelihood of peace through diplomatic channels.  The United States, with its vast and unmatched military power, would have quickly destroyed the military and industrial base of the offending nation.  Its military defeated, the threat to the United States would be ended.  With a clearly defined enemy and threat, there is also a clearly defined end state.

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fundamentally different.  In Iraq, the United States quickly defeated the Iraqi military and overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime.  In Afghanistan, the objective initially was to find and kill Osama bin Laden, and later expanded to stop insurgent fighters including Al Qaeda.  After the fall of Hussein’s government, and throughout the war in Afghanistan, coalition forces have been mired down in a fight against a completely different sort of foe – ideologically based and inspired insurgents – not a formal, state-based military force.

The difficulty faced by the United States is currently exemplified by the dilemma of how to respond to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  While airstrikes can have a temporary impact on local ISIS operations, it is impossible to defeat them in this way.  ISIS does not have large centralized military bases, and is loosely dispersed across vast expanses of territory that crosses national boundaries.  Moreover, ISIS has strong support among local populations.  Like the mythical Hydra, a military strike that cuts off one head of ISIS will find itself facing several more that sprang up to take its place.  Clearly bombs and airstrikes cannot defeat this enemy, at least not without great cost, both politically and economically.

Thus, a military vacuum of sorts exists.  If kinetic power cannot defeat the enemy, then what can?  It is here that psychology and related behavioral and social sciences stand to fill the void.  Psychologists can help the United States’ strategic leaders form a clear understanding of the personal motives of individual insurgent fighters and of the social dynamics that make them so attractive to the (mostly) young men who join their ranks.  The US Army has successfully fielded Human Terrain System (HTS) teams to help local commanders understand the social geography in which the military operates.[ii]  American special-forces teams have long valued a thorough understanding the local population.  Contrary to popular stereotypes, special-forces operators spend a lot more time learning the language and culture of the area in which they operate than they do in engaging the enemy in firefights.

It has taken a good many years to produce the social and political conditions that have led to the current state of unrest and violence around the world, especially in the Middle East and in southwest Asia.  Psychology and related sciences can help forge a national military and diplomatic policy that may, over time, result in meaningful reductions in these tensions.  We have repeatedly found that military force only fans the flames of aggression and anger.  While it may be the most expedient response, often it does not represent a long term solution.

Psychology may be the first amplifier science that does not help win wars though building bigger and more powerful kinetic weapons systems.  Indeed, the biggest weapon the United States may have is its ability to harness psychological and social sciences to forge policies that prevent war.  The instrument to field this knowledge will include the military, but strategic planners and elected political leaders must be educated that spending money to produce a psychologically savvy military is at least as important – and some would say more so – than spending billions of dollars on fighter planes and aircraft carriers.

Paradoxically, therefore, what at first may be thought of as the application of psychology to aid in the execution of war may ultimately be the beginning of a psychology of peace.  As Sun Tzu writes in The Art of War, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”[iii]  Until the root psychological, social, political, and economic causes of insurgency are understood – and new policies reflecting this understanding are launched – there can be no lasting peace. 

Note:  The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.


[i] Alan Beyerchen, "Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War," International Security, 17:3 (Winter, 1992), pp. 59-90. This article can be accessed online at  http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/international_security/summary/v017/... and at

http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/Beyerchen/CWZandNonlinearity.htm

[ii] Montgomery McFate and Janice H. Laurence (Eds.), Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan (London: Hurst Publishers, 2014).

[iii] Sun Tzu, The Art of War (New York: Delacorte Press, 1983); http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/s/sun_tzu.html

Michael D. Matthews, Ph.D., is Professor of Engineering Psychology at the United States Military Academy and author of Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War.

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