PSYOP Master: Genghis Khan’s Use of Psychological Warfare to Expand the Mongol Empire

Genghis Khan is arguably the greatest and most formidable conqueror in human history. In his time as the 1st Great Khan of the Mongol Empire from AD 1206 until his death in 1227, his conquests would amount to over three billion people in thirty countries on a present-day map of the world (Weatherford 2004: Introduction). In two and a half decades, the Mongols conquered more territory than the Romans did in four centuries (Weatherford 2004: Introduction). The size of the Mongol Empire Genghis Khan founded was truly astonishing. At its apex, the Mongol Empire stretched from Hungary to Vietnam, India to Siberia(Weatherford 2004: Introduction).

One of the central reasons why the Mongols managed to rapidly explode in size was through the effectively use of psychological warfare. Genghis Khan was a master of propaganda and psychological manipulation (Narula 2004: 180), and was seemingly well versed in the teachings of the ancient Chinese general and strategist, Sun Tzu, who famously wrote that “all warfare is based on deception” (Tzu 2009: 4).

Essentially, psychological warfare is the use of various forms of communication aimed at reducing the will of an enemy to fight (Padover 1951: 151). A psychological operation (or PSYOP) is an operation that uses specific information in order to influence the perspective, motivation and behaviour of a target population in a manner advantageous to your own interests (Kerchner et al. 2001: 46). From the Spartans wearing blood-red cloaks in order to instil fear in enemy troops who were observing them from a distance (Kerchner et al. 2001: 45), to the British military air-dropping leaflets in German positions during WW1 in an attempt to persuade German forces to surrender (Kelly 2008), history is filled with examples of PSYOPS. 

A core way in which Genghis Khan used psychological manipulation was by using various techniques to exaggerate the size, power and brutality of the Mongol army in the minds of groups targeted for conquest. Genghis Khan understood perfectly well how terror could be used to instil fear in peoples who had not even encountered the Mongols in the flesh yet. On a simple level, Mongol warriors were ordered to attach tree branches to the tails of their horses so that more dust and sand would flick-up into the air when riding, meaning that enemies observing a Mongol army from a distance would think that the army was far larger than it actually was in reality (Weatherford 2004: Chapter 4 – Spitting on the Golden Khan).

On a more sophisticated level, Genghis Khan created a whirlpool of propaganda before attacking a city, in a psychological terror campaign that often weakened the resolve of an enemy to fight against a superhuman Mongol army (Weatherford 2004: Chapter 5 – Sultan vs Khan). Genghis Khan would send a delegation of spies and agents to a target city prior to invasion. These agents would then spread exaggerated rumours and propaganda in the target population about the size and brutality of the Mongol warriors (Narula 2004: 180). The number of people killed by the Mongols was always magnified and the barbarism used to kill always amplified. It appears that Genghis Khan was also more than happy to let scribes and scholars who were not agents of the Mongols spread these inflated tales, as the ruler allowed letters containing these stories to spread freely (Weatherford 2004: Chapter 5 – Sultan vs Khan).

Genghis Khan also used other methods of manipulation. Before sacking a walled city, it was common for the Mongols to completely destroy and cause utter chaos in the surrounding area; then to completely vanish for a time; to finally reappear just as the population of the city believed that they were safe from a Mongol siege (Weatherford 2004: Chapter 4 – Spitting on the Golden Khan). Another tactic used by Genghis Khan was to send a terrifying message to citizens of a target city prior to war offering mercy to those who surrendered yet complete annihilation to anyone who resisted, including killing the wives and children of those who opposed them (Weatherford 2004: Chapter 5 – Sultan vs Khan).

In addition to these PSYOPS, Genghis Khan also employed the strategy of divide and conquer in many campaigns, as he always looked for opportunities to undermine the authority of the rulers in the target system and sow dissension amongst its people. This tactic was used very effectively against the Jurchen or Jin dynasty, who ruled a region which correlates approximately to the north-eastern region of present-day China. During this campaign, Genghis Khan’s first act was to divide the Khitan people from their Jin rulers who had overthrown the reign of the Khitan royal family a century previously to take control of the region (Weatherford 2004: Chapter 4 – Spitting on the Golden Khan).

The Mongol forces entered the Jin region portraying themselves as an emancipating force aimed at restoring the Khitan royal family to power, with this calculated move resulting in many Khitan people joining forces with the Mongols, with the linguistic similarities between the two groups aiding this process (Weatherford 2004: Chapter 4 – Spitting on the Golden Khan). The Mongols also engaged in a propaganda campaign to try to convince the Chinese subjects that the rulers of the Jin dynasty would be unable to protect them against a Mongol invasion, in an attempt to sow dissention between the Chinese rulers and their people (Weatherford 2004: Chapter 4 – Spitting on the Golden Khan). Starting in 1211, the Mongols gradually took more and more of Jin territory, until completely destroying the dynasty in 1234.

Sources:

Kelly, J. (2008) The secret world of ‘psy-ops’ BBC News – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7464430.stm

Kerchner, P., Deckro, R., & Kloeber, J. (2001) Valuing Psychological Operations. Military Operations Research, 6(2), 45-65.

Narula, Sunil (2004) ‘Psychological operations (PSYOPs): A conceptual overview’, Strategic Analysis, 28:1, 177-192.

Padover, S. (1951) Psychological Warfare and Foreign Policy The American Scholar, 20(2), 151-161.

Weatherford, J. (2004) Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (New York, Broadway Books).

Tzu, S. (2009) The Art of War (New York: Classic Books International).

Note: the sources consulted to construct this narrative do not necessarily endorse the narrative constructed.

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