In wartime, generals use every tool in their arsenal – from ammunition to propaganda, even matchbooks!
Psychological warfare—mind games—were powerful tools in the history of warfare and remain so today. The mind is a powerful tool, and many generals planning and waging war have taken advantage of that fact. One of the earliest historical examples is attributed to Alexander the Great, one of world’s pre-eminent conquerors. Alexander left behind customized armor, purposefully made to fit giants, men in excess of 7 and 8 feet. By leaving these gargantuan pieces of armor behind for his enemies to discover, he sowed doubt into theirminds. Upon discovering such huge pieces of weaponry, Alexander’s enemies would envision fighting such behemoths, and perhaps lose their vigor for fighting.
During WW II, fighter pilots took a leaf out of old Alexander’s book and engaged in some serious mind manipulation with the German army. From high in the air, the pilots would drop matchbooks with seditious instructions for how German soldiers could fake illnesses in hopes of being released from military service. According to Sergeant Major Herbert A. Friedman, the instructions could be as specific as:
To induce artificial skin inflammation, “Take three times daily…one teaspoonful of a 10% solution of iodine potassium in a glass of water…until a scarlet-like affection of the skin results…Iodine potassium is a completely harmless medicine.”
To simulate a heart condition, “Smoke 20 to 30 cigarettes a day. But if you normally smoke as much, then you might double that number…Take four [digitalis] tablets daily for one or two weeks…Report to the doctor with the following complaints: You do not feel well and are short of breath after exertions…Occasionally you have attacks of pain in the heart region…There was cold sweat on your forehead during the attack and you had a feeling as though you were going to die.”
These tactics served two purposes. First, and most obvious, was to get German soldiers to abandon the war. War is gruesome and chances were good that most solders, if given the chance, would trade a rifle and helmet for a bed with clean sheets far away from the trenches and bullets. So what if, seemingly by magic, a matchbook hits you in the head and details exactly how to make such an exchange? This tactic was designed to feel like a sign from heaven for a lowly soldier, to say “auf wiedersehen-adios-goodbye!”
The second result, which may have been a happy accident, was planting doubt within the minds of officers about the loyalty of their men. If an officer were to get wind that his men were faking illnesses to avoid fighting, how would he react? Chances are, like a parent with a child faking illness, an officer would come to be suspicious of any malady within his ranks. While many of the solders may have been faking, inevitably there would have been a handful who were legitimately sick and needed medical attention, or even worse for the ranks, needed to be quarantined. By creating that uncertainty in the German officers over who was sick and who was faking, the note-writing Allied pilots were able to spread real disease through the ranks of the German army.
Tacticians have always played an important role in defeating the enemy, right along with the generals wanting to gain every advantage.