Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Inglourious War

As some have no doubt noted, Quentin Tarantino needed some serious balls to rewrite the history of World War II with Inglourious Basterds.

But in doing so, the film -- in which Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads his borderline-psychotic band of guerillas on a mission to assassinate Adolph Hitler -- sheds some light on one of the more inglorious aspects of war:

Psychological warfare.

The Basterds' Mission is primarily one of psychological warfare -- to leave behind them a wake of mutilated Nazis so long that their comrades will not be able to sleep at night, and will be able to think of little else other than the prospects of running across the Basterds on a road somewhere -- a misfortune very likely to be the last a Nazi soldier would ever suffer.

Psychological warfare is no newer an idea today than it was when it was in World War II. Although the techniques used for psychological warfare have changed over the centuries, the goal remains essentially the same: to get one's enemy spreading propaganda, self-custom-made to spread the maximum amount of debilitating fear possible.

More modern psychological warfare techniques often involve using the cultural fears of the enemy against them.

For example, in Nicaragua the US Central Intelligence Agency would kidnap enemy soldiers, kill them and leave them to be found with two puncture marks in their neck.

Terrified enemy soldiers would believe they were under siege by vampires. Their lost sleep at night would quickly become a marked advantage for the United States and their allies in Nicaragua (admittedly, not one of the proudest moments in US history).

In Inglourious Basterds the Basterds enjoy another psychological advantage over their Nazi enemies -- they are Jewish. And just as their actions against the Nazis they encounter (even the survivors) seem to carry strong connotations of revenge, the beliefs held by many Germans and Eastern Europeans that Jews had magical powers -- also invoked later in the movie -- certainly makes their job easier.

Particularly terrifying to the Nazis is Sargeant Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz, who likes to beat defiant Nazis to death with a baseball bat. So long as a few Nazis remain alive to see his baseball-inspired brutality, the Basterds tend to get the information they're after.

In World War II as it really occurred -- without the miracle hail mary play to kill Hitler -- psychological warfare centred largely around the concept of "total war". The idea was to inflict personal costs so grave on the enemy as a whole and weaken their resolve.

Entire cities -- in both Germany and Britain -- were bombed entirely to the ground in the effort to make the populace of either country fear their enemy's bombers so fully that they would lose sleep at night.

On the high seas, the submarine warfare conducted by German U-Boats was aimed at the same result.

Psychological warfare is being waged today with a broadened mandate to convince enemy combatants to surrender and to convince the civilian population that an invading or occupying force is not their enemy. These are the techniques being deployed in Afghanistan today.

Psychological warfare, especially as presented in Inglourious Basterds, is often a dirty affair. But it unquestionably contributes to the winning of wars.

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