A History Of Turning Minds Into Battlegrounds

Author Annalee Newitz shows how stories can be weapons if they can change human behavior—­whether in the street or in the voting booth.

The following is an excerpt from Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind by Annalee Newitz.

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Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind


It’s hard to write about a war while it’s raging. Especially when there are no craters in the ground, no missiles streaking overhead—­just words and images that are inflicting a form of psychological damage that is impossible to measure, impossible to prove. When I started researching this book in mid-­2020, the world was locked down in a pandemic that was unleashing a torrent of propaganda the likes of which I had never seen. As a friend of mine lay dying of COVID on a ventilator, President Donald Trump promised that we could cure the disease with light and deworming medication for horses. After police killed George Floyd, I watched as disinformation about the Black Lives Matter movement piled up on social media, where anonymous accounts falsely blamed protesters for violence. A conspiracy theory from 2016 about pizza-­eating pedophiles radicalized a huge number of right-­wing extremists, who later joined crowds storming the Capitol, trying to murder the vice president and overturn the 2020 presidential election. And then the media itself began to implode. Tech billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter—­once a key part of America’s digital public sphere—­and turned it into a bizarro right-­wing propaganda machine in a matter of months. OpenAI, the company that created the ChatGPT app, warned that its product might cause the apocalypse—­then funded a studio that would help newspapers use it to replace journalists.

Every time I thought I had a handle on what was happening, some new development would send me into a spiral of nihilism. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, destroying the universal access to legal abortion that so many of us had taken for granted our whole lives. Anti-­trans ideology insinuated its way into public policy, and I started to make lists of states where my friends and I couldn’t go to the bathroom, couldn’t get health care, couldn’t speak publicly without risking arrest for being in “drag.” It wasn’t just scary—­it was absurd. Around this time, an avowedly racist Air Force National Guardsman leaked classified US intelligence about the Ukraine War on a Discord server devoted to the game Minecraft. I felt like I was in a war zone, or maybe a satirical movie about a war zone, waiting for the next bomb to drop.

Through it all, I was trying to write my way out of the terror and confusion. I knew that I had to stop living in the moment, stop feeling the dread, and put what was happening to the United States in a deeper context. I turned to history for answers, researching American ideological conflicts of the past two hundred years—­from formal military psychological operations to messy domestic culture wars—­hoping to find precedents that would explain why our democracy was devolving into what felt like madness. As a science journalist, I was frustrated that there were no scientific instruments, no objective measures I could use to prove that people’s lives were being destroyed by words and ideas. But as a fiction writer, I knew there were other ways to get at the truth, to make sense of a world gripped by absurdity and chaos. I had to tell a story.

Aliens and Psychic Wars

A red-­tipped tower dominates the skyline of Stanford University. Surrounded by low-­slung Spanish colonial architecture and tree-­shaded sidewalks, this missile-­shaped building is part of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, a conservative think tank founded in 1919 by Herbert Hoover. I first visited the place on a windy fall day in 2021, in that brief period between the Delta and Omicron waves of COVID when things were opening up in the Bay Area. My destination was a sunken courtyard at the root of the tower, which led to a basement-­level floor entirely occupied by the Hoover Institution Archives. Scholars, heads of state, and policy wonks from all over the world come to the archive to study its extensive collection of documents related to propaganda and psychological warfare.

To enter the archive, I passed through two security checkpoints—­one to verify my identity and check my vaccination status, and the other to show the librarians that I carried only a computer, a phone, and a pencil. No backpacks, no sweaters with pockets, and absolutely no permanent markers are permitted at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives. If I wanted to write something down, the librarian told me, I could use the official yellow Hoover Institution paper. Before I exited the security gauntlet, a staffer took my picture and made a special “reader card” ID for me. If I left to use the bathroom or grab some lunch, I’d need to flash my card to get back in. The vibe was a cross between an intelligence agency and a museum.

I had come to sift through the personal papers of an odd military intelligence expert named Paul Linebarger, who wrote a handbook called Psychological Warfare for the US Army in the late 1940s that came to define modern psychological operations in the United States. Though few people know his name, his book is still recommended reading today at Fort Liberty, where Special Operations soldiers are trained to influence and deceive their enemies. When I brought the first archival box of his papers to my assigned desk, slipping on gloves to protect the century-­old diaries and photos inside, I was plunged into a Cold War mystery. Like many intelligence experts, Linebarger led a few secret lives, but his covert identities were not for the spycraft you might expect. Instead, they were entirely for the purpose of telling stories. Under the pseudonym Felix C. Forrest, he wrote literary fiction about women’s lives that one reviewer described as “like pages from a psychiatrist’s notebook”; as Carmichael Smith, he penned a Cold War spy novel called Atomsk; and as Cordwainer Smith, he wrote dozens of science fiction stories and novels that made him a cult figure in the 1950s and ’60s.

I read through years of his personal diaries, his classified research, and his critically acclaimed stories about a ruthless future space empire called the Instrumentality. There were his grade-­school notebooks devoted to studying Chinese, which he learned while his diplomat father was stationed in China, right alongside classified documents related to the adult Linebarger’s deployment during World War II. He studied psychology and political subterfuge with equal relish. In one folder, I found an unpublished book called “Ethical Dianetics,” written under the name Carmichael Smith, in which he proposed a radical system of “mutual emotional aid.” In another was a detailed report on how the United States should secretly foment “passive resistance” to communism in China during the Cold War. During World War II, he kept a journal of keen observations from his travels. Some were about how the war affected the many countries he visited, from Asia to Africa, but some were simply arresting images. In 1943, passing through Sudan, he wrote, “At [Al Fashir], U.S. officers flocked to see women working on building construction.” He was acutely aware of the kinds of cultural differences that arouse curiosity—­and outrage. Still, most of his published output was fiction, rather than treatises like Psychological Warfare.

Why did he write about fantastical wars in outer space when he had so much to say about wars on Earth? The more I immersed myself in Linebarger’s work, the more obvious it became that his skill as a science fiction writer was a crucial part of his success with military psyops. Propaganda is, after all, a story we tell to win allies and frighten enemies. The more compelling and emotionally engaging the story is, the more people will want to read, watch, or listen to it. Linebarger believed that words, properly deployed, were more powerful than bombs. In the Army, and at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, he taught two generations of soldiers how to weaponize stories to benefit the United States and its interests. His goal wasn’t to browbeat people into obedience with slogans and threats. He used a surprising amount of nuance and rationality mixed with entertainment to persuade his audiences to ally with the United States. Linebarger connected with audiences however he could, whether by secreting his ideas inside science fiction stories or by laying them out in classified reports.

Sitting in the quiet Hoover Institution Library & Archives, I glanced up occasionally at my fellow researchers in their professorial tweeds or the scruffy jeans of impoverished grad students. Outside, in the courtyard, a cool breeze ruffled the manicured trees. I felt briefly that meditative sense one sometimes gets in academic institutions, as if we were insulated from the world and completely safe.

But we weren’t safe.

All of us in that room and beyond were feeling pain, or at the very least unease, as America’s ongoing psychological battles erupted around the economy, health care, schools, the courts, and in government at all levels. We were all in a heightened state of fight-­or-­flight. The more I learned, the more convinced I was that storytelling was to blame. On a 2022 episode of the book-­centric podcast Print Run, literary agents Laura Zats and Erik Hane pointed out that it’s common to describe a story as “feel-­good,” but people rarely admit there are also “feel-­bad” stories that wound us emotionally. Obviously if a story can make you feel better or smarter, it can also make you feel worse and more confused. And if that story can change your behavior—­whether in the voting booth or on the street—­it becomes a weapon.

Today in the United States, psywar is virtually indistinguishable from culture war. One might liken the situation to what happened when federal programs in the 1990s made it cheap and easy for police departments to acquire unused military equipment like semiautomatic weapons and tanks. Weapons intended for use in combat zones are now being deployed in the American suburbs. Peter Pomerantsev, author of This Is Not Propaganda, points out that military influence operations have bled over into civilian conflicts, creating a “flood of disinformation and deception, ‘fake news,’ [and] ‘information war.’ When we use psyops in our cultural conflicts, we tear down the wall between what’s appropriate in domestic disagreements among Americans and what’s acceptable in combat against a foreign enemy.

As a science journalist and fiction author, I’ve spent most of my life at the crossroads between hard realities and the fantasies we entertain about them. Psychological warfare and culture war exist at this crossroads too. Linebarger argued in his work that successful propaganda always contains a slice of the truth: it refers to actual events and true histories, but decontextualizes them, relocates them to an imaginary terrain of mythical good guys and bad guys. And that’s why it gets us in our hearts and guts.

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How Psychological Warfare Moved From Battlefields To Politics


Psychological warfare has no known origin story. By the time the Chinese classic The Art of War was written, likely 2,500 years ago, the practice was already widely used and complex. Often ascribed to a philosopher and military general named Sun Tzu or Master Sun, The Art of War describes tactics like deception and distraction, which today might be called disinformation, propaganda, or special operations. More than anything else, The Art of War is about psychological strategies—­some diplomatic, some sneaky—­that a good leader should use to avoid violence. Linebarger, who spent part of his childhood in China and was a scholar of Chinese history, adopted this as his own credo while codifying the art of modern psychological warfare. He advised his students and fellow military officers to use psywar in order to prevent bloodshed.
Still, it’s important to keep in mind that one goal of psychological warfare is to hurt the enemy—­otherwise you’re not striking a blow, you’re just exchanging words. Psyops create the emotional agony and social ruptures of a kinetic war, without anyone firing a single shot. There are many ways to do this, and operatives have refined their tactics over time.

The nascent United States was the beneficiary of a new insight about psychological war, which was that confusion could act as a form of disinformation. It was an idea that stemmed from a growing awareness that European wars were far more chaotic and unpredictable than they had ever been. Carl von Clausewitz, in the first volume of his influential 1832 series On War, described battles where commanders were trapped in “a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” What he meant was that commanders often had to make life-­and-­death decisions in an instant, without enough intelligence about the larger conflict or even the state of their own armies. Later commentators like Colonel Lonsdale Hale, referencing Clausewitz, began to describe this problem simply as “the fog of war.” The military quickly realized that uncertainty and chaos could also be weaponized. When an enemy is confused by multiple conflicting accounts of what’s happening, they are vulnerable and easily manipulated. They no longer trust their sources of news, but are desperate for information. A skilled propagandist can step into the breach and provide it, misleading their targets into turning against their fellow citizens or surrendering to their would-­be conquerors.

Though the United States used irregular, or unconventional, warfare strategies throughout the Revolutionary War and the nineteenth-­century Indian Wars, there was no formal term for these kinds of operations. It wasn’t until World War I that the US War Department established the Psychologic Subsection of its Intelligence Division. In 1918, under the leadership of Captain Heber Blankenhorn and his deputy, the journalist Walter Lippmann, the division was renamed the Propaganda Section. The Propaganda Section was responsible for creating millions of leaflets, dropped from airplanes like text bombs, intended to undermine the morale of German troops. The Intelligence Division was also tasked with censoring of the news, which is essentially another misinformation tactic. At that time, the terms “propaganda” and “psychological operations” were used interchangeably, but that would soon change.

After World War I, psychological operations, or psyops, became more closely associated with the military, while propaganda came to mean something far more slippery. Edward Bernays, an adman who conducted secret work for the US government, wrote a book called Propaganda in 1928 where he argued that propaganda has an “unpleasant connotation” but is merely “the mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale . . . [in] an organized effort to spread a particular belief or doctrine.” For Bernays and his many adherents, propaganda was part of everyday communication, no more remarkable than an iPhone ad or the New York Times op-­ed section. Nearly any idea that was transmitted through mass media could be considered propaganda. Lippmann, who had witnessed military propaganda firsthand during the war, disagreed. He believed that propaganda was more coercive than journalism or advertising. Their disagreement persists among experts to this day, which is why so much political propaganda goes unchecked—­it exists in a gray area between psyops and advertising.
It wasn’t until World War II that psychological war activities gained a permanent home in the military, thanks to the establishment of the Army’s Office of War Information, where Linebarger worked. At that point, many informal practices became military doctrine. The military loves an acronym, so the colloquial term “psyops” quickly became PSYOP in military documents, and psychological warfare became PSYWAR. Today, the Army has rebranded PSYOP as MISO, or military information support operations. An Army teaching manual for MISO soldiers from 2014 describes MISO as targeting foreign audiences “to elicit behaviors favorable to U.S. national objectives.” The Army’s 8th Psychological Operations Group describes their mandate in more visceral terms on their website: “Masters of influence. Experts in deception.” Here I’ll be using “PSYOP” only in the context of military doctrine where the term was used; I’ll use lowercase “psyops” and “psywar” to refer to a broad range of irregular combat actions aimed at destabilizing a foreign power.

All-American PSYWAR

We’ll begin our exploration of psychological war by going back to its origins in the United States. In this country, psyops have always been connected to the evolving media industry. We’ll meet Cold War propagandists who were moonlighting as fiction writers, and a Jazz Age adman who led psyops campaigns. Going back further, we’ll see how the nineteenth-­century Indian Wars created a uniquely American paradigm for psychological operations, which combined military action with media misrepresentations. The United States fought hundreds of Indigenous nations with guns as well as disinformation about Indigenous life in fiction, newspapers, and local histories. What the military didn’t expect was that Indigenous nations in the West would clap back with their own psychological campaigns, such as the Ghost Dance movement, inspiring a new kind of activism that continues to this day.

Military psyops exist on a continuum with advertising and popular media. Together, this troika of influence machines tempts and coerces us into changing our behavior on a mass scale. While I researched this book, I took a class from a PSYOP instructor in the Army, who taught me to generate psychological “products” for “target audiences,” a process modeled on advertising campaigns. His lessons helped explain why online advertising fueled one of the most explosive psychological wars of the twenty-­first century. In the lead-­up to the 2016 presidential race, Russian operatives used Facebook to reach over 126 million Americans with highly targeted ads, content, and memes. Their intent was to create chaos—­much like the fog of war—­but also to discourage Black people from voting. This campaign didn’t end with Trump’s election. It’s ongoing. We’ll see how digital psywar has incorporated new tactics and is changing the way people use social media.

Next we’ll track how the military’s psychological weapons found their way into the rhetoric and tactics of culture warriors. Culture wars aren’t waged by a state authority the way psychological wars are, though they often serve the interests of a government or another powerful institution like a church or corporation. Sometimes combatants are part of political movements. But mostly the people participating in these campaigns view themselves as fighting for truth or simply “telling it like it is.” They don’t always realize that they’re contributing to a systemic cultural assault. Cultural operations can be deployed by many sources, from entertainment media and schools to scientific journals and public policy. But they all share the same goal: whipping up emotions against an enemy.

There are three major psychological weapons that combatants often transfer into culture war: scapegoating, deception, and violent threats. These weapons are what separate an open, democratic public debate from a psychological attack. In a militarized culture war, combatants will scapegoat specific groups of Americans by painting them as foreign adversaries; next, these culture warriors will lace their rhetoric with lies and bully their adversaries with threats of violence or imprisonment. We’ll look at how this weapons transfer took place in some of the past century’s devastating culture wars over American identity, zeroing in on conflicts over race and intelligence, school board fights over LGBT students, and activist campaigns to suppress feminist stories. In every case, we see culture warriors singling out specific groups of Americans, like Black people or trans teens, and bombarding them with psyops products as if they were enemies of the state.

Increasingly, Americans are not engaging in democratic debate with one another; they are launching weaponized stories directly into each other’s brains. But we have the power to decommission those weapons. The final section of this book deals with the pathway to peace. How exactly do we issue a cease-­fire in wars of the mind? The first edition of Linebarger’s book Psychological Warfare ends with a manifesto on the importance of psychological disarmament. He believed that the purpose of psyops was to end war, not to ignite an infinite series of culture wars that would grind the nation to a halt. His ideas echoed key political philosophers of the Cold War era, like Jürgen Habermas and Herbert Marcuse, who argued that nations around the world needed to rebuild a shattered public sphere. Linebarger believed that the public sphere—­the shared cultural realm where Americans swap ideas, tell stories, and build consensus through democratic elections—­had been rotted by years of disinformation and violent manipulation. To start the reconstruction process, Linebarger suggested investing in public education, opening national borders, and supporting a robust free press. It’s hard to imagine a career military man, intensely loyal to the US government his entire life, writing those words now. More specifically, it’s hard to imagine him being heard. America’s twenty-­first-­century culture warriors, led by politicians and media influencers, aim to flood the public sphere with chaos and slam our borders shut.

And yet even now, there is a counternarrative that promises something else. If we pay attention we can find it everywhere, suggesting practical, healthy ways to move beyond constant warfare to find a moment of peace. The term “healthy” is important here, because recovery from psywar requires what can only be called collective therapy. Psychological and culture wars cause trauma—­that is their intent. Harvard psychologist Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, argues that we must first remember what has happened before we can move on. That’s why historical receipts, true accounts of our nation’s past, are part of psychological disarmament. We’ll meet an anthropologist, Coquille tribal chief Jason Younker, whose youthful adventures with a Xerox machine in the dusty basement of the National Archives in Washington, DC, restored his tribe’s lost claims to land in southwest Oregon. He and his team uncovered documents that began a reconciliation process whose effects are being felt throughout the Pacific Northwest.

To achieve psychological disarmament, we’ll need to rethink the role of stories in our lives—­and, more importantly, to change the way we act on the stories we hear. This is especially true when it comes to the way we interact with online media, which is full of viral misinformation. How do we separate the goofball fakery from trustworthy sources? We’ll hear from experts like Alex Stamos, former head of the Stanford Internet Observatory, who helped produce a national report on how to quell the tide of online disinformation about voting. He and his colleagues suggest using moderation systems that treat influence operations like email spam—­filtering out the propaganda junk so that we can find the legitimate information we need. Other researchers, like Safiya Umoja Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression, urge consumers to consider a “slow media” approach where we choose our media mindfully, analyzing it and testing its veracity before we swallow it whole.

There’s a pervasive anxiety in the United States—­and, sometimes, a hope—­that people will imitate what they find in the stories they consume. It’s why policymakers argue that kids playing violent games could become school shooters. It’s also why right-­wing pundits worry that teens reading about trans characters in young adult books might become trans themselves. In the United States, we treat fiction as politics—­and vice versa. As a result, it’s difficult for us to build a public sphere where we can come to a consensus about what’s true rather than which story we like best. This conundrum leads us back to where we began: storytelling. As journalist Nesrine Malik argues in We Need New Stories, culture wars have flooded our public sphere with tales built on “consensual dishonesty,” or lies based on a shared mythical past. One way out of this prison house of mythology is to seek narratives that describe plausible democratic futures based on justice and repair. We’ll explore “applied science fiction,” a form of storytelling that pushes back against dystopian visions by describing ways to fix the world, rather than gawking at its smoking ruins. Ideas from these stories can spill over into public policy, which I would argue is a form of applied science fiction. Policies are visions of possible futures, attempts to change reality by imagining a different world.

The stories we tell one another using words, images, and theatrics are dual use. In peacetime, they can be sheer entertainment. During periods of conflict, they can destroy lives and topple nations. But war cannot, must not, last forever. This book is a story about how one nation, the United States, turned people’s minds into blood-­soaked battlegrounds—­and how we, the people, can put down our weapons and build something better.

Excerpted from Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind. Copyright (c) 2024 by Annalee Newitz. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Meet the Writer

About Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author based in San Francisco, California. They are author of Stories Are Weapons: Psychological Warfare and the American Mind, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age andThe Future of Another Timeline, and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

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