(Vietnam Helicopters, via Pixabay)
The Psyops successful failure in the Vietnam War
A Culture of Resistance
In the 19thcentury, Vietnam was under French colonial rule, but the Vietnamese were never a country content with occupying powers. Vietnam has one of the most impressive military records of any country in existence—for hundreds of years, the powerful Chinese Empire ruled the Vietnamese lands in Southern Asia, but Vietnam broke free of China and even repelled the Mongols of Kublai Khan.
After the end of WWII, Ho Chi Minh (who aided the US against Japan) immediately pressed for Vietnamese independence from France. Unable to negotiate independence, Ho Chi Minh pulled Vietnam into rebellion by 1946. France agreed to Vietnamese independence in the mid 1950s, but split the country in two. South Vietnam (backed by the United States after France’s departure) was supposed to hold an election in 1956 that would decide the fate of the south—continue with a democracy or join with the north in communism. No vote was cast or tally ever recorded. The South Vietnamese government, lead by an oppressive Ngo Dinh Diem, refused to allow the election to occur. This, in turn, caused Ho Chi Minh’s supporters in South Vietnam to rise up in another rebellion. By 1960, North Vietnam was actively supporting the already existing guerrilla cells in the South.
The US and the Vietnam War
The South Vietnamese military and leadership proved to be no match for the North’s guerrilla attacks, ambushes and espionage. The US made matters worse by backing a coup to overthrow the South Vietnamese leadership, leading to the assassination of Diem, thereby ending any sense of a stable government in the south. By 1965, the United States, under Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, knew South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse. The United States decided to step in to prevent the south from falling.
The US used a strange mix of military philosophies in the Vietnam War. They combined Limited War with Attrition. US leadership wanted to limit the war from expanding too much, avoiding (except in classified and covert missions) incursions into North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China. On the other hand, the US was also fighting a war of attrition, killing and battering their enemy until their opponent lost the will, or ability, to fight. The Vietnamese, however, are not a culture to lose spirit easily—after all, between the US and France, the wars in Vietnam lasted around 30 years. In an attempt to break the North Vietnamese and guerrilla spirit, the US began using unorthodox methods—including audio warfare.
The Wandering Soul
It was around this time that the US unveiled its odd new strategy for breaking the spirit of the North Vietnamese soldiers and communist guerrillas. The clip below was called Ghost Tape Number 10. It was a part of Operation Wandering Soul. Before listening to the clip, lets set the scene: It is late at night in the Vietnamese jungle. US troops may have thrown an incendiary device or a smoke grenade to create a ghostly fog in the shadowy landscape. Then, this played:
Creepy, right? If the tape is eerie to people who do not speak Vietnamese, then there is no doubt that the tape caused reaction in its intended audience. Before continuing, a bit of Vietnamese cultural information is helpful. Vietnamese culture and the Buddhist religion have combined in Vietnam to create a dread of dying away from one’s ancestral lands, for to not be buried by loved ones on family ground is a sure recipe for the creation of a tormented wandering soul. With the Operation Wandering Soul tape, the US wanted to tap into that fear and encourage North Vietnamese soldiers and communist guerrillas to defect, retreat or surrender, lest they die on the battlefield away from their familial lands, doomed to become a wandering soul for eternity.
The opening music in the clip was Buddhist funeral music. The two voices after the music were supposed to be a child and wife of a dead soldier. Finally the wandering soul, himself, began to speak to the Vietnamese communist guerrillas hiding in the jungle. The voice mourned over his body, lost in the jungle, unable to be returned to his family. Before the tape ends, the soul pleads for the guerillas to return home and avoid becoming wandering souls, themselves.
For the most part, the tape was not successful in causing defection and surrender. Only in one instance did the tape cause hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers and guerrillas to abandon their posts—and that particular tape had an added roar of a tiger. No, the tape was not successful in its intended purpose. Its unintended advantages, however, came to be recognized quickly by the Psyops (Psychological Operations) men tasked to play the audio clip.
Instead of inspiring the North Vietnamese and guerrillas to put down their weapons and return home, the tape had the opposite effect on most people—they picked up their arms and fired at the ghostly noise. US soldiers, fighting a war of attrition, recognized the Wandering Soul tape’s benefits immediately. Instead of using the tape to discourage the enemy, the tape began to be played to enrage them.
American helicopters would take off, some outfitted with speakers playing the Wandering Soul tape and others with high-powered door guns. When the jungle below the helicopters inevitably lit up with the gunfire of enraged Vietnamese communists, the American door gunners knew exactly where to aim their own return fire. More terrifying, or plain annoying, sounds (such as maniacal laughter) were also added to the original tape to increase the rage it induced in the enemy population.
In its initial intention, the Wandering Soul tape did not work very well. Its secondary effect of enraging the enemy, however, worked very well—perhaps too well. The Vietnam War did not pit only Vietnam against the United States. There were two Vietnams at the time. The US was aiding South Vietnam, or at least the South Vietnamese government. Therefore, the South Vietnamese allies of the US had the same belief in the Wandering Soul as the North Vietnamese. That meant that each time the US blasted the Wandering Soul tape into the night, the communist guerrillas were not the only Vietnamese becoming enraged. There were instances of friendly South Vietnamese ARVN troops firing at United States Psyops soldiers who were playing the tape. The local population of South Vietnam, the people living in villages and communities near the fighting, also did not appreciate the Wandering Soul tape. Even US troops were frequently unnerved when they had to listen to the tape play in the black of night; many memoirs and letters written by US soldiers mention nightmares and unease after hearing the wailing Wandering Soul.
All in all, the Wandering Soul tape was a successful failure. Operation Wandering Soul was not a breakthrough in causing North Vietnamese soldiers or communist guerrillas to defect or flee. No, the tape’s main advantage turned out to be its almost 100% likelihood of drawing enemy fire, thereby making the tape the perfect bait to lure hidden guerrillas out of their hidey holes. Despite the advantages of their incredibly strange and eerie audiotape, the United States’ spirit was the first to break in the Vietnamese war of attrition. By 1973, the US officially pulled out of Vietnam and in 1975 the South Vietnamese government fell completely to the guerrillas and was absorbed by North Vietnam.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Robert A. Doughty et al. Warfare in the Western World: Military Operations Since 1871 (Vol. II). Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company. 1996.