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(p. 216) Warfare, Terrorism, and Psychology 

(p. 216) Warfare, Terrorism, and Psychology
(p. 216) Warfare, Terrorism, and Psychology

L. Morgan Banks

and Larry C. James

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The history of our species is one of almost continual conflict interspersed with brief periods of peace. Competition, initially between individuals, then tribal units, and finally nation-states and groups of nation-states, is a fundamental theme of our existence. In its most intense and modern form, we refer to this competition as warfare. The purpose of this conflict—of war—is almost never the physical destruction of an opposing group. The real purpose, most often, is for one group to get the other to do something it would not ordinarily do. In military terminology, we say that our purpose is to impose our will on the enemy (Clausewitz, 1993, p. 83). Of course, what we are really talking about is behavior modification. Very rarely has the overall purpose of conflict been to annihilate another group of people Figure 16.1.

Figure 16.1. Psychology of terrorism model.

Figure 16.1. Psychology of terrorism model.

There are certainly exceptions, and the twentieth century had some notable ones, but more often than not, there is a clear political purpose that transcends the military defeat of an enemy. Access to resources is perhaps the most common objective. Be it lebensraum, access to oil, or room for westward expansion, the underlying reason today is usually economic. In one sense this is a circular statement since almost everything that affects a country is essentially economic, but the point is that the underlying goal is usually not one of simple destruction or extermination.

There are some very logical reasons for this. Once a people or a country believe that extermination is the real purpose of a conflict, they will ordinarily fight for survival with fierce determination—not something any enemy usually desires.1If simple destruction or killing of the enemy were sufficient, then wars would generally be won or lost based on casualties. As even a brief glimpse of history shows, that is not the case. In fact, it is not uncommon for the victor to accept greater casualties than the side that is defeated Figure 16.2.

Figure 16.2.

Figure 16.2.

Source: J. Wintle (Ed.), The Dictionary of War Quotations (New York: Free Press, 1989), p.19.

In the U.S. Civil War the North had many more casualties than the South. Now, it is true that since they had larger armies, their disease numbers were higher, even though the rate of disease was actually lower. However, even when looking at battle casualties alone, the number of casualties the North suffered was about 17% greater than what the South endured Figure 16.3.

Figure 16.3. American Civil War casualties.

Figure 16.3. American Civil War casualties.

Source: A. R. Millet & P. Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America (New York: Free Press, 1984), 229.

The numbers from World War I are equally startling. Although the statistics in Figure 16.4 are not as accurate as we might hope, nevertheless the contrast is stark.

Figure 16.4. World War I casualties.

Figure 16.4. World War I casualties.

Source: S. Everett, The Two World Wars, Vol. I. World War I (Greenwich, CT: Bison Books, 1980). Quoted at

In perhaps the most remarkable case of all— Vietnam—the numbers look like this: The total of (p. 217) all U.S. allied deaths was about one-quarter that experienced by the North Vietnamese/Vietcong Figure 16.5. And this was a case in which the United States had a tremendous technological advantage.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of the opposite situation, also. With that in mind, we assert that the psychological hardiness—morale, esprit de corps—of a military force is often what will win the day, in spite of fighting a larger foe.

In Singapore in February 1942, Japanese Lieutenant General Yamashita led an attack against the British garrison commanded by Lieutenant General Percival. Yamashita had approximately 40,000 troops, while Percival had more than 107,000. The Japanese troops had very high morale, whereas Percival’s troops did not. The British made a number of poor decisions, and after only a few days of fighting, Percival decided to surrender the garrison. Ironically, when the British surrendered, the Japanese had enough ammunition for only 3 more days of fighting (Perrett, 1993, p. 272).

Contrast that with the Japanese attack on Wake Island in December of 1941. A very small island, isolated and with no chance of reinforcements or relief, had about 400 marine infantry, 12 fighter planes, and about 1,100 civilian construction workers. The first Japanese attack consisted of 1 light cruiser, 2 older cruisers, 6 destroyers, 2 destroyer transports, 2 transports, 2 submarines, and a 450-man naval infantry landing force. The Japanese were repulsed on their first attempt and came back a week later with 2 fleet carriers, 6 heavy cruisers, 6 destroyers, and a 1,000-man naval landing force, with a 500-man reserve. The resulting casualty numbers were 49 marines, 3 seamen, and (p. 218) 70 construction workers killed, versus 4 destroyers, 1 destroyer transport, 1 submarine sunk, and at least 900 Japanese killed (Perrett, 1993, p. 308).

We are not suggesting that morale and psychological hardiness can win every battle. For example, at the battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer lost all 250 members of his attacking element, compared to 50 lost by Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Having said that, the historical record makes it clear that Custer was not able to maintain appropriate command and control over his forces, nor was he able to effectively use his better disciplined soldiers against the less disciplined, but overwhelming, enemy force.

Rather, the point is that most warfare is essentially psychological in nature. That may sound like an absurd statement since there are usually more than a few nonpsychological injuries that occur on the battlefield. Why then do we cause so much destruction while conducting warfare? We maintain that we ordinarily conduct warfare in the manner we do because of its psychological effects Figure 16.6.

Figure 16.6.

Figure 16.6.

Source: J. Wintle (Ed.), The Dictionary of War Quotations (New York: Free Press, 1989), p. 65.

In other words, we cause destruction because of the psychological effect that it has or that we expect it to have on an opponent. Again, there are some rather well-used (but used for good reason) examples of this.

Japan—Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo

When the Germans began the bombing of London in World War II, they believed it would cause a great sag in the morale of British citizens. The people of London endured continuous bombing and watched as their modern city was destroyed block by block. There was little of military significance that was destroyed, however.

The same argument applies to the U.S. decision to begin its firebombing campaign in Japan, although it is true that Japan’s manufacturing capability was spread throughout its cities. The firebombing of Tokyo on March 9, 1945, killed 83,793 men, women, and children, injured another 40,918, and left more than a million people homeless (Weigley, 1977, p. 364).

In neither case did the bombing have the desired effect. In London, the citizens rallied, and the country appeared to intensify both its opposition to Germany and its determination to win the war. Although today great controversy still surrounds the Tokyo bombing and the subsequent use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Tokyo firebombing did not immediately end the war with Japan.

(p. 219) On the other hand, the use of atomic weapons did accomplish that objective. In Hiroshima, 70,000-80,000 people died instantly, and an equal number were injured. In Nagasaki, about 35,000 people died at once (Weigley, 1977, p. 365). Why did one cause immediate capitulation and not the other?

Speaking militarily, if the purpose of warfare is to impose our will on the enemy, then we must defeat our adversary. The point, however, is not that we must kill, maim, and destroy the enemy but only that we must defeat our foe. The implied term here is psychological defeat.

If any country wishes to impose its will on another, then it must devise a way to psychologically defeat it. One can do this through bloodshed and starvation, as in the U.S. Civil War, or by convincing the enemy that “resistance is futile.” In the Gulf war, the United States dropped many bombs on the Iraqi soldiers in the trenches. Although some members of the U.S. Air Force may contest this, the truth is that the bombing killed relatively few Iraqi soldiers. However, the constant bombing and the inability of the Iraqi forces to take any effective action against us produced a response many of us would call learned helplessness. When the ground war began, Iraqi soldiers surrendered by the thousands, and, although there were exceptions, very few put up a stubborn resistance.

In truth, then, defeat—like terrorism—is a psychological concept. Germany was militarily beaten in World War I, but was it defeated? Enemy forces never really set foot in Germany. The people were certainly beginning to feel the effects of the war, but most of them believed they were somehow cheated. The imposed reparations simply added to the buildup of animosity against Britain and France.

At the end of the Vietnam War, the United States was not militarily defeated. We had basically won every battle. Nevertheless, we were psychologically defeated by a strategy that outsmarted us.

George Washington was not a fan of the militia. He believed that it did not have the necessary discipline to fight in a tough battle and would run at the first opportunity Figure 16.7.

Figure 16.7.

Figure 16.7.

Source: J. Wintle (Ed.), The Dictionary of War Quotations (New York: Free Press, 1989), p.65.

Washington felt that way in part because the militia would not stand up to the British soldiers’ bayonet charge. The militia’s rifles took a long time to reload and lacked bayonets. Once the militia had fired, the British would charge and be on them with bayonets before they could reload. The very image of a line of British soldiers charging with bayonets would make anyone run. In modern warfare, the tank often provokes the same type of response. Military training teaches soldiers that “perception is reality.” Our perception of the threat, rather than the threat itself, is the power of terrorism.


How does this concept relate to terrorism? Figure 16.8 presents the army’s definition of terrorism, and it is probably as good as most.

Figure 16.8. Definition of terrorism.

Figure 16.8. Definition of terrorism.

Source: Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Retrieved February 4, 2006, from

As McCauley has pointed out, the distinction between combatants and noncombatants—built up over the centuries—began to erode in the early 1800s with the Grande Armie of Napoleon (McCauley, n.d.). Since then, few wars have been fought only by the military.

The purpose of terrorism is essentially the same as more conventionally oriented warfare, that is, to get governments or societies to do what the terrorist wants. One real difference is that it is conducted by an opponent who does not have the military strength to fight directly. We contend that this type of warfare relies most heavily on the use (p. 220) of psychology. We also believe that Osama bin Laden wanted, as one of his goals, to get the United States out of the Middle East. He calculated that we, as a country, would psychologically run away from the horror he was inflicting on us. (He received bad advice on that.)

In our opinion, there is no better recent example of how one side wished to psychologically defeat another than the overall strategy that bin Laden attempted in his war against us. First, he would demonstrate our vulnerability in what we consider the safest of refuges. He would shock us by killing indiscriminately. In other words, not that he would use this term, he would try to induce learned helplessness in us. Consequently, we would be forced to take some action against him. Then, when we attacked him on his territory, he would maul us—causing many Americans to come home in body bags. His view of the Russian invasion and subsequent departure from Afghanistan was that he and his Mujahedeen had defeated the Russians, and he viewed the Russian military as stronger than the United States. Once we as a country had experienced the horror of war in Afghanistan, he believed that we, too, would leave in defeat—again, just as he had seen in Somalia and just as he believed happened in Vietnam. Because he believed his side was founded on stronger principles—a strong and abiding Islamic faith—there could be no other outcome than the routing of the decadent Western forces. Said another way, bin Laden’s goal was not to conquer our military forces (although he actually believed he could do that) but rather to defeat the country psychologically.

Psychology and Psychologists

What does any of this have to do with psychology? As we mentioned earlier, we believe that bin Laden predicted that the United States would recoil from the horror of 9/11. And if we actually sent in ground troops, he would maul us, and we would run away—just as he had seen us do in Somalia and as he had heard we responded in Vietnam.

There is a great deal that would have supported his expectation, especially if one performs a quick review of our psychology literature. For a variety of very good reasons, we focus our energy, research, and treatment on the understanding and remediation of illness. In this context, we have spent a great deal of time studying the effects of traumatic stress. As one might expect, our focus is not usually on the positive aspects of humans under stress but instead is on the negative results of stress and ways to remediate them. (We are certainly not saying that this is a bad thing. One could easily argue that this is the foundation of our science.)

The county in which one of us lives recently went through a severe drought. Mandatory conservation efforts were put into effect, including the use of disposable tableware at restaurants and an appeal to citizens to refrain from watering lawns and washing cars. The most significant request, though, was for voluntary reductions in household water use. As a result of people’s response, the rate of water use went from 6.1 million gallons per day to 1.9 million gallons, and most of the decrease was credited to the reductions in household use. This small community pulled together, with neighbor helping neighbor. As Seneca once said, “the good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired” (Lucius Annaeus Seneca Quotes, 2005).

Much has been said concerning psychology’s focus on pathology. Seligman (1991) has made a strong case that we should review the way in which we address strength and virtue—his work on positive psychology (Seligman, 1991). For 20 years, one of us has been deeply involved in helping soldiers survive the rigors of warfare. As a friend of ours is fond of saying, the goal is to have soldiers moderately aroused while under stresses that would seem to most of us to be unmanageable—such as being in combat. It is not just that we should study strength and virtue. Rather, how do we manage to get men and women to do incredible things under very high levels of stress? How do we resist the forces of terrorism? We maintain that focusing on treating people who have been exposed to this horror as victims is the wrong way to resist.

Unfortunately, over the years we have had to talk to a fair number of people following tragedy. What has always amazed us is the incredible strength that people have. Yes, we know there is a price to be paid. Nothing is free. People who have undergone great tragedy will always carry that with them. However, as Eric Maria Remarque said in his book about a physician living through the Nazi occupation of Paris, “Human beings can stand a great deal” (Remarque, 1945, p. 455). We maintain that it is critical to treat people as though they have (p. 221) resources, not as though they lack them. We must instill competence and confidence to survive another tragedy.

Strength of character, steadfastness in the face of adversity, physical bravery—not just the type that soldiers discuss but that of firefighters and everyday Americans on 9/11—we believe that these are subjects for us to ponder, study, and encourage. We continue to expand our knowledge of the negative effects of stress. At the same time, we need to expand our knowledge of the value of stress and the factors that help develop bravery, courage, and integrity under stress. People are victims only when they decide they have no control over their lives. We are not a nation of victims. We are the most powerful, free, creative, and generous nation on earth because we are doing something right.

A Model for Understanding the Psychology of Terrorism

Understanding the psychology of terrorism can be a daunting task because the act of (as well as the psychology of) terrorism is a complicated process. Those who want to employ psychological terror against us have many ways to enhance our sense of psychological vulnerability and to psychologically attack us. One way to conceptualize this involves a paradigm that examines the dynamics of the military and the psychological threat, perhaps enhanced by a media-influenced perception and our psychological resilience.

Military Threat

Earlier in this chapter we explained how the perception of success or failure, sometimes in direct contradiction to actual success or failure, can be the major determining factor of a battle. The power of this perception has even served to psychologically deter actions of other nations. For example, the United States, during the military buildup of the Cold War era, deterred Eastern bloc countries from attacking with the psychological threat of our overwhelming force and technology—without firing a single missile.

Frequently, the perception of military threat is shaped via a media-based perception of peril. In other words, terrorists will use the media (usually in the form of television or radio news reports) to provide a community, region, or nation with a perceived threat of attack with car bombs, hostage taking, suicide bombers, and so on. Even though the actual military threat to national security may be minimal, the perception is that the threat is real. Modern-day terrorists may not possess as many tanks as the United States during the Cold War, but their threats appear real due to their use of the media in shaping a nation’s perception.

Psychological Threat and Terror

In many of the third-world regions, military threat may in fact be less fear provoking than that of the conventional forces of Western society. However, these units from third-world regions employ psychological terror to manipulate and shape the behavior of others. Let us use some recent examples of the application of psychological terror. Shortly after 9/11, anthrax was mailed to a major Washington, D.C., post office building, one of the Senate office buildings, and the post offices at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. A few people died as a result, compared to the thousands of people killed in the World Trade Center bombings. Yet, the psychological terror instilled by the anthrax attack in Washington, D.C., paralleled the horror experienced in New York on September 11. In many cases, the psychological threat of biological and chemical weapons can be just as devastating psychologically as an actual attack with major military weapons. Sustained fear rather than death is the goal of psychological threat. When death and physical injuries are objectives as well, terrorists tend to select types of attacks that will kill, as well as provide lingering psychological terror in a particular population.

The Role of Psychological Resilience

Expose two people to the same traumatic event, and they may have very different psychological experiences. Why? One answer appears to have to do with the level of individual resilience. This capability may very well shape not only how people perceive an event but also how they respond at the time and how they physically and psychologically recover from (p. 222) the incident. A resilient person focuses on healthy coping strategies rather than on the event itself and the pathological responses it provokes.

How is resilience related to the psychology of terrorism? As the level of internal flexibility increases, the level of reported ongoing trauma decreases. Thus, it would serve communities well to develop programs that promote and teach resilience training as a response to acts of terrorism. One can argue that such an intervention may very well aid a community in its ability to recover from acts of psychological terror.


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                  1. For example, some historians have argued that, because the Japanese people believed that the allied forces in World War II wished to completely destroy their culture, the entire country was prepared to fight to the death (Weigley, 1977, p. 310). Certainly, the United States’ experience on the islands of Tarawa and Okinawa would support this view. Out of a total of 4,836 Japanese forces, only 146 were captured. The rest died in combat (Perrett, 1993, p. 288).