Who's Afraid of the Telepathic Space Ferrets?
Men would rather engage in psychological warfare than go to therapy
Benjacomin Bozart hailed from a poor planet.
Viola Siderea was once at the crossroads of international commerce, but changing tradewinds meant it was now economically depressed. The planet’s Guild of Thieves, of which Bozart was a member, hoped to change that.
Their target: Old North Australia, a rich and heavily-guarded space outpost named for the former earth home of its colonists. The Australians had become the tyrants of the universe.
They defended their riches with an elaborate, mysterious, defense system which had killed scores of thieves in the eons to that point. But Bozart, through some clever intelligence-gathering, had revealed the secret: Vicious, hungry, mad, horny, telepathic space ferrets. They belonged to Mother Hitton, the planet’s defensive chief. They were her “littul kittons.”
Bozart incurred huge debts bribing a crooked ship captain to help him reach the defensive nucleus of Old North Australia, but it was all worth it: His plunder would pay it all back, and lift his nation from debt. All he had to do was deal with the mind-controlling minks.
But he was had. As he floated through space, it became clear he was betrayed by his hired captain. Mother Hitton was tipped off to Bozart’s plan. She awakened her littul kittons and took aim.
“The synapses of his brain re-formed to conjure up might-have-beens, terrible things that never happened to any man. Then his knowing mind whited out in an overload of stress.”1
Bozart died in space, driven to madness. Viola Siderea slid into another four hundred million man megayears into debt. The ferrets went back to sleep.
That thrilling space heist tale was published in a 1961 edition of Galaxy Magazine by an up-and-coming science fiction author by the name of Cordwainer Smith. (You can, and should, read the whole story here.)
On the surface, it’s a tale about parapsychology, piracy, and ferrets. But below that, it’s really a parable about human behavior: Benjacomin Bozart was defeated by his own obsession. Old North Australia’s real defences weren’t the mind-bending polecats, but their ability to entice and entrap.
“Poor communications deter theft; good communications promote theft; perfect communications stop theft,” the story’s epigraph reads.
Cordwainer Smith knew a thing or two about psychology. In particular, how to weaponize it. During the Second World War, Smith — real name Paul Linebarger — had been a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He helped set up the Office of War Information, and established the Army’s first psychological operations team. Seven years before he wrote his ferret space opera, he penned his most popular non-fiction book, which remains hugely influential today: Psychological Warfare.
This week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, I want to talk about the psyop. Or, more specifically, the endemic fear amongst a certain class of conspiracy theorist that everything is psychological warfare. And about how this belief has focused itself into a single beam of madness-inducing energy, pointed directly at us.
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Sometimes it can feel like wading through the oft-shifting sands of the conspiratorial right-wing has become a self-justifying enterprise: Paranoid populism is on the rise, it requires monitoring, therefore monitoring paranoid populism is always worthwhile.
But, as I’ve talked about on this newsletter before, I’m skeptical that obsessing over every single narrative, theory, and trend is worthwhile. Sometimes sunlight is a disinfectant, sometimes it provides energy for bacteria to grow.
Initially I figured the burgeoning theory that Taylor Swift was a Pentagon-run psychological operation — a stagemanaged attempt to build a pop star, force her in front of the masses, wed her to a two-and-soon-to-be-three-time Super Bowl champion, and make her a supersurrogate for an ailing Joe Biden — was worth ignoring. Even as it ran up the charts of Twitter, filtered onto Fox News, and even got the Trump campaign energized.
Then, an editor at WIRED asked me to delve into the history of psychological warfare and, well, how could I say no?
Swift is, of course, not a deep state fembot. She is a real person who forms her own political beliefs, a once-in-a-generation socially-aware pop icon, and artistically inferior to Carly Rae Jepsen. (Come at me, Swifties!) She is not the interesting part of this story.
While writing, I developed a conspiratorial thought of my own: In discrediting Swift, and any vehicle that may one day carry her endorsement, aren’t her detractors essentially running a psychological operation on the rest of us?
What if this were a psyop inception?
You did not want to fly through MiG alley.
While at the outset of the Korean War, the North’s airforce was composed of feeble leftovers from the Second World War, the American and UN entrance into the war prompted a huge arms transfer from the USSR and China to the Communist forces. Towards the end of 1950, Soviet-made MiG-15s began flying over the country, quickly providing the North air superiority over a long stretch of territory known as MiG alley.
These MiGs were as powerful as any American fighter jet, and more maneuverable. While American and UN pilots were better than their North Korean counterparts, the high quality of the MiGs sorties had the Americans suspicious that Soviet pilots were secretly at the controls.
But the MiGs had never flown outside the Soviet borders before, and the North Koreans were careful to ensure that they never crashed in UN-held territory.
“We needed to have one in our hands so that we could fly it, take it apart, and get to know the minds that designed it,” wrote Stephen Pease, who served as an Air Force intelligence officer.2
The allied forces eventually got ahold of a crashed jet3, but it only reinforced their need to get their hands on one that could still fly.
It was over a bottle of brandy that a war correspondent came up with a plan: Why not bribe one of their pilots? It was originally written up in an army newspaper as a joke. But then it was taken up by the Army’s psychological operations command and it became: OPERATION MOOLAH.
General Mark Clark got on the UN radio in April 1953 and announced the details of the program: Any fighter pilot who could land in the south with a combat-capable MiG-15 would be awarded $50,000 and given full political asylum. The first pilot to do so would get a $50,000 bonus.4 The broadcast was repeated in Russian, Chinese, Korean, and then followed up with a million leaflets dropped over airfields.
The program, technically, was a failure. One MiG was eventually flown into South Korea, but only after an armistice had been signed — the pilot told interrogators that he had never heard of this $100,000 offer, and was instead motivated by his hatred of his Soviets and Chinese officers. The cash offer was retroactively rescinded.
But the program worked in other ways. The number of MiG sorties dropped immediately and noticeably. When American pilots encountered a formation of MiGs a week after the offer first went out, they discovered that the once-brazen pilots were reluctant to engage. U.S. intelligence had a pretty compelling theory for why: The Soviet pilots had been grounded, for fear that they may defect. Only the most politically-trustworthy pilots were allowed to fly, the hypothesis went, and they weren’t much good.
“After OPERATION MOOLAH, the MiG pilots compiled the worst record of the entire war,” Pease writes. “UN Sabres downed 165 MiGs to only three losses, a fifty-five-to-one ratio.”
I love this anecdote, because it highlights just how complicated human behavior is — and how unpredictable even the most modest psychological operations can be.
While some — from spooks at the CIA to medical researchers in Montreal — may have tried to unlock the secrets of mind control, our modern experience with psychological operations and propaganda shows that we’re not that good at it. We can issue a very direct, honest, and clear message and get back a completely unintended result. Or many of them.
Look no further than the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. While public health officials may be, understandably, loath to admit it: Their work carries a lot of similarities to psychological warfare. The circuitous route from “get vaccinated” to Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s presidential campaign is illustrative of just how a clear, honest, direct communication can prompt lots of bizarre reactions from lots of different people.
“In capitalist society, the media are used, on the one hand, as instruments of manipulation and distortion of the truth, as a tool of psychological pressure, and on the other, as an important field of capitalist enterprise,” wrote Dmitri Volkogonov in 1986.5 He believed these psychological operations went far beyond CIA-run radio stations and Pentagon-designed leaflets. The military, corporations, the CIA, NATO, the big newspapers and radio stations: Volkogonov believed they all worked together to wage this war on the mind. (The Zionists, he believed, secretly managed it all.)
The USSR did not use psychological warfare at all. “The socialist countries give a truthful picture of events both at home and abroad, because they have no stake in distorting the facts.”
It was a bold statement from Volkogonov, a three-star general who had run the Soviet psychological warfare unit. (They called it the “special propaganda division.”)
When he wrote the book, Volkogonov still believed in the Soviet project. But his first real academic work, an exhaustive and critical biography of Joseph Stalin, was being held up by the censors. Even as Soviet leaders had come to recognize the barbarity of Stalin’s rule, they told the public that these evident truths were all lies. Volkogonov was starting to wonder if his perception of psychological warfare was all backwards. Was he living in the unreal world? He continued to hunt through the Soviet archives for records of the truth. In the ensuing years, Glasnost meant he could finally communicate his findings with his countrymen. It had profound effect on him.
“Disillusionment first came to me as an idea, rather like the melancholy of a spiritual hangover,” he wrote in his final book, completed just before his death in 1995.6 “Then, it came as intellectual confusion. Finally, as the determination to confront the truth and understand it.”
Volkogonov’s biographies of the seven men who ruled the USSR over its seven decades of existence helped disrupt the lies that kept the system operating. And it made clear that those messages from the West, the ones he believed were lies and disinformation — it was all, more or less, true.7
Moscow’s operation had been so successful because it had delegitimized all those competing sources of information by default. Not only were The Washington Post and Der Spiegel unreliable, they were facets of a mass system of deception and ideological manipulation. Even if you knew Pravda was full of lies, you still believed it was more true than the New York Times. It was only after his ordeal in publishing that Volkogonov realized his own complicity in building a mass disinformation machine.
It was after the fall of communism, and the rise of Vladimir Putin’s kleptocracy, that Russia put that system into overdrive. News, media, and entertainment were all brought under the government’s purview, and were pointed outward, to become instruments of manipulation and to distort the truth to serve a singular purpose: Whatever the Kremlin and its clients wanted.
At home, but certainly abroad, hyper-skepticism became the objective. RT, the global propaganda bullhorn, demands its viewers to “Question More.” Because cynical, disillusioned people rarely make waves.
“Russia has so brutally propagandized its own domestic population, that they're highly skeptical of anything they hear anywhere,” Christopher Paul, a senior social scientist at the RAND Corporation told me recently. He has spent years researching Moscow’s “firehose of falsehoods” model.
As Paul wrote in 2016, Russia’s experience with misinformation actually runs afoul of most rules of psychological warfare. Russian propaganda is both high-volume, inconsistent, and inaccurate. They’re not trying to convince anyone of anything, or even that they are reliable or coherent. In their version of OPERATION MOOLAH, they’re not trying to convince anyone defect: Only to stay on the ground.
“And Russia wants that for us,” Paul says.
If you have identified the system waging psychological warfare, then anyone who opposes that system must therefore be telling the truth.
That’s essentially the logic that informed Elvis Presley when he showed up at the White House to meet with Richard Nixon.
Presley was in the midst of a massive comeback tour, and Nixon was at the height of his popularity. But, per notes from the meeting, Elvis was worried. He had been “studying Communist brainwashing,” and suspected the Soviets were manipulating the American masses. He didn’t trust The Beatles and their “anti-American spirit.” He relayed to the president that “violence, drug usage, dissent, protest all seem to merge in generally the same group of young people.” Nixon was against all that, so Nixon was good.
“[Elvis] said that he could not get to the kids if he made a speech on the stage, that he had to reach them in his own way.”
Elvis’ promise was mostly hollow — what he really wanted a badge declaring him a ‘federal agent at large.’ But he was a byproduct of the paranoid age Nixon had ushered in and presided over. The president saw enemies in John Lennon, Paul Newman, the media, and a host of others. He used the state to bully them, and his vice president to discredit their work and advocacy in the eyes of the public.
Nixon’s campaign to discredit alternative sources of information worked, to a degree: He won the 1972 election in a landslide. But by the time he left office in disgrace, brought down by good journalism, nearly three-quarters of Americans reported they still had faith in the media.
As I’ve written, we bear plenty of blame for that. (Dispatch #92) But we have also been the victims of aggressive delegitimization, targeted with the firehose of propaganda.
“The new conspiracism — all accusation, no evidence — substitutes social validation for scientific validation: If a lot of people are saying it, to use Trump’s signature phrase, then it is true enough,” argued political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum in 2019. In their lengthy study of conspiratorial thinking, they correctly note that the end product is not faith in a particular world but a rejection of the present one. “The new conspiracism is the pure face of negativity. Delegitimation is its product.”8
This is a solid beam of madness — of might-have-beens, terrible things that never happened to any man — trained on us.
I happened to open Twitter not long after my piece in WIRED was published. I had been tagged in a thread promoting a video on Rumble which had “ABSOLUTELY destroyed” my reporting.
Amused, I listened through the video. It, unsurprisingly, comes from the alternate reality where the deep state’s involvement in all major events — from COVID-19 to the insurrection — doesn’t need to be further proven, because it is simply true.
But the host, Chris Paul (no relation, I gather, to the RAND Corporation’s Christopher Paul) goes through his argument slowly and methodically, and fairly respectfully. At one point, he breaks down his own relationship with the truth, or lack thereof.
We are already post-truth, and we always have been. One of the illusions, one of the lies, was that there were authoritative sources operating in a beneficent manner to teach us everything about the entire world. […] And at some point, if you want to say: Yeah, I think the news actually was playing it straight down the middle, they were being pretty honest with everybody back then, well, okay, I'm not even gonna fight you on it. Because, if you have to go back 80 years to find that point, then we've been in a post-truth society for a long time. But the truth is, that doesn't even matter. All that matters is that you have been existing in it for a while. It is not a scary thing up ahead. It is a natural circumstance. […] Hey, Justin Ling, fomenting distrust is not necessary. Because the mainstream media and all of these authoritative sources are consistently wrong in the same direction, on purpose.
I found that passage useful, because it is testimony to just how far down this distrust goes. You have to believe that the capacity for deception is almost bottomless, and the ability to coordinate this disinformation effort limitless. And you must believe that this effort can do more than just generate cynicism — that it is capable and effective at convincing us to be optimistic, compliant, and trusting.
If the state truly had such power, the world would be a much scarier place. In reality, though, a century of psychological warfare tells us that only two things really ‘work.’
One: You can communicate a want, clearly and honestly, and even provide evidence to support the request. In a high-trust environment, or if the request comports with the public’s beliefs and expertise, they might even listen — but you’re certain to get a lot of externalities and unexpected outcomes.
Two: You can attack the ability to communicate altogether, undermining the very way we share experiences and information. The people, frustrated and disoriented, will retreat away from the conversation altogether. If that makes space for your preferred message to come through, all the better.
The more we live in a world soaked by this firehose of disinformation and conspiratorial thinking, the more we see everything yet see nothing at all.
That’s it for this week!
My crusade to get back onto a Friday afternoon publishing schedule continues.
If you’re looking for more variations on a theme, I recommend checking outon the Tiktokification of history; on the need to stop abusing history; and on the continued stupidification of Twitter.
Until next week! (Or later this week.)
Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons, Cordainer Smith
Psywar: Psychological Warfare in Korea, 1950-1953, Stephen Pease
It was a frantic race against time, per Pease. The jet had crashed on a sandbar, prompting a mad dash to reach the jet, pitting them against both the North Koreans and the sea. A British carrier and cruiser were accompanied by a small South Korean ship and a Japanese barge managed to reach the jet before it was washed away.
The plane is now at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton. The Korean pilot, Kenneth Ro, sat down to talk about the MiG in 2018, if that interests you. While Ro never got his reward, the CIA hooked him up with educational and financial benefits, and later gave him a job with an anti-Communist front group.
The Psychological War, Dmitri Antonovich Volkogonov
Autopsy for an Empire: the Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime, Dmitri Antonovich Volkogonov
Volkogonov’s 1986 book does, however, correctly diagnose a certain strain of anti-Soviet hysteria which had taken hold in America during the Cold War, leveraged to justify all manner of atrocities in the Global South. Whether or not that’s really psychological warfare is, I guess, a matter of some debate.
A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum