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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Psychological Warfare (WWII Era Reprint) - Paul M.A. Linebarger Paul Linebarger, better known as the science-fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, was one of America's leading experts on psychological warfare. He played an important part in World War II, operating entirely behind the scenes but planning a substantial portion of the US's efforts in this sphere. He was involved in a large variety of concrete operations, and briefed senior military commanders up to the level of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was particularly active in South-East Asia, where his connections were little short of miraculous: Sun Yat Sen was his godfather, he knew Chiang Kai Shek well, and he had personal dealings with Mao. He wrote this book in 1947, and it's a strange mixture; part history, part philosophy, part instruction manual - there are detailed sections on how to prepare leaflet bombs and analyze enemy propaganda - and part personal memoir. It appears to have been put together quickly, and it's an unpolished mess, full of sloppy language, repetitions, non sequiturs and irrelevant asides. It's still completely fascinating.

Linebarger's book was written a year or two before Orwell's 1984, and in some ways it covers similar ground. I found it easy to imagine that it had been composed secretly by a disaffected senior member of the Inner Party. Linebarger is breathtakingly clear and cynical about the central goal of psychological warfare: to use propaganda in order to affect the minds and emotions of people for military purposes. Propaganda can be either "white" (openly issued by the group who in reality are responsible for creating it) or "black" (made to look as though it came from someone else). Two types of operation are given particular attention. The first is to inspire the enemy with fear, uncertainty and doubt; the second, its corollary, is to stiffen the optimism and resolve of one's own people.

He explains the methods used in detail, with many case studies taken from his own experience in World War II. When trying to demoralise the enemy, one of the most useful approaches is to find groups who already distrust each other to some degree, and try to make them distrust each other more. For example, at the senior political/military level, an approach that worked well against Nazi Germany was to exploit the negative feelings that many military officers had about Hitler, who was widely viewed as a bungling upstart. At the personal level, a popular black propaganda technique was to prey on soldiers' fears that their wives were being unfaithful to them; he shows several examples of Nazi leaflets. Both cases use the fundamental principle he recommends: start with something that contains a reasonable amount of truth, and magnify it.

When creating loyalty, optimism and resolve, he considers that the basic techniques were developed by Lenin and Trotsky, who showed how a small, well-organised and inspired group could be built up to the point where it was able to control a population several hundred times its size. He hates these people passionately, but is remarkably detached about explaining the effectiveness of their ideas. He says the methods spread rapidly to the Chinese on one hand, and the Nazis on the other; he considers Nazism to be in essence a clone of Bolshevism, with little more than the labels changed. Some of his judgements are quite surprising. In his opinion, the best psychological warfare campaign of World War II was the one carried out by the Japanese in South East Asia. I had always thought that the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" was a ridiculous fig-leaf stuck on a Japanese dictatorship, which could never have fooled anyone. Not so, says Linebarger: many Asian countries were indeed fooled by being given the outward appearances of self-government. Because they were addressed politely and invited to send "diplomatic staff" to conferences in Tokyo, they felt that they were being given a better deal by the Japanese than they had received from the colonial Europeans. Maybe they were. It was only when the war started going badly for them that the illusion began to melt away.

As I said, one thinks of 1984. Comparisons with another, much less well-known book also kept occurring to me. A few months ago, I read Simon's In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. Simon is good at showing how manipulative people pretend to be your friends, but coldly lie to you and play on your emotions in order to forward their own agendas. Many of the strategies he describes are used here too, but on a vastly larger scale. Being a psychological warfare officer, in effect, means acting as a "covert-aggressive" person (Simon's term) towards whole populations.

Scary, scary, scary book. I constantly wondered: am I supposed to be reading this? Why isn't the material classified? Maybe he had to move fast to get it published, and that's why it looks so sloppy and unpolished. Such things happened in the aftermath of World War II, when the situation was fluid and undefined. But no one has tried to deny its validity. Everywhere you look, you find it's the standard text on the subject. And even though it could hardly be called famous - I see to my surprise that I'm the first person to review it on Goodreads - I suspect it's had rather more influence than one might at first think. Check it out if you're the kind of person who's curious to know what's really going on.