The lost and found art of deception

By Richard Baker, U.S. Army Military History InstituteNovember 17, 2011

A gift that doomed a city
1 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – "...but I have never seen such another man as Ulysses. What endurance too, and what courage he displayed within the wooden horse, wherein all the bravest of the Argives were lying in wait to bring death and destruction upon the Trojans" (Homer - The ... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson
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General John J. Pershing
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More Bark than Bang!
4 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – "Quaker Guns" at the "Fortifications Heights of Centerville" VA, March 1862. This image shows the true nature and extent of the field works and the supposed heavy artillery guns placed upon such by the Confederate forces that occupied the site. In r... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Efforts to deceive, persuade, confuse, and befuddle one's opponents have been practiced by military leaders throughout the ages. Examples range from the Greeks' Trojan horse to the "Hail Mary" ploy of the Coalition forces in Operation Desert Storm. Sun Tzu best expressed the martial role of deception in saying "All warfare is based on deception." Deceptions can involve false maneuvers, feigned attacks, misleading orders of battle, and creation of deceiving indications of strength or weakness in attempts to influence an enemy's actions. Deception can strengthen an offensive or weaken an enemy's defense.

Strategic deceptions are practiced on grand scales and are aimed at the enemy's national leadership. One of the greatest deceptions was the effort to mislead Adolf Hitler and the German High Command concerning Allied intentions surrounding the invasion of France in 1944. Tactical deceptions are created to support the grand strategies. Such practices are used in the field against the enemy's forces.

Homer's tales in the Iliad and the Odyssey tell of the war between the Greeks and the inhabitants of the city of Troy. After an extended conflict and siege the Greeks supposedly duped the Trojans through the deceptive use of the gift of a large wooden horse. Legend tells that the horse was full of elite Greek warriors. Once it was taken inside the impenetrable city walls, Troy was doomed to defeat. Thus we are given the age-old advice to "beware of Greeks bearing gifts."

In warfare, the practice of deception has developed into an art form over the millennia since the fall of Troy. To say it has become a "science" is inadequate, as the basis of deception is to create and use techniques that are unexpected, uncalculated, and unusual. In short, you want to fool the other guy. Deception is more an art form, to be studied, practiced and applied as the scene evolves.

Sun Tzu instructed his readers that "when able to attack, one must seem unable, when active seem to be inactive, when near make the enemy think you are far away; when far away, seem to him to be near." Still, despite this ancient instruction, the U. S. Army has not consistently studied or applied the "art" of deception in its military operations over the past two hundred and thirty-six years of its existence. Not that deceptions were not used by some of our great Generals; examples tell of such, yet these were often lessons lost from subsequent generations of American military leaders.

Illusions and persuasions designed to confuse the enemy have been part of American warfare since the Revolutionary War. George Washington is idolized as an honest man who never told a lie; yet he was quite capable of using military deception for strategic advantage. He developed and cunningly used his own network of spies and informants to plant false information, deny information to the enemy, and establish confusion. In one example, the use of false strength reports, written in his own hand, convinced British General Sir William Howe that the Americans had sufficient forces and kept Howe from attacking at Valley Forge. Washington masked his real actions and troop movements through the use of feints and ploys suggesting attacks against different objectives. He dispatched orders and instructions for actions supposedly preparatory for an offensive against New York, knowing that the plans would be relayed to the British. Washington had the British looking one way while he went another; south to Yorktown and victory.

Events of the American Civil War provide examples of intuitive deception techniques on the part of such leaders as Generals Joseph Johnston and Robert E. Lee. General Johnston held Union forces in check around Washington with simple, yet effective deceptions. After the First Battle of Manassas, Confederate forces had advanced to a position at Munson's Hill. Union forays against the position were rebuffed. For three months the hill remained in Confederate hands. When Federal troops gained the heights in October 1861 they found they had been duped. No strong entrenchments were found and there were false artillery pieces. Known as "Quaker cannons," they were nothing more than logs painted black and arranged to resemble heavy guns. General Lee also used a brilliant piece of false movement and misinformation to gain a strategic advantage during Union General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, 1862. Lee deceived the Union leadership into believing there was a threat against Washington D.C. by allowing Federal prisoners, due for parole, to see the westward movement of Confederate forces. The Union troops could count the regiments and learn of their destinations. Lee knew the information would be relayed to Federal commanders. He counted on their concern for protecting the Capital to override the support of McClellan's campaign.

Through the great World Wars of the 20th century, the Army's role in deception practices was furthered and expanded. The grand deceptions surrounding the invasion of France and D-day at Normandy dispelled much of the earlier doubts about the practices among many of America's military leaders. Postwar, the use of deception as a valuable military practice evolved through lectures at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in 1947/48 and through Army-wide training practices in Army Training Circular # 8, "Combat Deception," issued in 1953. For the first time in Army history," combat deception was included as a separate aspect of the exercise of command in the September 1954 Field Manual (FM) 100-5, "Operations." Subsequent field manuals and directives further enhanced the role and use of deception practices in U. S. Army doctrine and operations.

Army FM 90-2, dated October 1988, titled "Battlefield Deception," reveals that the U. S. Army was attempting to "revitalize a battle field deception capability." Chapter 1 opened with the subtitle of "Revitalizing the Lost Art." Gone were the historical selling points, replaced by a genuine effort to produce solid guidance. These efforts appeared two years before events in Kuwait and the Persian Gulf. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm stands as one of the greatest modern showcases of the use of deception. Just as General George Washington had the British looking the wrong way in 1781, General Norman Schwarzkopf focused the Iraqi Army's attention away from the "Hail Mary" sweep around its western flanks.

Current Army doctrine recognizes that "…deception activities can also provide important support, depending on the mission." The bold and effective use of strategic and operational deceptions during the Gulf War affirmed the place of deception in the American art of war. So in following the advice of "Stonewall" Jackson to "always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy," it appears that the lost art of deception has been truly found, never to be lost, and that "Military Deception" or "MD" will firmly remain among the weaponry of the American military arsenal.


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