“All warfare is based on deception.”
—Sun Tzu, circa sixth century B.C.
Los Angeles is an illusory place. From the magic of Hollywood to the city's surreal atmospheric light, it's easy to feel like physical reality only sometimes coincides with your perceptions. For that reason, L.A. was the perfect backdrop for a special workshop we attended a few years ago, organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop illusions that might help the military—itself a surreal topic. In fact, the location was necessary. Among the attendees, only three people, including both of us, were neuroscientists; the rest were high priests and priestesses from the entertainment industry—directors, writers, Foley artists (who reproduce everyday sounds for films), and sound/special-effects engineers. Together we advised DARPA on the technology and research it should invest in to ensure that the U.S. military continues to meet 21st-century scientific standards for tactical camouflage, concealment (or hiding without camouflage), and deception. Perhaps most important, the group explored the role that misperception can play as a deterrent, helping soldiers avoid battle altogether.
Governments are no strangers to military deception—on the contrary. “Misleading one's adversary about the nature, size and location of your military forces—and disguising your tactical or operational intentions—has been part and parcel of military strategy since its inception,” said William Casebeer, our DARPA host, who is now research area manager for human systems and autonomy at Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratories. Thousands of years ago legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu emphasized the importance of shaping enemy perception to optimize success, either by winning or, even better, by obviating warfare—a point echoed by virtually every prominent military theorist since. Casebeer asserted that illusions—from those affecting basic sensory input to ones shaping high-order cognition and driving judgment and decision making—have helped many nations sidestep the formation of war zones. When conflict was inevitable, illusions also helped soldiers egress from war zones safely.
We cannot discuss the specific secret ideas and approaches developed in the workshop to achieve DARPA's goals—if we told you, we might have to kill you!—but this article describes some publicly disclosed illusions that governments and militaries have used to create strategic surprise and save lives in the course of conflict.
This article was originally published with the title "Battlefield Deceptions"
MORE TO EXPLORE
Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author, and Conjurer. Jean-Eugène Robert Houdin. Translated by Sir Frederic Charles Lascelles Wraxall. Chapman and Hall, 1859.
The Ghost Army of World War II: How One Top-Secret Unit Deceived the Enemy with Inflatable Tanks, Sound Effects, and Other Audacious Fakery. Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayle. Princeton Architectural Press, 2015.
Decoys in Service of an Inflated Russian Might. Andrew E. Kramer in New York Times; October 12, 2016.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Stephen L. Macknik
Stephen L. Macknik is a professor of opthalmology, neurology, and physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Along with Susana Martinez-Conde and Sandra Blakeslee, he is author of the Prisma Prize-winning Sleights of Mind. Their forthcoming book, Champions of Illusion, will be published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Susana Martinez-Conde is a professor of opthalmology, neurology, and physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is author of the Prisma Prize-winning Sleights of Mind, along with Stephen L. Macknik and Sandra Blakeslee. Their forthcoming book, Champions of Illusion, will be published by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.