This article is the first in a new series titled Obscure Operations. Through this series, we will examine and investigate different military operations that involved very unconventional or strange methods of warfare. For our first entry, we are taking a look at Operation Wandering Soul!
Operation Wandering Soul was a psychological warfare operation (psyop) orchestrated by the United States military during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. The operation involved playing frightening and disturbing sounds from helicopters and speakers set up in the dense jungle. These sounds were purposefully designed by U.S. military engineers to be terrifying.
This operation was inspired by Vietnamese culture and spirituality. For many generations, the Vietnamese people have believed in the existence of the supernatural, such as spirits and deities that control the human experience on Earth. Most importantly, the Vietnamese people believe that plants, animals, and humans have souls, however humans are the only creatures on Earth that have a transcendental soul. This means that the human soul is able to exist outside of the human body, in other words, after the human body has died. This spiritual concept led Vietnamese people to develop a belief in the superstition of the wandering soul.
The wandering soul is the Vietnamese belief that the dead must be laid to rest and buried in their homeland (or home region) or their soul will be forced to wander aimlessly in agony for eternity. This belief and the importance of proper burials for the dead is so strong in Vietnamese culture that their 2nd largest festival of the year is the Vu Lan Festival, also known as Wandering Souls’ Day. This festival occurs on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. During this festival, Vietnamese people celebrate by visiting their local temple to honour their family and ancestors. In the town of Hoi An, some people light floating lanterns and send them down the Hoai River at night as a way to guide the lost souls to Nirvana. Another celebration involves offering food to deceased relatives that they believe might wander into their home during the festival. This concept originates from the belief that on Wandering Souls’ Day, the gates of hell are opened at sunset and the starving souls within are set free for the night.
The belief of the wandering soul and the importance of spirituality to the Vietnamese people was harnessed against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong during the Vietnam War with Operation Wandering Soul. Due to the casualties of war, many North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers were killed far from their homes; their bodies lost to the jungle, never to be found, or in some instances, given an improper burial. In the eyes of the Vietnamese, these deceased soldiers would become wandering souls after death. To exploit the innate fear of the wandering soul in their enemy, the American military created creepy and disturbing sounds that were meant to sound like the souls of fallen Vietnamese soldiers in order to disrupt the enemy and cause them to flee in terror. By playing on the spiritual beliefs of the Vietnamese, the American military intended to push back the Viet Cong, clear crucial areas, and hopefully convert some enemies soldiers to their side of the war.
Some of the recordings involved eerie crying and wailing, while others blared clear messages targeted at the enemy soldiers. One particular message featured a deceased Vietnamese man warning his comrades to run away and stop fighting: “My friends, I come back to let you know that I am dead! I am dead! It’s Hell, Hell! It is a senseless death! How senseless! Senseless! But when I realized the truth, it was too late. Too late. Friends, while you are still alive, there is still a chance you will be reunited with your love ones. Do you hear what I say? Go home! Go home, my friends! Hurry! Hurry! If not, you will end up like me. Go home my friends before it is too late. Go home! Go home my friends!” Imagine hearing this in the middle of the night coming from the dark, dense jungle… Terrifying! Especially if you have no concept of the technology being used against you.
Here is an example of one of the Wandering Soul recordings!
Operation Wandering Soul’s success is largely unknown. The American military knew that the recordings must have had some effect on the North Vietnamese because when they would play the recordings, they would receive random weapon fire in their general direction. Shortly after the operation began, they also discovered that local farmers who had heard the broadcast were too afraid to work in the fields near the broadcast locations, fearful that they would disturb the anguished wandering souls. If the Viet Cong were in the area, they likely also felt fear and may have retreated due to the ominous and terrifying noises.
The operation also had several unintended consequences which were counter-productive to the operation’s original objective. One unintended consequence was that the recordings also worked on friendly villagers and South Vietnamese soldiers who heard the broadcasts. The recordings terrified friendlies and made them hesitant to engage the enemy. The recordings supposedly also terrified many American soldiers who heard them. Another unintended consequence was that the recordings actually rallied the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers to continue fighting against the American and South Vietnamese forces. According to a former North Vietnamese soldier who heard the sounds first-hand; the recordings definitely affected the morale of the North Vietnamese soldiers, but afterwards made them more determined to fight.
After a few weeks of playing the recordings, it seems the North Vietnamese eventually realized that they were hearing the recordings from a helicopter and began returning fire. Considering the aim of the operation was to scare away and attempt to convert the Viet Cong and not have American soldiers be fired upon, it is reasonable to classify Operation Wandering Soul as ineffective and unsuccessful.
Operation Wandering Soul reminds us that military operations don’t have to rely on physical conflict, but instead can target the mind and religion of the enemy. Like Sun Tzu said in The Art of War, “all warfare is based on deception”. This operation goes to show the lengths at which the United States military was willing to go to win the Vietnam War. They were willing to use an entire nation’s spiritual belief as a weapon against them. As strange and as villainous as this operation sounds, it’s not the craziest operation the United States military has ever attempted!