Ancient Philosophy of Hybrid War and Propaganda

DND Thought CenterAncient Philosophy of Hybrid War and Propaganda

By Agha Iqrar Haroon

“An arrow shot by an archer may or may not kill a single person; but skillful intrigue, devised by a wise man, may kill even those who are in the womb. If the end could be achieved by non-military methods, even by methods of intrigue, duplicity, and fraud, I would not advocate an armed conflict’, says Indian philosopher Chanakya in his book Arthasastra.


“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle, ” says Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu in his book Art of War.

Philosophy of propaganda brings us various traditions of thought and a critical review of ancient philosophers who wrote on the art of war and governance indicates propaganda had been the most important tool of ancient empires to subjugate their populations and to defeat their foreign enemies.



Famous writer Micah Hanks writes in his article “Propaganda in the Ancient World:

Roman builders of the Antonine Wall used vibrantly painted sculptures as a propaganda tool to convey Rome’s superiority over native Scottish tribes. When the wall was built in the mid 2nd century A.D., sculpted blocks depicting Rome’s military exploits were periodically embedded into it at strategic locations.

Propaganda as a tool for subjugation is found in ancient Greece, Macedonia, and Persia. Alexander used propaganda to “glorify” himself, becoming christened the son of almighty Zeus. Alexander produced currency and commissioned architecture, sculptures, and other media which emphasized his new deification, replacing all imagery of the mighty Hercules with his own likeness.

In his book Propaganda and Persuasion, Garth Jowett writes:

“Alexander the Great was the first to recognize that to maintain cohesion and control over his vast empire, such propaganda symbols could serve as a constant reminder of the various subjugated populations just where the center of power resided. These strategies are still widely used today.”

French philosopher Jacques Ellul in his famous book “The Formation of Men’s Attitudes” says:

Propaganda must constantly short-circuit all thought and decision and it must operate on the individual at the level of the unconscious. He must not know that he is being shaped by outside forces… but some central core in him must be reached in order to release the mechanism in the unconscious which will provide the appropriate–and expected–action.”

As history has shown, the use of propaganda in modern times has borrowed heavily from such ancient practices. To be effective, the appeal of propaganda is one that must not only transcend the ages but also manage to effectively shape our attitudes about the past through its influence. We should have a look into classical examples of propaganda in the ancient world.

If you ever visit Mount Behistun in Zagros Mountains range, located in Kermanshah Province of western Iran, you will find the first-ever advertisement Billboard of human history. It is made of limestone having a height of 49 feet, 82 feet wide, and installed at the top of 330 feet high mound. This is considered the first hoarding of advertisement where Darius the Great (r. 522–486 BC) publicized his work and successes in wars in three different languages–old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian (a variety of Akkadian).

The inscription begins with a brief autobiography of Darius then Darius provides a lengthy sequence of events nineteen battles in a period of one year (ending in December 521 BC) to put down multiple rebellions throughout the Persian Empire.

The inscription also explains the power of Darius and stories in the persecution of rebellions. This hoarding is called Behistun Inscription. Mount Behistun is located 525 kilometers west of Tehran and I had visited this place. The inscription is situated at a very popular route of traders so travelers of ancient times so everybody could read and see this advertisement.

The inscription tells us:

  • Darius is (was) kind-hearted but merciless with rebellions
  • Darius is undefeatable
  • Every boy in his country is happy because Darius provides security to the population from outsiders and invaders

If we want to find the first book on war and Propaganda, then we will go to China where the Art of War was written by Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu served King Helü of Wu in the late sixth century BC. The story of rising of Sun Tzu is very interesting. According to historians, before hiring Sun Tzu, King Helü tested Sun Tzu’s skills by ordering him to train a brigade of 360 concubines into soldiers.

These concubines were those women who had a high desire for sexuality and loved to live and sex with men of their choice without entering into a traditional marriage and they called themselves “Free Citizens”.

After judging skills and intellect, he raised women as soldiers and used them for overt and covert operations. Intelligence networking experts believe that the concept of “Honey Trapping” started from the work of Sun Tzu. During Sun Tzu era, Honey Trapping was a practice involving the use of romantic or sexual relationships for state espionage, and targets and known targets were soldiers, princes, commanders, and important people of the enemy’s country. Mostly wrong information were planted among the enemy’s decision-makers through this trap about the moment and reality of advances of Sun Tzu army. Honey Trapping was also used to collect information about skills, moment, the preparedness of the enemy through special agents. The brigade of Concubines did this work as soldiers for their King.

One of the most popular quotations of Sun Tzu era says that:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near”.

The honey pot or trap involves making contact with an individual who has information or resources required by a group or individual; the trapper will then seek to entice the target into a false relationship (which may or may not include actual physical involvement) in which they can glean information or influence over the target.

The book Art of War is composed of 13 chapters. Each one is devoted to a different set of skills (or “art”) related to warfare and how it applies to military strategy and tactics. Art of War is still known as one of the best books available about War strategy and Philosophy of War.

The book Art of War promotes:

  • War has only one ethic and that is winning the war
  • Deception is the tool of success in defeating enemies
  • Gathering knowledge about the enemy is a must before you think to attack the enemy and espionage is the most important tool of statecraft and Propaganda is the art of deceiving the enemy.

Another work of ancient time regarding Propaganda is Arthashastra written by Hindu Philosopher Chanakya (c. 350 – 283 BC) who was a professor of political science at Takshashila University which was established around 3000 years back at Taxila Valley situated in Pakistan, around 30 km away from the capital of Pakistan— Islamabad. Chanakya was the teacher, guide, and mentor of great King Chandragupta Maurya whose empire was extended as far as Central Asia.

The Maurya Empire was a geographically extensive Iron Age historical power in the South founded by Chandragupta Maurya in 322 BCE. The Maurya Empire was centralized by the conquest of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, and its capital city was located at Pataliputra –modern Patna.

Chandragupta Maurya and Chanakya overthrew the Nanda Empire in c. 322 BCE then they rapidly expanded power westwards across central and western India and by 317 BC the empire had fully occupied northwestern India.

It is believed by Roman and Greek historians that Mauryan Empire was raised out of the excellent strategy of Propaganda executed by Chanakya and his student Chandragupta for overthrowing the well-established, consolidated, and strong Nanda Empire. The Propaganda of Chanakya injected fears, hopelessness, and trust deficit between the population and the Royal family of Nanda Empire and propagated that Chandragupta is (was) the son of gods and had come from the skies to rule the earth and he (Chandragupta) is (was) undefeatable.

Book 10 of Arthahastra deals with strategies of war. It classifies war into – open, covert, and silent.  It specifies how to engage in these wars and to detect if one is a target of a covert or silent war.

The book also specifies the appropriateness of all means during the war be it an assassination, discord, spying, false propaganda, and hostility.

After defeating Nanda Empire, the same diction of Propaganda was used against other smaller rulers around Nanda Empire and nobody stood against the army of Chandragupta when it was attacked. The core points of War Strategy and Propaganda of Chanakya are:

  • Chandragupta is (was) undefeatable as he is the son of gods
  • Inject hopelessness in the enemy’s population through propaganda before the enemy is attacked
  • Fear of death must be injected into soldiers of the enemy.
  • Travelers and traders should be used for espionage as well as spreading rumours in enemy’s country and promoting hatred against ruling elite telling them that King and his family are sucking the blood of poor and they are corrupt and selfish.
  • War has no ethics and winning the war is the only goal for statesmanship.
  • Spies should be well-versed in inciting enemy forces to revolt, spreading false rumors about the enemy, mixing poison in enemy’s food supply, poisoning their drinking water, setting fire to the enemy’s camp, and bringing havoc and destruction, or if necessary, even assassinating the enemy leaders.
  • Secret agents can destroy high officers in the enemy army either with poison or with ‘love-winning medicines’.

If we look at today’s world, all ancient strategies of war-winning and propaganda are still in use and actually, nothing is added in the last 3000 years. Major components of Propaganda against the enemy had been:

  • Create trust deficit among social groups and develop fault-lines in the society of enemy
  • Spread rumours and hopelessness among the population before actually attacking the enemy
  • Use spy Art and honey trapping for getting maximum information about the weakness and strengths of the enemy
  • Promote the idea that opponents are corrupt and selfish and they must be removed
  • Attacking army will bring positive changes in attack country after winning war and will provide more social and economic opportunities
  • Empire is benevolent and protects its population from outsider and invaders
  • Collateral damage is part and parcel of change etc


When we go through the work of philosophers who dealt with Propaganda and Governance in the last 3,000 years, we find that hybrid war is not a new concept as many social anthropologists believe today.

There is only one philosophy of Propaganda against the enemy’s state and this is an art of creating fears, hopelessness, a deficit of trust among the masses against their rulers, and developing fault lines among social groups.

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