Is Brainwashing a Real Thing?

A commentary on the use of thought reform in the military

Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama

On my last post: Why is war so popular? I sited His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, specifically his talk on the Realities of War. I would like to continue with that discussion.  His Holiness says,


War is like a fire in the human community, one whose fuel is living beings…Modern warfare waged primarily with different forms of fire, but we are so conditioned to see it as thrilling that we talk about this or that marvelous weapon as a remarkable piece of technology without remembering that, if it is actually used, it will burn living people. War also strongly resembles a fire in the way it spreads. If one area gets weak, the commanding officer sends in reinforcements. This is throwing live people onto a fire. But because we have been brainwashed to think this way, we do not consider the suffering of individual soldiers. No soldiers want to be wounded or die. None of his loved ones wants any harm to come to him [or her]. If one soldier is killed, or maimed for life, at least another five or ten people – his relatives and friends – suffer as well. We should all be horrified by the extent of this tragedy, but we are too confused.

I mentioned in my last post that I was transfixed by the Dalai Lama’s use of the phrase, “we have been brainwashed.”  In my last post I concluded that we, the general public, have been brainwashed to accept war as normal and necessary. But what about the soldiers? Have they been brainwashed as well? The Dalai Lama later in his message says,

It is not only during times of war that military establishments are destructive. By their very design, they were the single greatest violators of human rights, and it is the soldiers themselves who suffer most consistently from their abuse…They are then compelled to forfeit their individual will, and, in the end, to sacrifice their lives.

His Holiness seems to think so as he says, soldiers “are then compelled to forfeit their individual will.” I guess I’ve never really thought about it before. It is unrealistic to believe that an individual could join the military and be able to do what is required of them without ‘reprogramming’. So, what happens to a person when they join? Are they brainwashed or reprogrammed so to speak?

According to Wikipedia’s, Recruit Training, psychological conditioning techniques are used to shape attitudes and behaviours of soldiers in training, so that the recruits will obey all orders, face mortal danger, and kill their opponents in battle.  The article goes on to quote specialists in US recruit training. These specialists say,

“The intense workload and sleep restriction experienced by military recruits leaves them little attention capacity for processing the messages they receive about new norms…Therefore, recruits should be less likely to devote their remaining cognitive effort to judging the quality of persuasive messages and will be more likely to be persuaded by the messages…”

Is this brainwashing? Is this mind control?

In the 1983 PBS production, Anybody’s Son Will Do, gave this assessment of what it means to be trained to be a soldier. Here is one of the opening quotes: “The secret about basic training is that it’s not really about teaching people things at all. It’s about changing people so that they can do things they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing otherwise.”  It can be found on YouTube. Here is part two.

In part V of Anybody’s Son Will Do, the commentator mentions the trainers indoctrinate the recruits with the idea that the enemy, whoever he may be, is not fully human, and so it’s all right to kill him. I haven’t viewed the entire program, but what I did view I found disturbing.  Don’t take my word for it. Have a look starting at 2:00.

Now I was curious. Is the military – and it doesn’t matter whether it is the Canadian, American, Chinese,  Russian military or any other country’s military – using mind control techniques, otherwise known as brainwashing?

HowStuffWorks is an award-winning source of unbiased, reliable, easy-to-understand answers and explanations of how the world actually works. In its explanation of how cults work, it claims cults use techniques known as “mind control,” or otherwise known as “thought reform,” “brainwashing” and “coercive persuasion.” It is the systematic breakdown of a person’s sense of self. The article explains that cults use:

  • Deception where new recruits are conned into joining the group.
  • Use of deprivation where a person may be deprived of adequate nutrition and/or sleep so the mind becomes confused.
  • Isolation where individuals are cut off from outside world or each other to produce intense introspection, confusion, loss of perspective and a distorted sense of reality.
  • Induced Dependency where total, obedient devotion, loyalty and submission is demanded.

There is no question in my mind that there are similarities between the mind-control practices used by cults and boot camp training in military.  It is important to note that there are differences. Firstly, military recruits know from day one of joining that they are giving up some of their autonomy. A military recruit makes a knowledgeable decision to relinquish that autonomy, whereas a cult recruit does not since they are deceived.  Also, a recruit signs up for a definite period of time, that is, he or she agrees to a legal contract that states how long he will be a soldier and what he will get in return. A person who joins a cult is deceived into thinking he or she can leave whenever he/she desires, but in reality, they cannot easily leave.

Now let’s be clear. At this time in history, we do need the military. There are times when a country needs to call upon their military. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama agrees as he states:

I want to make it clear, however, that although I am deeply opposed to war, I am not advocating appeasement. It is often necessary to take a strong stand to counter unjust aggression. For instance, it is plain to all of us that the Second World War was entirely justified. It “saved civilization” from the tyranny of Nazi Germany, as Winston Churchill so aptly put it. In my view, the Korean War was also just, since it gave South Korea the chance of gradually developing democracy. But we can only judge whether or not a conflict was vindicated on moral grounds with hindsight.

He goes on to say:

…in the case of the Cold War, through deterrence may have helped promote stability, it did not create genuine peace. The last forty years in Europe have seen merely the absence of war, which has not been real peace but a facsimile founded dear. At best, building arms to maintain peace serves only as a temporary measure. As long as adversaries do not trust each other, any number of factors can upset the balance of power. Lasting peace can assure secured only on the basis of genuine trust.

So what is the answer? Can a world ever be created by us humans where the military is obsolete. I believe the Dalai Lama has the answer. Until we build a world where there is trust; trust between religions, trust between nations, trust of governments, trust between corporations, and so on, we will never have genuine peace on this planet. Perhaps it is better put by this unknown person: “A relationship with no trust is kind of like having a phone with no service. You just end up playing games.” This is true whether we’re referring to a person, government, nation, or organization.