Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Within a few days of the February 2022 invasion, most Ukrainians were calling Russian troops orcs. It evoked a simple, powerful image of an evil eastern horde and it to helped galvanize defenders at home while bolstering support from abroad. 1.Evidence of war crimes and the rantings of some Russian leaders suggest that the image is warranted (if the cap fits, wear it) and, partly due to Soviet interpretation of Tolkien’s work, some Russians seem to relish the orc label.2
The orc imagery is an echo of historic demonization to encourage resistance to a powerful enemy, a technique for changing the equation of defence by suggesting surrender would be little better than death. As Churchill recalled the dark days of 1940:
‘[W]hen imagining the horrors of a Hun invasion, there rose that last consoling thought which rises naturally in unconquerable races and in unenslavable men resolved to go down fighting—“you can always take one with you.”’ 3
In the early days of the invasion, the orc image helped to change the self-perception of each Ukrainian from victim to vigilant, and in some unquantifiable way it helped stop the Russian advance. Setting aside the moral considerations to examine the practicalities, demonization has the greatest effect in defence – it encourages endurance, lowers the psychological cost of killing and thereby helps to whittle down an attacking force. But dehumanizing an enemy acts as a barrier to negotiating surrender – when the enemy aren’t people, they become targets, and that view fuels a cycle of barbarity. Now the pendulum is swinging back in Ukraine’s favour, the orc image has outlived its usefulness and there is a danger it will undermine the effectiveness of the counteroffensive.
To understand how the orc narrative is an obstacle I must first explain why yet another western self-proclaimed expert has the affront to try telling Ukraine what to do. My main research area is tactical psychology, which aims to understand the tricks that soldiers from corporal to colonel use to make the enemy run, hide, and surrender. The effects are profound: when compared to uncoordinated attacks, units that combine arms closely cause four times as many enemy troops to surrender; when compared to predictable attacks, units that find a flank cause three times as many enemy troops to surrender, and five times as many to withdraw. 4 These effects, along with a few others, are the keys to why manoeuvre warfare can sometimes trump attrition.
The biggest problem for quantifying tactical psychology is the influence of barbarity. Most of the accessible data comes from Northwest Europe in the Second World War, where the details of war diaries and communication logs show plucky British and Canadian battalion groups capturing more Germans than they killed. There was barbarity in those small battles –there always is– but barbarity wasn’t the default setting. This was mostly because the image of the marauding Hun had been replaced by Jerry, a more human and sometimes even noble adversary who had been suckered into war by a despot. The Hun only understood cold steel; Jerry was an enemy you could share a cigarette with.
Data from the Eastern Front of the Second World War is a lot messier, and it pains me to admit that my analysis on that front is in the early stages, but Soviet combined arms and flanking seemed to multiply the German surrender rates by four or five times, just like in the west. The problem was that the baseline rate –effectively the ambient chance of a German giving up the fight– was much lower. So, where a British battalion group would use combined arms and flanking to kill 20 Germans and capture 100, a Soviet unit doing the same would have kill 100 to capture 50.5
The best explanation for this is that the engrained barbarity of the Eastern Front had skewed the “is it worth it?” calculation, the half-conscious estimate of the chance of success and survival that runs through a soldier’s head whenever the enemy get close. German troops about to be assaulted by a British platoon knew there was a slim chance (maybe one in 20) that they would be killed out of hand if they tried to surrender. For Germans facing a Red Army unit the chances seemed to be worse than 50:50, so they were much more likely to fight on. The result was that in the east both sides took much higher casualties before the Soviets caused a German defence to collapse.
Although less extreme, the Ukraine war has settled into a similar barbarous pattern. Despite the occasional parade of prisoners, some clever use of drones and loudspeakers, and a seemingly effective “I want to live” hotline, the in-contact surrender rate seems extremely low. 6 The official data is worryingly vague, and the doctored videos sent westward show a tendency for Ukrainian attackers to threaten death rather than promise safe passage to an internationally monitored interment facility. The in-contact rhetoric involves a lot of threatening and not enough promising – it’s all stick with no carrot. This is understandable but it doesn’t change behaviour as efficiently as an obviously presented combination of carrot and stick.
The best example of the need for carrot and stick is back in Northwest Europe in 1945, where one of the most potent sticks was the Churchill Crocodile, a heavily armoured infantry support tank that could squirt napalm out to about 80 metres. Being almost impossible for defending infantry to kill and projecting the promise of a horrific death, the Crocodile was the epitome of a close combat terror weapon, but used on its own it had no appreciable effect on German surrender rates.
Eventually, after a lot of in-contact experimentation, a few units worked out that the key was not (as doctrine stated) to immediately send the Crocodile into flame range for the maximum shock effect. Instead, the best results came from combining the Crocodile’s stick with the carrot of visible infantry support – a human face that could accept surrender. Having the Crocodiles and infantry stand a few hundred metres from the German position while the former squirted off a few rods of flame allowed the defenders to reconsider their commitment to the cause and find some white flags. By one account this trick yielded 27 times the number of Germans surrendering. 7The secret was not the flame so much as the obviousness of the offer – there were similar effects from threatening with artillery, gun tanks and grenades.
It is not easy offering and accepting surrender, especially in the scrappy break-in battles that have filled the last few months, but the results can lift tactical success into operational victory. It can save as many Ukrainian lives as Russian.
For Ukrainian units to such results will require means, motive, and opportunity. The means are there: potent close combat weapons, soldiers who speak Russian and loudspeakers. The offensive is starting to provide the opportunities. But do Ukrainian soldiers have the motive? To convince Russians to surrender in contact, Ukrainian troops must first be convinced of the value of offering surrender terms. That needs a top-level decision to move the narrative away from orcs, and maybe (for the sake of a rhyme) lean more toward dorks – seeing Russian troops as mostly ordinary guys who’ve been suckered into war by a despot.
Dermot is military psychologist who also does operational research. He is trying to do a PhD on the tactics that made Nazis run, hide and surrender in Op Veritable to see whether they can be applied on future ops. If you’d like to help or tell him how wrong he is please follow the link at www.wapentakes.com/tactical-psychology.
- ‘Orcs’ and ‘Rashists’: Ukraine’s new language of war | Russia-Ukraine war News | Al Jazeera; Constructing the Orc: Embracing Fiction in Ukraine’s Tactical Narrative | Royal United Services Institute (rusi.org)
- Why are Ukrainians calling Russian invaders ‘orcs’? | The Spectator.
- Tracking Churchill’s Famous Slogan, “You can always take one with you” – The Churchill Project – Hillsdale College.
- Russia Suffers ‘Significant Losses’ in a Week as Ukraine Pushes On: Kyiv (newsweek.com).
- Rooney, Bennett and Salt, ‘Tactical Psychology for Game Developers’ (Wapentakes/DASA, 2018).
- Apologies for the vagueness on the Eastern Front, most of this work is self-funded, putting Russian and German sources out of reach. Historians are still arguing about which side is most biased, but the figures here align with those presented in R. Overmans, Deutsche Militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg (München 2004) and the small number of Eastern Front battles in the Dstl Historical Analysis archive.
- Murray, Brains and Bullets: How Psychology Wind Wars (London, 2013), 180-183.