Anyone who has sat through a course on medieval history knows that there was once a time when people believed in the power of magic, as a tool that could be used to crush their enemies. Eventually people realized how silly such ideas were—and ultimately, magic on the battlefield became limited to nerds LARPing around a local park, the only real magic employed being a powerful anti-coitus charm.
Or so at least you would think. Here are ten real cases of modern governments that tried to harness magic in order to win real wars.
• 10 – John Mulholland and the CIA
Sleight of hand is cool and all, but you would never expect anyone to employ a guy like Penn Jillette as an advisor to one of the most powerful organizations in the world. Of course, when we are talking about the Central Intelligence Agency, anything is possible. That’s why during the Cold War, the CIA hired illusionist John Mulholland to write an official manual that would teach its operatives the same sort of sleight of hand he used in his shows.
Called “The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception,” the manual taught agents to use misdirection and hidden compartments, and also to use seemingly hidden signals—such as the way a shoe was tied—when working in the field. Of course, the CIA was not interested so much in earning the “oohs” and “ahhs” of a crowd, but something more along the lines of drugging people by discreetly slipping something into their drink. Bear in mind that this is the same CIA which attempted to use LSD for the purposes of mind control; apparently, everything was fair game for these nut-cases.
• 9 – Mexico, Drugs, and Voodoo
This one is a bit different because it’s not about a war in the traditional sense, but rather the so-called “war on drugs”. There have been a tremendous number of casualties in that particular war, at least partially because the battlefield is Mexico. The battle being waged along the US/Mexico border is one of the bloodiest ongoing “war” efforts in the world, with the drug cartels taking lives at an alarming rate. That’s why Mexican officials decided that they could do with a little outside-the-box thinking.
Specifically, they turned to voodoo. In 2010, police in Tijuana were at such a loss as to how they might combat the cartels—and so afraid for the safety of their officers—that they actually turned to ritualistic animal sacrifice in order to turn the tide. As a part of this attempt at harnessing voodoo magic, priests killed chickens under a full moon and proceeded to smear the blood on the police as a sort of protection spell. Some of the police believe it worked, too—claiming that while guns and body armor are ineffective, faith never fails. Even if it’s faith in cutting the heads off chickens and invoking spirits.
• 8 – Houdini the Spy
While the other entries on this list are all well-documented, we will say up front that there are no official records that Harry Houdini ever worked as a spy. However, in 2006 a biography was released claiming to have been written with the help of over 700,000 pages of information collected over the years, with all signs pointing to the alleged fact that history’s most famous magician did spy for Scotland Yard and the American government from time to time.
The book claims that Houdini worked closely with William Melville, a British spy who worked at Scotland Yard at the same time Houdini is said to have aided them. Apparently, Houdini would use his act as a cover to travel the world collecting secret information for law enforcement officials, including secret service agencies in both Britain and the US.
• 7 – Britain and the Fake Horoscopes
World War II, it would seem, was a wacky time for military strategy. Considering how many schemes involving magical shenanigans took place, it feels in retrospect like those Indiana Jones movies might have been onto something after all. Part of that is due to the fact that Hitler and the Nazis were obsessed with the occult, and that they held a strong belief in the validity of astrological charts.
The British knew this very well, and employed an astrologer named Louis de Wohl to concoct false horoscopes in order to try to throw off the Nazis and get a glimpse into their mindsets. Churchill himself sent de Wohl to America with the aim of convincing the US to join the war effort, but after Pearl Harbor his services were rendered unnecessary.
Declassified documents show that MI5 later came to regret his involvement in any of their efforts, because apparently they figured out that he was full of crap. Considering that’s precisely what they hired him to invent in the first place—crap—it’s a little shocking that Britain’s top spies took so long to sort that out for themselves.
• 6 – Britain’s Psychic Defense
When you think about it, it makes sense that the British would partake in supernatural dealings, considering it has access to the Ministry of Magic and a school of wizards. Or was that Harry Potter?
Well, it turns out that the British government takes the whole “magic” thing more seriously than you’d expect. In 2002, the Ministry of Defense conducted a study to determine whether or not soldiers could be trained to become psychics. The goal was to have psychic soldiers working to find WMDs or even Bin Laden himself. If you’re from the UK, keep this in mind that you were probably paying taxes right around that time.
Following the attack on the World Trade Center and the rise of Osama Bin Laden as public enemy number one, the Ministry tried to hire “real” psychics to participate in the tests. Perhaps not wanting to be exposed as the frauds they most likely are, they declined—so some regular people decided to take advantage of the scheme, and get some easy money by partaking in the research. They quickly proved what we all could have guessed: that none of them were any more “psychic” than a rusty doorknob.
- 10 Attempts to Use Magic and the Supernatural to Win Wars (listverse.com)
- Houdini treasure trove (dailytelegraph.com.au)
- 11 Years Later, Senate Wakes Up to War on Terror’s ‘Battlefield America’ (rubinoworld.com)
- For He’s A Skeptical Fellow (randi.org)
- 8 Examples of Precognition in Literature (illuminutti.com)
- Top 10 Psychic Debunkings (illuminutti.com)
- 10 Mythical Things that Actually Existed (listverse.com)