As a melting pot of diverse cultures since pre-colonial times, the Philippines has conceived some of the world’s most fascinating mythological creatures. From the benevolent, nature-guarding diwata to the duplicitous, curse-inflicting nuno-sa-punso, countless stories of such beings are passed down from generation to generation in the Philippines.
The most famous of these creatures is arguably the aswang, a type of vampire that feeds on human blood — and internal organs — and takes on the form of a suspicious animal (typically an unusually large dog, a wild boar or a vulture) during the day.
One possible reason the aswang continues to be popular today is its use as a weapon in psychological warfare by none other than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
It all started on the heels of World War II, when the U.S. found a new enemy in the Soviet Union. At the time, American forces remained in a battle-scarred Philippines over persisting territorial interests.
Over at the archipelago, the Hukbalahap (or Huks) — short for “Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon” (“People’s Army Against Japan”) — were veterans of the war and had fallen from grace after being accused of being communists. They opposed the Bell Trade Act, which essentially gave Americans “equal rights” to the Philippines’ natural resources.
The Huks were eventually expelled from Congress. They retreated back to the mountains of central Luzon, starting years of a bloody insurgency.
President Manuel Roxas, who ousted the Huks, died of a heart attack in 1948. He was replaced by Elpidio Quirino, whose government struggled to continue fighting the Huks. Sensing that the instability in the country could worsen, the U.S. government knew it had to step in. Enter the CIA.
Lessons from advertising
The CIA found a solution in Edward Geary Lansdale, a former San Francisco-based advertising executive who had worked with clients such as Nestlé, Levi Strauss and Wells Fargo. When the war broke out, Lansdale joined the Army and was recruited to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which paved the way for the CIA.
Following the war, the U.S. needed Lansdale’s skills to defeat the Soviet Union, as well as its communist operatives in Asia. In 1950, Lansdale arrived in the Philippines as an Air Force officer to help fight the Huks.
The truth, however, is that Lansdale was already working as a CIA operative. Convinced of the powers of psychological warfare, his team studied beliefs and superstitions held by those who lived in Huk-associated areas.
Of all possible ways to manipulate the masses, the team decided to bank on the aswang. Lansdale ordered a “combat psywar squad” to plant stories about an aswang haunting a hill where the Huks allegedly camped.
After spreading rumors, the squad set up an ambush to kidnap and kill a Huk patroller at night. They punctured the patroller’s neck with two holes, drained their blood and returned their corpse on a trail, creating the perfect illusion of an aswang-related death.
Lansdale described the operation in his 1972 memoir, “In the Midst of Wars: An American’s Mission to Southeast Asia”:
The psywar squad set up an ambush along the trail used by the Huks. When a Huk patrol came along the trail, the ambushers silently snatched the last man of the patrol, their move unseen in the dark night. They punctured his neck with two holes, vampire-fashion, held the body up by the heels, drained it of blood, and put the corpse back on the trail. When the Huks returned to look for the missing man and found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol believed that the asuang had got him and that one of them would be next if they remained on that hill. When daylight came, the whole Huk squadron moved out of the vicinity.
Lansdale and his team also used the so-called “eye of God” to scare Huk sympathizers. At night, they painted the image on a wall facing the homes of these sympathizers, resulting in a “sharply sobering effect,” Lansdale noted.
Victory at last
The number of Huk patrollers Lansdale and his team snatched and murdered is unknown. Jordan Clark, a researcher and filmmaker behind The Aswang Project, said the operation only took place once to deter a Huk squadron of about 100 to 300 soldiers.
Regardless, the scheme did prove effective at the time, and the Huks surrendered a few years later. Their leader, Luis Taruc, laid down arms to accept a pardon in May 1954.
Lansdale, for his part, would go down in history as the mastermind behind one of the strangest tactics used in warfare. After the Philippines, CIA Director Alan Dulles assigned him to Vietnam, where he started the Saigon Military Mission, a covert intelligence operation that sowed dissent in North Vietnam.
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