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Sucking the Life out of the Enemy

In most history lessons in school, we learn about the importance of military strength and how it contributes to military victories. However, we rarely hear about the damage psychological warfare tactics can inflict upon the enemy.  


One notable man who employed effective psychological warfare tactics was Vlad III, the ruler of Wallachia from 1456 to 1462. While we may all familiar with the famous tale of Count Dracula that he inspired, the actual history of his life and reign remains largely unknown.


Vlad III (Vlad Tepes) was the son of Vlad II, ruler of Wallachia from 1436 to 1447. In 1431, Vlad II was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, an order dedicated to the sole mission of ensuring the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

ottoman turks

Wallachia was important middle ground for the struggle between the Hungarians and the Turks, hence, Vlad II was torn between keeping his oath to the order and protecting his homeland. Therefore, to appease the Sultan, his sons Radu and Vlad III were sent as hostages to the Turks. Under them, the boys received tutelage in the arts, philosophy, and science, and by the time Vlad II fell from power, Vlad III was a strong contender for the throne with support from the Turks.



ottaman and hunagaries

Though there is no question that Vlad III was a cruel and brutal ruler, it has been widely debated if his actions served to satisfy his personal perverted pleasures, or if they were simply a necessity to ensure the safety of his city in the face of invaders. Wallachia had an army of 24,000 – 30,000 men, and while this number may seem impressive, it dulls in comparison to the Sultan’s army of 150,000 – 300,00 men. On top of that, Vlad III’s army consisted mainly of armed peasants while the Sultan’s army employed trained soldiers and auxiliaries. Wallachia was at a clear military disadvantage, hence Vlad III employed psychological tactics to weaken the enemy.





Vlad III was well known for his favoured method of torture and execution – impalement.  Anyone labeled as a potential threat to Vlad III’s rule was automatically sent for execution as Vlad III was determined to secure his position as king. Impalement was an extremely painful form of execution where people were placed atop sharpened stakes with the point positioned at the anus, and had their innards pierced through as they slid down over the course of a few days. Thousands of these stakes were set up outside the gates of Vlad III’s territory, and as he was inclined to impale thousands of people at once without cleaning up the rotting bodies, the sight that met the eyes of potential invaders was a gruesome one indeed. Accounts of such alleged encounters claim that “an invading Turkish army turned back in fright when it encountered thousands of rotting corpses impaled on the banks of the Danube”, and that “In 1461 Mohammed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, a man not noted for his squeamishness, returned to Constantinople after being sickened by the sight of twenty thousand impaled Turkish prisoners outside of the city of Tirgoviste.”  Evidently, Vlad III’s method of intimidation was effective in scaring away enemy invader troops. Such tactics meant that precious military resources were not spread thin fighting so many invaders, and it also boosted their chances of survival as they surely would have lost otherwise with their weaker army.


Of course, other forms of torture were also employed. They included: Strangulation, skinning, burning alive and dismemberment/mutilation of sexual organs and many others. Such cruel punishments for being perceived as a threat to the monarchy served not only to deter enemy invaders, they also served to deter “pretenders to the throne and their supporters who wanted to upset the institutional order”. Vlad III had learned from the previous betrayal of his father by his advisors and the nobles (boyars), and his execution of them, followed by replacements from the middle and peasant class as his council, served to both purge out any potential traitors and build a close group of followers whom were loyal only to him.

night attack

In his short rule, Vlad III had reduced the enemies' numbers by tens of thousands. He ensured that the Turks were kept at bay during his rule through psychological intimidation, involving the use of torture as well as underhand tactics to bring down the morale and strength of the troops. Such tactics involved “poisoning water sources, diverting streams to create swamps that had to be crossed and sending people suffering from lethal diseases, such as leprosy and tuberculosis” to weaken the Sultan’s forces. Many accounts of his endeavours indicate that Vlad III was an effective ruler and military strategist, with his ability to use psychological tactics to undermine the opponent; a stark contrast to his father, Vlad II.