In time of relative peace, war still survives
Oscar Wilde once said: “As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.”
War is both wicked as well as vulgar and yet it survives. Adolf Hitler stressed that “true manhood” is won through armed combat. In The Prince, Machiavelli recommended the occasional political use of war. Georg Hegel held that successful wars reduce domestic strife and strengthen the sovereignty of the state.
And the late Chairman Mao said: “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
To the Roman historians Livy and Caesar, war was a natural function of the state, something justified by the successes of the Roman army which they chronicled.
Historians of the Middle Ages, led by the venerable Bede, saw history as having a didactic meaning — suffering caused by war was God’s punishment for wickedness and success in war was seen as a sign of God’s favour.
There have always been that minority who hope that we just might discover what William James urged: “the moral equivalent of war.” Such efforts imply that war is not wholly evil. If it were all evil we would work to abolish war rather than search for a substitute for war.
We don’t, for example, search for substitutes for cholera, typhus, AIDS or the “black plague.”
Some may think that light shed on such a topic may come from a strange source — Sigmund Freud. But as professor Jacqueline Rose from the University of London points out in her new introduction to Freud’s masterpiece — Mass Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego — Freud does make some telling points which sound remarkable modern.
Freud writes about both religious faith and military might where our most passionate, almost sacred group identifications are formed. And such passions, Freud argues, involve both denial and regression. For example, one of those soldiers responsible for prisoner abuse in Iraq said: “We didn’t feel like we were doing things we were not supposed to be doing because we were told to do them.” Yes … denial and regression.
Yet we are appalled.
Those violations occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere are indeed despised by all of us, chiefly because such behaviours shatter the complacency we all share regarding our humane Western values.
But with such revelations, didn’t the entire world see that our commitment to such humane values was phony?
Confronting this truth, according to Freud, our national self-love is threatened and rather than being contrite or humbled, we lash out in narcissistic self-defense.
Any nation or group struggles most to preserve its own ideal image of itself. However, when we impose our vision of democracy on others, we may be merely imposing an ideal but unrealistic version of ourselves.
Freud wrote this analysis of narcissism as he wrote “The Disillusionment of War.” He was horrified by the chaos and destruction of life during World War I.
He said that the most significant thing shattered in the millions killed in ugly trench warfare was the self-idealization of Western morals.
In addition to the many deaths, what was ultimately disturbing was the faith in our sacred institutions was shattered.
Many today are wondering about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere; that we democratic nations might embody the very evils used to justify wars against others.
Could it be that civilizations such as ours may be unjust and cruel … that our venerated institutions may have their own evil dimensions?
Freud went on to argue that during any conflict, the single greatest sacrifice people are asked to make, on behalf of the state, is to relinquish their right not to believe in the sanctity of the state. You heard it before: “My country, right or wrong.”
And if there is one thing greater than disillusionment, it is not being allowed to recognize that we are disillusioned. It means sacrificing our individual autonomy for the sake of our preserved national self-esteem.
Freud knew first hand the fierceness with which a nation builds and defends it own national identity and he would say today that such is the central question of our modern times. He wrote: “No group or nation is safe from the dangers of uncritical conviction and a nation that frees itself from doubt and refuses to question its own motives and acts, can indeed place the entire world in peril.”