Saturday, March 19, 2011

When the drums of war sound in the jungle...


I wasn't surprised to hear today that opinion polls weren't yet showing enthusiasm for making war on Libya in the United States. Unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we haven't had weeks or months of government drum-beating. In the case of Afghanistan in 2001, the 9/11 attacks gave us an actual reason to go to war.

But now that the killing action is underway - done for the highest of humanitarian purposes, of course! - the celebrity journalists on TV can spend days and weeks competing to show off their knowledge of the latest military hardware. They can play armchair general and speculate eagerly about what we're going to be doing to "degrade Qaddafi's command-and-control systems" and the like. Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron are rolling out the usual pretty words to explain why we're bombing and rocketing Libya for the good of "the Libyan people." It actually is legal with a broad-ranging UN Security Council authorization. Military censorship will keep the screw-ups under wraps. At least American journalists will do their dead-level best to keep news of any setbacks our embarrassing incidents like, for instance, Our Side massacring black Africans on suspicion they might be mercenaries for Qaddafi. Because our celebrity journalists have to have "access" so they can quote "anonymous senior officials" at the Pentagon rather than just read the official line off the Pentagon's PR websites.

What Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The Culture of Contentment (1992) is still very true, and sadly will likely be true long after the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War and the Libya War are no longer living memories for anyone:

Almost any military venture receives strong popular approval in the short run; the citizenry rallies to the flag and to the forces engaged in combat. The strategy and technology of the new war evoke admiration and applause. This reaction is related not to economics or politics but more deeply to anthropology. As in ancient times, when the drums sound in the distant forest, there is an assured tribal response. It is the rallying beat of the drums, not the virtue of the cause, that is the vital mobilizing force.

But this does not last. It did not as regards the minor adventures in Grenada and Panama, nor as regards the war with Iraq and Saddam Hussein. The effect of more widespread wars has been almost uniformly adverse.

World War I, although it evoked the most powerful of patriotic responses at the time, has passed into history largely as a mindless and pointless slaughter. The party victoriously in power at the time, the Democrats, was rewarded in 1920 with a stern defeat at the polls. World War II, made inescapable by Japanese and German initiation or declaration of war, has survived with better reputation. However, the Korean and Vietnam wars, both greatly celebrated in their early months, ended with eventual rejection of the wars themselves and of the administrations responsible.(my emphasis)
Is Galbraith's view of war too cold and unromantic? Good. Any tiny thing I can do to help de-romanticize war, I'm glad to be able to do.

In his 1921 book Massenpsychologie und Ich-analyse (Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego), Sigmund Freud describes with approval several aspects of the work of the French sociologist Gustave Le Bon, particularly his book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895), on the psychological mechanisms at work in unified groups:

In order to make a correct judgement upon the morals of groups, one must take into consideration the fact that when individuals come together in a group all their individual inhibitions fall away and all the cruel, brutal and destructive instincts, which lie dormant in individuals as relics of a primitive epoch, are stirred up to find free gratification. But under the influence of suggestion groups are also capable of high achievements in the shape of abnegation, unselfishness, and devotion to an ideal. While with isolated individuals personal interest is almost the only motive force, with groups it is very rarely prominent. It is possible to speak of an individual having his moral standards raised by a group .... Whereas the intellectual capacity of a group is always far below that of an individual, its ethical conduct may rise as high above his as it may sink deep below it.

... In groups the most contradictory ideas can exist side by side and tolerate each other, without any conflict arising from the logical contradiction between them. But this is also the case in the unconscious mental life of individuals, of children and of neurotics, as psycho-analysis has long pointed out. ...

And, finally, groups have never thirsted after truth. They demand illusions, and cannot do without them. They constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real; they are almost as strongly influenced by what is untrue as by what is true. They have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two ... [my emphasis; Standard English edition translation]
That is a good statement of the dynamic by which wars can produce both great achievements of self-sacrifice and personal accomplishment, as well as the greatest and most sickening cruelties. That dynamic operates no matter how worthy the cause in some kind of objective, ethical, moral, religious, political sense. If the best causes need conscious restraint, which is where the rules and laws of warfare have come from over the centuries.

Chris Hedges gives a vivid description of his own experience of war fever in the context of his work as a war correspondent in places like El Salvador and Bosnia in his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002):

When we ingest the anodyne of war we feel what those we strive to destroy feel, including the Islamic fundamentalists who are painted as alien, barbaric, and uncivilized. It is the same narcotic. I partook of it for many years. And like every recovering addict there is a part of me that remains nostalgic for war's simplicity and high, even as I cope with the scars it has left behind, mourn the deaths of those I worked with, and struggle with the bestiality I would have been better off not witnessing. There is a part of me - maybe it is a part of many of us - that decided at certain moments that I would rather die like this than go back to the routine of life. The chance to exist for an intense and overpowering moment, even if it meant certain oblivion, seemed worth it in the midst of war - and very stupid once the war ended.
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