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The Psychology of War: Comprehending Its Mystique and Its Madness.

New light on why we fight hints at hubris of best and brightest

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - In 1916, someone in the U.S. Army launched an investigation: "Why do men go to war?" When news of this reached Gen. Pershing, he ordered the study stopped because he already knew the answer: "Men go to war because they enjoy it."

Such evasion is not new. In 416 B.C., when Euripides' "The Trojan Women," one of the world's greatest antiwar plays, was first produced, the Athenians were deeply shaken by its tragedy, to such a degree that something had to be done. They bad a war going on at the time. But they did not stop the war. Instead, they sent Euripides into exile.

A new book, The Psychology of War: Comprehending Its Mystique and Its Madness, by Lawrence LeShan (The Noble Press, Chicago; 1992; 163 pages, $16.95), promises to bring to bear "a new concept, recent to scientific thought."

LeShan, a psychologist, first outlines history's explanations for war. His review adds up to a depressing analysis of the human condition. Some said wars happen because people have an insatiable desire for power. Others threw greed into the bellicose brew. For others the cause was more radical: "Man is born evil."

These, at least, presume war was a blight. Adding insult to injury, however, was an insane strain insisting war is good. Many of those, alas, were poets and philosophers. Hegel, for example: "War has the higher meaning that through it ... the ethical health of nations is maintained."

And if it's not good, it's at least enjoyable, LeShan goes on. May Sarton is one of many to highlight its insidious attraction: "The fact is, unfortunately, that hatred in the public sense makes people's eyes bright, starts the adrenaline flowing, as love in the public sense does not. People feel fine when they are full of anger and hatred against someone else."

A medieval document, the Zohar, puts it another way: "When men are at war, even God's anger does not frighten them." This is borne out by the medieval church's efforts to restrict warfare to certain days of the week and to prohibit the crossbow as inhumane. Although much more powerful then than now, the church failed on both counts.

And while the church has had its antiwar moments, history shows that, in practice, it usually had a belligerent wing to match the pacifist theory. And not only the churches.

The best and brightest have as often as not been on the side of war: "With the exception of Bertrand Russell, no first-rate philosopher in our history has consistently advocated peace. In all major wars of this century, the educated classes voted for war policies and enlisted in the army as readily and enthusiastically as did their less-educated compatriots."

This penchant is all the more extraordinary in light of the fact that lower nature does not engage in mutual mass destruction. "The only animals that wage war are human beings and harvester ants" - which doesn't say much for harvester ants.

Something in the life-and-death joust, it seems, touches a part of humans that few other human experiences do. In War and Peace, Tolstoy wrote: "Every general and every soldier was conscious of his own significance, feeling himself but a grain of sand in the ocean of humanity, and at the same time was conscious of his might, feeling himself a part of the whole."

A woman who survived the London Blitz said, "It was a marvelous time. You forgot about yourself and you did what you could and we were all in it together. ... You worried about getting killed, but in some ways it was better than now. Now, we're all just ourselves again."

Among the daunting tasks confronting pacifists is to compete with this hankering for the extraordinary and sublime, which so few human activities or conditions offer, including the banal condition of ordinary old peace. After the recent Super Bowl, the Dallas Cowboys coach reminded his triumphant players that what was important and worth remembering was not the ring or the money but the solidarity and even love they generated in order to achieve this important goal.

Perhaps the crafty coach had been reading Erich Marie Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front: "The body with one bound is in full readiness.... Perhaps it is our inner and most secret life that falls on guard. We sit opposite one another... . We don't talk much, but I believe we have a more complete communion with one another than ever lovers have."

But why do they not, after the carnage is over, as they pick up the body pieces and survey the destroyed cities- - why do they not realize it was all less than lovers have? Because, LeShan indicates, there is no energy left: "It is all better forgotten, and when Johnny comes marching home with a chronic disability from his wounds, we all try to forget our recent bout of psychological illusion."

The "psychological illusion" is at the heart of The Psychology of War. LeShan's research led him to divide reality into four modes, of which the "sensory" and "mythic" are relevant here. These are pretty much what the reader might expect. "Sensory" wars bear a striking resemblance to objective reality: Blood is blood and pain hurts and those whose guts are blown sky high are mostly the poor and ignorant and innocent.

In the "mythic" mode, blood is the red wine of tomorrow"s utopia, the other guy is an evil empire and our soldiers are pure heroes fighting gloriously for a nation of saints and geniuses back home.

This book does not deliver the breakthrough it promised at the outset - most well-read people are likely to have stumbled across its main insights in one shape or another. Even so, there is enough wisdom here to stop any war - if the world were to take it seriously (which of course could also be said of the Bible and many other books).

The most striking thing is what we have done to our own and each other's minds to make war seem normal at worst and glorious at best. There is nothing humans couldn't do if they applied to life's nobler projects the secrets so successfully used in priming people for war.

Peace activists bemoan the fact that the same money and resources and personpower devoted to war is not also invested in peacemaking. This is true and lamentable. But more powerful than the Pentagon's money and materiel are the ideas that have made war mythical and popular.

Lester Pearson, in his 1957 Nobel Peace Prize address, said: "The grim fact is that we prepare for war like precocious giants and for peace like retarded pygmies."

Where is the peace myth? Where is even the church that can bring to its message and ministry the fervor that a few good men can bring to a war?

It will be argued that something must be done with the Hitlers or the Pol Pots. Perhaps war is the answer to the Hitlers. That would still leave unanswered the question of war's popularity. And even in the case of Hitler, it was the culture of war that led the contending sides to the only compelling solution the history of the world up to that time had prepared them for.

Suppose, instead, that Pope Pius XII invited every Catholic on earth, tens of millions, on a pilgrimage to Hitler's Germany. And suppose the Catholics, because this was what their Catholicism taught them, started marching, and driving, and sailing, a hundred million and more, never mind what they would do when they got there, never mind that some would doubtless be slaughtered - sure, it's a bit unusual, but now compare it for common sense with what actually happened.

It is totally illogical, intangible, but it's there - the urge to something inhuman, whether subhuman or supra, because humans have made the ordinary intolerable. Said a woman who fought in the French resistance, 15 years later: "My life is so unutterably boring nowadays.... I do not love war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive."

And historian Bruce Catton wrote of the Civil War veterans in this country: "They seemed to speak for a certainty, for an assured viewpoint, for a standard of values which did not fluctuate, that put such things as bravery, patriotism, confidence in the progress of the human race, and the belief in a broadening freedom for all men, at the very basis of what men moved by."

Was it who they were inside, or the fact that they fought? Was there no one else with a philosophy - or a theology - to match theirs in that little town?

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote an encomium in swelling cadences for the young dead of World War 11, ending: They are dying for the worth of the world."

Nice sentence, but it's baloney. What did the young men think as their lives ebbed away in foreign trenches? "This one's for the worth of the world"?

And the irony continues: This all-too-human activity is so insane that the human mind can't figure it out.
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Author:Farrell, Michalel J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 19, 1993
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