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AWAKENING FROM THE NIGHTMARE OF HISTORY: Psychological Interpretation of War and Genocide

by Richard A. Koenigsberg

About the Author

Richard Koenigsberg received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research. He is Director of the Library of Social Science.

Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War

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“Koenigsberg’s ideas cut trenchantly through conventional, rationalized notions about culture, the nation, and war, and enable us to see through the psychic machinations of human institutions in utterly new ways.”
  —Ruth Stein, New York University, author of For Love of the Father


  1. The Psychological Interpretation of Culture
  2. Hitler’s Ideology
  3. War and Genocide
  4. The First World War
  5. War as Sacrifice
  6. Training Soldiers to Die
  7. Like Sheep to Slaughter
  8. The Psychopathology of War
    Works Cited

I. The Psychological Interpretation of Culture

A psychological approach to the study of society seeks to identify the sources and meanings of its cultural formations. For any ideology or institution, I pose the question: “Why does it exist?” To understand an element of culture requires uncovering the psychic function that it provides or performs. An ideology or institution comes into being, is embraced and perpetuated insofar as it does something (psychologically) for individuals within that society.

Cultures are social constructions, but constructed for what purpose? A psychological approach to the study of society poses questions revolving around the creation and perpetuation of specific cultural forms. For any belief-system or institution within a society one may pose the question: What psychological work does this element of culture perform for members of society?

The fundamental flaw of recent cultural theory is the assumption that there is a reality “out there” (constituted by language, discourse, etc.) that exists and can be studied separately from the minds of human beings who create, embrace and perpetuate this reality. It is obvious that particular human beings are born into symbolic systems that already exist. Still, one may pose the question: Why does any particular symbolic system exist in the first place?

Based on our experience of symbolic systems as overwhelming in their impact, we imagine that they constitute “objective realities” separate from human beings. We experience society as if an entity “out there,” above us. We forget the human source of our cultural world. Why do some elements of culture become stable and persist, while others fade and disappear? I suggest we investigate specific ideologies and institutions posing the question: What does this element of culture do for the population that embraces it? One “explains” the existence of a cultural form by interrogating the psychological gratifications it provides and psychic functions it performs.

Freud’s analysis of dreams, slips of the tongue, and psychosomatic symptoms was guided by the principle of psychic determinism, which asserted that there are no accidents in the life of the mind. Our unconscious mental life is the source of the images we dream at night, the mistakes and blunders of our everyday life, and the pains in our bodies. A psychological approach to the study of culture extends the principle of psychic determinism. We examine belief systems, institutions and historical events assuming that these cultural creations have not come into being by chance.

Why do people pretend that ideologies and institutions have a “life of their own,” as if they keep on keeping on independently of the people who create and embrace them? Why do we imagine that culture or society descends upon us from above, as if emanating from another domain of existence? Why do people believe that cultural ideas and institutions are separate from human beings?

I theorize that society is created by people, and serves a human purpose. Cultural forms exist to the extent that they allow us to externalize, work through and come to terms with our deepest desires, fears, conflicts and fantasies. Cultural ideas and institutions are not separate from the psychic functions that they perform. Indeed, we may theorize, ideologies and institutions exist and are perpetuated precisely by virtue of their capacity to perform psychological work.

Norman O. Brown (1959) stated that “culture exists in order to project the infantile fantasies into external reality where they may be seen and mastered” (154). Cultural forms according to this view function as a vehicle for externalizing and working through unconscious fantasies. Brown views culture as a “transference screen”—a vast canvas or tableau onto which the psyche projects and dramatizes fundamental conflicts and existential dilemmas.

Brown spoke of the “human neurosis,” viewing history as a form of collective psychopathology. Indeed, the extraordinary record of slaughter in the Twentieth Century (an estimated two-hundred million deaths caused by political actions undertaken by societal groups) suggests that Brown’s diagnosis was kind. Yet in spite of the grotesque historical record, people rarely conceptualize historical events from the perspective of psychopathology. We continue to idealize societies; we avoid focusing on the ugliness and sickness that emanates from within the very fabric of civilization.

II. Hitler’s Ideology

One approach to explanation in social science seeks to ascertain the “function” of a particular institution in relationship to other aspects of the social system. The assumption governing this approach is that each element of society serves a more-or-less rational purpose. Writing about the Holocaust, one historian notes that by virtue of their project of locating and transporting Jews, building and running death camps, gas chambers and crematoria, etc., the Nazis had turned over a substantial component of their economy to the “production of corpses.” Has there ever been an example of such an entirely useless form of institutionalized behavior, of no practical benefit to anyone?

The Nazis brought the death camps into being. Daniel Goldhagen (1996) suggests that the concentration camps were the Nazis most original contribution to culture. By virtue of the fact that it is possible to witness and document the “coming into being” of the death camps, this example is an excellent case study of the “social construction of reality." Why did Nazis create the Final Solution? What was the purpose and meaning of this project? What did Hitler believe he would accomplish by destroying the Jewish people?

The death camps and Final Solution grew out of the mind or imagination of Hitler and his followers. One may say that this project represented the materialization or actualization of Hitler’s desires and fantasies, desires and fantasies which, apparently, were shared by many other Germans. The Final Solution was the result of the collective acting out of desires and fantasies contained within—articulated through—Nazi ideology.

A character in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses said that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. “ We might do well to take literally the idea of "history as a nightmare." In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud provided a method for analyzing the dreams of individuals. I have developed an approach to analyzing collective dreaming. I interpret elements of culture as manifestations of shared fantasy—as if a dream that many people are having at the same time. The psychological interpretation of culture revolves around delineating the nature and shape of those desires, conflicts and fantasies that give rise to and are articulated through ideologies and social institutions.

I have developed a method for interpreting collective dreams (the shared fantasies of a culture). I focus upon identifying recurrent images and metaphors that appear in relationship to ideological terms and propositions. Hitler, for example, constantly referred to Germany as a “living organism,” and to Jews as bacteria, viruses and parasites working to destroy this organism. Metaphors contained within Hitler’s writings and speeches allow one to reconstruct the unconscious fantasies that were the source of his ideology.

The Final Solution grew out of a fantasy contained within Hitler’s ideology. Jews were conceived by Hitler as bacteria or virus, the cause of a disease within the body politic. As pathogenic microorganisms, Jews were imagined to represent a mortal threat to the life of the nation. Genocide was undertaken in order to destroy the source of the nation’s disease, and thereby to “save the life” of Germany.

At first, Hitler’s ideology seems outlandish and bizarre. Gradually, one realizes that one has heard this before. Hitler’s ideology reflected a mode of nationalistic thought that consists of attributing all of society’s problems to a particular group or class of people. Resolution of the country’s problems—the “return to health” of the nation—is understood to require the destruction or elimination of a particular group or class of people.

People prefer to think of Hitler’s ideology as an aberration, but it was not; it lay fully within the mainstream of Western political thought. Hitler’s ideology represented an instantiation of that most banal of political propositions: If the nation is to survive, its enemies must be destroyed. Lucy Dawidowicz’ book on the Holocaust is entitled War Against the Jews (1986). By virtue of the Final Solution, the Nazis enacted this banal idea—that survival of one’s nation requires destruction of its enemies—carried out to an extreme, bizarre conclusion.

III. War and Genocide

When people became aware of the Holocaust after the Second World War, it was viewed as an anomalous event. The war itself, however—in spite of the magnitude of destruction it wrought—was not viewed as an aberration, rather as a more or less “normal” dimension of the historical process. Yet it is estimated that twenty-million Russians were killed during the Second World War, more than three times the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Apparently people do not flinch at the idea of mass-murder when it occurs within the framework of the social institution called “war.”

Recent research on Germany’s war against the Soviet Union (for example, Bartov, 1996) breaks down the distinction between war and genocide. The invasion of Russia is now understood as the first phase of the Final Solution. Hitler vowed to wage a "war of extermination." Einsatzgruppen(special killing forces) followed the German army as it moved eastward through Russia, rounded up Jews from towns and villages, herded them into tank ditches, and shot them en masse. Approximately two-million Jews were killed before the Germans began to build death camps and gas chambers—in order to execute the second phase of the Final Solution. Thus, in the case of Nazism, the concept of war may be subsumed under the concept of genocide.

IV. The First World War

The balance of this paper will explore the relationship between nationalism and mass-murder through the lens of another case study—The First World War. This war was one of the most monumentally destructive events in history. The “final tally” of casualties put together by the U. S. War Department for eleven Allied Nations and the four Central Powers counts 65 million forces mobilized, of which more than 8 million were killed or died, over 21 million wounded, and 8 million taken prisoners and missing, for total casualties of 37 million, 58% of the forces mobilized. The mind boggles at these statistics. We assume there must have been good reasons for the slaughter. However when it comes to explaining the First World War—its magnitude, ferocity, and massive destructiveness—historians are baffled.

My initial reaction when I began studying this war was surprise at the blandness with which historians report what occurred; how they describe horrific mass-murder, but rarely question or express astonishment at its persistence. One is shocked, not only by the number of casualties, but by the way the war was fought.

Modris Eksteins (1989) describes the fundamental pattern of battle: “The victimized crowd of attackers in no man’s land has become one of the supreme images of this war. Attackers moved forward usually without seeking cover and were mowed down in rows, with the mechanical efficiency of a scythe, like so many blades of grass” (100). In spite of its futility, this method of fighting persisted from the beginning of the war to its end.

We are familiar with this strategy of directly assaulting the enemy line—and the disastrous results it produced—for nations fighting on the Western Front: France, Great Britain and Germany. However, a similar tactic was employed on other fronts as well. In his war memoir, Carlo Salsa (in Bonadeo, 1989) reveals that the Italian general staff disregarded the enemy’s strength and sent troops to their deaths in futile attacks. In November 1915, he recorded the following account of the fate of regiments fighting the Austrians in a charge at Mount San Michele:

Waves of young, enthusiastic, unknowing, and generous soldiers rushed this wall of stones. We came up against the first trenches protected by barbed wire. Courage can do nothing against this miserable and terrible thing. We had no tools to cut it, and the human waves caught in these iron cobwebs broke as if they had hit a rocky cliff. The human tide was blindly flung against the fierce enemy defenses: human flesh against brute matter, and everywhere the rallying cry of the attackers was muted by the cold stammering of the machine gun. The ground was strewn with corpses; all the regiments were nearly wiped out; it was impossible to move forward. (90)

This account of a suicidal attack is identical to so many others. In John Keegan’s Soldiers (1986) there is a photograph taken from the German side of a Russian infantry attacking from across a field on the Eastern Front in the autumn of 1914. We see hundreds of men rushing forward en masse without protection or cover in what looks like the start of a cross country or marathon race. The caption says: “Men are already falling.” What a simple matter it was to shoot and kill the soldiers as they rushed toward the enemy line. One asks: Why were soldiers attacking in a way that made it so easy for them to be killed?

Insofar as the First World War was fought in a similar manner on so many fronts, I suggest that the method of fighting represents a structurally similar pattern of behavior fueled by a common psychological dynamic. How are we to understand or interpret this destructive battle strategy? Why did it persist in spite of its futility? Why were nations willing to accept the deaths of so many young men? Why did commanders continue to insist that men attack by going ‘over the top’ after it became evident that the result of this battle strategy was slaughter? Further, why didn’t young men rebel against their fate? Eksteins poses the question, “What kept them in the trenches? What made them go over the top? Just why the soldier kept going has to be explained, and that matter has often been ignored” (171).

Historians continue to struggle to account for the catastrophe of the First World War and to explain the battle strategies of its military leaders. Some suggest that commanders failed because they were operating on the basis of a medieval battle-strategy or because they “underestimated the potency of the machine-gun.” Other commentators (see, for example, Travers, 1987) argue that disaster was the result of the “cult of the offensive,” a military ideology that insisted that battles could be won solely on the basis of determined, unrelenting assaults upon the enemy line.

These explanations assume that the objective of nations fighting in the First World War was to “win” and that what occurred was governed by rational thought processes. It is more reasonable to argue that the First World One was a case of collective irrationality. The magnitude of slaughter and persistence of an absurd, futile battle strategy make it necessary to develop alternative explanations to account for what occurred.

V. War as Sacrifice

Perhaps Great Britain’s Lloyd George was onto something when he observed that during the First World War every nation was “profligate of its manpower and conducted its war activities as if there were no limit to the number of young men who were fit to be thrown into the flames of war” (in Haste, 1977, 78). One may theorize that the First World War constituted a gigantic, sacrificial ritual.

Young men were thrown onto the altars of the Western front, the Eastern Front, or whatever front in order to die and be mutilated in the name of Gods called France, England, Germany, Russia, Italy, etc. Horace’s phrase, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—“It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”—lies at the core of the Western ideology of nationalism. The First World War represented apocalyptic fulfillment of this ideology.

Benedict Anderson (1983) wrote about nations as “imagined communities.” We speak of reality as a “social construction.” It is easy to say that nations are imagined communities or social constructions, but more difficult to know that they are. Deep down, most people believe nations are real. When people utter words like “France” or “Germany” or “America,” they feel that they are referring to entities that substantially exist.

Perhaps, however, at certain historical moments people do begin to sense that their nations are contingent rather than absolute realities. Elaine Scarry (1985) focuses on injuring as the essence of warfare, stating that the “massive opening of human bodies” in battle occurs in order to reconnect “disembodied beliefs with the force and power of the material world” (129). Wars are undertaken, we may hypothesize, in order to prove that nations are more than social constructions. Surely we feel, that which can generate the death and mutilation of human beings in massive numbers must be eminently real. Wars occur in order to verify the existence of nations.

According to the 19th century German nationalist Johann Fichte, people embrace their nations as “vesture for the eternal.” One’s country represents the promise of a “life here on earth extending beyond the period of life here on earth.” Nations, we may hypothesize, embody the fantasy of immortality. The idea of a realm of existence that goes on eternally, independent of concrete, human existence. Nations as “bodies politic” manifest the fantasy of a self-perpetuating entity not subject to death and decay.

Nations symbolize the idea of an immortal, body politic that will “live on.” War represents a ritual whereby human bodies are sacrificed in order to affirm the reality of omnipotent bodies politic. Dead and maimed bodies on the field of battle constitute “proof.” These bodies testify to the fact that there is “something else” beyond mere, day-to-day existence; this “something else” is one’s nation, the entity in the name of which dying and killing has occurred.

When a nation goes to war, soldiers are called to duty, fitted with uniforms and trained. Guns, bullets, bombs, artillery shells, tanks, ships, and airplanes are manufactured. Soldiers are transported to the front where they engage in battle. Men are killed and bodies maimed, giving rise to a massive hospital industry. All this occurs in the name of “nations.” If nations can evoke the extraordinary sound and fury of war, mobilize prodigious expenditures of energy and resources, motivate people to die and kill, then surely, people think, they must be real. Few would have the effrontery to say that these momentous events have occurred in the name of nothing. The parsimonious hypothesis is that wars occurred for some thing.

However, consider an alternative hypothesis: that war is a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Watching a movie in the darkness of a theater, witnessing the chaos, absurdity, futility and destructiveness of war, a thought often passes through one’s mind: “War is insane.” I do not believe I am unique in having had this thought. Perhaps hundreds of millions of people have had a similar thought as they watch a feature film or documentary about war.

Why can’t people hold onto this idea that “war is insane” once they get out of the Movie Theater? Why do social scientists and historians so rarely use the word “insane” as they chronicle the bizarre events that characterize political history? Why are psychologists so willing to characterize individual forms of behavior as “disorders,” but so unwilling to apply the term disorder to collective forms of behavior?

A journalist related his encounter with a wounded Canadian soldier that took place during the First World War: “As I looked into his face and saw the look of personal victory over physical pain, I gripped him by the hand and said: ‘My good man, when you go back home to Canada, back to your home, you need not tell them that you love your country—just show them your scars’” (in Genthe, 72). Joanna Bourke (1996) observes that public rhetoric in Britain judged soldiers’ mutilations to be “badges of their courage, the hallmark of their glorious service, proof of patriotism” (56).

In the following military report, British General Reps describes what happened to his brigade in one of the battles at the Somme:

They advanced in line after line, dressed as if on parade and not a man shirked going through the extremely heavy barrage, or facing the machine gun and rifle fire that finally wiped them out. I saw the lines, which advanced in such admirable order melting away under fire. Yet not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back. I have never seen, indeed could never have imagined, such a magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination. The reports from the very few survivors of this marvelous advance bear out what I saw with my own eyes—that hardly a man of ours got to the German front. (In Travers, 146)

It is evident that Rees viewed the destruction of his troops in a positive light. The General was gratified to see that his men continued to move forward in the face of machine gun fire. The fact that there were few survivors led him to conclude he had witnessed a “magnificent display of gallantry, discipline and determination.” The soldiers’ willingness to die constituted proof that they loved their country.

VI. Training Soldiers to Die

In 1916 the British felt that they had found a commander-in-chief who had the resolve to sustain the heavy losses necessary to break through the German line. General Douglas Haig believed that given an adequate supply of arms and men, victory could be achieved quickly, though not without great loss of life. The specter of massive losses did not deter Haig. He said that what was needed for victory was patriots who “knew the importance of the cause for which we were fighting” (De Groot, 1989, 170).

Whereas Germans, he said, had been impregnated from youth up with an intensely patriotic feeling so that they willingly died for their country, British men could not do this unless well led. Haig wrote in his memoirs, with annoyance, that this simple fact seemed to have escaped the King who, during a visit to the front, “seemed inclined to think that our troops are by nature brave and is ignorant of all the efforts which commanders must make to enable a company to go forward as a unit in the face of almost certain death” (De Groot 170).

Haig conceived of his job as commander, then, in terms of training his troops so that they would be capable and willing to move forward to die. Over 410,000 Britains were killed in 1916 at the Somme, but battle lines did not change. Some were critical of Haig’s profligacy with human life, but many shared the opinion expressed in the following letter written to Haig, which the General preserved:

Illustrious General, The expectation of mankind is upon you—the ‘Hungry Haig’ as we call you here at home. You shall report 500,000 casualties but the Soul of the empire will afford them. And you shall break through with the cavalry of England and France for the greatest victory that history has ever known. Drive on, Illustrious General!” (In De Groot, 1989, 255)

The author of this letter does not shirk from the idea of 500,000 casualties. He declares that the “Soul of the Empire” can afford these sacrifices. Willingness to accept and embrace sacrificial death testifies to the greatness of England.

Colonel Shirley greeted British military recruits with the following speech:

My object is to convince you, now that you have entered upon the service of your Country, that you must proceed to serve her with all your heart and with all your soul. If you have done your best and yet must fall, you may take comfort in the thought that you will have suffered for a cause greater and more noble than that for which any man has ever yet sacrificed his all. (In Kerr, 1993, 174)

Such rhetoric resonated. One million volunteers joined the British army the first year of the war. War Office recruiting stands were inundated with men persuaded of their duty to fight. On September 9, 1915, Basil Hart asked his parents not to wear mourning clothes in the event of his death: “I do not wish you to regard my death as an occasion for grief, but of one for thanksgiving, for no man could desire a nobler end than to die for his country and the cause of civilizations” (in Bourke, 1996, 132).

Frenchman Robert Dubarle wrote similarly, shortly before his death, of the “glorious privilege of sacrificing oneself, voluntarily. Let us try, without complaining too much, to offer our sacrifice to our country and to place the love of fatherland above our own grief” (Horne, 1985, 233).

In contemporary America—prior to 9/11—patriotic fervor had diminished considerably. In an October, 1994 article in Newsweek written while the invasion of Haiti was being considered, Jacob Weisberg noted that only about 400 U. S. soldiers had been killed in action in the twenty years since the end of the Vietnam war, which means that serving in the armed forces was a relatively safe job. Driving a truck was three times riskier than being in the military, driving a taxi six times riskier.

On the eve of an invasion that did not happen, former Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney appeared on Meet the Press and stated that Haiti was “not worth American lives.” Senator John Glenn suggested that the case for intervention could not pass the “Dover Test,” the televised return of body bags from Port-au-Prince to the Air Force base in Dover, Delaware. In an article in the New York Times on July 16, 1995, Roger Cohen wrote about the unwillingness to intervene in Bosnia, suggesting that such unwillingness spelled the “death of Western honor.”

In his video series on World War I, Jay Winters concludes that it was “in the interest of no great power to go to war, but their honor was at stake.” In the battle at Tannenberg, Russian soldiers raised themselves to advance in potato fields and were mowed down by German machine guns. Commenting upon the deaths of over 30,000 soldiers, Czar Nicolai said: “It’s an honor to make such a sacrifice for our allies.” A nation demonstrates its honor—proves its devotion to a cause—by virtue of its willingness to send men into battle, where they frequently die or are maimed.

Injury and death on the field of battle function to prove one’s sincerity, demonstrate the depth of one’s commitment. One may feel that the cause for which young men die is a good one—such as Lincoln’s effort to preserve the union and abolish slavery—or a bad one, such as Hitler’s effort to prove the superiority of the Aryan race. Whatever the cause, mutilated bodies of soldiers strewn upon the battlefield testify to the significance of the idea in the name of which the war was fought.

VII. Like Sheep to Slaughter

The Battle of Verdun in 1916 was one of the most concentrated sites of mass slaughter in the history of warfare, with more than 650,000 French and German soldiers killed in a series of encounters that changed nothing. One French officer saw the battle as a contest of French and German masculinity: “The two races have put all their youth into the furnace, to test which is the strongest and most virile” (in Smith, 1994, 138). Terms like masculinity, strength, and aggression are thrown around loosely in discussions of war. But these words bear little relationship to the experience of soldiers at Verdun.

For their initial attack, the Germans brought up 2.5 million shells. By June, the artillery had grown to about 2000 guns and it was calculated that in just over four months of battle 24 million shells had been pumped into this dedicated stretch of ground, an average of 100 shells per minute. The French action to recapture the famous Fort Douaumont employed 711 guns on a front of just over three miles. A notice in the fort today informs us that 1000 shells were used for every square meter of battlefield.

Imagine the pathetic plight of the soldier in the face of this massive barrage, confined within a narrow space that glowed like an oven for miles because of the constant artillery bombing. “Fighting” consisted, essentially, of trying to shield one’s body in order to survive the incessant shelling. A French Lieutenant noted that before attacking his men were either “drunk, howling out patriotic airs, or weeping with emotion or despair.” One had the temerity to remark within earshot of the company commander: “Baa, baa, I am the sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse” (Smith, 1984, 138).

The image of “sheep going to slaughter” is often used to describe Jews being transported in trains and herded to death camps. Historian Denis Winter (1979) describes the fate of German soldiers in the First World War subsequent to completing training:

After the stint at base, the railway took the men toward the front line. To a generation with visual memories of the railway lines running into Hitler’s death camps, tense faces peering from cattle trucks, there is something disconcerting about the imagery of this journey from base camp. The soldiers went in waggons of the same type, forty of them in each waggon, kits hanging from hooks in the roof. Death was a high probability for both generations of travelers in these cattle trucks. (74)

Over two million German soldiers were killed in the First World War and millions more wounded or maimed. Rarely did they protest. Like Jews in the Holocaust, German soldiers in the First World War went “like sheep to the slaughter.” As German soldiers were transported in cattle-cars by Germany’s leaders and slaughtered at the Western Front during the First World War, so were Jews transported by Germany’s leaders and slaughtered in death camps during the Holocaust.

The posture of the soldier in the First World War, then, was one of abject passivity—as he struggled to keep his body intact in the face of an overwhelming barrage of murderous technology. The authority on war Gwynne Dyer concludes: “You offer yourself to be slain: This is the essence of being a soldier. By becoming soldiers, men agree to die when we tell them to.” Joanna Bourke observes that the most important point to be made about the male body during the Great War is that it was “intended to be mutilated” (31). Beneath concepts such as territorial expansion, conquest, defending the homeland, honor and glory, then, lays the repressed reality of warfare: the dead or maimed body of the soldier.

The soldier goes to battle at the behest of his nation and its leaders. He is at the mercy of these leaders, compelled to engage in battle with the enemy, often shot if he refuses to do so. The fundamental stance of the soldier in World War I—and probably that of soldiers in most wars—is that of a pathetic, helpless victim. The soldier is obligated to be absolutely obedient to his commanders, even unto death.

Yet in spite of our knowledge of these realities, people insist upon using terms like aggression and “masculinity” to characterize the soldier’s posture, as if he is participating in a healthy, vigorous sporting event rather than an activity revolving around being killed or mutilated. The spectator, reading about battles in the newspaper or in history books, watching documentary accounts, thrills to the image of war as a magnificent display of national power. What is often left out of these accounts is the maiming of young men; destruction of the male body.

VIII. The Psychopathology of War

Beneath the sound, fury, and grandiosity of warfare lies a profound psychopathology, this willingness to kill, die and maim in the name of nations. Historical accounts deny psychopathology by depicting war as if a normal, even natural human activity. The case study presented here illuminates the pathological quality of warfare. Nations of the world continued to send men to die, day after day, month after month, year after year, producing a quantity of casualties so mind-boggling that even now people are attempting to comprehend and come to terms with what occurred.

Perpetuation of warfare requires a denial of what happens to the body of the soldier. Delusions of honor and glory can be sustained only by turning away from the results of battle. Haig’s son reported that the British Commander-in-Chief felt that it was his duty to “refrain from visiting the casualty stations because these visits made him physically ill” (in Gilbert, 1994, 221). The French Commander Joffre—after pinning a military decoration on a blinded soldier—said to his Staff: “I mustn’t be shown any more such spectacles. I would no longer have the courage to give the order to attack” (221). War is about the mutilation of the body of the soldier in the name of the sacred ideal. We want the “beautiful” ideals, but don’t want to look at the body of the soldier.

The idea of omnipotent bodies politic is a dream that people experience while they are awake. Nations constitute a shared fantasy of immortality. This may seem at times to be a benign, beautiful dream, fantasy of oneness with a beloved country. However, this dream transmogrifies into a nightmare at the moment when people begin to doubt the omnipotence of their nation.

Wars come into being in order to demonstrate—test the proposition—that one’s nation is all-powerful. Nations bring forth or manifest power by virtue of their capacity to kill and to bring about death, that is, as a result of their willingness to sacrifice the lives of human beings. As long as there are people who are in the process of “dying for the country,” we are persuaded that nations are real.


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