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Review Essay of The Psychoanalysis of War

Review Essay of The Psychoanalysis of War
Fornari, Franco. The Psychoanalysis of War. Anchor Press, 1974. 284 pp. $29.99 U.S. (pb.) ISBN 0385043473. Review by Richard A. Koenigsberg, Library of Social Science.

Franco Fornari

Franco Fornari was an Italian psychiatrist who served as director of the Psychology Institute of the Department of Literature and Philosophy at the State University of Milan. In The Psychoanalysis of War, Fornari located the anxieties and psychotic fantasies that govern the behavior of individuals in groups. War, he said, arises from the external projection of an internal danger in the face of an alleged external persecutory entity, which compels individuals and societies to destroy in order to survive.

“Fornari’s book is perhaps the most significant ever written on the psychology of warfare. His ideas have not yet been integrated into our collective consciousness. I urge you to obtain a copy of this great book—to embark on the project of making conscious the unconscious in social reality.”

The Psychoanalysis of War is available now through Amazon.com at very special, discounted rates. For information on purchasing this book through Amazon, click here.

Read at no charge: Excerpts from THE PSYCHOANALYSIS OF WAR

In reading hundreds of history books, I can’t remember ever coming across the term “masochism” to describe the profoundly self-destructive actions that characterize the behavior of political actors. Nor is the term “paranoia” often used in relationship to the tendency of nations to identify “enemies” that require destruction by means of acts of war, genocide and terrorism.

Isn’t it astonishing that there are so few psychoanalytic interpretations of collective forms of behavior? Isn’t it shocking that we have a social anxiety disorder (shyness), but no “war disorder” or “genocide disorder? Politics may be defined as that domain in which profoundly pathological behaviors can be enacted—without being called pathological.

It’s not a question of caution. It’s a question of fear—that one will be punished by the omnipotent object called “society.” Better not to provoke the rage of the monster.

—Richard A. Koenigsberg


At the end of this essay, I reproduce a table entitled “First World War Casualties.” According to Matthew White, over 65 million troops were mobilized. White reports 8.5 million killed and died, over 21 million wounded and nearly 8 million prisoners and missing—for a total of 37,508,686 casualties. I’ve been studying this war for 21 years and still am unable to get my mind around these numbers. What could this war have been about? What could justify such prodigious slaughter?

A theory summarizing my understanding of the First World War appears in Nations Have the Right to Kill (2009). For our purpose here let me say simply that historians have difficulty comprehending why the war occurred and continued. Despite four years of fighting—from August 1914 to November 1918—the First World War seemed to have accomplished nothing.

Jay Winter—one of the most prominent historians of this war—concludes his six-part video series, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century (1996), in a tone of bafflement, summing up:

The war solved no problems. Its effects, both immediate and indirect, were either negative or disastrous. Morally subversive, economically destructive, socially degrading, confused in its course, futile in its result, it is the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict.

Like many other wars (the Civil War, Second World War, the Vietnam War, and recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind), the First World War brought about massive loss and horrific destruction. Whatever opinions may be put forth—about the causes of these wars, whether they were necessary, their morality, their political meanings and consequences—what is undeniable is that they caused massive loss of human life and material resources.

Franco Fornari’s The Psychoanalysis of War develops a theory illuminating the dynamics of the First World War, and perhaps of all wars. Citing Gaston Bouthoul, Fornari hypothesizes that war represents a “voluntary destruction of previously accumulated reserves of human capital,” an activity performed with the implicit intention to “sacrifice a certain number of lives.” Fornari suggests we view warfare as a form of potlatch: an act of “ostentatious destruction, the aim of which is to intimidate the rival and, ultimately, to give prestige to the donor or destroyer.”

The “potlatch”—a festival ceremony of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coast–has been studied extensively by anthropologists. It served as a means by which aspiring nobles validated their status by giving away gifts—and through the destruction of resources and property. The capacity and willingness to give away and destroy one’s property testified to the fact that one was a “big man.”

A number of scholars are revisiting the writings and thought of Georges Bataille (1897-1962). Guido Giacomo Preparata’s paper, “Un(for)giving: Bataille, Derrida and the Postmodern Denial of the Gift,” provides a summary of Bataille’s concepts as they relate to potlatch, loss and societal self-destruction.

Calling Bataille possibly one of the most “original thinkers of the twentieth century,” Preparata says that Bataille’s most influential concept was that of the “accursed share” (la part maudite). Sparked by Marcel Mauss’ essay, The Gift (1923) Bataille outlined a theory of growth, accumulation and expenditure that revolved around the particular use a society may make of its superabundant crops, human resources and commodities.

Bataille extracted from the anthropological record the notion of the “accursed share” as that portion of a society’s surplus that “begs” to be dissipated violently—in war, sacrifice or mere conspicuous, luxurious dissipation. Bataille thus developed the notion of “expenditure” (dépense) as a “theoretical alternative to the utilitarian principles of Liberal economics.”

In Chapter XV of Life Against Death, titled “Filthy Lucre,” Norman O. Brown relates the need to create an economic surplus to the need to give. Archaic gift-giving (the potlatch being only an extreme example), Brown says, is “one vast refutation of the notion that the psychological motive of economic life is utilitarian egoism.” Archaic man gives because he wants to lose; “the psychology is self-sacrificial.” The need to produce an economic surplus thus is connected with the sacred: “Gifts are sacred and the gods exist to receive gifts.”

Gods function to “structure the human need for self-sacrifice.” One may say that gods come into being by virtue of sacrificial acts that are performed in their name. We “know” our gods only by virtue of the sacrifices we make for them. If sacrificial acts are performed, we assume there must be “some thing” in the name of which these acts are undertaken. It is difficult to imagine that sacrifices are undertaken in the name of “no thing.” As M. D. Faber has stated, “Gods do not simply ‘live’ on the sacrificial offerings, they are born on their basis.”

Fornari states that the spirit of sacrifice is intimately related to an ideology “in the name of which one may sacrifice oneself,” posing the question: “What is this absolute and unconditional something that would somehow justify the establishment of a masochistic-sacrificial position?” The masochistic-sacrificial position (e.g., the role of a soldier) is idealized—becoming a kind of “supervalue”—because it is “put into the service of that absolute and unconditional something.”

It would appear that Bataille developed a similar line of thought. The avenues along which the excess is distributed, he suggests, “reveal the ‘soul’ of a given community.” By identifying the final destination of surplus allocation, one may “infer whether a given collectivity prays to Aztec divinities, Apollinean ones, other deities, or none at all.”

In short, the ideology defining a given community reveals itself when we know the nature of the objects or entities that inspire sacrificial offerings. According to Bataille: “All production of sacred things demands a bloody squander of men and beasts.” This is Bataille’s notion of “creation by way of loss,” in essence, an “earmarking of human, earthly and animal life for the celebration of truculent divinities.”

What are these truculent deities to which human beings offer blood sacrifices? In the modern age, we give them names such as France and Germany and Russia and America and Great Britain. We make blood sacrifices in the name of divinities called “nations.” War, Fornari says, is a sacrificial duty that has for men the significance of destruction put into the “preservation of what they love.” As patriots are wont to say, “The individual must die so that the nation might live.”

Sociologist Roger Friedland, like Preparata, has turned to Bataille seeking to understand the relationship between loss and the creation of society. Friedland observes that Bataille derived the sacred from “expenditure of man’s substance;” from man’s need to “expend a vital excess.” Loss of oneself implied the creation of a “laceration, rip or wound,” from which is extracted the substance that is offered to the sacred object. Love, Bataille claimed, expresses a need for sacrifice: “Each entity must lose itself in some other, which exceeds it.” The “social being,” according to Bataille, arose out of loving excessively—the desire for loss that brings access to the sacred.

My study of the First World War supports Fornari and Bataille’s theories connecting loss and destruction to the creation of the social. Specifically, I conclude that the First World War constituted a monumental ritual of self-destruction: potlatch on an almost unimaginably grandiose scale. The table below summarizes this destructiveness, but only hints at the awful carnage that constituted this sacrificial ritual.

Historians chronicle the destruction of the First World War, but are unable to account for the perpetual, futile slaughter that continued for over four years. David Lloyd George was British Prime Minister through the latter half of the war. In later years, he provided his impression of what had occurred. During the war, he observed, every nation was “profligate of its manpower and conducted the war as if there were no limit to the number of men who were fit to be thrown into the furnace to feed the flames of war.” The war, Lloyd George said, was a perpetual driving force that “shoved warm human hearts and bodies by the millions into the furnace.”

The First World War constituted a gigantic potlatch revolving around the sacrificial offering of young men. Each nation was engaged in a fury of “ostentatious destruction”: competing to determine which was capable of “expending” the greatest number of men. By persisting in waging war despite the continual death and maiming of their men, each nation strove to prove its greatness—the largeness of its soul.

British General Douglas Haig planned the Battle of the Somme and was responsible for the death of well over a million British soldiers in the First World War. The following letter written to Haig was found among his papers (in De Groot, 1990):

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. Drive on, Illustrious General!

This anonymous note, De Groot suggests, was preserved by Haig probably because it echoed his own feelings. This letter and similar messages that he received reinforced his belief that there existed a great mass of people who shared his willingness and determination to pursue victory even at the cost of the lives of hundreds of thousands of men.

So great was the British Empire, it could report 500,000 casualties—and not shrink in the face of these casualties. French generals also believed, apparently, that they could afford millions of casualties, as did German generals. Each nation was involved in an ostentatious display: willing to sacrifice its men—to accept prodigious loss—in order to prove the greatness of their nation. The generals of the First World War were like Islamic leaders who direct young men to become suicide bombers, the difference being the magnitude of the sacrificial offering. Compared with the nations and generals of the First World War, those who send suicide bombers to their deaths are pikers.

Historians say that France and England “won” the First World War and that Germany lost. With millions of British and French men dead or maimed, it is difficult to say that any nation achieved “victory.” Actually, no nation was victorious: one can only say that the war ended. Britain and France were declared the winners because Germany didn’t have enough men to continue to sacrifice. Hitler resented the ending of the First World War and found a way to continue the sacrificial ritual. Beginning in 1939, he renewed the process of throwing young men (and Jews—and eventually German civilians) into the furnace.

In spite of the monumental destruction and loss that every war produces, most political scientists and historians continue to imagine that leaders go to war based on objective considerations—that it is a “rational choice.” They go to war with real goals in mind and then somehow—as if by accident or chance—chaos and destruction ensue. Wouldn’t it be more parsimonious to hypothesize—with Fornari and Bataille—that chaos, destruction and loss are the purposes of war?

My research suggests that—whatever reasons or rationalizations are provided—nations and leaders are driven by a dynamic that is beneath and beyond their conscious control. This dynamic revolves around the compulsion to make a bloody offering—a gift to the gods. By virtue of this bloody offering (e.g., in the sacrificial ritual called war), a society’s sacred ideal comes into being.

This sacred ideal may be called “preserving the Union”, or “the British Empire”, or “the Aryan race”, or “Allah”, or “making the world safe for democracy”—but the dynamic is the same. Human lives must be lost, material objects destroyed, wealth dissipated—all in the name of placating a truculent god.

It seems almost inevitable that societies bloodily squander men—make a sacrificial offering of their “accursed share”—either by waging war or instituting a prodigious defense budget. The monster must be fed. A price must be paid.