Understanding the need for war could help prevent it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 January, 2003, 12:00am

Why is war so popular? All past civilisations have had wars, irrespective of their particular cultural assumptions and norms, so many people deduce that it must be an inevitable part of the human condition. It is convenient, of course, to think so because it helps to short-circuit guilt.

But there is no reason to believe that war is any different from other seemingly intractable social behaviours, such as slavery, incest, racism and so on, which it is possible to stigmatise, reduce or eliminate.

War, contrary to popular belief, is not all about displaced male aggression. If that was the case it would have died out when women got the vote - as was predicted at the time. And Britain's former prime minister Margaret Thatcher would have shown less relish in her war on the Falklands.

A progesterone cocktail concocted by the 'old brain' - the part that secured the most basic survival of our oldest ancestors - can excite aggressive behaviour, no doubt. But fierce sports, violent crime or watching a Quentin Tarantino movie is a far more gratifying indulgence of that particular lust.

It is undoubtedly triggered once in the field of battle. But it is a poor explanation for why nations go to war in the first place.

One current theory about the popularity of war proposes that we have several modes of perceiving reality and that we shift unconsciously from one to another. Hence, according to The Psychology of War author Lawrence LeShan, our day-to-day interactions with the world are guided by a basic sort of sensory reality. In this mode, we see people as neither all bad nor all good and believe that they are all motivated by more or less the same concerns. Problems are never all one person's fault.

But to initiate and stomach war we move to a mythical perception of reality in which everything becomes polarised. People are either good or evil - you are either with us or against us. The motives of the enemy are less worthy than ours. We tell the truth, they lie. Reasons do not matter, only solutions.

The virtue of the sensory/mythical reality theory is that it allows for a way to try and understand the process at the moment of transition between these two modes of thinking: the balanced sensory reality and the polarised mythical one. So all we have to do is recognise why we are so compelled to shift from one to the other and try to identify another way to fulfill the fundamental needs that war would otherwise satisfy.

War, ironically, registers profoundly in the human psyche at a loftier level than it might seem. Listening to men and women who have experienced war is a good illustration of this. Typically, amid the tragedy, people feel more real in wartime than they had ever felt before or since. They have the sensation of being intensely and meaningfully connected to those around them in their community or military unit. Yet they had a highly charged, vital sense of who they were as individuals.

War, then, serves as an alternative for spiritual development. The Gulf and Vietnam wars provide tangible examples of how this works (or does not). During Vietnam, civilians back home essentially broke the spirit of the supporters of the war: they applied sensory forms of reality to a situation that required a collective mythical perception to continue.

This was partly due to the harsh reality checks provided by televised war scenes. But it also had quite a lot to do with the social trends of the time. Spiritual and esoteric development was embraced on a large scale in the 1960s, so the key function of war was defused. Heightened spiritual awareness and the reality of television robbed the war of its mythical quality. In contrast, mythical reality was sustained during the Gulf War.

The military handled the press differently and the 1990s zeitgeist lacked opportunities for widespread spiritual fulfilment.

Once engaged in war, then, the mythical perception is crucial. Everyone has to go along with it. That is why deserters are shot. In the early stages of World War II, despite advice about combat stress treatment from the British and French, the US sent large numbers of soldiers back home as psychological casualties. This was the worst thing they could have done, as it resulted in lasting psychiatric problems. In contrast, recovery was the rule when soldiers were treated close to the front line and expected to return to duty soon.

The practical suggestion of many psychologists today is to promote aggressively in our societies more avenues for spiritual development which heighten both our sense of connectedness and our sense of individuality.

This means weaning ourselves off our many consciousness-deadening addictions, such as superficial gratification and empty, passive entertainment. Then, according to the theory, any decision about war would be more balanced because the mythical reality would be less seductive.

War may still be deemed necessary, of course, in which case the mythical reality has its uses. After all, as Montesquieu pointed out, a rational army would run away.

Jean Nicol is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and writer