I’ve asked some daft questions over the years, naive, childish questions, luckily some of them when I was a child. Recently, however, I was with a friend when his daughter (aged 11) asked him why there were wars in the world. I was fascinated, not only because I had asked this exact question myself at that age, but because it became apparent just how difficult it was for him to satisfy her with an answer. ‘Sometimes it’s about taking another person’s land,’ he said. ‘Sometimes it’s because of money and power.’ She nodded, ‘I guess some people are greedy…’ although she didn’t finish there, saying, ‘except how can a whole country be greedy? That’s different… That’s…’ ‘Despicable,’ he finished her sentence for her.
Adults consider such a question impractical, inane, even rhetorical, which means it’s easily dismissed from common discourse. History is far more pertinent. Each conflict has its antecedents, its main players with their individual personalities and quirks – often bordering on the bizarre. Further to that it’s touted that there’s a need for the aggressor to be stopped and the plight of the meek to be held up. If more overarching thoughts about war are considered they usually follow the line of its importance for humanity’s evolution, or war’s provision of a sense of cohesion that creates a well-documented reaction of euphoria in the individual. However, in answer to the child’s question, these theories, certainly in the modern era, seem desperately inadequate.
And just to put you in the mood, here are some stats. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu detailed evidence of 14500 wars over the last 5600 years. That’s 2.6 wars per year. Corroborating Montagu’s research, Charles Burke stated in his 1975 book, Aggression in Man, that there have been only 268 years of peace during the last 3400 years of civilisation.
So what is the latest on what keeps us engaged in such a painful and destructive activity? When I went searching for some sort of explanation, I was at first a little underwhelmed by the hypotheses around. One theory stated that we want to be loved more – which isn’t so absurd when you consider the glory heaped on most warmongers before or after they’ve struck, including Hitler, Bush, Osama bin Laden, and Margaret Thatcher, whose popularity after the Falklands war soared. Many others rested upon talk of war being a basic part of human nature, the proposition backed up by the fact that even ants go to war so why would we presume to be different.
I delved deeper, past theories of aggression and power (evidenced in the famous psychological experiment carried out in 1971 called the Stanford Prison Experiment), past the words in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian (from the character Judge Holden who said, “[W]ar is the truest form of divination. … War is god.”), past correspondence between Freud and Einstein (well worth a read and published in 1933 under the title, Why War? also, although that is where the comparison between my writing and theirs ends) to Lawrence Le Shan who in turn has drawn from Erik Erickson’s work on mythical states. ‘When war looms,’ Le Shan says, ‘we step into an alternate reality, a fairy-tale world in which the usual rules don’t hold.’
The assertion that human beings are capable of stepping from one reality into another and that each reality is ‘right’ according to its own rules, has, I have no doubt, played into the active psychological ingredients that allow us to think we are fighting the ‘good fight’. Certainly this seems to be the case in the minds of the Israelis as they push further into Palestine, and must also have been in the thoughts of those who supported the war in Iraq. Many others, even if they dispute they are living in an altered reality, still would agree that the first priority of the ‘self’ is preservation, an imperative that necessarily includes the protection of the structures and systems in which we participate. (Lately, that may be noted as the ecology and biosphere of the entire planet.) The aberration that permits war on this count however, and here I’m thinking of Afghanistan and Chechnya, seems more along the lines that the survival of ‘me’ may require the destruction of ‘you’.
To tease this assumption out a little I looked towards psychoanalytic thinking. Joan Montgomery Byles, writing in the Middle East in 2002 about genocide and its manifestation of international terrorism, discusses the need to look towards aggression in the superego, something which I had never considered because the superego is all about control of the ego’s impulses. It did, however, make some sense to me. War, if nothing else, is aggression in a controlled, sustained and organised manner. She also suggests thinking about psychoanalytic concepts such as splitting, projection and projective identification. She writes that some psychoanalysts argue war is a necessary defence against psychotic anxiety (Franco Fornari, Vamik D. Volkan), an idea which basically asserts that the individual needs to translate internal anxieties into real external dangers so as to control them. This recent manifestation of terrorism and the so-called war against it, she poses, may be a necessary object for internal aggression.
Perhaps strangely, I felt I was getting closer to an explanation. When we consider the individual in ‘the social’ and ‘the social’ in the individual, internal anxieties can come from all sorts of corners, even from things such as dogma and propaganda, the perceived threat of losing sovereignty or even the perceived threat to ideals a country holds, just to name a few. Indeed, Byles quotes Fornari saying, ‘war could be seen as an attempt at therapy, carried out by a social institution which, precisely by institutionalising war, increases to gigantic proportions what is initially an elementary defensive mechanism of the ego in schizo-paranoid phase’. In other words, the history of war might represent the externalisation and articulation of shared unconscious anxieties.
As I read more of Fornari I came to realise his message, when distilled, was that the essential function of war is the preservation of a common love object, and the reason why we see war not as a collective armed aggression but as a duty to risk death and to kill, to become simultaneously hunters and prey, sacrificers and victims, is that what is at stake in war is not so much the safety of the individual as the safety of the collective love object. As I think of the bipartisanship in the Australian parliament for war – indeed it is a ludicrous thought that a government might turn its back on war – the thought of a collective love object resonates, provides the closest thing I’ve come to as an explanation for war.
When though (as the daughter of my friend wants to know) will we realise that war does nothing to deliver the very things we desire on an individual or, for that matter, a collective basis. More importantly, when will we be able to lay down our arms? When, indeed, will we fulfil one of the more meaningful phrases in the most popular of books: ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’ (Matthew 5:5)
Perhaps Einstein asked the most succinct question when he wrote to Freud:
How is it possible for this small clique (he’s referring to those ‘…whose aspirations are on purely mercenary, [and] economic lines’) to bend the will of the majority … An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and makes its tool of them.
As is so often the case in short dissertations, much has been left out here. The reiteration of my friend’s daughter’s question and the attempt to answer it feels very incomplete. It also seems that any answer is a distant stretch – even if we were to except we engage in the dreadful atrocity that war is because we perceive it is saving us and our collective love object – to clear our minds collectively to the point of understanding our anxieties don’t need to be acted on? Why war? is only a stepping stone to How do we make peace?, a question in today’s age full of paternal and colonial swill. Two questions, it could be said, the powers-that-be do not want answered.