Saturday, December 03, 2005

Psychologic Component of Warmaking

During the Battle for Fredericksburg on 13 December 1862, a Federal division attacked across a sunken farm toward an Confederate Army entrenched hillside which had been reinforced with artillery. The Rebels blunted the attack at horrific cost to the attackers. The forces from the South then quickly counter-attacked. The counter-attack also stalled, this time at terrific cost to the rebels. The battle lasted approximately an hour and a half and resulted in a return to the
status quo. 5000 dead and wounded from both sides lay on the now renamed “Slaughter Pen” farm. A staff officer for Jeb Stuart wrote that the dead lay “in heaps.” From a vantage point on the heights the southwest of the farm, Robert E. Lee, who had viewed the attack and counter-attack, and now looked over the carnage is said to have remarked to James Longstreet, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too
fond of it.” (O’Reilly p 237).

The Battle at Slaughter Pen Farm and Lee’s reaction succinctly summarize the simultaneous appeal and revulsion towards war that is inherent in man. The Chinese have a concept called 阴阳(yin yang) or “opposites coexisting.” Inside all people are opposite urges that are in constant tension. Lee aptly exemplified this concept at Fredericksburg. Lee’s yin yang involved the seductive horror of war. Was Lee’s psychology an aberration unique to himself? Or was his psychological makeup typical of mankind? The larger question to ask is the following: Is war part of human nature?

This paper will attempt to determine whether there is an innate psychological compulsion pushing humans into conflict absent a rational explanation, or if war occurs more or less as a rational response to stimulus such as that of resource scarcity. The final question to be asked is whether stimulus to conflict is a natural, unavoidable consequence of living in an environment with changing seasons and the uneven distribution of resources across terrain.

“War,” as a concept is easy to condemn. The violence directed towards combatants and innocents, the destruction of infrastructure, the devastation to the environment where the battles occur and to the families of the warriors effected, all when observed without context appear wasteful and pointless. Poets mourn the destructiveness of battle; perhaps Seigfried Sassoon had the most perceptive eye. He expressed his revulsion at the horrors of trench warfare in France in his poem, “The Glory of Women” published during World War One:

You can't believe that British troops "retire"
When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses - blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud. (Sassoon)

But even Sassoon recognized that soldiers have some innate appeal. From earlier in the same poem Sassoon wrote:

“You love us when we're heroes, home on leave”

Emmanuel Kant earlier wrote of the veneration that all feel towards the vigorous and violent soldier:

For what is that which is, even to the savage, an object of
the greatest admiration? It is a man who shrinks from nothing, who fears nothing, and therefore does not yield to danger, but rather goes to face it vigorously with the fullest deliberation. Even in the most highly civilised state this peculiar veneration for the soldier remains, though only under the condition that he exhibit all the virtues of peace, gentleness, compassion, and even a becoming care for his own person; because even by these it is recognized that his mind is unsubdued by danger. (Kant, chapter B 28).

Kant notes that all men, regardless of their civilized status, are drawn to the soldierly ideal. Kant even hints at the yin yang in man when he mentions that civilization strives to wring the baser instincts out of men, while at the same time, for the violent soldier who can “pass” as civilized, much adoration from a grateful public awaits.

Seeking adoration is one of the real reasons men go to war as are other, similarly prosaic pursuits. Socrates himself noted that neither fear of punishment nor pursuit of booty was able to get him to stand shoulder to shoulder in a phalanx, facing the sharp blades of another Greek city-state, rather it was that “he must stay there and face the danger without any regard for death or anything else rather than disgrace.” (Plato, p33) Cashman includes these types of motivations for in the “Psychological Explanations for War” chapter of his book What Causes War? Cashman argues that motivations like seeking adoration and fear of disgrace are components of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of the Psychological Needs,” which men (and women) when motivated, will fight to attain. (Cashman, p 97)

Cashman sees the psychological explanation for war as lacking. While man-to-man conflict might be explained as by individuals’ competing psychological needs or by an individual’s perception of temporary overwhelming advantage, propelling a modern nation state to war on these bases is problematic. Modern democratic states have a numerous legal, institutional brakes installed to prevent one individual from willing a nation to war. On the other hand, Cashman gives credence to the idea that a strong, albeit democratically elected leader can single-handedly make war. “In that case [of a democratically elected chief executive] the bargaining, coalition building, and logrolling among the leadership group [surrounding the chief executive] may have a relatively insignificant effect on policy selection.” However, Cashman’s argument is weakened by the fact that he has few modern examples of a democratically elected leader taking his/her country to war in the absence of widespread public support for such a policy. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Viet Nam War, the Falklands War, the Israeli Wars and the first Gulf War were all initially popular with the electorate or in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, not really a war. When a polity desires the nation’s armed forces to go to war, only a foolish politician stands in their way.

Authoritarian states do not have the same requirements to ensure their policies are popular with the people, but after a time they do they grow bureaucracies that begin to throw up roadblocks which have the same braking effect as low public ratings or lack on legislative support has on precipitous action in democracies. Young, energetic despots who make a revolution to take power, are the most likely to want to continue the conflict with neighboring states. These type leaders find that their tactics of violence in pursuit of political ends was successful, and look to continue that success in neighboring countries. Recent history is rife with these types of what I call “first generation despots” (FGD) who, once they have consolidated power, quickly move to export their violent success. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chih Minh, Castro; Saddam, all quickly went to war with neighboring states once they secured their internal power.

The life cycle of these FGDs are as predictable as the aging process in any human. They start out with youthful energy but as they age, they lose the will and vigor to personally continue their earlier revolutionary and expansionistic burst. As they lose interest or energy to continue prosecuting their foreign wars, they are forced to spend time administrating their countries. This need for an administrative apparatus to administer a state established by a violent, charismatic, unpredictable personality inevitably leads to a dysfunctional, ineffective organization. The organization protects those in it by promoting individuals who skills consist of loyalty to the FGD and the ability not to make independent decisions. Competence and quick wittedness become less valued. Those who can survive in the bureaucracy learn to defer decisions until a consensus emerges, and put self-preservation over any other consideration. The result is inevitably bloated, slow moving decision making apparatus which are by nature adverse to bold initiative. Ironically, these skills and proclivities, which proliferate as the states age are exactly the opposite of those which brought the regime to power in its youth.

The psychological basis of war is also found in today’s transnational Global War on Terror. While most theorists focus on scarcity as the primary motivation for warfare, the men who piloted planes into buildings on 11 September 2001 were motivated by something else. Mohammed Atta and the band he lead were relatively affluent. Atta himself was “relatively affluent.” The other terrorists in the attack were bank clerks, students on scholarship, basically middle class. Their transformation into nihilistic terrorists had no basis in scarcity or national allegiance, but was instead a conscious decision to embrace a nihilistic philosophy.
Charles Krauthammer, psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize winning commentator, writing in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attacks of September 11th, noted a phenomenon driving these men to attack their perceived enemy, the United States. Calling these terrorists “a new enemy” in his article entitled “The Enemy is not Islam,” Krauthammer wrote:

“It turns out that the enemy does have recognizable analogues in the Western experience. He is, as President Bush averred in his address to the nation, heir to the malignant ideologies of the 20th century. In its nihilism, its will to power, its celebration of blood and death, its craving for the cleansing purity that comes only from eradicating life and culture, radical Islam is heir, above all, to Nazism.” (Krauthammer p2)

These nihilistic terrorists have certain differences from Nazis. Nazis gained control of a country, and launched a cross border war of conquest. Further, the Nazis had discrete, rational goals and were amenable to negotiation. Ultimately, the Nazi leadership recognized their untenable position, and surrendered. Those who ascribe to militant Islam have decided that there is nothing for them in this world except to defeat the enemy, the Great Satan, and to die in that cause. Bin Laden himself laid out the terrorist nihilistic philosophy: “the love of this world is wrong. You should love the other world...die in the right cause and go to the other world.” Mohammed Atta and his cohorts on September 11th as well as millions of others around the world have heard this call, and decided to follow.

The predictable life cycle of despotism and the conscious decisions of the 9/11 terrorists provide credence to the idea that psychology is the predominant reason for war. LeBlanc makes a persuasive case that across regions and climates and time, groups have fought. LeBlanc ultimately concludes that warfare “has been based on rational behavior for much of human history” in a battle over scarce resources. His prescription is to solve the problem of scarce resources. He may well be right in this prescription but it seems ultimately unpersuasive when confronting a nihilistic philosophy. When faced with such virulence, we need men like Lee, who are prepared to entertain that part of themselves which craves the battle and who are willing to close with such an enemy and destroy them.

Gallagher, Gary W. (ed) The Fredericksburg Campaign: Decision on
the Rappahannock. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North
Carolina Press) 1995.
Hanson, Victor Davis. Western Way of War. (Berkley, CA:
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Kant, Emmanuel, translated by J. H. Bernard. Critique of
Judgement. (London: Macmillan and Co Ltd.) 1914.
Krauthammer, Charles. “The Enemy Is Not Islam. It Is Nihilism” 10/22/2001
LeBlanc, Steven A. Constant Battles. (New York: St Martin’s
Press) 2003
O’Reilly, Augustin. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on
the Rappahannock. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) 2003.
Plato. Five Dialogues. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing) 1986.
Sassoon, Seigfried. “Glory of Women.” 1918.