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The Neurotic Aspects Of War

( Originally Published 1920 )

Civilization eliminates many of nature's wasteful methods and reduces to a minimum the friction between human beings. It modifies individual habits and transforms them into clan or herd habits, later into national habits. It teaches individuals a certain measure of solidarity.

The herd bands together to repel aggressors of a different species; wolves hunt in packs and do not attack one another; flocks of migrating birds wait till a tired member of the flock is ready to resume the voyage. The advantages of solidarity, however, are only obscurely realized by the majority of animals and when no emergency compels them to realize them, we see them often murdering one another to secure one favourite female or a larger allotment of the available food.

Man, likewise, seldom adapts himself permanently to standards which are very superior socially to the purely individual standard. His ego, sex and safety urges can be repressed for a certain length of time, mainly out of necessity, physical or social, but they are constantly striving for direct or indirect expression, sometimes through chance actions, cruel or obscene wit, day and night dreams.

Not only does civilized community life compel a repression of the urges which is contrary to primitive human nature, but the demands it makes are growing by leaps and bounds. Such demands are growing faster than men, the world over, can make their urge repression really efficient.

Thus a constantly increasing emotional strain is created which manifests itself in abnormal ways among the weaker members of the community. The robust and well-fed generally manage to remain normal regardless of the physical and mental risks they run. The inferior organisms either break down under the strain or defy the customs of the community and pay the penalty or they seek the line of least resistance and submit in appearance.

The population of the world, for that reason, consists of many more simulators than truly adapted human beings. Restrictions are burden-some to them but they either conceal the fact as a matter of policy or in many cases are ashamed of their own impatience and do not even confess it to themselves.

In sudden crises, however, all the pent-up urges are likely to break through with a violence which astonishes us.

In times of war, we cannot help expressing our surprise at the amount of savagery and cruelty displayed by the victorious armies, but that surprise simply shows our ignorance of the actual state of things. It is not, as Freud suggests, that people sink very low in war times; they never were as high in peace times as we imagined them to be.

We all spend one-half of our life regressing to the archaic, individual, uncivilized level; for as soon as we fall asleep, we discard our morality, our ethics, and all our repressions even as we cast off our clothes, and indulge in a riot of egotistical and sexual gratification through our dreams.

The only thing which generally holds us back in our waking time is, either the fear of punishment, direct or indirect, the fear of jail or of social ostracism, or a clear realization of the financial and social advantages vouchsafed by apparent conformism.

As soon as war is declared, the terrible tension is released and most of our animal instincts find gratification; that gratification entails no loss of caste, prestige or money; on the contrary. In war, the whole community regresses to the animal level and punishes the individual who refuses to regress with the herd.

Every animal is born with a craving for food, which very soon evolves into a craving for power, power being the shortest road to more plentiful and better food secured with the least possible amount of exertion.

Civilized man no longer starts out with a club to dispute dangerous beasts of prey or other hunters of a different clan their right to hunt, nor does he send out his slaves to run down game. He has covered the brutality of the quest under civilized veneer and manages to give partial satisfaction to his archaic instincts in ways which do not inflict too much suffering upon his environment.

War removes the inhibitions introduced by modern business methods. Every nation wishes to conquer some piece of land for reasons which, at times, can well masquerade as humanitarian ones, as for instance the necessity of freeing some "en-slaved" race which we hope to dominate, or in order to "open up" markets, or to free men of our race who, in a more or less dim past, were submitted to forceful annexation by another race, etc.

Whatever the pretence, the result is the same: all the individuals of one community are exhilarated by the prospect of starting out to plunder the neighbour's land.

As a matter of fact, very few members of the herd, not one out of ten thousand, will be benefited in any way by the foray, and those few, bankers and traders, never take part in the expedition, but the masses of the fighters enjoy the fact that they are engaged in an adventurous undertaking of a primitive, archaic type, which in ordinary times would be highly unethical but which now is authorized, financed and idealized by the community.

The civilized nation has regressed to the level of the robber herd of the caveman period. We may point out that in legends and in the real life of backward communities, the successful robber is a romantic, privileged character, to whom the usual standards do not apply.

At such times, some members of the community regress even lower than the herd level.

The herd on the war path is hunting for the herd.

No single member of the herd will profit by the conquests achieved, and the sense of herd solidarity is not abolished. The profiteer, on the other hand, is entirely devoid of that sense. While the herd is hunting, he does not hesitate to starve it if he can only corner the herd's food supply and then sell it at the price his power can dictate and thus gratify his appetite.

Profiteering is individualism gone mad. Like the herd's craving for blood and spoils, it may assume a righteous mask: supplies are difficult to secure "on account of the war," those who protest are branded as unpatriotic for they lack the "spirit of self-sacrifice," etc.

Lying and deceit, two neurotic devices of the negative life, and universally tabooed in the individual's life, become praiseworthy in war times and especially indulged in by the men who prepare wars, the diplomats. Diplomacy's greatest accomplishment consists in attaining an object without letting any outsider suspect it and preferably convincing outsiders that an entirely different object is being sought.

The greatest diplomats were those who not only had the greatest capacity for deceiving the rulers at whose court they were accredited but for covering up their traces so carefully that they actually gained their confidence.

In war times, lying about the enemy is not un-ethical. It is, on the contrary, highly commendable as it sustains the morale of fighters and civilians alike.

Exhibitionism is another deeply ingrained and infantile craving of all races, made up in equal doses of sex and ego. The males of many species parade around the females at mating time, trying to arouse their sexuality and at the same time probably frightening away other males.

War offers many excellent excuses for a display of exhibitionism.

The warrior is clothed in a uniform which once presented a dazzling array of colours and in certain cases was enhanced by precious metals, and which, drab as it has become today, for reasons of safety, is sufficient to place those wearing it on a higher plane than the civilian.

The wearing of a uniform places all soldiers in one category in which every individual is supposed to be healthy and vigorous and hence fit for purposes of reproduction.

The females respond properly and we see thousands of service clubs in which young women, some of them imitating the males and wearing uniforms, foster the men's belief that they are privileged characters; some of the women belonging to "society" converse or dance with men whom they would absolutely ignore if they cast off the distinguishing regalia of the fighting male and donned civilian's clothes.

In war times, the desire for promiscuous intercourse which lurks in every human being can be indulged in without calling forth undue criticism. The most jealous husbands are compelled to approve of their wives' "war activities."

The war regression is a boon to all the weak members of the community who are anxious to regress to a childlike level but are compelled by economic necessity to remain on the adult level. The useless, the shiftless, who for lack of intelligence or perseverance, never were able to accomplish anything positive, who have been a butt for much scorn and contumely, are suddenly enabled to play a striking part in their little world by enlisting or being drafted.

Not only are their failures forgotten, but an escape from stern reality is vouchsafed them. All of life's responsibilities are now shifted to the state. The state feeds, clothes and shelters them and assumes the charge of their dependents. Nothing that befalls the enlisted man's family can affect him very deeply, for as soon as he joins the colours his responsibility ceases.

As soon as he dons a uniform, the useless and shiftless weakling becomes an object of attention on the part of women, even as the worthier males. That the sexual element plays a greater part in the devotion women show to fighters than a spirit of self-sacrifice is well proved by the fact that while social clubs had more volunteers at their disposal than they could possibly employ, the hospitals of New York City during the epidemic of influenza of 1919 were unable to find nurses. Although by that time the war emergency was over one nurse in ward B at Bellevue Hospital had to take care of as many as fifty patients for 12 hours at a time.

One of the features constantly reported in war news are stories of sexual license and violence.

The sex instinct, submitted to a terrible repression in peace times, breaks through when so many other inhibitions are removed. In all epochs of history the fighting man's morality has been the subject of special allowances. In the past, one of war's sequels was the seizing of the defeated enemy's women by the victorious tribe. Moses told his men to keep for themselves all the virgins of the Midianite tribe which they had defeated. The enemy's wife or sister has never been sacred. Training camps and garrison towns have always been known as centres of promiscuous sexual intercourse.

Another one of the infantile activities which is carefully regulated from an early age and whose haphazard gratification is severely repressed is the anal and vesical activity, the passing of feces and urine. A regression to such activities in their infantile form is reported quite frequently in war times. The invading soldiers often defile in the most nauseating way the quarters which they occupy, not respecting even at times religious vessels or other paraphernalia of the enemy's cult.

The necessities of the national defence enable any one with a neurotic strain of cruelty to satisfy his craving even in his immediate environment, without regard for the law of the herd.

Thousands of people spy on one another, listen to conversations in public places and,, whenever hearing something suspicious, have the offender arraigned, if not dragged in a spectacular way to the police station.

This is a manifestation of the egotistical negativism which, unable to achieve anything, lowers other people's level through disparagement and destructive hostility.

War allows us to insult any one we dislike by calling him a traitor or a seditious person and denouncing him to the police authorities. If he is higher than we are, we "get even" with him, if he is our equal we make him our inferior, if he belongs to a lower social rank, we can then express our scorn without appearing snobbish.

Atrocities are being committed in every war by the victorious armies. Whether they assume the form of cruel treatment of civilians or consist in using trench gas, liquid flame or other means of torture, makes very little difference. Every one pretends to experience a profound indignation on reading about them, but no one ever suggests any-thing but reprisals, retaliation.

In peace times, we do not disembowel Jack the Ripper because he resorted to that frightful form of violence, we do not burn alive the man who set fire to a house. In war the path of regression to primitive cruelty is wide open "for the sake of example."

Primitive savages who wish something, represent it dramatically, sprinkling the ground to bring rain from the clouds, burning some one in effigy, etc.

In war times, the population is made. to behold at every step lurid posters representing the annihilation of the foe. Rabid statements are made vociferously as to what we shall do to the enemy, how completely we are going to crush him, to hit him so hard that he shall never rise again. In other words the task which confronts the nation is constantly represented as being successfully per-formed and brought to a glorious ending.

There is also in the rage with which the community destroys the things symbolical of the enemy a regression to the period of infamy which Ferenczi calls the period of belief in the omnipotence of thought and magic gestures.

By forbidding the display of certain flags, by placing a ban on books and publications printed in the enemy's language, by interfering with musical performances in which an enemy performer is taking part or at which the works of an enemy would be given, certain neurotics think they can destroy the enemy more completely.

Whatever symbolizes the enemy and makes him present symbolically is done away with. Here we behold a process akin to the withdrawal from reality in dementia praecox and to the ostrich's habit of burying his head in the sand.

Such prohibitions show a regression to the belief in magic, a decided evasion of reality and a flight along the line of least resistance.

Intolerance is the most marked characteristic phenomenon of war times. It also characterizes severe cases of neurosis.

One cannot discuss with a neurotic. The psychiatrist who tries to bring insight into his patient's mind would lose the battle at once if he began by telling him that his story is absurd.

The thing to do is to let the neurotic tell his story in his own way, to throw light gradually on the spurious evidence on which he has built it and thus to disintegrate it. But the more absurd the obsession, the harder the neurotic will fight to have his version accepted. The hopelessly insane who knows he is a king or god easily resorts to violence when some one betrays scepticism.

The neurotic may obscurely feel that his story is wrong and cannot be defended. Hence his impotence is easily enraged and he avoids all discussions in which he could not hold his own.

In war times, rabid neurotics who monopolize the title of patriot do not allow any one to discuss the war or any of its problems. If they were sure of their ground they would gladly confute doubters, but being thrall to their emotions they have to follow the line of least resistance. "Only traitors," they say quite finally, "discuss the merits of a war after war has been started."

Intolerance is the last refuge of the loser. Having no strong argument wherewith to silence you, he hits you on the mouth.

The consequences of the wholesale regression which takes place during war are interesting to examine.

The states engaged in war disregard all the ethical rules which have established themselves as the fundamentals of behaviour in all civilized communities.

They lie, they practise deceit at home and abroad, they deprive people of their freedom of speech, they sentence dissenters to incredibly long jail terms, etc.

The masses of the population can only reach one conclusion: that is that, while ethics, morality and honesty are very fine in theory, they are non-existent when tried by the reality test.

Ethics, morality and honesty are valuable when no emergency has to be coped with. As soon as the great emergency of war arises, however, the state sets them aside as useless or detrimental.

Hence ethics, morality and honesty seem to have only a relative value, not an absolute one and the danger is that, when the masses instilled with that doctrine of relativity want something very badly, they may also act as the state acts in emergencies.

An enormous amount of savagery lingers in people's attitudes following a war. Men of a conservative type who, before a war, would boast of their human feelings and deprecate all forms of violence, are heard suggesting violence against their opponents. "Shoot them at sunrise," "Get the rope," "Shoot them first and try them next," are the favourite expressions of neurotics brutalized by the war spirit.

Their opponents, their enemies are transformed through mental juggling into enemies of the country, and hence deserving death. This is a typically infantile attitude. The child powerless against a stronger boy throws in his face a desperate "I wish you'd die." Here is again the line of least resistance. Nothing will save us from our opponent except his death. We then make that death a public necessity.

The politician who goes about the country preaching a summary execution for those who disagree with him, is unknowingly proclaiming their absolute superiority and his absolute incapacity to fight them fairly in a civilized way.

The constant charge of intended violence brought by certain men against groups they intend to persecute is, generally speaking, a projection of their own murderous cravings upon their intended victims. Suspecting a man of violence is the simplest excuse for submitting him to violence. By pretending that we saw a man put his hand to his hip pocket we can always plead self-defence when we do him to death.

The description of many raids made upon the locals of labour organizations in recent months reveals that the leaders of those raids were not bent so much on preventing or punishing violence as on indulging without danger to themselves in an orgy of violence.

Raiders entering premises ostensibly to seek damaging evidence have been known to smash everything in the rooms from electric lamps to mechanical pianos and typewriting machines.

It will be noticed also that all great wars are followed by epidemics. They are generally attributed to unsanitary conditions induced by the destruction of hygienic appliances, the presence of dead bodies, the weakening of the population by famine, etc.

The importance of all these factors could not be denied by any rational scientist. Another factor, however, should be added to the list. When al-most all the forms of approved regression made available by the war emergency have been removed, when active negativism has become impossible, passive negativism enters into play. The neurotic who could satisfy his ego through exhibition-ism and sadism and become by the performance of some simple standardized actions a centre of interest has to find some other means of dominating neurotically his environment.

This is easily done by assuming unconsciously, (not by any means consciously) the symptoms of a simple, seasonable disease, whose description is to be found in all the papers, and in that way regress to a helpless level, into a privileged class which enjoys every one's sympathy and help, receives medical care, is talked about, is never touched by suspicion of malingering, owing to the prevalence of the disturbance and is, for the time being, removed from and protected against reality into which it may fall back gradually.

Talking to Children About Going to War


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