The Psychology of War: Comprehending Its Mystique and Its Madness by Lawrence LeShan

Kim Diorio

LeShan is not a peacenik; he does not claim that war is never justified. He does argue, however, that mythic wars are dangerous. They impair people's ability to think rationally and make informed decisions.

The Psychology of War

Publisher: Helios Press
Subtitle: Comprehending Its Mystique and Its Madness
Author: Lawrence LeShan
Price: $16.95
Length: 192
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 1969-12

The prevalence of warfare in human societies has left many �- from academics to ordinary citizens �- wondering: "Why?" Why should a species that has learned to eradicate germs, fly like birds, and beam sound waves around the planet prove unable to master the trick of peaceful co-existence? With the outbreak of each new war, historians and politicians offer a new round of convoluted answers to this simple question, citing economic concerns, religious differences, geopolitical power struggles, confused alliances, and other reasons. What they fail to see, however, is that the question itself begs for a philosophical answer, related to the nature of mankind and whether or not people are inherently warmongers.

In the new edition of his book The Psychology of War: Comprehending Its Mystique and Its Madness , former military psychologist Lawrence LeShan uses his extensive knowledge of the human psyche to shed light on mankind's fatal attraction to war. Although LeShan's previous publications focused on the fields of mysticism, alternative medicine, and psychotherapy, his discussion of warfare is well thought out and worthy of serious consideration.

The central premise of LeShan's book is that societies often engage in war when citizens have shifted into a "mythic" mode of experiencing reality. As defined by psychologist Erik Erikson, mythic thinking divides the world into the good (us) and the evildoers (them). Of course, the person (or nation) viewing the world through a mythic lens always identifies himself as "good", regardless of the facts, and therein lies the danger.

LeShan's explanation for mankind's attraction to warfare is directly linked to mythic thought. War is appealing for the same reasons that a mythic take on reality is appealing. When one's country is fighting an apocalyptic war for survival against evildoers, petty personal problems disappear, social stresses dissolve as people band together, daily life suddenly has gravity and meaning, and decision-making is simple: either you're helping the war effort or you're hurting it. The best examples of entire nations experiencing mythic reality can be found in accounts of World War II. In a telling quotation used by LeShan, an English woman discussing the war says:

Oh . . . it was a marvelous time. You forgot all about yourself and you did what you could and we were all in it together. It was frightening, of course, and you worried about getting killed, but in some ways it was better than now. Now we're all just ourselves again.

According to LeShan, the majority of a country's citizens must shift into mythic thinking and thus reap the benefits of a mythic view of reality for a war to have popular support. When people perceive a war as it really is, through the everyday manner of seeing the world (which LeShan calls "sensory" reality), the war will not receive popular support. During the Vietnam War, for example, the new medium of television allowed Americans to see all the gory detail of modern warfare, and this led to widespread opposition.

LeShan's book is �- admittedly �- limited, since he ignores the myriad reasons for individual wars, and he does not give significant evidence for his arguments, relying mainly on anecdotal accounts and quotations from prominent intellectuals. LeShan's treatise is also difficult to believe if there is any doubt about the veracity of Erikson's explanation of "mythic" reality. However, LeShan's argument -- like all good pop psychology -� appeals to the reader's commonsense.

LeShan's book is also particularly relevant in light of the current American war on terrorism. President Bush has not been shy about couching this war in mythic terms. His remarks immediately after 911 were the following:

The people who did this act on America, and who may be planning further acts, are evil people. They don't represent an ideology, they don't represent a legitimate political group of people. They're flat evil. That's all they can think about, is evil. And as a nation of good folks, we're going to hunt them down, and we're going to find them, and we will bring them to justice.

Given LeShan's analysis of mythic thought, one must wonder whether or not the assumption, by many Americans, that their enemies are "evil" has clouded their judgment. For example, if Sadaam Hussein is an evildoer, then there is little onus on the United States to prove his intention of building weapons of mass destruction or justify their war against him. Similarly, if third-world terrorists view Americans as evildoers, they will have no compunction about attacking U.S. soldiers and civilians.

LeShan is not a peacenik; he does not claim that war is never justified. He does argue, however, that mythic wars are dangerous. They impair people's ability to think rationally and make informed decisions. He hopes that individuals will learn to recognize the characteristics of mythic reality, and he wants them to be wary of viewing war in these terms. Whether or not LeShan's explanation is the reason for mankind's attraction to war, his analysis is obviously applicable to current events; and many citizens around the world could use a primer about mythic thinking as they consider whether or not to support their country's present and future war efforts.

* * * *

Editor's Note: Although originally published in 1992 and re-issued in 2001, LeShan's writing is worth considering, especially in light of the current Iraq situation and the ongoing discussion involving international peace-keeping interventions in North Korea and Liberia (to name a few).





Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.