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.
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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).