Thursday, March 19, 2015

Psychology and Class in War and National Hatred

Social psychology has revealed that even tiny infants distinguish between people close to them with whom they feel comfortable and others, strangers whom they dislike. For two million years of human social evolution, we lived in small groups of about 150 people, and distrusted strange, even though neighbouring groups. So it is that people learn to separate those they like from those who make them feel ill at ease, to separate good people from bad. It is out of such primitive thinking that the structures of enmity grow and can be exploited by unscrupulous leaders whether political or religious. Hesse showed that, by age five, children have the idea of the enemy, someone whom they see as whatever in the culture seems most fearful and threatening—a wild beast, a demon or someone with evil intent. Interestingly, these Hesse’s subjects did not generally see their own nationality as having evil intent.

Now we live in a global village but still have our loyalty to clans and tribes, albeit much bigger and more dangerous ones. Disputes between them can still lead to violence and war but now they can end up as genocide. The nuclear threat has fed off Christian apocalyptic thinking to split the peoples of the world globally into good and evil. Worse, the singular delusion of US exceptionalism as America being God’s own country and Americans as God’s latter day Chosen People, forced their conviction that, they, being good, would be saved in the event of a nuclear holocaust and the evil enemy would perish. The danger of reinforcing infantile thought patterns is clear.

War begins in the mind, with the idea of the enemy.
Broyles W Jr, Why me?-why them? The New York Times, 1986

Yet analysis of the images of the enemy as perceived by opposing parties reveals that they often see each other in a similar light. Uri Bronfenbrenner has coined the term “mirror image” and documents how American and Russian views of each other during the cold war were essentially interchangeable:

Our enemy is a coarse, crooked megalomaniac who aims to kill us.
Tommy White, retired US Air Force Chief of Staff

Both sides felt that:

  1. the other was the aggressor
  2. the other’s government exploited and deluded its people
  3. the majority of the people were essentially good and were not sympathetic to the government’s deceitful leadership
  4. the other government should never be trusted—they have hidden, sneaky and secretive ways to go about their plots
  5. their policy verges on madness, while ours is, of course, rational and humane.

Examples of the mirror image dynamic are numerous. In a testimony to Bronfenbrenner’s thorough research it is as relevant to the 2002 Iraq-United States war as it was during the cold war. Americans and Iraqis have accused each other’s governments of misleading their people for their own self-interests. The Americans and Arabs have repeatedly exchanged accusations of the other’s attempt to dominate the world, control its oil supply and insatiate greed. The mirror image has manifested clearly in the way both sides of the Iraq war of 2002 depicted themselves and the other: The United State’s narrative of the war has been: “Altruistic Americans risk their lives to topple an evil dictator and establish democracy and human rights.” On the other side the Arab narrative was: “The same Yankees who pay for Israelis to blow up Palestinians are now seizing Iraqi oil fields and maiming Iraqi women and children.” Both, Iraqis and Americans accused each other of violation of human rights, ruthlessness and greed.

During the cold war the United States blamed the Soviet Union for expansionism when they invaded Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. The Soviet Union blamed the United States for expansionism when it sent troops to Vietnam, Grenada and to countries in South America. Americans blamed the Soviets for human rights violations of minorities and Jewish dissidents, and the Soviets reminded Americans of their systematic violation of the basic human rights of the poor and African Americans in the United States. Both sides blamed the other for violations of international treaties, for the support of terrorism and for the escalation of the nuclear arms race. The United States blames Iraq for being part of the Axis of Evil, along side Iran and North Korea, and Iraq, and many other countries, consider the United States, Britain and Israel as their own Axis of Evil.

This principle explains how people are more likely to assess the informer and information that represent their view as more credible than the informer who presents an opposing view. This bias in the judgment of sources of information explains the resistance of enemy images to change. Statements by the Iraqis and the United States, or statements by the Soviet Union and the United States against each other, have often been perceived as credible by their respective audiences only because they describe “the enemy”. This principle was also evident within American political culture between political parties, when in conflict over a course of action or the selection of a candidate for office. Research on the credibility of newscasters also confirms that the more consistent the newscaster’s report was with the research subject’s predispositions, the more credible the newscaster was perceived to be.

Americans with negative attitudes towards nations whom they saw as hostile to the United States (eg, North Korea and Iran or, a couple of decades ago, the Soviet Union and Iran) are likely to assume that the relationship between these countries was positive. In other words people are likely to assume that their enemies are friends with each other. During the cold war research has shown that the United States’ enemy, at that time the Soviet Union, was closely associated in people’s minds with terrorism and drug trafficking. Similarly, Saddam Hussein had been associated with Bin Ladin right after 9/11, even though there was no evidence of such relationship.

When the enemy is presenting a conciliatory or peaceful offer, it is met with paranoid suspicion and is suspect for its hidden “real goals”. When Saddam Hussein, for example, finally allowed the UN inspectors to survey the presidential palaces and other locations, it was demanded that he be met with as much suspicion as when he did not allow them to inspect any of the sites. The fact that the inspectors did not find any evidence of weapons of mass destruction did not change the United States’ or the British government’s opinion in regard to Hussein’s dangerousness. Partly as a result of this double standard in attribution, both governments were unfazed by the lack of evidence and went on with their war plans.

One of the most critical elements in fighting our own kind is the ability to dehumanize the enemy, that is, to perceive other human beings as less than human:

The image of the enemy is not only the soldier’s most powerful weapon, it is society’s most powerful weapon. It enables people en masse to participate in acts of violence they would never consider doing as individuals.
Sam Keen, Faces of the Enemy

“Moral” or “civilized” human beings do not intentionally and rationally kill other human beings, but they do kill Gooks, Huns, Japs or Niggers. The substitution of labels from Soviet citizens to Reds, Jewish people to Hibbs or rats, American men to Yankees or Arab people to fanatic Muslims serves a simple but profound function: it allows people to kill with a minimal or no sense of guilt. Accordingly, one of the primary goals of war propaganda is its creation of enemy images that strip the enemy of their human, domestic and individual characteristics. In the words of Butler Shaffer:

War, by its very nature, is sociopathic… it dehumanizes people.

John E Mack tells that a school pupil after the war being taught by his teacher about Russians complained angrily, “You’re trying to get us to see them as people”. At this level of dehumanization the enemy is represented not only as inhuman, but also as a lifeless object. In the Iraq war of 1991 the United States depicted the enemy as a small dot-type target on the computer or videogame screen. Dehumanized enemies are often referred to by technical names or the code-numbers of their weaponry rather than by nationality or even real personal names. During the cold war this allowed the United States to fight not the Soviet army but the SS11 (Soviet long range nuclear missile) or the Frog (Soviet short range nuclear missile). An explosion on the TV or computer screen or the elimination of an SS11 by a Minuteman I (United States long range nuclear missile) are not likely to lead to feeling of regret regarding the loss of human lives. The technical names of weaponry as a representation of the enemy shield us from these feelings. George Orwell reflected well when he stated:

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Doublespeak is the most advanced level of dehumanization. Through Doublespeak, a term coined by George Orwell in his novel 1984, human lives are presented as abstractions. “Collateral damage” is doublespeak for civilian casualties, “servicing the target” is a euphemism for killing. Numerical terms, such as “megadeath”, stand for one million dead people. There is nothing in these terms that evoke any thoughts or feelings in regard to the human lives being destroyed; they elicit neither guilt nor shame. Therefore, killing and the destruction of life can go on. Additional examples of Doublespeak are: “coercive diplomacy” for bombing, “permanent pre-hostility” for peace and “engage the enemy on all sides” for ambushes. Consistent with the effort to mask the destructive power of weaponry, nuclear weapons have often been given pet names, such as “Poseidon” for the United States nuclear submarine, “Peacekeeper” or “Minuteman” for long-range nuclear missiles, and “Honest John” for the surface-to-surface missile. Acronyms are also abstractions. GLCM (pronounced as “glick-em”) stands for “ground launched cruise missile” and SLCM (pronounced “slick-em”) stands for “submarine launched cruise missile”. Possibilities for names of recent wars in Iraq have included euphemisms such as: “Desert Storm”, “Infinite Justice” and “Enduring Freedom”.

There is a substantial, politically influential, and aggressive body of American opinion for which the specter of a great and fearful external enemy, to be exorcised only by vast military preparations and much belligerent posturing, has become a political and psychological necessity.
George F Kennan, former US Ambassador to the USSR

One of the central shifts in the post 9/11 era is the emergent focus on militant Islam and the war on terrorism. The enemy appears to be rigidly defined and split tidily in two. On one side is the American technically superior empire and her supporters, on the other, terrorism, fueled by the energy of low tech, grass roots, religious, militant martyrs. Most terrifying to many is the sickening infectious enmity that is spreading across the planet, dividing nations—especially the United States, creating religious factions, pitting ethnic groups against one another as it demands a decision to line up behind one warring faction or the other. These two groups have become the modern “superpowers” with new war tactics that are truly terrifying. The old tools of war, and the antiquated posturing of the military, could appear almost comical if they were not so sad, if they did not bear such horrifying consequences. The war being waged is killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and there is no end in sight.

When the world was faced with two real superpowers, both seemingly equally powerful, Bronfenbrenner perhaps had no valid means to objectively testing whether one side or the other was making legitimate claims. Now there is only one superpower, the US, faced only by lesser powers, so the rationale for lying by its rulers who know their own absolute strength cannot be justified at all by psychological reasoning except perhaps by their utter insanity! Looking at the world since 1945, the US has had a hand in innumerable instances of wars and interventions, often against minnows. Each time the same fears were propagated, and now the fear of gangs of bandits in countries far off is again being wound up into a threat to the existence of the mightiest power in the world. Well, now it no longer washes. These gangs are not existential threats to anyone except perhaps their immediate neighbours, but certainly not the USA, so we can clearly see that the fears being generated are deliberately induced. Yes, based no doubt on deep psychological fears from the time when life was rather precarious, but not based on anything real today. And if the US is perpetuating these threats and fears unilaterally now, maybe we should ask who was driving the propaganda even in the cold war years. Maybe it was not quite as even as Bronfenbrenner thought.

Individuals may have little to do with the choice of national enemies. Most Americans, for example, know only what has been reported in the mass media about the Soviet Union. We are largely unaware of the forces that operate within our institutions, affecting the thinking of our leaders and ourselves, and which determine how the Soviet Union will be represented to us. Ill-will and a desire for revenge are transmitted from one generation to another, and we are not taught to think critically about how our assigned enemies are selected for us…But the attitude of one people towards another is usually determined by leaders who manipulate the minds of citizens for domestic political reasons which are generally unknown to the public.
1988 John E Mack, MD
The Lancet, 1988

National leaders have become adept at keeping their people focused on the supposed threat of an outside enemy. Yet the “cold war” taught that today we no longer could destroy the enemy on the other side of the wall, the river or the ocean without destroying ourselves. Destroying “the enemy” in the nuclear era inevitably means self-destruction. Even then people kid themselves that their protective myth will guarantee them safety, whether some sort of Star-Wars defensive system or the protection of God whisking away people still alive to heaven for a grandstand seat to watch the fireworks. As for terrorism, it is no different. We cannot eliminate terrorism, we cannot bomb it or any other belief or ideology out of existence. What we are left with is to attempt to increase our effectiveness in persuasion and proving what works in practice. For that we must stop dehumanizing the terrorist enemy and view them as full human beings with some legitimate grievances.

There is no self-awareness or self-responsibility at the highest political level which corresponds to the awareness of personal responsibility with which we are familiar as moral beings in society. So we have to create a new expectation of political self-responsibility—a political morality. Instead of constant blaming of the other side, we need to give new attention to adversaries’ culture and history, to their dreams and their values. We can no longer afford enemies, and nor is the notion of national security any longer useful. The security of each depends on everyone else. Regrettably the most powerful people in the world are the unbelievable rich who control it and therefore us all.

Conflict can become genocidal when powerful groups think that the most efficient means to get what they want is to eliminate those in the way.
Chirot, D and McCauley, C, Why Not Kill Them All?

Until they cease to want more by any means at all, as they have done so far, or they are forcibly removed from the equation, we can never have a world free of war. Greed at the top is the ultimate perpetuator of international enmity.


  • Mack, J E, The Enemy System (short version)
  • Chirot, D and McCauley, C, Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder
  • Zur, O (1991), The love of hating: The psychology of enmity. History of European Ideas

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