Psychology of War

Psychology of War #

For most of the history of the world we have been at war. From earliest times, most young men were brought up within a warrior culture; going to war was their primary purpose for being born. Women were precluded from war as they were needed as incubators to provide replacement warriors for the next war.

The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. Man’s only purpose is to kill his enemy before he himself gets killed.

The dogs of war are unleased to create an irresistible violence for the warrior blood pulsing to the drum beat of war. His own life is nothing, merely something willingly sacrificed to his mates and country. Both Achilles and Hector are acutely aware, their defeat and death are inevitable; to be faced with courage and valour.

Andrew Hastie reminded troops that their main job, at the end of the day, was to kill people

According to Robert Fagles, the 50 some Greek city states were continually at war with one another, sometimes as allies, other times as enemies. The permanence of war is echoed by Homer and Plato. We Achaeans, says Odysseus:

“the men who Zeus decrees, from youth to old age,
Must wind down our brutal wars to the bitter end
Until we drop and die, down to the last man.”
(14.105 – 7)

In the final book, Achilles and Priam, in the most poignant of settings, reflect upon the fate of human beings and the things they do to one another. Priam raises the prospect of avoiding war by respecting even your enemies – diplomacy?

Plato cynically writes: “Peace is just a name. The truth is, by natural law, engaged in a perpetual undeclared war with every other city state”.

Athens, during the fifth century was at war on land and sea for more years than they were at peace. They fought Persia, allied with Sparta from 480 BCE, but in 460 fought with Sparta. After defeating Persia decisively, after 15 years of peace, in 431 began the Peloponnesian war against Sparta for 27 years, surrendering with the loss of her naval supremacy and ending democracy.

DEATH is the final reality of human life, and not just for the banal reason that we are all destined to die in the end but, more importantly, because the finiteness and vulnerability of our existence in this world is what gives urgency, meaning and even nobility to human life.

Homer saw this, in The Iliad, with a burning clarity. Mortality is what lends poignancy to our experience, gravity to our moral choices. His heroes love life, strength and beauty, but their duty, their noble rank, and the position in which fate has placed them leaves them no noble choice but to face death with the courage befitting a warrior. CHRISTOPHER ALLEN

The industrial revolution was an opportunity for civilisations to prosper; instead, it merely resulted in nations to make more efficient weapons to kill each other.

America’s Military Industrial Complex is essential to keeping its economy afloat. As Eisenhower warned,

“ we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex … We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

Orwell’s 1984, predicts that the three superpowers also engage in continual war with each other switching alliances.

It is only within the last one hundred and fifty years that more and more of us have questioned the sense and morality of war. Modern education conditions young men to be empathetic and compassionate.

Many new recruits find it difficult to fire the first shot, but after that they can become “blooded” and thirst for more.

The army’s first task is to turn normal civilised youth into hardened ruthless killing machines. Each of them, if mentally healthy, has a natural repugnance to killing another human. This had to be trained out of them. They, and the supporting population, also have to be trained to believe that the enemy is intrinsically inferior to themselves comparing them to Russian Bears, rats, or cockroaches. They had to be trained to believe that their superior officers knew much better than they, so that orders would be obeyed without question.

This can be achieved by cold heartless and contemptuous drill sergeant’s belittling, degrading and brutalising young recruits and dehumanising or depersonalising the enemy, depicting them as sub human savages. Examples of this are Bruce Dawe’s Weapons Training

John Gray’s Straw Dogs is as stark; human progress was a myth.

“If we thought we were steadily becoming more civilised, then we were delusional. Instead, human beings are “weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing”.

What have we learned?


In 1939, just before Germany overran France, Simone Weil’s presented her vision of Homer’s poem – The Iliad

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force.

Force is man’s instrument, force is man’s master, force before which human flesh shrinks back. The human soul in this poem is shown always in its relation to force: swept away, blinded by the force it thinks it can direct, bent under the pressure of the force to which it is subjected.

Force today, as in the past is at the centre of all human history.

Force is what makes the person subjected into a thing – a corpse or a slave.

Force combined with fear and contumely can make people feel powerless and insignificant.

“We have learnt nothing and forgotten a great deal about war. Surely, when history weighs our place in Afghanistan, it will come to the same conclusion as it did with Vietnam: that we squandered young men’s lives in a futile, unwinnable fight with an enemy who posed no threat to us”. Mike Carlton

Fields of Blood #

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. From the earliest times, man has been faced with the challenge of reconciling the horror of death with the excitement and intensity of war:

“Millennia of fighting large aggressive animals meant that [prehistoric] hunting parties became tightly bonded teams that were the seeds of our modern armies, ready to risk everything for the common good and to protect their fellows in moments of danger. And there was one more conflicting emotion to be reconciled: they probably loved the excitement and intensity of the hunt. …

“The [brain’s] limbic system comes into play. The prospect of killing may stir our empathy, but in the very acts of hunting, raiding, and battling, this same seat of emotions is awash in serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for the sensation of ecstasy that we associate with some forms of spiritual experience. So it happened that these violent pursuits came to be perceived as sacred activities, however bizarre that may seem to our understanding of religion. People, especially men, experienced a strong bond with their fellow warriors, a heady feeling of altruism at putting their lives at risk for others and of being more fully alive. This response to violence persists in our nature. The New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges has aptly described war as ‘a force that gives us meaning’:

War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.

“It may be too that as they give free rein to the aggressive impulses from the deepest region of their brains, warriors feel in tune with the most elemental and inexorable dynamics of existence, those of life and death. Put another way, war is a means of surrender to reptilian ruthlessness, one of the strongest of human drives, without being troubled by the self-critical nudges of the neocortex.

“The warrior, therefore, experiences in battle the transcendence that others find in ritual, sometimes to pathological effect. Psychiatrists who treat war veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have noted that in the destruction of other people, soldiers can experience a self-affirmation that is almost erotic. Yet afterward, as they struggle to disentangle their emotions of pity and ruthlessness, PTSD sufferers may find themselves unable to function as coherent human beings. One Vietnam veteran described a photograph of himself holding two severed heads by the hair; the war, he said, was ‘hell,’ a place where ‘crazy was natural’ and everything ‘out of control,’ but, he concluded:

The worst thing I can say about myself is that while I was there I was so alive. I loved it the way you can like an adrenaline high, the way you can love your friends, your tight buddies. So unreal and the realest thing that ever happened …. And maybe the worst thing for me now is living in peacetime without a possibility of that high again. I hate what that high was about but I loved that high.

“‘Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent,’ Hedges explains. ‘Trivia dominates our conversation and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us a resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.’ One of the many, intertwined motives driving men to the battlefield has been the tedium and pointlessness of ordinary domestic existence. The same hunger for intensity would compel others to become monks and ascetics.”

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, page(s): 9-11

This perhaps best portrayed by The Hurt Locker, an American war movie by Kathryn Bigelow, released in 2008, that is set in the second year of the Iraq War.

Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill #

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col Dave Grossman.

Most soldiers are reluctant to fire their weapons when confronted by the enemy:

“During World War II, U.S. Army Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall asked the average soldiers what it was that they did in battle. His singularly unexpected discovery was that, of every hundred men along the line of fire during the period of an encounter, an average of only 15 to 20 ‘would take any part with their weapons.’ This was consistently true ‘whether the action was spread over a day, or two days or three.’

“Marshall based their findings on individual and mass interviews with thousands of soldiers in more than four hundred infantry companies, in Europe and in the Pacific, immediately after they had been in close combat with German or Japanese troops.

The results were consistently the same: only 15 to 20 percent of the American riflemen in combat during World War II would fire at the enemy. … The question is why. … The answer is the simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.

War’s effect on soldiers #

It is hard to overstate the calamitous enduring effects of modern War on many aspects of society. The ongoing cost of war is borne by individuals, families, especially successive generations of women and broader society. As well as undermining the certainties of the past, it has lasting repercussions on future psyches. The snapshot survey of 90 probation case histories of convicted veterans shows a majority with chronic alcohol or drug problems and nearly half suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, variously known as Shell shock, nerves, battle fatigue… or depression as a result of their wartime experiences on active service. While Australia only suffered about 38 soldier deaths in Afghanistan from 2001 – 2020, more than 400 returnees have committed suicide. Paradoxically, the US armed services found that remote operators of drone attacks were its highest victims.

Hierarchies in authoritarian structures #

Norman Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, 1976, applies to all authoritarian structures. He surveys a century of British military disasters from the Crimean War, through the slaughterhouses of World War I to the fall of Singapore in a search for common elements that might yield an answer to the same question “How could they be so hopeless?’

Like the British generals who were responsible for episodes of unfathomable misjudgement, had plenty of technical knowledge and a good deal of experience in their chosen craft. Their “incompetence cannot be attributed to ignorance or ordinary stupidity”.

Dixon, professor emeritus of psychology at University College, London, and himself a former British officer, concluded that “military incompetence is more often a product of personality characteristics than of intellectual shortcomings”. And the authoritarian nature of the military structure made it prone to particular types of personality characteristics.

The personality characteristics of people drawn to an authoritarian structure?

Dixon lists these: a need for approval, fear of failure, being deaf to unwelcome information, an inclination to internal codes of acceptable behaviour, anti-intellectualism, and sensitivity to criticism. He broadly groups these as symptoms of “ego-weakness”. He describes ego-weakness as creating a “neurotic paradox in which the individual’s need to be loved breeds, on the one hand, an insatiable desire for admiration with avoidance of criticism, and, on the other, an equally devouring urge for power and positions of dominance.

“The paradox is that these needs inevitably result in behaviour so unrealistic as to earn the victim the very criticism which he has been striving so hard to avoid.”

Ego-weakness combines with authoritarian tendencies to produce ridiculous decisions. Dixon cites the British army’s stubborn insistence on using cavalry over tanks - even after World War I. Reports urging change were censored. In the 1930s, as Hitler built his 36 tank divisions, the British army ordered that the Tank Brigade should be disbanded and never reassembled.

This sort of futile stubbornness meant that losing tactics were repeated ad nauseum. The Germans marvelled at the British devotion to the suicidal full-frontal assault.

Other characteristics of the mindset? One, according to Dixon, is a disregard for the welfare of the lower ranks; that so long as the officers were comfortable, the commanders were content to see the troops suffer and die. They can contemplate this aphorism of one of the better British commanders, Field-Marshal Lord Slim: ‘‘There are no bad regiments, only bad officers.”

The authoritarian mindset does not welcome creativity or differences of opinion. Dixon writes: “When all that is natural, creative, flexible, warm and outgoing in the human spirit becomes crushed and constricted, such qualities of leadership as compassion, bold decisions and military flair give way to conformity, sycophantism, indecision and fear of failure.”

Instructive though the Dixon analysis might be, it does not offer much hope of recovery with its current structure. Why not? Because, according to Dixon, “it is a sad feature of authoritarian organisations that their nature inevitably militates against the possibility of learning from experience through the apportioning of blame”.

They are, he says,

“past masters at deflecting blame. They do so by denial, by rationalisation, by making scapegoats … the net result is that no real admission of failure or incompetence is ever made by those who are really responsible.”

Finally, Dixon explains why British governments tolerated - and sometimes even promoted - generals who were responsible for some of the worst military failures. Why did they perpetuate a system where officers could buy their commissions, instead of requiring merit, for instance?

The answer is that the overriding concern of the British political class, in the face of popular revolutions across the Channel, was that the army remained loyal. So the political leadership was prepared to tolerate the most dreadfully incompetent generals as long as they were loyal to the status quo of the monarchy, the aristocracy and the class system.

Peter Hartcher is a political editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.