Friday, October 31, 2014

Toward a Psychology of War

This post is a somewhat re-worked excerpt from Borderline - Reflections on War, Sex, and Church, my soon-to-be-released book from Wipf and Stock (Cascade Books).  It has been submitted to openDemocracy, an international e-zine, but I wanted to share it with readers and facebook friends.  Because it was written for a political e-zine, the theological ramifications, which are in the book itself, have been trimmed back for a wider audience, because the examination of psychoanalysis and war can stand on its own apart from theology.  That in no way minimizes the importance of understanding these topics from a Christian perspective, which they are in the book.



If you put “psychology of war” into the most popular internet search engine, he first three items that pop up are a Psychology Today article by Steve Taylor, a Scientific American article by Roland Weierstall, Maggie Schauer and Thomas Elbert, and a an article by Ben Harris for The American Psychological Association.  Taylor's article is entitled “Out of the Darkness,” and it is a criticism of evolutionary psychology’s intrapsychic formulations that more than flirt with biological determinism.  The Scientific American article is called “An Appetite for Aggression,” and it is an example of what Taylor critiques – a biological determinist account of war, backed up with unsubstantiated “man-­the-hunter” narratives of prehistory and a very problematic “study” of former combatants in the modern Republic of Congo.  Harris’ article is about the uses of psychology for social control, in particular the publication of a 1943 soldier's manual called “Psychology for the Fighting Man.”  Harris carefully avoids any ethical editorializing in his short piece, but the title of his article is revealing: “Preparing the Human Machine for War.”

Psychology as an academic discipline in the modern research university tends toward intrapsychic formulations, that is, study of the subject as if he or she were isolated in a laboratory.  As Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, the modern research university has systematically and progressively moved toward greater and greater specialization, which mitigates against cross-fertilization between disciplines and consolidates the boundaries between them.  Seeming exceptions like “evolutionary psychology” and sociobiology support both a qualitative and intrapsychic bias in the study of the human mind.

This is not altogether surprising, because there is a widespread prior ideological commitment in industrial capitalist societies to the idea of the person as an abstracted “individual,” a disembodied and acquisitive mind with no history, no attachments and obligations with others.  Sigmund Freud himself was a product of this earlier society during a period when that society had engaged in one horrific world war and his native country was under the shadow of an emergent fascism.  He was a through and through Hobbesian, comparing human nature to a wolf (an unfair comparison, given actual wolves’ highly social natures); and his aim was to discover how this wolf could be tamed and incorporated into a more pacific body politic.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the philosophical primacy of the “individual” was widely accepted, especially as that individual was described in the Hobbesian origin myth, a predator in a war of all against all. The social contract had given rise to the Leviathan, the sovereign state, which secured a peace against human predispositions with the possibility of improvement, which was called civilization.  The individual was a lone wolf who had to be domesticated for his own good.  The thing within humans requiring domestication, as it had been since the fathers of the Enlightenment said so, was so-called nature, now internalized as human nature.  Nature, a dangerous and chaotic force which held sway more in women and brown people, called for rule by European male reason, based on “objectivity,” to subdue it.  Freud interiorized this drama as a set of competing psychic phantoms: instinctual drive, ego, and superego.  The instinctual drive was the wolf, the animal appetites.  The ego was the I-­ness, the enclosed sense of self that appeared after Descartes, which bargained between the instinctual drives and the superego.  The superego was the conscience, that interiorized cop, the forum internum that the church had invented for its members in the thirteenth century to make them self­ policing citizens of the societas perfecta.

“Men are not gentle, friendly creatures,” wrote Freud, “wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment.  The result is that their neighbor is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.  Homo homini lupus; who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life and in history?  This aggressive cruelty usually lies in wait for some provocation, or else it steps into the service of some other purpose, the aim of which might as well have been achieved by milder measures.  In circumstances that favor it, when those forces in the mind which ordinarily inhibit it cease to operate, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals men as savage beasts to whom the thought of sparing their own kind is alien.  Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities of the early migrations, of the invasion by the Huns or by the so­called Mongols under Jenghiz Khan and Tamurlane, of the sack of Jerusalem by the pious Crusaders, even indeed the horrors of the last world­war, will have to bow his head humbly before the truth of this view of man.”


Jessica Benjamin, Professor of Postdoctoral Studies on Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy at New York University, criticizes Freud based on his implicit acceptance of the Homo economicus, the uprooted and abstracted “individual” bequeathed to modern liberal law by Descsartes.  Freud’s more feral version, Homo homini lupus, a wolf man, is a pure strategic being, trapped inside the boundaries of his redoubt, himself the subject and the world his object.  Benjamin notes that this strictly intrapsychic approach is often called “object relations” psychology.  It is a model of psychic life that is fundamentally asocial, between a subject and objects.  Her approach is between subjects and subjects.

Benjamin has written extensively about domination from the perspective of an intersubjective psychoanalysis; that is, psychoanalysis that assumes individual persons develop within a network of social relations that are essential to understanding anything about the person him­ or herself.  I cite Benjamin here for two reasons.  First, she is concerned with the problem of domination, and second, she identifies gender as key terrain, especially during childhood development, for the exploration of domination, which I contend is central to the psychology of war.

In none of the initially­ cited articles on the “psychology of war” is the subject of “domination”
addressed.  Violence, in each case unstated as predominantly male violence, is described as “aggression.”  Aggression is a term that assumes the intrapsychic perspective.  Domination assumes a relation.  Benjamin has studied the phenomenon of domination in gender, because she believes – and I am convinced that she is right – that gender is almost always associated with the ways in which domination emerges in our culture, in reality, in symbol, and in our imaginations.  Even and especially in war, in its conduct and its apologetics.


Domination is relational; and warfare is a violent relation writ large.  Finally, warfare is gendered. There is no doubt that women have committed violent acts.  Nor is there any doubt that women can participate and have participated in armed combat, but this is a vulgar argument against the gendered-ness of war.  Gender is a system that, among other things, divides power between men and women, and in doing so constructs those expectations of actions, attitudes, languages, manners of dress, etc., that emphasize culturally-encoded differences between men generally and women generally.

Shorthand for these different expectations are the notions of “masculinity” and “femininity,” symbolically attached to biological sexual dimorphism, but obviously not identical with it. Masculinity and femininity are unified opposites.  As there can be no left without a right, no up without a down, there is no masculinity without femininity, and vice versa.  Moreover, contextual factors in various times and cultures can give rise to multiple conceptions of masculinity and femininity, so it is possible to refer to both in the plural: masculinities and femininities.

It is within these more generalized constructs, which individual persons are enculturated to live into to one degree or another, that we can categorize war as a masculine endeavor, even when some women participate in it.  While masculinities and femininities have multiplied over time and space, one transhistorical phenomenon has always been associated with predominantly men, and that is war.  So it is possible to generalize more about this particular association than it is about most other social phenomena; and it is likewise safe to say that war is always about violent domination.

Women may participate in war, but in our social imaginary, war is still man's business. Women may fight, but fighting is still considered a masculine virtue.  The few women who fight have not undone the dominant symbolic association of passive receptivity with femininity. This association goes a long way to explaining homophobia, especially as it is directed at males who are understood to be either passive or receptive in sex.  This is understood as a threat to the stability of masculinities, especially in the modern era when public competition between men and women has eroded other gender divisions and more sharply sexualized our ideas of gender.

The dyad of domination and subordination are understood through enculturation as “male” and “female.”  We all know what is meant when someone “displaying aggression” says, “I'm going to make you my bitch,” or “That guy is a pussy.”  We ought to understand, but frequently do not, that this kind of language also associates sex with domination and hostility, an association that serves as an artesian spring of misogyny. We seem not to recognize, even though it is represented in our everyday language as part of our shared symbolic universe, that violence and domination are eroticized.

Eros is a fusion of emotion and symbol that overwrites our activity in the world.  That connection is sexualized early and deeply; and the sexuality of it is constructed as an unequal “complementarity” in Jessica Benjamin’s use.  This domination-­subordination dynamic  displaces what she calls “mutuality.”

“The point of departure,” writes Benjamin in The Bonds of Love, “is . . . that woman functions as man’s primary other, his opposite – playing nature to his reason, immanence to his transcendence, primordial oneness to his individuated separateness, and object to his subject . . . gender polarity underlies such familiar dualisms as autonomy and dependency, and thus establishes the coordinates for the position of master and slave.”

Benjamin’s thesis begins with the human need for recognition. Human beings have a need to belong.  We need to be with other people, and we need to be recognized by them as well as grant recognition. Synonyms for recognition in common speech include acceptance, affirmation, validation, and love. Recognition is mutual.  Both of us need to do it at once.  For you to recognize me, I need to acknowledge you as a subject like myself, and vice versa.

Research with mothers and infants shows that this mutuality begins very early.  Unlike the object-relations approach of intrapsychic analysis, the child is not merely an appetite aimed at a breast or seeking warmth.  The child and mother actually recognize one another.  An infant in short order knows the sight, smell, and sound of his or her mother, and takes pleasure in her presence beyond the mere satisfaction of appetites.

In this mutuality, psychic boundaries are necessarily permeable, therefore there is an element of vulnerability involved, and there is also an element self ­assertion.  Self­ assertion exists in tension with the desire for mutuality when we simultaneously recognize another and want something from them.  When that tension, or balance, is broken by the polarization of self­ assertion and vulnerability between two people, the love that is constituted in mutuality – in “fusion,” as Nancy C. M.Hartsock put it – gives itself over to a dynamic of domination and conquest.

Benjamin emphasizes this dynamic in her study of sado­masochistic relations, when “the inability to sustain paradox . . . convert[s] the exchange of recognition into domination and submission.”

This intersubjective dynamic creates a situation in which “the other plays an active part in the struggle of the individual to creatively discover and accept reality.”  Refusal to accept reality can disrupt intersubjectivity, and failure of mutual recognition makes acceptance impossible.  Referring to Hegel, Benjamin summarizes this paradox as the simultaneous need for the independence and dependence of the self­-conscious.”  In Hegel, this is a struggle to the death that leads to a master-slave relation, because in Hegel, as in Freud and Hobbes, mutuality is foreclosed by a view of the person as an isolated and strategic being.

Benjamin allows for a tension between independence and dependence in which mutuality is possible.  Part of his tension is the fact that the other person is held in my mind in a way that never completely accords with the other person’s own experience of existence. This can produce expectations, the frustration of expectations, misunderstandings. In a sense, the other person must continually be destroyed in my mind then observed to have survived that destruction in order for me to reassure myself of her existence, an existence that makes recognition possible.  Her independence is necessary for her to recognize me, subject to subject.  Yet the way I know she is independent is by challenging her independence through my own self­-assertion.  We have all experienced this tension with our children, our friends, our lovers, our spouses, or our parents.  When this dynamic involves a ready state of forgiveness, of starting over, power is negotiated and mutuality is retained. When one ego has to prevail and one submit, mutuality is lost and a domination­-submission dynamic replaces it.  The submissive then desires revenge. The dominator loses recognition, because his objectification of the other out of a desire for omnipotence has erased the subjectivity necessary for mutual recognition.  If one asserts his will, destroying the other in his mind, and the other survives without becoming combative, without pitting the two egos against one another, then rapprochement is possible. Serial experiences of rapprochement lead to “attunement,” and the earliest experiences of attunement, usually between mother and child, but now a little more often including the father, are bound to the development and experience of the erotic – a psychosomatic sense of deep attachment.


The erotic here does not mean simply sexual feeling, but an experience of oneness, which presupposes the permeability of boundaries.  Children who are raised in a zero­-sum atmosphere of parental omnipotence form powerful defensive psychic boundaries early, which can lead to abject submission accompanied by feelings of vengefulness and resentment.  They often have difficulty later in life forming relationships characterized by mutuality.  On the other hand, children who experience attunement, which is a balance of self­-assertion and recognition (not permissiveness), are habituated to the practices of mutuality. Erotic attachments later in life, which can include sexual attraction, are likely to reflect these early experiences of attachment; and some will tend toward attunement, while others will tend toward the domination-submission dynamic. While this is not a perfectly predictable pattern, the sons of men who abused the boys’ mothers are more likely to abuse their partners, and the daughters of men who abused the girls’ mothers are more likely to neglect or abuse their children.

As noted above, masculinity constructed as domination eroticizes violence.  A tragic paradox here is that women in a society where masculinity is constructed as domination are indoctrinated to find dominance in men sexually attractive, which makes Benjamin’s study of the domination-submission dynamic, as opposed to simply domination, so important.

In war, where domination masculinity is given its freest reign, there is also an extreme submission to authority, the fear and adoration of dominant figures. This might be anything from an admired infantry squad leader to the Fuhrer.

Benjamin writes that “the idea of the individual in modern liberal thought is tacitly defined as masculine even when women are included.  Identifying the gender content of what is considered to be gender-­neutral can be as difficult as undoing the assumption of essential gender differences.”

Several other prominent feminists have shown that the gender­-neutral language of historical liberalism (which is also class­-neutral and race-neutral) conceals the gendered origins of various forms of social power, which continue to operate prior to the law applied to abstract “individuals.”  Our own immersion in a society that believes in this disembedded person leads us to think of ourselves as isolated and immunized from history or connection, making simple binary choices from moment to moment.

“Perhaps it is because this conception of the individual reflects a powerful experience,” says Benjamin, “the experience of a paradox as painful, or even intolerable. Perhaps also, because of a continuing fear that dependency on the other is a threat to independence, that recognition of the other comprises the self.  When the conflict between dependence and independence becomes too intense, the psyche gives up the paradox in favor of an opposition.”

“The intersubjective view,” Benjamin continues, “as distinguished from the intrapsychic, refers to what happens in the field of self and other.  Whereas the intrapsychic perspective conceives of the person as a discrete unit with a complex internal structure, intersubjective theory describes capacities that emerge in the interaction between self and others. Thus intersubjective theory, even when describing the self alone, sees its alone-ness as a particular point in the spectrum of relationships rather than as the original, 'natural state' of the individual.”

Benjamin notes that in Freud, the origins of domination are understood as an imaginary oedipal conflict, a primal conflict between son and father.  This is not surprising, because Freud inherited a modern society that was only recently a result of republican conflicts that were regarded in exactly that way, as a fraternal struggle for power against a paternal aristocracy.  In Freud’s psychic origin myth, the son overthrows the father, but then his fear of the lawlessness of his own son compels him to replicate the repressions of the father. This was the basis, according to Freud (and of Hegel and Hobbes, without specific references to Oedipus), of civilization.  Freud died in 1939, having fled Austria before the Nazi takeover, and as Benjamin said, “The historic problem that shaped the inquiry into domination most powerfully was . . . the appearance of fascist mass movements with their ecstatic submission to hypnotic leaders.” There was a vigorous debate among psychoanalysts of the time about this and related problems, using Freud and his categories, but in every discussion the only actors were men.  Women, except as the spoils of struggle or as temptresses, were still essentially invisible.

Freud rightly introduced the idea that early precognitive experience can and does exert a powerful influence on the rest of our lives, but his specific account of that precognitive experience was European and male.  In Freud’s account of male and female development, both the male and female child begin as little men.  Each then moves into an oedipal phase, whereupon the boy has to detach from and dis­identify with his mother, and the girl realizes that, like her mother, she lacks a penis.  The boy experiences a desire to possess his mother, a mimetic rivalry with his father.  The girl experiences a desire for the father to regain the penis she suffers without.  The boy’s id desires Mom, but the boy’s ego says, Dad is bigger than you and he sleeps with Mom, so get over it (the “reality principle”).  The boy fears Dad will castrate him, and out of a sense of self defense, he begins to identify with Dad (Stockholm syndrome before Stockholm syndrome).  The girl also wants to possess the mother, because like the boy, the mother was the person with whom she originally developed an erotic attachment in infancy.  But when she realizes she doesn’t have a penis, the instrument of possession, she experiences an envy of Dad and Brother, or a least of their penis. She then resents Mom for having Dad and his penis.  From this stage, Freud has the boy and girl proceed through a process of maturation, wherein both are finally identified with the father, and this results in an normative assertive male and a normative passive female.  Freud considered separation and dis-identification with the mother to be critical for the male’s and female’s development.  The boy would be like him; and the girl would be for him.

“Analyzing the oedipal model in Freud’s original formulations and in the work of later psychoanalysts,” Benjamin explains, “we find the common thread: the idea of the father as protector, or even savior, from a mother who would pull us back into the “limitless narcissism” of infancy.  The privileging of the father’s role . . . can be found in almost every version of the oedipal model.  It also underlies the current popular diagnosis of our social malaise: a rampant narcissism that stems from the loss of the authority of the absence of the father.”

Yet a world divided between public and private, with the man having agency in the public world, is a world where any child will identify, as a part of his or her grasping for independence, with a parent who appears to flourish in that world.  The intrapsychic approach had foreclosed any explanation of identification with the father, which was observable, that included extrapsychic social structures, the very cultural and economic structures that reproduce gender regimes, and within them gendered domination.  The result was not only the reproduction of the gender regime by a story fitted to the status quo, but the medicalization of relational phenomena that actually had cultural bases.

Medicalization allows us to drug children to go to school, and never question what actually goes on at school. So-­called post­-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is treated with drugs and adaptive therapy, but this doesn’t lead back to the question of war or rape, two major causes of PTSD, and especially not to questioning militarism or rape culture.
Psychotherapeutic specialties – using an intrapsychic or medicalized approach – cannot penetrate the cultural origins and social structures of masculinity constructed as domination or violence as long as they attend only to the symbolic world of the infant and child as if it was both universal and immunized from variable cultural influences.  Boys, who are indoctrinated into the idea that dependency is a threat to their selfhood as a male, will turn against the mother, and against all women, as a deleterious influence.  They will close the border.

“Why is the border closed between the genders?” asks Benjamin. “Feminist theory concludes that the derogation of the female side of the polarity leads to a hardening of the opposition between male and female individuality as they are now constructed.”

The search for recognition is transformed into a struggle for omnipotence, understood as a flight from dependency (Real men are independent!), not by an imbalance between id, ego, and superego, but by the cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity.  Because boys generally form their first and deepest attachment to their mothers, this is a painful process of separation which can contribute to deep confusion, as well as resentment toward and irrational desire for revenge against women. You made me dependent! You told me no! You threatened my boundaries with feminine vulnerability!

War demands men who are willing to commit violence.  A society dedicated to war will promote a form of masculinity that includes the will to violence and the praise of violence.  But as Benjamin shows, the predisposition for violence, or the domination that violence accomplishes, begins as a struggle for autonomy that abandons mutuality, or fusion. Fusion is the I­-am-­yours­-and­-still­-me­-and­-you-­are­-mine­-and-still­-you. Fusion presupposes permeable boundaries; and “the derogation of the female side of the polarity leads to a hardening of the opposition between male and female.”

Masculinity is culturally formed in the practice of war; but masculinity is learned by the person, from infancy. It is irrevocably combined with the formation, as well as the perversion, of eros.

“Power,” says Nancy Hartsock, “irreducibly involves questions of eros.” The association between eros, hostility, and domination, learned during a man’s earliest formative years, is not incidental to domination in the other spheres of life.  It is vital for the reproduction of conquest­-masculinity; and the normalization of conquest­-masculinity in culture reproduces that developmental model.

“To the extent that either sexual relations or other relations are structured by a dynamic of domination/submission,” says Benjamin, “the others as well will operate along these dimensions, and in consequence, the community as a whole will be structured by domination.”

Our earliest relations, including the demand that males separate from the feminine understood as empathy and vulnerability, deeply root these same conceptual coordinates for later life.  The independent male, the invulnerable male, the male who can compartment in ways that allow him to act without empathy, is a fighting male. He is also a subject surrounded by objects that require male domination, whether those objects are women, nature, or in the case of core-metropolitan masculinity, colonies.  In periods when masculinities have been destabilized by cultural shifts, masculinity more urgently requires constant proof.  For this probative masculinity in militaristic societies, the ultimate proof is against enemies in war.  An enemy is an object, one against which domination-­masculinities validate themselves.

When I was a soldier who made operational plans, every “mission” was stated with an “objective.” In a world without distinction between manipulative and non­manipulative relations, all others are potentially reduced to objects – to means to an end.  This is masculine­thought.  Jessica Benjamin’s psychoanalytic criticism unmasks the gendered “genesis of the psychic structure in which one person plays subject and the other must serve as object.”

Benjamin shows how Freud's thought was shaped by his own culture in ways that naturalized that culture; and in that same way, our own cultures, including especially our constructions of gender, are naturalized.  Gender then, understood as nature, is understood as something beyond critical our interventions.  It is for this reason that when we read the latest news of a mass shooting in a public place, for example, there are innumerable think­-pieces written that attempt to analyze the minds of the shooters, and seldom any note taken of the fact that they are overwhelmingly males.

In any analysis of militarism and war, likewise, we typically attend to everything from the most superficial politics to penetrating structural analyses of international relations, yet we seldom have our attention called to the shared psychologies of men who predominantly command these political institutions and socioeconomic structures of power.  Furthermore, we seldom see any attention called to what powerful men and everyday men have in common that tends to create support for militarism and war.  The normative male who understands his own masculinity as a constellation of subject-­object relations, is manifest in men from national leaders, to the captains of industry, to the enlisted frontline soldier, to the armchair suburbanite watching the nightly news in his lounger.  Each is committed to a common understanding of his own masculinity at a precognitive and affective level which is the psychic fuel that drives him.

This does not minimize the importance of the structures of power, the military-­industrial complex, the core­periphery relationships between nations, the imperatives of capitalist growth, et cetera. But it does illuminate something in common in the minds of men generally that reproduces an affinity for war and other forms of conflict. Likewise, it may discomfit men who see themselves as part of a resistance to many of these structures, and who themselves are proponents, implicit and explicit, of violent strategies of resistance.

Here is at least one reason for the stubborn persistence of war and militarism.  I would ask readers during the next general election cycle, with Benjamin’s theses in mind, to study campaign verbiage for assertions of one’s own masculinity (even by female candidates who understand that their political survival depends on support for our national masculinity), and challenges to that of their opponents.