The Psychology of War


With critics and reluctant supporters of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq now focusing on the non-appearance of weapons of mass destruction it seems that the publicly-expressed justification for the war is becoming more incredible by the day. We should not be too surprised by this however as the necessity of war was never build upon the need to find WMDs or motivated by the various reasons suggested by those opposed to military conflict such as control of oil supply or protection of the Israeli state. The real motivation for the attack was the psychological necessity for political leaders in the United States, and their emotional allies in Britain, to maintain a vision of global normality that had been thrown into crisis by the terrible events of 9/11.

Since the fall of Soviet Communism we’ve been told many times that there is now just one superpower, the United States, which has brought with it the reality of an integrated world order dominated by US-driven economic liberalism. More recently though, this globalisation process, this psychological sense of perfect Oneness, started to fracture as localised violence and disruption to the prevailing ideology emerged more forcefully and indeed more successfully, with this new threat most clearly manifested by radical Islam.

Up until now, Western liberalism has largely managed to contain and sometimes reverse these attacks on its worldview. In the afterglow of their perceived Cold War success Western leaders felt they had built an almost perfect economic and social model that revolved around their own notions of free trade, democracy and financial market liberalisation. Indeed, for most of the participants in this semi-religious world order, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan would become one of the most important men on the planet.

But even those same cheerleaders would probably now agree that things have indeed changed, and that even the Fed Chairman has lost some of his lustre. For the new reality is that much more ordinary men are remaking the world in their image and the threat to the West is their unwillingness to play by the old rules of engagement. The Islamic radicals of Indonesia, Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Middle East are attacking the current world order by refusing to participate in the structured way this system operates. But unlike past rejectionists, they are willing and able to use the benefits of the system against itself. Thus sophisticated technology, mass media and the free movement of capital are being used as the tools of attack.

Anger and frustration with this new reality has resulted in the U.S., as perceived leader and protector of the Western system, attempting to reassert the rules of the game by trying to draw its attackers into a conventional environment where it is more confident of certain victory. Thus we have the spectacle of conventional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which seem to so many people outside the U.S. as incredibly linked to a genuine fight against terrorism. But these wars have not been taking place because anyone really believed Saddam was involved in the 9/11 atrocity or was an imminent military threat to the West, but in order to show the “terrorists” that the system, the Western powers, are still in change. War is an act of psychological comfort for politicians in Washington and London who can tell themselves that their rules still apply, and that their position and power in the world is still valid.

Psychological validity is very important here, particularly during and after the events of 9/11, which has seen the West’s perfect market-driven world start to unravel and with it the emotional and intellectual security of its protagonists. You need only listen to how President Bush reacted to events such as 9/11 and the more recent suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco to feel his sense of vulnerability and helplessness. There is a shrill pleading in his voice as he asks us again and again to believe him when he says he will find the evil perpetrators and punish them. His constant refrain that we are all in a battle of good versus evil and that America will prevail highlights a sense of frustration verging on desperation. The war in Iraq has been a response to this. It has acted like a drug prescribed by a psychiatrist, a quick fix for those politicians and indeed for many of the American and British public who are unable or unwilling to face up to what is really going on in this faltering world order. Unfortunately the terrible events in Saudi Arabia and Morocco show how these quick fixes provide nothing but false hopes.

The new reality is that the enemies of the U.S., its allies and client states are not going to be dissuaded by their own deaths, because those deaths are their very weapons. It is in the perfect system of the West that the fear of death lies. Western states are getting sucked into a battle they cannot win by their reaction to this perceived threat, which currently takes the form of further misery and death, and which is utterly self-destructive. Radical Islam is watching as we allow Western states to degrade our value-systems and freedoms and bring further financial, social, ethical and psychological damage upon ourselves.

I offer no solutions here. I can only suggest that we try to fully appreciate what is unfolding rather than allowing ourselves to be mesmerised by trivia, by the unreality of so-called reality TV, and by the simplistic response to a complex world of politicians who claim to act in our name.

Richard Morrissey is based in London and is a contemplative therapist. His web site is located at He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from the United Kingdom.