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THE PSYCHOLOGICAL
BASES OF WAR
by Robert A. Hinde

PART I
 ·  Introduction
 ·  Levels of ComplexityPART II
 ·  Individual Aggression
 ·  Aggression Between GroupsPART III
 ·  Institutionalized War
 ·  Conclusion

REFERENCES

 ABOUT ROBERT A. HINDE

 

   Part III


INSTITUTIONALISED WAR

 

Individual aggression, intergroup aggression, and international war as discussed here must be seen as points on a continuum of increasing complexity, with many intermediates. Over time, from the Greek wars to World War II, there has been an increase in complexity, in the diversity of the roles of those involved, in the destructiveness of the weapons, and in the involvement of the civilian population (Pogge von Strandmann. 1991). And in the twentieth century, there have been all intermediates between tribal conflict in New Guinea to near-global war. The continuing violence in the Basque country and in Northern Ireland have the characteristics of inter-group conflict, while the recent conflicts in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia come closer to international war.

The extreme of the continuum from individual aggression to international war can be distinguished by three criteria:

First, international war involves conflict between societies, each of which is itself complex and consists of many overlapping groups. Any negotiations between potential combatants take place not between unified nation states but between large bureaucracies representing diverse interests (Druckman & Hopmann. 1989). Indeed maintaining the integration of the groups within each side of the conflict may be a major preoccupation for leaders.

Second, the role of leaders is paramount, both political leaders and military leaders at every level.

Third, and most importantly, international war is best seen as an institution. The concept of institution perhaps needs some elaboration here. In our society, marriage is an institution, with husband and wife as constituent roles. Each role has certain rights and duties associated with it. Parliament is an institution, with a large number of constituent roles — prime minister, ministers, members of Parliament, members of the voting public, and so on. Again, the incumbents of each role have certain duties that they are expected to perform, and certain rights consequent upon their roles. In the same way, war must be seen as an institution with a large number of constituent roles, those of politicians, generals, officers, soldiers, munitions workers, transport workers, air raid wardens, doctors, nurses, and many others. Indeed, virtually every member of the civilian population may come to have a role in total war. Each role is associated with its particular rights and duties, and it is the individuals' duties in the roles that they occupy in the institution of war that primarily motivates their behavior. Satisfaction in duty well done contributes to self-esteem.

The motivations that are responsible for individual aggression play little part in total war. Hope of material gain is unimportant, at any rate amongst the combatants. Hope of increasing the status that the institution of war can confer with promotion or decoration may play a minor role. Fear is certainly an issue, and can contribute to defensive aggression, though the excessive arousal associated with fear reduces military efficiency (Marshall, 1947). The issues involved in the formation and dynamics of groups, discussed in the last section, are of course relevant at every level in the complex organization of societies at war. Loyalty to and a tendency to cooperate with comrades may be a major issue, though this is to be seen as part of the combatant's duty. But aggressive motivation is seldom an important issue in international war, and when it is, as at My Lai, it is often not condoned. It is most likely to be important in short-term interactions, especially in religious and ethnic wars, but the primary motivation stems from duty associated with the role occupied in the institution of war. International war may cause aggression, but aggressiveness does not cause war.

As we have seen, most analyses of the causes of war focus on societal, socio-cultural or economic factors. Psychological issues, other than perhaps the personalities of the leaders, are seldom mentioned. But such approaches neglect an important issue: rational appraisal, historical knowledge, and personal experience all testify to the horror of war, yet wars continue to happen. Thus, for reasons which must surely be sought, wars remain an acceptable way of solving conflicts. This must be due to powerful forces that support the institution of war.

These factors that make war acceptable to the individuals who take part, or who support the institution of war in other ways, can be grouped into three categories;

1. The background of everyday life. Many of those who go to war expect something quite different from the reality (Brodie, 1990; Mosse, 1990). Their expectations stem in part from everyday matters.

(a) Common Speech. In recent years, efforts made to remove sexisms from everyday speech have met with some success. As yet, there has been little attempt to remove "warisms." Yet it can be argued that phrases such as "getting dug in," "putting your head above the parapet," or "outflanking your rival," and even such rallying cries as "war on want" or "fighting disease," may be as insidious in maintaining the acceptability of war as sexisms have been seen to be in perpetuating sex discrimination. Particularly noteworthy is the way in which militaristic comparisons are used to refer to valued activities — "behaving honourably," with honour being frequently seen as a military quality: "life is a battle" or "never give in to defeat." Even if the use of sexisms and warisms is merely a symbol of the status quo, recognising them for what they are may serve to raise consciousness about the issues.

(b) Sanitization. In writings about war the horrors are often sanitised and the combatants ennobled. In World War I the use of "high diction" helped to conceal the reality of war, the "dead" becoming the "fallen," "other soldiers" becoming "comrades," and so on (Fussell, 1975). Books and films (e.g. Winter, 1991) about war, with certain honorable exceptions, similarly censor the horror and emphasize heroism; show the triumph of victory, but not the desperation of defeat; the drama of conflict, but not the agony of slow death; the bravery of the survivors, but not the long-term loss of the bereaved. As the popularity of television violence shows, people seek imagined violence, and one must suppose that the positive effect may be generalized to real life.

At the same time, war may be trivialised by kitsch (Mosse, 1990). Shell cases used as umbrella stands, cigarette lighters in the shape of guns, board games on militaristic themes, tin soldiers and the like reduce war to pleasant nostalgia. Worse still, some writers manage to find positive virtue in the fact of war. Mansfield (1991, p. 161) writes "The aesthetic experience of the sublime on twentieth century battlefields makes sense emotionally, if only temporarily, of our mechanistic and anomic way of life." It has also been suggested that, while heroic myths have inspired men to fight, anti-war myths can, perversely, romanticise it (Hynes, 1997). As another example, it has been argued that the paintings and etchings of the German war artist Otto Dix show not only its horrors but also a reverence for war as a cosmic principle (see critique by Midgley, 1994). To most of those familiar with the stark immediacy of Dix's work, it must seem that any such ambiguity must lie in the eye of the post-war beholder.

(c) Education. In 1974, UNESCO recommended that member states should foster education for peace, but this has been largely disregarded. Finland, among very few countries, has tried to implement it. History, at least at the elementary level, is often taught as a history of wars and conquests and military values are espoused (Hinde & Parry, 1989).

(d) War Toys. War toys in countries at peace introduce children to the idea of war, capitalizing especially on the attractiveness of mechanical devices for boys. They help to create the impression that war is a normal activity in which most adults indulge.

(d) The Macho Ideal. Men tend to display physical aggression more than women. Many aspects of risk-taking behavior, including physical aggressiveness, are on average more frequent in men than in women, rising to a peak in the late teens or early twenties, and there is much evidence that the difference is biologically based. But biological propensities interact with social influences in the development of aggressiveness, and it is perhaps a form of sexual rivalry (perhaps stemming from childhood experience, Dinnerstein, 1976) that leads men to see war as a specifically male business: "No real man would want a woman to fight his battles." Recently, there has been much discussion as to the part that women should play in war. Against their involvement it has also been argued that male troops would over-protect women on their own side, and rape those on the other, leading to a breakdown of discipline. Countering this and other arguments that are sometimes used, Mansfield (1991) points out that the feminine qualities of tact and of understanding in personal relationships are important in good leaders (see above), and that female biology is less of a cost than the propensity of men to get drunk or become addicted. However, the important issue is not whether women are as efficient at fighting a modern war, but whether the claim that war is a masculine prerogative makes war more likely when men are the decision makers, as is usually the case. Women tend to value peace more highly than do men, yet seldom participate in the decision-making processes that determine whether or not war shall occur (Pulkkinen, 1989; Ruddick, 1989). Those women who do reach positions of power often do so by virtue of masculine characteristics.

(e) Individual Narrative Construction. We all construct narratives of our lives that tend to accord with current experience, but those narratives may have a rather tenuous connection to historical fact (e.g. Harvey, Agostinelli & Weber, 1989). It is probably the majority who forget or underplay the horror and remember the camaraderie, constructing personal narratives that both justify and glorify their participation. No doubt psychological defence mechanisms operate. And those for whom reality remains central often keep it to themselves.

2. Pervasive cultural factors. Contributing to, and enhanced by, the everyday factors are aspects of the socio-cultural structure that affect the orientation of individuals.

(a) National Characteristics. Nietzsche saw the life of the warrior as epitomizing human life at its best; he had a not inconsiderable influence in central Europe. Some countries have a long record of belligerence; others, such as Switzerland, of neutrality. These national characteristics are perpetuated through the socio-cultural structure and propaganda. However, some such as Sweden have changed from being a warlike nation to being a peaceful one.

(b) Religion. Surveying world religions, Thompson (1988) found that while virtually all have talked peace, religion has often supported an "us versus them" attitude. Many wars have been characterised as holy wars, and in nearly all wars religious imagery is recruited to justify the nationalistic cause. In the World Wars, the slogans "Gott mit uns" or "In God we trust" were used by both sides. Atheistic societies may substitute the sanctification of the system for a deity, as with the USSR and Communism.

The relation between the Christian religion and war has been a complex one. The Old Testament, concerned with what were effectively tribal conflicts, is full of bloody battles. In the Christian Church the believer is portrayed as a soldier "fighting the good fight," and the Book of Revelations makes extensive use of the imagery of war and death. Nevertheless, the early Christians were essentially pacifists and accommodated to militarism only in the 4th Century, when the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity. This posed a problem, and Saint Augustine, attempting to justify the contradiction, provided a moral justification for Christian participation in war with the concept of the "Just War" (Santoni, 1991;Teichman, 1986). A war was considered "just" if it was necessary to avenge injury or to maintain earthly justice. The Just War tradition thus legitimated at least some wars, and the flexibility of its criteria, adjusted to meet political aspirations and the indiscriminate nature of modern weapons, has helped to maintain the institution of war over the centuries.

In the two World Wars, each side used Christian imagery to make war appear acceptable and necessary. Particularly potent has been the equation of death in war with Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. "Greater love hath no man than this. . ." is proclaimed on many war memorials. Often, a sword is superimposed on the cross in military cemeteries or memorials. The close relations between the perception of Christ's death on the Cross and death in battle have been demonstrated by Mosse (1990) and by Sykes (1991). Christ's death is portrayed as a sacrifice, and the ritual celebrating it is referred to as the Eucharistic sacrifice. Death in war is referred to in similar terms; for instance, one propaganda poster showed a dead soldier with a neatly sanitized bullet hole in his forehead lying at the foot of the Cross. As Mosse (1990, p. 35) puts it, "The fallen were made truly sacred in the imitation of Christ." Hitler similarly used the language of sacrifice to inspire the German people to tolerate losses for the sake of the German Volk. Sykes (1991, p. 97) is at pains to point out the many positive contributions that the Christian religion has to make, including the "command to love the enemy" (to resist their depersonalisation, that is).

Other religions have had even more devastating effects in fueling the institution of war. Watson (1995, p. l67), analysing statements of soldiers from the Arab-Muslim world and from Northern Ireland, points out that "The fighter's language blurs the boundaries of the sacred-secular and religion-politics by describing and locating temporal concerns within a religious framework." Fighting for the just cause of a new sociopolitical system is defined in terms of religious belief, personal identity, and political conviction.

(c) International Law. The Just War tradition is at the basis of modern international law as it pertains to war. The law distinguishes between the right to go to war and conduct in war once it has started. The former has been largely disregarded in recent centuries, so that the right to go to war became almost unrestricted. After the first World War, some restrictions were placed on this right. After the second, the United Nations Charter ruled that the use of force for settling international disputes should be the prerogative of the United Nations, except in the case where a state was the victim of an armed attack. Recent history demonstrates the limited effectiveness of this ruling. However, in its concern with the conduct of war, international law seeks to protect basic human rights. The effectiveness of the International Court of Justice remains to be demonstrated; we hope for its success, but also that success will not be taken as an indication that war can now be "clean" and thus permissible.

(d) Propaganda. Seen from a distance, the most amazing thing about modern war is that individuals are willing to join up, to make sacrifices, and even to give up their lives when they go to war. Others work long hours or abandon their careers in order to support a war effort. All who have been to war, even all those who have been alive in a country at war, must be aware of its horrors, yet somehow the message does not get through. One must ask, what is it that gives recruits this false picture of war?

Part of the explanation lies in the way in which national traditions, religious beliefs, and current situational demands are channeled into nationalism. It is helpful here to distinguish between patriotism, involving love for one's country, and nationalism, involving attitudes of superiority or a need for power over other national groups. Feshbach (1991; Kosterrnan & Feshbach, 1989) showed that these attitudes, though positively correlated with each other, can be distinguished. In research carried out in the USA during the Cold War era, they found that individuals scoring high on nationalism in a questionnaire were more hawkish about nuclear weapons, but less willing to risk their lives for their country, than those scoring high on patriotism. This is in harmony with distinctions that have been made in studies of the dynamics of groups (Brewer & Brown, in press). Discrimination between in-group and out-group may arise from enhanced favoritism to in-group members without any change in effect on others, or from enhanced denigration of those seen as different from oneself; or finally from perceived inter-group competition. Apparently, patriotic individuals are higher on susceptibility to the first, nationalistic individuals to the second, and a war situation inevitably involves the third.

That, however, merely puts the question one stage back: what is it that maintains these patriotic/nationalistic attitudes? Because the two are related, forces that maintain patriotism may also maintain nationalism. Naturally and properly, cultural beliefs and love of one's country must be maintained. Cultural diversity is to be valued in its own right — a uniform Coca-Cola culture is not an acceptable prospect. Unfortunately, customs like saluting the flag and playing the national anthem enhance not only love of one's own country but also (though perhaps to a lesser extent) comparison with and denigration of others. The balance between the two depends, of course, on the context of the ceremony, the precise way in which it is carried out, and the wording of the anthem.

The psychological bases of patriotism/nationalism have already been implied. Patriotism contributes to an individual's social identity (see above), to individuals seeing themselves as members of their country. In times of actual or impending war, propaganda increases social identity at the expense of individual identity. Integration of the in-group is augmented by patriotic symbols such as flags and by the ritual of parades and ceremonies. In military units a familial type of unity may be fostered. On a broader canvas, the country may be seen as the Fatherland or Motherland, and other soldiers as brothers-in-arms. Indeed Johnson (1986,1989) has suggested that patriotism depends on an unconscious perception of fellow countrymen as kin, and is therefore parasitic on a biological propensity to help related individuals. Animal and human data support the view that familiarity does augment attraction to other individuals (Bateson, 1980; Zajonc, 1968). It is also likely that natural selection has acted to promote group solidarity independently of questions of relatedness (Krebs & Davies, 1981). In either case, both processes of socialisation and social rituals, especially militaristic ones, would act to augment the effect.

In time of war, the balance is swung towards nationalism. The threat posed by the enemy becomes a threat to individuals' social identities. Categorization of the enemy as such readily leads to stereotyping and prejudice. An individual who is seen as a member of a category is seen as imbued with the stereotypical qualities of that category (Hamilton & Trolier, 1986), and those qualities are seen as (to different extents) associated with each other. Individuals high and low on prejudice differ in the extent to which stereotypical attributes are associated with the category label (Lepore & Brown, in press).

Nationalism involves and is augmented by denigration of the enemy. Thus in propaganda the enemy is portrayed in a number of ways that are calculated to augment hostile feelings towards him (Wahlstrom, 1987; Keen, 1991). A variety of human propensities are exploited. Most frequently the enemy is portrayed as an aggressor and therefore to be blamed for the conflict and to be feared and resisted. The blame may be augmented by an implied association between the enemy and evil; he may even be portrayed as the Devil or as Anti-God. The culpability of the enemy, as well as his fear-evoking properties, are sometimes augmented by portraying him as a barbarian, supporting an anti-culture, or as greedy, trying to acquire what is not his. Racism is readily recruited to aid the denigration of the enemy. This is familiar enough to Westerners from the differences between the portrayal by the Allies of the Germans and the Japanese even before the savagery of the Pacific war. Reciprocally, the Japanese saw the war as "just revenge for decades of condescension and discrimination by the 'white' powers, whose 'demonic' nature was shown by the mutilation of Japanese war dead and the systematic bombing of urban areas in both Europe and Japan" (Dower, 1986, p. x).

The strangeness of the enemy conveyed in such images also has fear-evoking properties which again play on basic human propensities. Infants start to show fear of strangers in the second half of the first year (Bronson, 1968), and this may persist in some degree throughout life. Fearsomeness, as well as the culpability of the enemy, is also conveyed by showing the enemy as criminal, anarchic, a terrorist, and even as a torturer and rapist. There is, of course. a need for balance here, as he must not be shown as invincible.

Humans do not readily kill other humans, and in some tribal warfare killing is often limited, especially in formal battles as opposed to raids and ambushes (Lewis, 1995). In modern war this inhibition against killing may be less important if, as is often the case, the enemy is unseen and at a distance. The area bombing in Europe and Asia, the use of atomic weapons, and the use of defoliants and napalm by the USA in Vietnam, epitomize the issue. But modern war still sometimes involves hand-to-hand combat, and the inhibitions against killing may then be overcome by fear or under conditions of long-term experience of frustration and danger (Lifton, 1973). Some aspects of enemy images are also important here. The culpability of the enemy allows the soldier to see killing as justified, and portrayal of the enemy as beast, reptile, or germ legitimizes his extermination. Killing is also justified by making war an expression of social solidarity in defense of homes, religion, or way-of-life. This readily leads to conscientious objectors being seen as traitors.

Most of the images used in propaganda symbolise the enemy as an individual, whether human or non-human. This immediately reduces the conflict to terms comprehensible to the individual. But with the increasing impersonality of modern war, the enemy is sometimes depersonalised and portrayed merely as a weapon — a bomber or a nuclear missile. This again provides respectability for aggression against him. War may even be referred to as a computer game. There is perhaps here an echo of the much earlier tradition of war as a chivalrous conflict between heroes, as seen in contests between knights or samurai.

One important issue about such propaganda is that, by showing the enemy as barbaric, evil, greedy and so on, it is at the same time saying that we are righteous and civilized, and thus bolstering the self-image by contrast with the other-image. Depictions of the enemy may serve self-interest in other ways. In the 9th to 12th centuries, Irish writers portrayed the marauding Vikings not only as aggressive and rapacious but also as desecrators of the sacred, as barbarians capturing innocent women and causing monks to break their vows, as surpassing beasts in savagery, and as utterly uncivilised (Ni Mhaonaigh. 1977). The aim appears to have been not so much (or not only) to induce antagonism to the enemy, but rather to advance the interests of the literati, who were mostly monks. The enemy were seen as providing retribution for inadequate religious observance, or were used to provide an opportunity for glorifying their own kings for vanquishing such foes.

3. War as an Established Set of Institutions. While so far we have treated war as an institution with a large number of constituent roles, that is an over-simplified picture. With modern war, we have to do with an established set of nested institutions. Eisenhower (1961) called attention to the danger that the massive armaments industry created in the USA, together with the military establishment, would come to wield an unwarranted influence throughout the nation. He referred to the military-industrial complex, but it is perhaps even more appropriate to speak of the military-industrial-scientific complex. Each corner of this complex is to be seen as itself a nested set of interrelated institutions. Each, if unrestrained, is self-enhancing and self-perpetuating, leading to greater arms production and greater emphasis on the acceptability and respectability of war.

This was well demonstrated during the Cold War era. At the military corner of the triangle, the competitive force of inter-service rivalry was a powerful force: for instance, in the 1960's the Navy and Air Force of the USA competed to develop their own strategic counter-force weapons, and worst-case assumptions about Soviet intentions allowed for no restraints. Turning to the science corner, the arms race in the Cold War was due as much to the science-induced pull of technical advance as to democratic political decisions, and defense spending came to play a major role in the country's academia. Finally, industry had its own goals and its own interests at stake. The long lead-time necessary for the development of new weapons placed arms contractors in a strong bargaining position, for the government could not allow a contract, once placed, to fail. Furthermore, it is in the interests of both the military and industry that weapons should be sold to other countries, as thereby the unit cost is reduced. Without the arms trade by industrialized countries, many of the wars elsewhere would at least have been less bloody and perhaps would not have occurred (for fuller discussion, see Prins et al., 1983).

Each of these three sub-institutions has its own internal organization with appropriate sets of roles, and the incumbents of each have rights and duties appropriate to their roles. But there is one factor in common to each member of the military-industrial-scientific triad — the career ambitions and inertia of the individuals involved. This is no doubt augmented in many cases by feelings of loyalty and patriotism, themselves augmented in turn by long-term patriotic traditions and propaganda. But military careers depend on the possibility of winnable war, scientists' careers can be made by military research, and industrialists and their shareholders inevitably have financial goals.

 

CONCLUSION

Psychology has contributed in many ways to the understanding of war, even though the major part of the research has focused on how to conduct wars efficiently. This paper is concerned with the ways in which psychology reveals mechanisms that make war acceptable to those who take part, in spite of its horrors. It involves sketches of the factors involved in violence at three levels of social complexity. The importance of individual aggressiveness decreases along the continuum from individual aggressiveness through mob violence, ethnic and religious wars, to modern institutionalised war, while the importance of group processes and of institutionalisation increase. The factors that contribute to support war as an institution include everyday background factors (e.g., books, films), pervasive cultural factors (national traditions, some uses of religion, propaganda). and the military-industrial-scientific complex.



REFERENCES
Return to Hinde - Part I
 
 
 

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