Mural at St. Peter’s Church, Mission District, San Francisco, by Isaís Mata
Presentation, War and Peace Lecture Series
Sonoma State University, October 2006
Craig Chalquist, PhD
Dedication: To all the young men and women killed in wars everywhere, dying because they believe it’s their duty, and deprived of living rich full lives as a result.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. – Micah 4:3
Over the six years or so I counseled violent men and women, including court-referred veterans with extensive combat records, I often thought back upon the words of Sigmund Freud, which he penned in remembrance of World War I, “the war to end all wars”:
Then the war in which we had refused to believe broke out, and brought—disillusionment. Not only is it more sanguinary and more destructive than any war of other days, because of the enormously increased perfection of weapons of attack and defense; but it is at least as cruel, as embittered, as implacable as any that has preceded it…When the community has no rebuke to make, there is an end of all suppression of the baser passions, and men perpetrate deeds of cruelty, fraud, treachery and barbarity so incompatible with their civilization that one would have held them to be impossible.
The question of why we fight is a very old one, of course, and many answers have been offered by many thinkers from many perspectives. But there is one I’d like to start with because most of the others end up pointing back to it as both answer and justification. In fact, they must point back to it given the place of war in the history of civilization and centralized power, for without it the need for war becomes highly problematic. I refer to the quick and simple explanation, “It’s our nature.”
First of all, notice that this “explanation” explains nothing at all. It’s like saying that the reason glue works as an adhesive is because it’s sticky. I once saw an old dictionary of psychology which defined “human nature” as that to which we appeal when we don’t want to look too deeply at a given behavior. Or, we might add, too deeply into certain inconvenient questions. For example, if war is our nature, why must leaders go to such lengths of bullying, deception, intimidation, and outright lying to drag nations and armies into armed conflict? Why the elaborate excuses, the repetitive appeals to self-defense? Why all the well-funded propaganda to demonize the current enemy? If war is our nature, why do so many people protest?
Sometimes the it’s-our-nature argument is modified thus: “It’s our animal nature.” It’s instinctive. Freud liked this argument. As he told Albert Einstein, we will not manage war unless we manage our animal passions, our baser instincts. The reptile brain made me do it.
Leaving aside the obvious fact that reptiles don’t carry assault rifles, we should suspect this notion immediately for harboring a vested interest, emotional or otherwise. When Herbert Spencer, coiner of the phrase “survival of the fittest,” first came to New York City, he was feted by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie was delighted that his version of predatory, bare-knuckle capitalism had received what sounded like a scientific justification: he who collects the most toys deserves them, biologically speaking. It is no accident that politicians and religious leaders who bray the loudest for military interventions tend not to hold a very high opinion of human nature to start with. It is a short goosestep indeed from an “original sin” to a “master plan” for controlling it.
I would mention here a book written and extensively researched by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm: The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. In it he goes over the various versions of the instinct theory of aggression, and his conclusion is that it fails to observe any distinctions between the many motivations for violence. In other words, the violence of a village defending itself against invaders is not psychologically comparable to the violence of arming and dropping nuclear bombs on civilians. The half-naked man who hits you with a club for barging into his hut is motivated differently than the uniformed man who orders the secret, systematic torture of men captured in battle or the destruction of an entire city. The first kind of violence may well be instinctive, a shared evolutionary legacy of protectiveness in the service of life. The second is not.
In his interesting and well-written book How War Began, anthropologist Keith Otterbein discusses the evidence that groups of prehistorical hunters occasionally attacked each other, sometimes quite brutally. This kind of “war” he regards as innate and permanent. But his definition of war, which emphasizes weapons and not motives, is very broad: “armed combat between political communities.” Prehistorical combatants were fraternities, not professional soldiers, and they were led by chieftains rather than officers. Warfare as we normally conceive it—hierarchical, run by distant leaders, manned by conscripts, and highly systematic in execution and pursuit of goals—did not arise until much later in history.
In fact, as recently as a global archeological survey completed in 2003, archaeologist R. Brian Ferguson found no evidence of highly organized warfare—with a single exception—prior to ten thousand years ago. No mass slaughters perpetrated by ungoverned savages, no Hobbesian free-for-all, no Freudian primal father eaten by his envious sons; just a single site along the Nile River in Sudan where twenty-four skeletons were uncovered in proximity to stone projectiles. The combatants seem to have suffered from a recently depleted food supply.
On the other hand, war-torn bodies and heaps of evidence of well-equipped violence begin to appear regularly around 6,500 BCE onward: the very period when villages had hardened into permanent urban centers guarded by walls and forts. In Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, Peru, and northern China, the four regions where the earliest centers of statehood arose, organized warfare immediately followed. If we were massacring large groups of each other before then, as the instinct or “it’s our nature” thinking requires, then why doesn’t the archaeological record reflect it? Perhaps, as anthropologist Raymond Kelly suggests, that kind of warfare does not arise outside of bonded groups like clans and rudimentary governments: in other words, social hierarchies that establish and rely on unequal distributions of basic resources. Carbon dating reseach in Oaxaca, Mexico puts the first intervillage raiding and defensive palisades within a few centuries (3260-3160 BCE) of the establishment of sedentary village life. Raiding then grew into war, with the usual accompaniments: captives killed, homes and temples burned, entire populations displaced.
Cultural historian and urban planner Lewis Mumford had something to say on this question of mass violence:
Those who attempt to impute war to man’s biological nature, treating it as a manifestation of the ravenous “struggle for existence,” or as a carry-over of instinctive animal aggression, show little insight into the difference between the fantastic ritualized massacres of war and other less-organized varieties of hostility, conflict, and potentially murderous antagonism. Pugnacity and rapacity and slaughter for food are biological traits, at least among the carnivores: but war is a cultural institution.
What links the rise of urban areas with the rise of organized warfare has to do with several key factors. If we take the Fertile Crescent region as an example, as Jared Diamond does in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, we can see a slow progression: from the first straight rows of systematic agriculture to the permanent settlements they make necessary to the need to protect these fields from hungry non-agriculturalists running low on game. Combine this with the power mystique of an entrenched priesthood, and you end up with chieftains and generals ruling over a standing army of trained fighting men and, eventually, the city the men are supposed to protect. With the accompanying separation from the natural world from which we evolved, ideologies and empires seemed more real after a time than the tangible world of landscapes, growing things, and relationships.
The question this brings up is: Why is this not common knowledge, this link between warfare, urbanization, centralized power, and psychological distance from that home of homes, our world?
We know from a century of psychology and fifty years of family therapy that the “no-talk rule” preventing certain awkward facts from entering a family’s day-to-day discourse also operates at the level of entire societies. In a family this might look like remaining silent when a parent is using or abusing, or refusing to discuss certain family secrets. At the cultural level, taboo topics include talking about the people in the so-called second and third worlds whose slave labor pays for the luxuriously wasteful American lifestyle. Environmentalists and naturalists have shown a double dose of courage to withstand the hatred directed at them for raising the taboo topic of economically accelerated destruction of the planet surface. Some problems are so dangerous to the status quo as to be literally unthinkable to large numbers of people, particularly those most dedicated to keeping the boat from rocking.
In our culture the accepted party line is that because wars are inevitable, tough leaders are needed to manage them. It takes a Brian Ferguson to suggest that in actuality, leaders favor war because war favors leaders. In other words, war makes for political–and religious–job security. This is why public authoritarians throughout history have always emphasized state security. Their authority requires it. With no impulses to bridle, no souls to save, and no resources to capture, the architects of empire would find themselves out of a job.
That much is obvious upon reflection and a little education; but how these leaders encourage others to carry out the actual, bloody business of institutionalized warfare, from soldiers in the ranks to entire eager nations, brings us into the realm of a psychological inquiry. We want a look at the passions, the mentality, the inner fire of war. We want to know why we fight. And we cannot understand this by making the illicit Freudian move of explaining psychology in terms of instinct. We have to deal with living selves, not just their hypothesized biological underpinnings.
Although the motivations for war are as varied as the number of people feeling stirred by them, certain inner patterns emerge upon closer examination. And these patterns play a far more prominent part in the business of war than whatever inbuilt aggressions they start out from. Stirred together, they constitute a dark fermentation, the emotional fuel of war.
The first ingredient is widespread, anxious discontentment. Societies that do not meet basic physiological or psychological needs provide this in abundance, as Abraham Maslow and many others have noted; Aldous Huxley referred to them as “organized lovelessness.” To me they are systems of disembodiment that generate chronic, low-grade anxiety and bewilderment by forcing large numbers of people to live a bread-and-circuses existence of routines cut off from the rhythms and cycles of nature. In time people depend so much on such a system that they no longer have the skills to provide themselves with food, clothing, housing, entertainment, or community. Where previously a fabric of lore, family, neighborliness, cooperation, livelihood, rootedness, and sensory aliveness wove together the cosmos into an integrated experience now hang tatters of rage, haste, nationalism, ideology, consumption, unhappiness, and futility: the dull red cloth from which battle flags are cut.
To describe the next ingredient we need to go back to Fromm for a moment:
For most of his career Fromm concerned himself with authoritarian psychology–in fact, he was an inspirer of the Frankfurt School’s research on the topic–and he came up with two concepts that if anything are more relevant now than when they first appeared in print. The first is group narcissism. This refers to the “idolatrous” identification of a person with a group he idealizes, whether religious or political. The result is a regressive sense of false belonging joined with an artificially inflated feeling of importance. Nationalism is an obvious example. Strivings for uniqueness and the use of human powers are subordinated to the strivings of the group being worshipped. This includes treating its emblems–the flag for instance–as sacred relics even while exploiting them to shore up feelings of superiority.
Hiding within group narcissism is an underlying attitude which Fromm identified as the syndrome of necrophilia, a pervasive love of death. In its normal usage “necrophilia” refers to having sex with the dead; Fromm deliteralized and broadened this morbidity to refer to a psychological fascination with the inert, the mechanical, and the lifeless. When frustrated by oppressive social systems, the individual’s natural strivings for inner intensity and life degenerate into strivings for death. (This also extends Freud’s concept of the death drive by de-biologizing it.) Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Tarnas have highlighted a common example of this syndrome–namely, reductionism, the tendency to explain complex systems in terms of their rudimentary components–by arguing that seeing the world as dead and disenchanted reveals the projection of a lifeless, mechanical worldview upon it. Ecopsychology extends this still further by speculating that dead zones in the ecosphere parallel dead zones in the collective psyche.
Both of these states–group narcissism and the syndrome of necrophilia–originate in highly industrialized social systems requiring unlimited expansion in order to survive. Emerson spoke to this more than a century go by noting that “things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Thoreau remarked that “we have become the machines of our machines.” Fromm’s comment was that we have men that act like machines and machines that now act like men. The common denominator is perpetual commodification and conquest at the price of inner aliveness and soul.
A third result is rage. Social systems which ignore basic human needs, whether physical or psychological, generate rage in even the most outwardly comfortable of citizens. But the rage is largely unconscious, a kind of slow global warming of the frustrated body politic. Internal combustion is an apt metaphor in this mechanized age where people are made to feel like numbers, financially coerced to perform jobs they hate, seated in rows for a top-down indoctrination we call “education,” and buffeted by mindless images generated by fabulously funded engines of mass advertising. There is a fundamental, inescapable indignity in being treated, day after day, as of no greater importance than a part in a bigger system. Were it not for palliatives like television, computers, and other forms of mass distraction, the system would explode in less time than it takes to watch an intelligence-insulting sitcom.
From the standpoint of authoritarian leadership, however, this rage is quite useful. Properly directed, it fuels the mighty engine of perpetual warfare.
Rage is extremely displaceable, especially when not fully conscious. In group we used to give the men checklists to track who they went off on during the week as a result of not dealing with home or work situations that angered them. Did they run down to McDonald’s and yell at a cashier? Abuse a bank teller? Indulge in road rage? The usual targets are people who can’t properly fight back: picking on someone assertive would go against the whole point of displacement.
Few things encourage the expression of rage better than an effective propaganda. Justifications are grease for the slippery slope of displaced frustration. Absolutist thinking, us versus them, appeals to tradition and patriotism, armed judgmentalism disguised as “moral clarity,” smearing one’s opponents as unpatriotic, whether by implication or saying so outright: these and other marketing tools channel rage into militarily useful directions.
They also invite the dynamic of projection: seeing in our opponents what we deny in ourselves, particularly primitive impulses of destructiveness. The more self-alienated the person from the emotional life within, the more potent the projection and the more primitive the impulses. It is remarkable that, as ubiquitous as it is, projection receives almost no attention in the mainstream media–or would be if the media weren’t owned by those with a vested interest in conditioning vast audiences to confuse fantasy and fact, as when entertainment is taken for real news, viewers send bridal gifts to actors whose characters wed on TV, and fans of medical shows write to fictional doctors to ask for health advice. Imagines what happens in the voting booth. When projections dominate social discourse, fantasies take on the appearance of flesh as the flesh of opponents is fantasied into an object.
Projection is also a form of distancing. Back in the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a famous series of experiments in which participants were led to believe they were administering electric shocks to an unseen person giving wrong answers on an exam. They were also led to believe this person suffered from heart problems. The authority of the experimenter seems to have been a pivotal factor in leading a startling 60% or more of participants to administer shocks until the voice coming through the intercom fell silent. But in versions of the experiment where participants could see a person (in reality a stooge) being shocked, the percentage of cooperation fell drastically. The more real a person is for us, the less willing we are to inflict lethal harm. It’s one thing to stick a knife in someone, but quite another to push a button that sends–projects!–a missile toward an enemy we never see but imagine an incarnation of evil.
Like warfare, projection seems particularly rampant in highly industrialized societies. It could hardly be coincidental that the primal peoples bearing the brunt of genocidal destructiveness are almost always dark-skinned people uniformly described in terms that evoke the demonized soil: bestial, earthy, fallen, “children of nature,” etc. Like institutionalized warfare, institutionalized enslavement picked up speed once urban civilization began to look upon the once-sacred land as territory to be fenced and monocropped–and worked by captured labor.
Pseudo-innocence is another attitude one often sees in wartime or shortly before the start of hostilities. Sartre called it “bad faith”: the willed refusal to believe what is happening. Denial. Allowing oneself to be fooled into accepting pleasant lies. In Germany shortly before WW II, even the activists and intellectuals had a difficult time accepting the possibility that violent reactionaries could take over a government right under the approving eyes of the public. Those wise enough to protest were promptly labeled depressing, morbid, negative, or worse. When that thick a repression barrier hovers over a nation, anything can happen under its cloak.
Now, in social systems where psychological maturity is seen as a liability (authentically mature people ask critical questions, stand up for themselves, and don’t make good consumers), rites of initiation into adulthood are one of the first casualties. By “rites of initiation” I mean those ceremonialized passages all pre-industrial societies use to welcome young people into fully responsible adulthood. Michael Meade refers to this as adding the fire of the young to the hearth of the community. A society that warehouses its elders while promoting a cult of youthfulness coupled with economic impulsivity (note the magical push-button power of credit) leaves huge sectors of the population yearning for initiation. We can see this in the growing popularity of gangs whose members go through scarification and bloodlettings in unconscious, unguided, and therefore futile stumblings toward ripening and belonging. The call to war makes use of this yearning by parodying rites of passage. Boot camp, commanding elders, the rituals of training, and the emphasis on bravery and loyalty all draw on the lure of initiation without ever fulfilling it legitimately. Real initiation results in seasoning, wisdom, and large-heartedness. False initiation only results in wounding, isolation, and violence.
There is another ingredient we should add to our growing list of explosive compounds: the widespread sense of alienated meaningless: what sociologists once referred to as “anomie.” How many people do you meet who really do what they love? How many do you meet who really know what to do with their lives? Who feel like they belong to the world? Who have a sense of purpose, meaning, and vitality? It’s hard to have a sense of purpose in traffic, at the DMV, or when punching a timeclock; and for some, finding a meaning in life is more difficult than blindly following whatever one was told in childhood by well-meaning parents or clergymen. Little wonder, then, that young people just facing the terrifying complexities of what we think of as civilized existence feel tempted by the call to glory and honor. Military recruiters stake themselves out on college campuses because they know young people want answers, meaning, and purpose. They want to be part of something larger than themselves: to feel significant, as Adler pointed out long ago; to be seen. Military life offers a way to do that, with emblems, orders, and housing into the bargain. Everything becomes much simpler when others make the decisions.
A last ingredient sometimes mentioned by men who have seen combat makes the compound of violence almost supernaturally irresistable: the ecstacy of battle frenzy, especially when shared with comrades in arms. Men have confided to me such overpowering feelings of godlikeness and indestructibility in battle that my arms and legs tingled in sympathy with their words. War is the greatest instant mood-altering rush ever discovered, bar none. Orgasms and chemical ecstacies pale by comparison. To a soldier who in civilian life washes cars or hammers nails for a living, the sense of being utterly possessed by Mars is like being infused, if only for a moment, with superhuman power. It isn’t just the sociopaths who become addicted to battle. Even we who participate in it vicariously, through news stories and televised images, know a faint but arresting echo of that immense, archetypal grandeur. The more powerless and spiritually bereft the enjoyer, the stronger the pull to hear the clash of arms….until the smoke finally clears.
It is an ancient platitude that what goes up must come down. English sea captains called it the butcher’s bill: the terrifying cost of war. The casualties behind the monuments. My father, a Marine who saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the Korean War, told me he still wakes to the roar of helicopters from a war that officially ended in 1953. I once sat at the bedside of a man who had fought in WW II. With tears running down his face he told me what it was like to look through eyes still young and see a friend killed by artillery fire while the two crouched down on a South Pacific beachhead. Fifty years later, the wound still bled as though freshly inflicted. His friend never left that beach; but then again, neither had he.
What is to be done about war as warfare rages all around us? How can there be effective healing?
I have come to believe that the problem of war will never be solved so long as the needs war satisfies go unaddressed, especially when some of these needs are artificially produced and amplified. I therefore believe it not only useless but dangerous to counter the fire of aggression with appeals to be gentle or peaceful. Covetous governments will never be peaceful. They will go on starting wars for high-sounding reasons so long as troops are willing to fight for them and industries, religions, and corporate-owned media support them. As Herbert Marcuse stated in his “Essay on Liberation”: “Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but the fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the ritual of the hippies but the declaration of a higher dignitary of the church that war is necessary for peace.”
We know from watching how those conditioned to employ violence become peaceful members of a society that the answer must include reeducation for nonviolence and cooperation. As many educators realize, however, lessons that teach young people how to get along with each other seldom appear on approved curriculums. The mentor who talks openly about the dangers of projection runs the risk of being attacked by the cultural descendants of the Nazi intellectuals who slandered and blacklisted Herman Hesse. He had suggested in public that those who lead the nation into war on the flimsiest of excuses stop long enough to ask how their aggressions add to the evil in the world. Sponsoring education into the nature of projection and the skills required to re-own the projected personal and cultural shadow requires real courage in reactionary societies, and in some cases means a risk to one’s livelihood. When well-funded hatred rules the halls of power, honesty and clear-sightedness become radical acts.
Because war makes itself attractive by imitating rites of initiation, the ultimate psychological solution to war must involve real initiation. In other words, the question of how to avoid war is also the question of how to grow people up so they don’t make impulsive decisions, hunt for glory, follow the leader blindly, project their aggressions onto the latest potential enemies, inflict pain for sadistic pleasure, or ascend to where they can lead entire nations into retaliatory disaster. War is not a form of psychopathology so much as a sustained expression of psychological immaturity. Those who most fervently promote warfare have not learned how to manage their emotions, free themselves from hatred of the Other, or find a sense of personal significance apart from flags and mobs; and how could they? None have had enough time in the presence of mature mentors and seasoned, rational role models to learn these capacities or others required for nonviolent ways of being.
Fortunately, the urge for initiation is crosscultural, perennial, and worldwide. Think of all the young men looking for the blessing of the elders and finally joining the army instead. The task is to bring these two groups together so the cycle of initiation can replace the cycle of violence.
To say a few words about what characterizes this kind of initation:
All over the world rites of passage tend to exhibit the three-fold structure of departure, initiation, and return. Departure refers to a rupture event that separates the apprentice of transformation from his customary environment. In primal cultures this looked like the older men taking adolescent boys out of their homes and away from their families to go off and learn men’s practices and lore. Something similar happened between women and girls. In the absence of ceremony, young people sometimes unconsciously strive for the state of rupture by getting into various kinds of trouble. Initiation involves a combination of ritual sacrifice (the Sun Dance furnishes a Native American example), confrontation, sharing of cultural stories and wisdom, and watching how the elders behave. There is a psychoanalytic school of thought that male initiation requires extra force of emphasis in order to switch a boy’s identification from mother to father without breaking the affective tie to the mother. Returnmeans reentering the community in order to find one’s meaningful place in it. Macho posturing and concealed bewilderment give way to inner strength and shared goals. The initiant also gains the balance to compromise and negotiate, and a sense of belonging that enhances rather than diminishes the sense of individuality.
In my younger years I was fortunate enough to experience a contemporary version of this when I reached college, when a certain professor of literature spotted an angry, troubled, insecure adolescent hiding in the back of the room and decided to get to know him. He mentored me informally for three hard years while I wrestled the demons left over from a violent childhood. At first I thought him strange and could not figure out why until it finally dawned on me: I had never before met a man who was so comfortable with himself. “There is a lot of idealism beneath that fury,” he told me, but it took me a long time to dig down to it and set it free. During that period I learned what it was to be visible to someone I admired. I entered college hoping to land a job where I could be violent for the government; I left it in clear contact with aggressions I had learned to tap for energy in peaceful projects. Lack of outward structure no longer bothered me: my experiences had taught me that uncertainty meant opportunity.
At this point I would like to give you some examples of how I saw this operate one pummeling at a time in our men’s groups. “Boys who pretend to be men” groups might be more accurate: the habitually violent invariably lag far behind in emotional maturity, as we could see every time court-referred domestic violence perpetrators in their thirties, forties, or fifties whined about how it was all the woman’s fault. The men came from a variety of ethnic groups and backgrounds; we saw bartenders, construction workers, lawyers, corporate executives, combat vets, and even a psychiatrist. Some came to us for being violent with wives or girlfriends; others, for fighting with other men or on more serious charges: rape, child abuse, stalking, murder. Some had been paid to kill people for a living.
A strange alchemy sets in when such men first realize their usual tactics won’t work against the counselors or each other. For perhaps the first time ever, they find themselves held accountable for their impulsiveness, deceitfulness, and manipulation, with the tactics now visible for all to see and comment on. “I was like you once,” a more seasoned group member would often tell a new one, “with the same excuses and other bullshit when I first came here. It won’t work. You’ll learn.” Direct questions asked by the group might include: “Who did you lose your temper with this week?” “When was the last time you were violent, and what justification did you use?” “How many lies have you told today?” “What are your favorite strategies for blaming others for your own behavior?”
A man who came in for assaulting his partner was a typical example. Like hundreds of other men, he told me in the intake interview that he’d been “fooling around” with some play fighting (he was a kickboxer) and “popped” his girlfriend by accident. I said, “Well, I’ve read the police report, and it doesn’t say anything about play fights or accidents. It says split lip and bruised forehead and being prevented from calling for help. –Tell you what: stand up and show me what you did to her.” Men often look embarrassed or begin to sweat when asked to do this, especially when the counselor is shorter than they are. Here the client turned red, and his eyes filled with tears of shame. The real weight of what he had done had finally caught up with him.
Men will often report striking out because of fear of their partner. They feel backed into a corner by the intensity of an argument and opt to lose control. With large men it can be helpful to stand close in front of them so the difference in height becomes noticeable, ask how tall their partner is (usually but not always shorter than the male counselor), and crouch down a bit further before asking, “Is this about how tall she is? And you are afraid of her?” In their astonished eyes the partner who had once assumed the emotional height of an angry parent now assumes more realistic proportions. The power of fear runs deep but can be traced back to its family origins.
These kinds of confrontations, though painful, work to grow up a violent client encounter by encounter. They are supplemented by plentiful examples of how adults behave in conflictual situations requiring adequate resolution skills. It is rewarding when the counselor can see a man’s emotional maturity increasing week by week as poor impulse control and rationalizations for violence give way to more thoughtful responses, decreases in absolutist attitudes, ownership of projections and stereotyping, and practice with alternative skills.
In most cases, the rites of maturation do not work their alchemy completely and must be repeated over and over. When this occurs, men and women fully initiated into responsible adulthood tend not to obey orders, swallow ideological simplifications, or inflict mass slaughter. Their sense of partnership with the community gives them the strength and clarity to withstand propaganda and the protectiveness to guard their hard-won liberties. As I saw in the groups I had the honor to sit in on and eventually lead, aggressive people who find a sense of strength and worth in themselves andfulfilment in a network of rich social relations lose the propensity to displace rage. Eventually they lose the rage as well.
As for the chieftains, controllers, and empire-builders, the question remains of where such people come from to begin with. Where did their wounding originate, that they act with such reckless disregard, such hardness of heart, such lovelessness? The origins are lost behind the dawn of recorded history, but we can hazard an intelligent guess:
In societies composed of small bands of hunters and gatherers, cooperation is essential for survival. Individuals warped by early trauma do not have the luxury of growing up antisocial, paranoid, and controlling: if they did, selection pressures would weed them out. Only when specialization of labor has advanced enough to create niches where not everyone has to work as a team do these individuals find a relative haven. Once there, they compensate their sense of alienation in a world they don’t feel they belong in by creating antiworlds where they do belong by virtue of being in charge: armies and empires, cults and corporations. This sense of ownership gives them power and control as a pale substitute for at-home-ness and community and meanings to live by.
As a species, we have not learned how to keep these silently suffering, ambitious bullies out of the seats of power, and we will be in danger of self-extinction until we do.
You can still see this dynamic today. I once worked for a large corporation in a department run by control freaks more concerned about whether we junior members wore the right styles of neckties than in fostering any new ideas. In fact, employees with novel suggestions were routinely reminded of the “proper channels” to go through with them, which of course got them nowhere. On Christmas we were supposed to feel fortunate if the executives ensconsed on their thrones upstairs condescended to come down and shake hands with us. I don’t think any of these so-called leaders would have lasted five minutes in a truly cooperative situation. As it happened, their arrogant lack of imagination resulted in such huge losses of money that the department was eventually sold off at a loss to another company. I had already left after my supervisor told me I’d be written up for not spending enough time tracking my own work.
The best quick summary I’ve ever heard of this mentality came from science fiction writer and former news reporter Frank Herbert, who pointed out that power does not corrupt absolutely so much as attract the absolutely corruptible, who then make a mess of everything in their impulsive haste to dominate and regulate. One one occasion, before the department was shut down, I watched a series of layoffs (of lower-echelon people: it’s never the incompetent higher-ups who lose their jobs in a tragedy like this) so brutally handled that one woman had a psychotic break and a salesman died of a heart attack. The next day, a Job Fair balloon floated above the building. It reminded me of the wartime barrage balloons that always signal where our humanity has fallen short just before the shooting begins.
By contrast, inwardly awakening individuals oriented by the discovery of meanings to live by don’t need any of the idols or programming or other necrophilic accoutrements that characterize mass approaches to the problem of making one’s way in the world. And they don’t support demagogues. Instead of fighting over territory, they live in the weave of story, society, self, and surround that binds them to the land and the community in bonds of biophilia, otherwise known as love of life.
Bringing about this kind of inner-outer balance and belonging is the job of education in its truest sense: education as initiation, as participation in the life within and without, as reconnection of responsible learners and mentors to the great mysteries of being alive in an enchanted cosmos.
I would like to be able to tell you that the field I’ve been involved with for 25 years is up to this challenge, but the truth is that psychology not only created the tools of propaganda that all advocates of warfare now make use of, but the American Psychological Association continues to nourish its ties to the military. In fact, a battle is on now in the APA because of its refusal to stop psychologists from participating in the interrogation of prisoners labeled terrorists and enemy combatants. It is telling that the APA refers to those who use psychological services as “consumers”; techniques of mass advertising originating with the unscrupulous and unprincipled John B. Watson, former president of the APA, and improved by legions of specialists after him constitute the most expensive psychological project ever undertaken. Fromm considered the mass-mindedness and inner emptiness they create a greater threat to democracy than any conceivable external attack.
Nor can we expect any help from educational systems so rule-bound and oppressive that students who manage to reach college after surviving them show up with most of their innate curiosity stamped out of them. When I’ve taught freshmen, the most frequent question they ask is: “What’s on the test?” This isn’t their fault. It’s the fault of a system of “education” that emphasizes routinization, rote learning, bureaucracy, and conformity, and in the process slowly murders the learner’s soul. Is it any wonder so many of its refugees want to pick up a rifle and join the army?
Although I teach research these days instead of conducting it, I would like to propose an educational experiment. Take a group of young people–say, young teens to college age–out into the country somewhere away from TV, computers, and other weapons of mass distraction. The group would be squad-sized: twelve or so members. For a season or two, teach them several useful skills, including how to manage emotions, how to resolve conflict, how to see critically through political, religious, and financial propaganda, how to build a house, how to fix a car, how to sew clothes, how to make face-to-face community decisions, how to predict the weather. Have them tend an organic garden or see a crop or two harvested, sit in council, ride and care for horses, go out on a vision quest, create some art or poetry. They can bring all their usual studies along, but enriched by writers like Carlos Fuentes and Mark Twain, Susan Griffin and John Muir, bell hooks and Mary Belenky, Brian Swimme and Linda Hogan.
Then teach them the local legends and lore, accompanied by stories shared by their elder mentors: men and women seasoned by adversity and rich in self-fulfillment. Teach the young how to listen to themselves, how to listen to nature, what loving and strength look like up close, how to sense the moods and needs of the land. Afterwards, compare this group to a control group of young people still plugged into the machinery of what we are trained to call normality and see how many of each group become soldiers.
If there is to be a solution to warfare, it will have to glow forth from the margins, from the edges of mainstream policy and industry, from pockets of intelligence where young people filled with passion, idealism, and creative outrage still learn from wise mentors how to “hold their fire” in every sense of that marvelous phrase and learn thereby how the carefully tended flames they keep can relight a weary world.
No stranger to war himself, Jean-Paul Sartre spoke to Simone de Beauvoir about his own way forward: an enthusiasm for the world kindled and rekindled by lifelong learning. He obviously understood that the border was never built that education of the heart could not dismantle; for unlike war, the transformation of consciousness moves outward without limit. “Once I had crossed that first frontier,” he told her at the end of his life, “I realized that I could cross them all.”