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Many years ago, while the war in Vietnam still raged, the psychologist Ralph K. White wrote a book entitled Nobody Wanted War that has resonated deeply with my own thinking about war. I've long believed that the willingness of our government to kill and bring misery to millions of powerless people in nations like Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, which represent no direct threat to us, cannot be justified alone in terms of a broad strategic conception of national defense. Instead, it must for the most part be rationalized by an appeal to the darker dynamics of human psychology.
White's book, though it was focused primarily on the Vietnam War, seeks broadly to identify psychological factors common both to that war and to World Wars I and II that can distort our perceptions of an adversary's true motivations and thereby justify making war against him. Today, it seems, those same factors can also shed light on the relentless militancy of America's foreign policy and, in particular, our continuing "war on terrorism." The principal factors White sees in producing distorted views of the enemy can be characterized in capsule form as follows:
A diabolical enemy-image. The enemy is bad and must be destroyed. He is perceived as externally aggressive and internally suppressive. His institutions and ideology are a cancer that must at any cost be prevented from spreading. This diabolical enemy-image is well exemplified by the slogan popular in the fifties: "Better dead than red." Today's version is that "they" comprise an "axis of evil," are "enemies of freedom," and "seek to destroy our way of life."
The moral self-image. Our way is good and honorable and must be preserved. Our part of the world is the "Free World," despite its inclusion of a number of nations with self-evidently totalitarian governments. Both Good and God are on our side. By implication, countries not aligned with us reject freedom and godliness. This congratulatory self-image was exemplified by the German World War I slogan: "Gott Mit Uns" ("May God Be with Us")--meaning also, by implication, "May God Not Be with Our Foe." Osama Bin Laden himself was convinced God was on his side; but, then again, so was President Bush.
The virile self-image. In 1914, each of the "Great Powers" feared "losing our position as a Great Power." Analogous cases exist today. Nations are reluctant to retreat lest they be deemed weak or irresolute. This reluctance prevails even when they decide the situation at hand is not worth a fight, or, indeed, that they may even be in the wrong. The image of virility must be preserved at any cost. The essential thing is to seem consistent, strong and firm. Bush told us that we couldn't allow a gang of terrorist thugs to deflect us from our goal of bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. "National decision-makers," White wrote, "judge themselves and expect to be judged by others not as good vs. bad, or right vs. wrong, but strong vs. weak."
Selective inattention. This distortion stems from a tendency to focus attention only on information that reinforces the black-and-white views described above. What may be "gray," or even "white," elements on the enemy side are glossed over; the only interest is to paint the enemy "black."
Absence of empathy. This is the failure to try to understand how the situation looks from the adversary's point of view.
Military overconfidence. Nations generally enter wars with full confidence that they can win. There is a tendency also to not fully appreciate how long the war might last, and how much it might cost in both resources and casualties. Germany and Japan certainly regretted having started World War II. And, in the U.S., most of the people and their leadership now regret having entered both the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq.
Do White's "Distortions" Explain President Bush's "Axis of Evil" Speech?
President George W. Bush's State of the Union Address in 2002 included several references that seem to lend credence to the distortions Dr. White cites in the perceptions nations have of would-be adversaries and their justifications for waging war against them. Consider the following passages from the Bush speech: