Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Like all other forms of technology, war technology is being privatized and democratized. Ever since the 1950s, individuals have been challenging the state’s monopoly on violence in an organized, structured way by forming militias (“terrorist organizations” aka “freedom fighters”).
Mercenary PMC (Private Military Companies) such as the Wagner Group now augment or even substitute for standing armies.
Weapons have been miniaturized and rendered more affordable. The latest example is the kamikaze drone, manufactured by nearly 30 countries around the globe, most notably in Iran. Missiles of all varieties, even ballistic ones, are in the hands of paramilitary formations.
Warfare, especially of the urban kind, has been taken underground, into indestructible tangled networks of tunnels. Cyberspace affords another battlefield of distributed belligerence.
Nation-states now habitually team up with a new variant of proxy clients: nonstate operators in theatres of asymmetrical warfare.
These developments have radically transformed the very nature of war. Social media, smartphone cameras, streaming services, and television have brought the battlefield into our living rooms in live color.
As usual, in the sated West, we keep getting warfare in the developing world all wrong.
Similarly, other lessons about the North-South divide we overlook:
The West has institutionalized corruption (aka lobbying) and now preaches to the developing world about nepotism, cronyism, and venality.
Technology should never be the end – only the means to an end.
The indigenous population knows the best solutions to its problems. We need to listen rather than preach, hector, and dictate.
But, most importantly:
Education is only one path to social mobility. In other societies, reputation and social networking matter much more. In many territories in the third world, terrorism and war are the only viable vocations.
Terror organizations can be eradicated only when they do not enjoy popular support and when they engage mostly in self-enrichment via crime (examples: al-Qaida, ISIS, and narco-terrorists in South America). In all other cases, faced with resolute attrition by state actors, terror groups convert into political parties (see Hezbollah, IRA, ETA, Sandinistas, etc.)
More generally: war brings out the best in us and the worst in us.
Throughout the ages, war has been perceived as the epitome and quintessence of masculinity (even when women, like the Amazons, had been doing the soldiering): valor, heroism, courage (overcoming fear), selflessness, altruism, self-sacrifice for the greater good, and protectiveness over the weak and the meek.
But violent conflict leads to negative identity formation: defining oneself in opposition to the Other by dehumanizing, objectifying, and demonizing the enemy.
Most wars are cast as morality plays (good vs, evil). They amount to role-playing in an adversarial rule-based game (as revealed when veterans on both sides meet after the war is over, acting all chummy and convivial).
Winning a war validates the triumphant party: it is proof of a divine blessing and of having been chosen (akin to the Protestant work ethic which regards success in business as proof positive of God’s favor). The Nazi SS had Gott mit uns carved on their daggers and belt buckles!
Finally, war mediates the tension between individual and collective via the concept of self-sacrifice (special ops are the middle ground).
On the one hand, there is the pornography of extreme, gory battles. War is thus perceived as the ultimate reality TV, a video game come alive, or a horror film incarnate. There is vicarious gratification in witnessing all this safely, from the comfort of one’s living room, having been spared the atrocities. A smug sensation of accomplishment, of having gotten away with it.
Distant wars also legitimize aggressive and entitled virtue signaling and competitive morality, a noxious self-aggrandizing, and ostentatious form of self-imputed altruism.
There are, of course, those who empathize with the dying and the wounded and the suffering and do their best to help without seeking the attendant accolades of the professional do-gooder.
From personal experience, war is a grind. There is no clear end or horizon to it all. It feels like it could last forever.
PTSD is very common and so is a mounting and all-consuming paranoia, a sense of extreme isolation, and ubiquitous threat. It is as if war is a giant gaslighting experience where the very fabric of reality is torn asunder.
In many wars, there is little movement or accomplishment. The scene is frozen, surreal. Gruesome death and mutilation are constant companions.
There is an acute fear of abandonment, of getting lost, and an extreme dependency on others, an external locus of control.
War regresses its participants to infancy. Primitive psychological defense mechanisms take over: splitting, alloplastic defenses, defiance, acting out/crazymaking, moral collapse, and magical or superstitious thinking.
Civilians in war are instantly and all-pervasively traumatized: they react with a form of trauma bonding or Stockholm Syndrome. They perceive soldiers – even soldiers on their side! – as looming, inexorable hotheaded, trigger-happy, demented, and reckless threats who are hellbent on endangering all and sundry. It is as if they are caught in the crossfire between two rival criminal gangs. They are wary of both parties of combatants and this radical loss of the ability to trust and to feel safe (no “secure base”) yields terror, emotional dysregulation, and self-destructive acting out in some – or a freeze response in others.
All politicians regard war as a legitimate and integral part of the toolbox of human affairs – and justly so: it is. Hostilities are always in the background of diplomacy. Violent conflict is ineluctable, inexorable, and periodic. In many cases, warfare is considered a superior form of geopolitical signaling and the only efficacious way to secure goals. Politicians are, therefore, fatalists: they are resigned to war, inured to it, comprehend it as a force of nature and the reification of “being human”.
Vociferous protestations aside, people love a good war: it is a prime variant of dramatic entertainment, a kind of exalted sport. They exult in it. This state of mind comprises extreme anxiety and fear, of course. Every experience is rendered sharper, more crisp, and memorable. In clinical terms, war is a psychotic fantasy, a mass psychogenic illness of sorts.
Nothing decreases the odds of war. It is a myth that economic prosperity and democracy are bulwarks against the eruption of violent conflict. Conversely, literally, everything in human psychology predisposes us to aggression. Even empathy makes us choose sides and aggress against the abuser on behalf of the victim-du-jour. War is, therefore, the natural state of the human mind: it caters to numerous deep-set psychological needs. It cleanses, establishes a new equilibrium, and catalyzes the replacement of the old with the new, for better or for worse.
War is a cultural-social activity that facilitates intimacy, bonding and cooperation, technological innovation, and the emergence of a cathartic new social or political order each and every time. It is a rite of passage, a redemptive ritual, an engine of progress, and a demarcator of eras.
Humans who are exposed to repeated violence – in wars, in prison, even in hospitals – grow insensitive to it. They dehumanize and brutalize both the Other and themselves. They are suspended in a post-traumatic state, replete with infantile psychological defenses, dissociation, cognitive distortions (such as grandiosity), and emotional numbing.
Like climate change, War is a human phenomenon. Rather than confront it self-delusionally, we better accept it and adapt to it. It is not going away, no matter what we do. So, why waste our scarce resources on its elimination?
I wish to thank Scott Jacobson for his indispensable help in putting together this column.
Opinions expressed in the op-ed section are solely those of the individual author and do not represent the official stance of our newspaper. We believe in providing a platform for a wide range of voices and perspectives, even those that may challenge or differ from our own. As always, we remain committed to providing our readers with high-quality, fair, and balanced journalism. Thank you for your continued support.Sincerely, The Brussels Morning Team