Psychological reflections on the tragic dynamics of war

By Charles B. Strozier | February 15, 2023

Image courtesy of Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

 They made a desolation and called it peace.

Tacitus, referring to the Roman military conquest of England


Wars tend to begin with enthusiasm and the certainty of early victory. The South fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, because they believed that they had the distinct advantage in military leadership, the will to fight, and a misplaced sense of justice on their side. It would surely end in no time, they felt, and the early victories in the first year or so tended to confirm that confidence.

Similarly, each of the combatants in what became World War I had the same certainty of early victory as they stumbled into a war that soon turned into a deadly slog in the trenches of the western front. Some 25 years later, Nazi Germany initiated its lightning—and successful—strikes against Poland and France. The Thousand Year Reich appeared within easy reach. Finally, of course, Vladimir Putin believed his own propaganda when he launched his supposed Blitzkrieg against Ukraine on February 24, 2021.

The psychology at work in such misguided assumptions of quick victory relates to fantasies of grandiosity at the level of the individual leader and in what the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut has called the “group self.” The synergy between leader and group leads to wildly irrational and mutually reinforcing fantasies. Victory seems assured because our side has the support of history. Great battles will surely go our way. We will inevitably triumph. Even God, or some notion of divine purpose in history, supports our cause, whether it be the defense of slavery and the Southern way of life; the right to a place in the sun for western countries (especially Germany) at the turn of the 20th century; Nazi Germany’s self-deception that it occupied a special place in the hierarchy of so-called “races;” or Putin’s astonishing vision of his calling to recreate the Russian empire and channel Peter the Great.

But the reality of war soon sinks in.

Early victories sometimes occur, to be sure, such as the two successive battles at Bull Run in the summers of 1861 and 1862 during the Civil War, or the successes of Nazi Germany in 1939 and 1940. These early successes can be traced in part to the ability of states in modern warfare (at least since the French Revolution) to mobilize vast resources and stir up their citizens with the thought of avenging humiliating losses. Righting the perceived historical wrong becomes a moral imperative.

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But their actions in turn motivate the mobilization of armies that fight back; the same moral outrage at the violence unleashed by the Nazis prompted the building of mighty military organizations on several fronts that fought effectively against the German juggernaut. More recently, there is no doubt, for example, that the Ukrainians have called forth enormous will to fight against the uncalled-for aggression of Russia—the targeting of civilians, the torture, the profound disruptions of the country.

This principle is worth noting. Modern states, especially democracies, are often slow to react to attack. But once mobilized, in particular against tyranny, they can be fearsome.

At that point, a curious dynamic emerges. The aggressor loses key battles—the South in the Civil War at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July, 1863; the deadly battle of the Somme in 1916 that turned the tide in favor of the West in World War I; and the 200-day battle of Stalingrad in 1942 and 1943 in World War II that reversed Nazi fortunes—that lead not to surrender but to a greater determination to fight on. Because modern wars often have an apocalyptic dimension, defeat signifies a measure of ultimate humiliation: History itself is at stake.

That leads in turn to ferocious violence when leaders and key generals know all is lost. The disavowed knowledge of defeat in fact stirs further apocalyptic ideas and images. Rational strategic calculations lose any meaning. Robert E. Lee fought on for another year-and-a-half after Gettysburg, until his bedraggled and starving army of 28,000 surrendered to U.S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

In 1944 and 1945, tens of millions died as the Nazis fought on in their hopeless struggle. Meaningless loss of life mattered little. Pride was sacrificed to death. National socialism consumed itself as it veered into an apocalyptic death cult on a gigantic scale.

Many observers have commented on the military and political sequence in modern, total war that seems to call forth escalation at the very moment when surrender seems obvious in order not to squander life and country any longer. There may well be an underlying psychological principle that when defeat becomes inevitable, the group self embraces death over humiliation, transcendence over mundane life. The apocalyptic end is even welcomed.

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Hitler invoked principles of “honor,” “fatherland,” “Volk,” “loyalty,” and “sacrifice,” that Germans hung onto as the message of a savior. Hitler became an “agent of this transcendence,” as Robert Jay Lifton has commented in his study, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide: “For each of these words represented a transcendent principle, a means of offering the self to an ultimate realm that provided a sense of immortality bordering on omnipotence.”

It was therefore not surprising that on March 24, 1945, as Germany faced certain defeat, Hitler issued his “Nero Decree” to Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production, to destroy all infrastructure as the army retreated—in other words, to annihilate Germany as he planned his own suicide. The Fatherland was no longer worthy of the Thousand Year Reich in the face of defeat.

We can draw an important conclusion from this analysis in relation to the war in Ukraine. As I have indicated, in modern warfare the dying and violence often intensifies after decisive turning points when one side has lost militarily. The reasons have more to do with the psychological response to the apocalyptic goal of the war that evokes transcendence than rational strategic calculations. In the war in Ukraine, there has not been as yet a decisive battle or campaign that makes defeat for Russia certain (and of course the expected spring campaign could succeed, though if so Russia will suffer for many decades from isolation and universal scorn).

But if Putin fails on the battlefield, he has threatened to reverse the historical momentum of modern war by unleashing tactical nuclear weapons. The escalation of the fighting may make that choice highly likely. The fact that Putin has stopped alluding to using nuclear weapons is small comfort. We need to be very wary.

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