War and Fear

Tuesday 15 July 2003 at 11:36

War is an emergent phenomenon which depends on rampant spread of fear. For example, consider the recent invasion of Iraq. For more than a decade we Americans knew that Saddam Hussein was a despotic ruler oppressing the Iraqi people with all sorts of brutality and nastiness. But we weren't afraid of him. He represented no threat to us. And as a nation we didn't exhibit much concern for the Iraqi's all those years. We certainly didn't show any signs of sending in armored divisions. By contrast in the past two years weapons of mass destruction entered the American consciousness and suddenly we were terrified. An epidemic of fear spread through this country and it became urgent that Saddam be removed from power by whatever means necessary. We couldn't wait for weapons inspections. Individual US citizens were scared of a leader of a third world country -- more scared of Saddam and unseen weapons than of loosing the lives of American soldiers in armed conflict. War emerged as a plausible option only after a majority of the American people were more afraid of Saddam remaining in power than we were of loosing American lives in war. How on Earth did we get there?

To whom it may concern

This kind of fear was most clearly articulated to me by a Washington D.C. cab driver probably more than twenty years ago.

I'm not worried about the bullet that has my name on it. It's the one addressed "To whom it may concern" that scares me. You know what I mean? Like some crazy middle-eastern dictator with The Bomb. 'Cos if I was a ruler of a third world country with only one plane and one bomb, I'd fly it directly to D.C. and bomb the White House. And then I'd surrender. 'Cos it worked pretty well for Japan and Germany to go to war with the US. You know what I mean?

War is Hell

War is frightening. What most of us know about war we learned from movies. The few who have first hand experience of war generally don't talk about it, and the rest of us don't ask. We know our soldiers will die when the US goes to war. We know they will also have to kill. But war has all sorts of social rationalization around it. We believe deep down that the soldiers will kill judiciously and die heroically, regardless of what we have learned from Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Born on the Forth of July, Good Morning, Vietnam, Saving Private Ryan, and countless other war movies. We want to believe that no one will die in vain. We want to believe that no young soldier will return psychically broken by morally ambiguous killing. And our culture goes to great lengths to preserve the heroic image of the soldier who dies defending their country, even though the last time American soldiers died defending American soil from invasion was in Pearl Harbor.

Madness and Mutually Assured Destruction

The Cold War embedded the logic of mutually assured destruction in the American psyche. But that logic only works if you can assume the opponent is rational and fundamentally interested in living. Suicide attacks are terrifying precisely because they defy reason, and they have the "to whom it may concern" quality.

Suicide attacks became terrifyingly and immediately real for Americans when suicide pilots flew airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Just over four years ago the media was awash with news of another suicide attack: the killing spree at Columbine High School. Vanishingly few of us have any other experience of suicide attacks. But long before September 11, 2001 and long before April 20, 1999 we learned the depth of our fear of madness from psychodramas. Psycho, The Shining, Silence of the Lambs, and many others play on and feed the deep fears we have of insanity and irrational violence. War movies show us horrifying and awful images, and expose how brutal we humans can be to one another, but they don't scare us the way psychodramas do. These examples from popular culture are anecdotal evidence that we Americans are more scared by violent madness than we are of war. The bullet addressed "To whom it may concern" is more frightening.

Invasion of Iraq

With that backdrop consider the build-up that lead to US invasion of Iraq. We heard time and again about Saddam's irrational cruelty to his own people. We heard about twelve years of UN resolutions and about a leader who could not be reasoned with. We heard about an insane lust for weapons of mass destruction. We heard about how Saddam actually used biological and chemical weapons against the Kurds -- something surely no rational leader would ever do. We heard repeated mentions of Saddam's name among various references to September 11th, though we never heard of any evidence of direct connections. In short, everything we heard drew mental associations between our preexisting fears and Saddam Hussein. However wicked Saddam may be, that tapestry of associations was carefully designed specifically to connect Saddam to our existing fears.

Our leaders wove Iraq into our existing fears of irrational violence and into our existing Cold War fears of weapons of mass destruction. Through these fears the American leadership manipulated the American people into supporting a preemptive invasion of Iraq and what is now projected to become five years of occupation. I'm deeply tempted to descend into a tirade about our leaders. But I want to remain focused on the larger pattern of war and fear. For now let me repeat: War emerges from the rampant spread of fear.

Fear limits our options

Biologically there are three strategies when survival is at stake. These are the classic fight, flight or freeze. Maybe you can scare the predator off. Maybe you can outrun it. Or maybe if you don't move, the predator won't see you and you'll be safe. For immediate threats to life and limb, it's helpful that there are only three options to choose from. When life or death is a split second away there isn't time time to debate the relative merits of a long menu of options. After millennia of evolution our survival instincts are refined to these three most basic tactics.

When we are not afraid our minds are open to all sorts of creative possibilities. But when fear is present our options become limited. The more intense the fear, the fewer the options available to us. If our immediate survival is in danger we're stuck with only three.

These instincts make humans pretty easy to manipulate. If you can scare someone then you can predict some variation of only three reactions. Fear isn't the only button that can be pushed, but it is unquestionably one of the most effective. Almost all mechanisms of social control depend on the manipulation of human fears.

Problems with opposition to war

I'll analyze my opposition to the invasion of Iraq. I attempted to manipulate the decisions of several elected leaders and I used fear as my mechanism to try to control those decisions. I raised the frightening possibility that weapons of mass destruction could slip out of Iraq under cover of the chaos of war and find their way into terrorist hands. In fact I was fighting fire with fire. I relied on exactly the same fear to oppose invasion that the White House used to to promote invasion: the combination of Cold War fears of weapons of mass destruction and the fears of irrational violence of terrorists. I summoned that bullet addressed "To whom it may concern."

I was betting on the "freeze" option. I argued that we would be in greater danger from nasty weapons by breaking Saddam's control of Iraq than by leaving him in power. I tried to create a more compelling fear that would make our leaders think twice about invasion, make them freeze and consider other options. That was a big miscalculation. The United States is the biggest dog on the block. We don't need to flee and we don't need to freeze. If it comes down to a fight, our instincts tell us we can hold our own against anyone. In my opposition, I contributed to the rampant spread of fear.

I wasn't alone in this. Most of the arguments I read against war argued different points, but employed the same tactics. Everyone tried summoning a more compelling fear. I actually saw this coming at least as far back as February. But even with my own foresight I failed to stop myself from feeding the fear. Aikido teaches this lesson every time I practice and still I failed to apply that wisdom. Opposition escalates conflict.

As the fear grew more intense, the options grew more limited, and the mighty USA chose to fight.

We must ask not how to more effectively oppose war lest we become more effective in escalating conflicts. Rather we must change the direction of our question.

How can we create peace?

The crucial answer to that question is hidden exactly in the relationship between fear and war.