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The Meaning of War

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Sarah:President Bush will be making a speech in just a couple of hours in which he presumably will announce plans to attack Iraq. I’d like to ask you what you’re experiencing at this moment.

Robert:I feel a mixture of fear, rage, a certain amount of unreality, and deep absurdity. This war we are about to embark upon seems to me to be both illegitimate and self-defeating, harmful not just for the world but for ourselves.

The work I have done on issues germane to our present moment perhaps intensifies my feeling and gives me the opposite of solace or relief.

Sarah:What is it you are seeing that most Americans are not seeing?

Robert:What I see is a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. I’ve studied apocalyptic violence for a long time. Most recently, I did a study of Aum Shinrikyo, the fanatical Japanese cult [known for releasing poison gas in a Tokyo subway—Eds], and earlier I studied events like Nazi genocide and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even the Vietnam War. All of these I now realize have apocalyptic dimensions, by which I mean impulses toward vast destruction in the service of renewal and re-creation of the world. And while I’m deeply concerned about the dangers of additional terrorism from Islamic zealots, I’m even more worried about American apocalyptic tendencies. In fact, the two are bound up together because excessive American responses and our effort to control the world inevitably result in more danger of terrorism directed at us.

Sarah:What is the appeal of apocalyptic thinking?

Robert:The appeal of apocalyptic thinking from any side has to do with something beyond certainty—a kind of mission of purification in the service of ultimate good. Apocalyptic projections satisfy two profound human inclinations: One is a desire for self-improvement—especially ethical and spiritual improvement. The other is a desire for some eternal principle or mission of ultimate good. Both can have a powerful appeal because they promise a kind of immortality bound up with absolute virtue.

In connection with movements that embark on apocalyptic violence, there are high states or experiences of transcendence that are enormously compelling, so much so that former members of Aum Shinrikyo, whom I interviewed in Japan in the late 1990s, still remembered those heightened states or what they called mystical experiences as the most profound experiences of their lives, and they still miss them years later even though they came to recognize the criminality of the cult.

Sarah:I’m assuming you’re including both the Islamic fundamentalists intent on using terrorist methods to fight the United States, as well as the Christian fundamentalists intent on going to war in the Middle East.

Robert:Yes, but the American apocalyptic behavior is not a mirror image of Islamic zealotry. There are many differences. The American version is mixed. It has strong elements of Christian fundamentalism and a kind of military fundamentalism. But, as many commentators are beginning to recognize, it also includes a vision of military control of the world and, I would add, a control of history. All of these combine to create an impulse to apocalyptic violence, even though individual American leaders may seem more reasonable and may speak with more apparent balance or control as opposed to overtly extreme expressions of Islamic fanatics. Nonetheless, the American project is second to none in its extremity, in its apocalyptic nature, and in its danger.

Sarah:How did we get to this point historically? How did we go from being a country that deeply values democracy, civil liberties, and opportunity to a country that is verging on apocalyptic war?

Robert: It’s a hard question to answer. I would say several things. America has always been in many ways a conservative society as well as an experimental one. To put it another way, it has had a constant interaction almost from the beginning between a capacity for change and transformation on the one hand and a kind of reactive, evangelical impulse. That evangelical impulse predates the religious fundamentalism that began more or less at the turn of the 20th century. It includes an impulse toward polarizing the world between good and evil along with a missionary component. America is seen as a new Jerusalem and a source of spiritual renewal that could be, and should be, a great model for humankind. These predispositions have been more or less kept in check by Jeffersonian impulses toward democratic procedures and secular restraint.

America has suffered from enormous confusions and historical dislocations in the last half of the 20th century. The last presidential election—the small turnout, the extreme forces at play, and something close to the stealing of the election—reflected American dislocations. Then I would add the experience of 9-11. The world-controlling impulse existed prior to the attack on the World Trade Center, and by now it’s widely known that there were documents coming from neo-conservative groups advocating something very close to our present, ill-advised policies prior to 9-11. But these policies weren’t acceptable to the political mainstream until 9-11. Even after 9-11, they had to be strongly disseminated and argued by a narrow leadership, and veiled in many ways from the general public.

Most Americans see, for instance, the impending war on Iraq as simply the U.S. forcing Iraq to carry out its obligations under UN resolutions, not as part of a far-flung and visionary policy that includes empire and in a way, goes beyond it.

Sarah: Goes beyond empire to ...

Robert:There is, certainly, an imperialistic and empire-like element to American behavior, but it doesn’t seem to be the kind of empire that has traditionally included a large, sustained bureaucracy on the ground, and an orderly rule from the center of the empire. Rather, it’s something new that is not fully understood, not even by its perpetrators, but which includes an emphasis on high technology and ruling from afar with military incursions using limited manpower and incurring limited casualties.

Sarah: Could there be some kind of silver lining in this? Do you see opportunities as well as dangers?

Robert: Despite what I’ve just said, I’m a hopeful person, and I don’t think it’s possible to predict the outcome. One set of possibilities lies in the inability of this destructive vision to succeed. There’s an element of illusion in it; it’s not possible to carry through with full success an effort aimed at world control. So that limitation is an aspect of hope.

I do see in my travels—in speaking to different audiences and talking to people—a lot of American unease, even though there’s much rallying around the flag. From that unease comes more reflection on the wisdom of this kind of policy. Despite the extraordinary danger, we are still a nation in which people can speak up and express their views. I see hope in all this, but a great deal of pain along the way.

Sarah: One of my fears is that the combination of war abroad and terrorism threats here could result in a clampdown on civil liberties and hence on opportunities for dissent, dialogue, and rethinking.

Robert:Your concern is well taken. Part of the difficulty is that as a superpower with an apocalyptic impulse for world control, we can’t help but feel vulnerable. It is interesting how much fear exists in this country despite, or in connection with, our unprecedented military strength. With that intense feeling of vulnerability, there can be terrible threats to civil liberties. That threat can increase as opposition increases to what may be increasingly seen as wrong-headed and harmful policy.

What to do? There’s no single approach that’s bound to be successful. On the other hand, everything counts—everything one says or does publicly, inside or outside the electoral system, with groups who are opposed to American militarism, and with individuals. It’s very important to provide interpretive understanding of what’s going on.

Sarah:You’d mentioned that the United States is both the most powerful country in the world and also extremely fearful. How do you explain that paradox?

Robert:I think the superpower stance is always profoundly uneasy because the superpower cannot accept any vulnerability or any opposition on significant principles. It has a superpower illusion that it can carry through. In this case, this involves what I call a “survivor mission” derived from 9-11 that aims to rout out all that it sees as terrorism, to render itself absolutely secure. There’s no such thing as absolute security, but a superpower like ourselves insists on it, and the result is an unending, self-defeating struggle with vulnerability. So the very necessity of invulnerability creates constant fear.

Of course we make compromises, and there are times when our leaders are a little bit more pragmatic. But their impulse combines a sense of entitlement to world control—all the more so because it’s in the service of the dissemination of American virtue—with an unwillingness to accept any possible threat to that mission.

Sarah:What would you say is the biggest opportunity we have at this moment in history?

Robert:Perhaps a deeper connection with all human beings. That kind of connection, made possible by our various technologies, simply couldn’t exist before recent times. The connection guarantees nothing, but it does offer an opportunity for expressions of a global spirit, or what I call a “species consciousness” or “species self.” What that means is not that one ceases to be an American, or a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Hindu. One is any of those and at the same time, in one’s own sense of self, a human being. This kind of species consciousness is expanding. Perhaps it represents our greatest opportunity.


Robert Jay Lifton is the author of numerous books, includingDestroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism and Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. He is currently visiting professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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