Why We Love War

Portraying humans as basically hating war might actually hinder the important work of deterring it, suggests research psychologist Lawrence LeShan. New psychological studies explain what history has long shown to be true–that war holds a deep attraction for large numbers of people in most cultures around the world. In accepting and understanding this hard truth, we may be better equipped to bring peace on earth. A timely new edition of his book The Psychology of War arrived last fall, just as the White House began beating the drums–and much of the American public eagerly fell in line–for a new war.

The Editors

To understand why humans go to war, and have done so throughout history, we have to acknowledge certain psychological facts. One of these is a relatively recent scientific insight: that humans organize our perceptions of reality in a variety of different ways, and that we often shift between these modes without being aware of it. No single mode reveals the absolute “truth” of the world around us, and each has advantages and disadvantages. We also know that during war our view of reality is quite different than it is in peacetime. Once this shift occurs, war becomes more difficult to prevent or to stop. Learning to recognize this shift allows us to see the signs that a society is moving toward war–and to understand what must be done if war is to be avoided.

War is not an entirely universal activity–there have been a few cultures in which it is unknown. But under almost every form of economic and political organization, regardless of different family structures, child-rearing practices, and other social norms, people fight wars on a fairly regular basis. The problem of why we go to war has been with us for a long time. The Histories, written by Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., was one of the first attempts to pinpoint the causes of a particular war (in this case, between the Greeks and Persians). Since then, countless investigators have studied the causes of other conflicts, but attempts to generalize from their conclusions have failed. Though many theories have been developed on why war is so widespread, none has helped to stop it, and none fits the actual data on how war happens.

As suggested in The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels, a classic numerical study of conflict by the British mathematical psychologist Lewis Fry Richardson, our accepted beliefs about when and why wars occur have little validity. For example, people of my generation were taught that the harsh peace treaties concluding World War I brought the next world war into being much more quickly. Richardson’s analysis shows the opposite–that statistically speaking, the harsher the peace treaty, the longer the peace that follows it. During the Crimean War in the early 1850s, A.W. Kingslake theorized that war is a foreign circus put on by rulers or ruling classes to distract citizens from troubles at home. As Richardson points out, this theory, though attractively simple, does not fit the data. In World War I, for example, Germany’s rulers were far more occupied with trying to unify the country in order to fight the war than with fighting the war in order to unify the country.

Today, no single theory on the cause of war is generally accepted. There’s been a lot of discussion about using our knowledge of psychology, sociology, and other social sciences to prevent war. Much has been done on techniques–such as intercultural student exchange, international organizations, international mediation efforts, and armament reduction–for reducing war’s likelihood. But there appears to be a great reluctance to deal with general theories about the cause of war–or even to admit such theories are necessary.

Before we can find new ways to prevent war, we have to understand why it is so popular. War at least promises to fulfill some fundamental human need or tension. One central human tension is the problem of how to be both an individual and a part of the larger group. Many of the great literary works explore this theme, dealing over and over with how we try to reconcile these conflicting drives. The same issue runs through modern textbooks on psychology, sociology, and anthropology. On the one hand is the drive to be more and more unique and individual, to heighten one’s experience and being. On the other hand is the drive to be a part of something larger, a full-fledged member of the tribe.

There are two different means to satisfy these drives simultaneously and without contradiction. Both appear in every age and nearly every culture. The first involves turning to one of the schools of esoteric or spiritual development, including Zen, Sufism, and the Christian, Hindu, and Jewish forms of mysticism. These schools agree that there are two ways of “being-in-the-world.” In what is generally called “The Way of the Many,” we view ourselves as separate and individual. In “The Way of the One,” we are seen as part of the total cosmos; nothing within it, including ourselves, is separate from anything else.

According to these traditions, humans have what the Roman mystic Plotinus called an “amphibious nature” and must integrate both views if we are to survive, let alone reach our full potential. All such schools espouse various meditative techniques as a means for achieving this integration. Meditation can sharpen our perception, heighten a sense of self, and increase a sense of individual being. It can also lead to a more profound sense of oneness with all existence. The schools insist there is no contradiction here. The problem is that the meditative path is too lengthy and difficult for most people. Though it promises–and apparently often delivers–a solution to this basic human tension, its historical influence has been small.

Historically, there is a second means of resolving this tension between our conflicting needs for singularity and group identification: war. Tolstoy described its effect in War and Peace: “Every general and every soldier was conscious of his own insignificance, aware of being but a drop in that ocean of men, and yet at the same time was conscious of his strength as a part of that enormous whole.” Again and again, descriptions of war by experienced participants and by great artists (and Tolstoy was both) demonstrate that it fulfills these fundamental needs. War sharpens experience, heightens perception, and makes one more and more aware of one’s own existence. At the same time, war allows us to become part of something larger and more intense. The Way of the One and the Way of the Many intensify each other.

The writer Jo Coudert recounts:

And in England, shortly after the war, I commented to a Londoner what a relief it must have been to have the bombings ended. “Oh,” she said, “it was a marvelous time. You forgot about yourself and you did what you could and we were all in it together. It was frightening, of course, and you worried about getting killed, but in some ways it was better than now. Now we’re all just ourselves again.”

It is important to note that wartime consciousness is not limited to the front lines. Nor is it only known to men. It was once argued that allowing women to vote would lead to more peace, but in fact the female vote has had no effect on war’s frequency or ferocity. The attraction to war is a human characteristic, apparently not limited by gender. Though war clearly does not deliver exactly what it promises, it does offer temporary solutions to psychological problems for a very large percentage of the population. And once a war begins, the social pressures to continue it are very strong. Anyone who questions an ongoing war is considered a traitor or a lapsed heretic, and such people traditionally are imprisoned or killed. One cannot question the accepted wisdom that the war being waged is a wonderful crusade to rid the world of evil.

And after a war, with the general disillusionment and social confusion that accompanies the failure of the postwar dream, no one cares to examine the contradictions. When Johnny comes marching home with a chronic disability from his wounds, we all try to forget our recent bout of psychological illusion as soon as possible.

There are three ideas that, when they appear in society, should be regarded as signals that we are moving toward war, and that strong action must be taken against this drift:

  • The idea that there is a particular enemy nation that embodies evil, and that if it were defeated, the world would become paradise. (The latter part of this statement is the crucial danger signal. The first part may well be true–as with Hitler’s Germany.)

  • The idea that taking action against this enemy (now the enemy) is the path to glory and to legendary heights of existence.

  • The idea that anyone who does not agree with this accepted wisdom is a traitor.

These danger signals often appear at the same time in two enemy nations, which probably speeds the slide into armed conflict. If they appear in only one, and that nation then attacks its enemy, then the attacked nation is likely to believe that it has been victimized (the great majority of wars start with an armed attack preceding a declaration of war). This in turn increases that nation’s sense that its attacker is evil.

The way that people begin to perceive reality in the period typically preceding the outbreak of war is very seductive. I call it the “mythic” mode of perception, as opposed to the “sensory” mode we ordinarily use. Once mythic perception takes over, we cease to structure the world in our customary way and turn to the ways of a fairy tale or a myth. In the mythic reality we never question why evil exists; it simply is. Since the enemy is evil, we’re quite ready to starve, torture or kill them; after all, they cannot really be considered part of our own species.

During a mythic war, God, history, and destiny are clearly on one’s side. The division of the world into Good and Evil is so complete that not only similar qualities but also similar actions on the opposing sides are seen as fundamentally different. For instance, the World War II bombings of Rotterdam by the Germans and Hamburg by the Allies were seen as two different kinds of behavior. We bomb civilian centers for the good of mankind. They do so because they are evil. In a mythic reality, the enemy can only be stopped by force. Our defenses are never adequate; we always need a larger military, more atomic bombs, and so on, without end. Because the enemy has no regard for truth, words can no longer be relied on and real discussion stops. In regard to our own leaders, a “Teflon factor” appears; we quickly forget their mistakes and believe anything they say.

Ever since the philosopher Friedrich Schelling first described the mythic orientation in the early 19th century, many have noted that the shift to mythic consciousness is natural and easy for humans. More recently, social scientists from Ernst Cassirer to Erik Erikson have noted that it takes energy not to shift to this perspective. In times of stress and uncertainty the pulls become particularly strong. If enough people begin thinking mythically, a society can “tip,” making it extremely unpopular or even dangerous to express the sensory mode of perception.

One fascinating dimension of mythic reality is that it usually applies to only two general areas: human behavior and interaction, and the great forces of the cosmos. It is not applied to the tools and routines of everyday life. We are perfectly clear about how these modes of reality relate, and about when and where to use each. We may be on a great crusade to make the world safe for democracy, but we drive on the correct side of the street to get there. “All my means are sane, my object and motives are mad,” said Captain Ahab of his mythic quest for Moby Dick.

In order for a war to retain its mythic aspects, many of the facts of how war is really waged must be concealed. Any information that lessens war’s psychological satisfaction is generally rejected. Since the birth of modern war correspondence and the telegraph in the mid 19th century, the public has shown a great desire for news about war–as long as it makes the conflict seem heroic. Mythic wars have proven to be the greatest way ever discovered to sell newspapers. Wars like Vietnam, which came to be viewed through the sensory mode of perception, are a different story. As the terrible jungle fighting went on and on in Vietnam, even those who had first seen it in mythic terms were disillusioned in the face of so much visual evidence to the contrary, via photos and television. After the conflict ended, war in general became unacceptable to many Americans.

There was one way in which the Persian Gulf War in 1991 was a complete success: It once again made war widely acceptable in this country. The media as a whole was magnificently managed by the military, showing how well they’d learned the lessons of the Vietnam fiasco, at least in terms of the press. The war had a mythic goal–a “New World Order” in which the forces of aggression would be stopped by a civilized “coalition” led by the United Nations. Brave allies were on the scene and the media carefully avoided criticizing them. Murder, rape, and other domestic issues largely disappeared from the television news as all our problems became one problem. By the time the bombing got underway, the war was a fully mythic one.

The Persian Gulf War was, in fact, the cleanest, most bloodless, most idealized picture of war in a century and a half. The military had finally solved the dilemma of how to present war to a civilian population. The United States had clearly entered a new era. Whether this was a conscious goal of the government remains unknown, but its effect today is clear.

Indeed, before we can understand the psychology of war we have to explore the role that government plays in perpetuating it. As history shows, governments are remarkably inept at preventing wars, even when it is clearly against their interests to fight them. This fact is especially striking in light of how efficient they can become once a war begins. War seems to be a “natural” way of behaving for governments; indeed, our governmental forms today are descended from earlier governments who saw war as their central function. In the ancient world, war was an accepted way to solve problems. (It wasn’t until the 17th century that peace began to be discussed as a natural and permanent state.) In theory, a constant, deeply concealed pressure toward war may be exerted by the structure of our governments, a structure “designed” partly for this purpose.

As a holdover from the violent past, every government today has officials in charge of “war” or “defense” at its highest level. Nowhere, to my knowledge, is there an official at similar levels in charge of “peace.” The U.S. Constitution is perfectly clear as to which organ of the government has “the power to declare war.” Nowhere does it state which organ has the power to declare peace or to strive to maintain it. That perhaps explains why our government has developed the idea of an active peace program to only a minuscule degree compared to war programs.

Any serious effort to protect ourselves against war must concentrate on two areas: why war is so attractive to humans, and why governments so often act against their interests in moving away from peace. Our first step is to increase our awareness of the fact that war is a tempting way to solve certain human problems. We then must begin to teach our young how to achieve these benefits without resorting to armed conflict.

This process can’t begin until we acknowledge how easily we shift from sensory reality to mythic reality, especially when international tensions escalate. The point is not to prevent such shifts; all the scientific evidence indicates that they are essential to psychological health. If we encourage the use of alternate realities–as often achieved during meditation, play, listening to or playing music, and so forth–we increase the ability of human beings to reach new potentials. We’re also more likely to become familiar with alternate modes of perceiving reality and know what they portend.

 The ultimate goal is to be able to consciously choose between war and peace, uncontaminated by mythic thinking. The ambitions of a Hitler, a Pol Pot, or a Saddam Hussein may be so bad for the rest of us that declaring war against them is a reasonable and logical decision. But no war will accomplish mythical goals. It will not make the world safe for democracy, nor establish a thousand-year Reich, nor organize a new world order, nor establish the perfect society, nor end war, nor do anything else except solve a particular problem, at a high cost and with unexpected results. And there will be unexpected results.

War has been so common in history that many have assumed it to be part of “human nature” or “inevitable to the socialization process.” All such theories are comforting in that they lessen our guilt by assuming there is nothing we can do. But in fact other social patterns just as widespread as war, and deemed just as intractable, have been abandoned. We’ve only given up slavery in the last 150 years. Under the threat of extinction, and using our new knowledge of the social sciences, we must get rid of war.

The time is now. Every war we fight since 1945 increases the chance that someone will again use the atomic bomb, destroying our civilization and perhaps the species. The day the first bomb was dropped was, in Buckminster Fuller’s words, “The day that humanity started taking its final exam.” We had better pass.

Lawrence LeShan is a research psychologist, educator, and author of more than a dozen books, including The Dilemma of Psychology and How to Meditate. Adapted from The Psychology of War: Comprehending Its Mystique and Its Madness (Helios Press, 2002).


There are startling differences in the ways we perceive reality during wartime compared to peacetime.



1. Good and Evil have many shades of gray. Many groups with different ideas and opinions are legitimate.

1. Good and Evil are reduced to Us and Them. There are no innocent bystanders; there are only those for or those against us. Crucial issues are divided into black and white, and opinions about them are either right or wrong.

2. Now is pretty much like other times.

2. Now is different from all other times. Everything hangs in the balance; whoever wins now wins forever. It is the time of the final battle between good and evil.

3. The great forces of nature, such as God or human evolution, are not often evoked in our disputes.

3. “God is on Our Side,” “History will absolve us,” and other such slogans indicate our belief that the great cosmic forces are with us.

4. When this present period is over, things will go on much as they have in the past.

4. Everything will be vastly different after the war. Things will be better if we win and terribly worse if we lose. Winning or losing will change the meaning of the past and the shape of the future.

5. There are many problems to be solved and their relative importance varies from day to day. Life is complex.

5. There is only one major problem to be solved. All others are secondary. Life has one major focus.

6. All people act from pretty much the same motives.

6. They act from a wish for power. We act from self-defense, benevolence, and reasons of common decency and morality.

7. Problems start on different levels–economic, political, or personal–and must be dealt with on these levels.

7. The real problem started with an act of will by the enemy and can only be solved by breaking his will or by making him helpless to act on it.

8. We are concerned with what causes the problems we’re trying to solve.

8. We are not concerned with causes, only with outcomes.

9. We can talk to those who disagree with us.

9. Since the enemy is evil, he naturally lies. Communication is not possible. Only force can settle the issue. We tell the truth (news, education). They lie (propaganda).

10. All people are fundamentally the same.

10. The same actions are “good” when we do them and “evil” when the enemy does them. There is doubt that “we” and “they” really belong to the same species.

–Lawrence LeShan

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