John Mack: The Enemy System

There is a substantial, politically influential, and aggressive body of American opinion for which the specter of a great and fearful external enemy, to be exorcised only by vast military preparations and much belligerent posturing, has become a political and psychological necessity: George F. Kennan, former US Ambassador to the USSR

Our enemy is a coarse, crooked megalomaniac who aims to kill us Tommy White, retired US Air Force Chief of Staff 

The threat of nuclear annihilation has stimulated us to try to understand what it is about mankind that has led to such self-destroying behavior. Central to this inquiry is an exploration of the adversarial relationships between ethnic or national groups. It is out of such enmities that war, including nuclear war should it occur, has always arisen. Enmity between groups of people stems from the interaction of psychological, economic, and cultural elements. These include fear and hostility (which are often closely related), competition over perceived scarce resources, the need for individuals to identify with a large group or cause, a tendency to disclaim and assign elsewhere responsibility for unwelcome impulses and intentions, and a peculiar susceptibility to emotional manipulation by leaders who play upon our more savage inclinations in the name of national security or the national interest. A full understanding of the “enemy system” requires insights from many specialities, including psychology, anthropology, history, political science, and the humanities.

In their statement on violence twenty social and behavioral scientists, who met in Seville, Spain, to examine the roots of war, declared that there was no scientific basis for regarding man as an innately aggressive animal, inevitably committed to war. The Seville statement implies that we have real choices. It also points to a hopeful paradox of the nuclear age: threat of nuclear war may have provoked our capacity for fear-driven polarization but at the same time it has inspired unprecedented efforts towards cooperation and settlement of differences without violence.

The Real and the Created Enemy
Attempts to explore the psychological roots of enmity are frequently met with responses on the following lines: “I can accept psychological explanations of things, but my enemy is real. The Russians [or Germans, Arabs, Israelis, Americans] are armed, threaten us, and intend us harm. Furthermore, there are real differences between us and our national interests, such as competition over oil, land, or other scarce resources, and genuine conflicts of values between our two nations. It is essential that we be strong and maintain a balance or superiority of military and political power, lest the other side take advantage of our weakness”.

This argument does not address the distinction between the enemy threat and one’s own contribution to that threat-by distortions of perception, provocative words, and actions. In short, the enemy is real, but we have not learned to understand how we have created that enemy, or how the threatening image we hold of the enemy relates to its actual intentions. “We never see our enemy’s motives and we never labor to assess his will, with anything approaching objectivity”.

Individuals may have little to do with the choice of national enemies. Most Americans, for example, know only what has been reported in the mass media about the Soviet Union. We are largely unaware of the forces that operate within our institutions, affecting the thinking of our leaders and ourselves, and which determine how the Soviet Union will be represented to us. Ill-will and a desire for revenge are transmitted from one generation to another, and we are not taught to think critically about how our assigned enemies are selected for us.

In the relations between potential adversarial nations there will have been, inevitably, real grievances that are grounds for enmity. But the attitude of one people towards another is usually determined by leaders who manipulate the minds of citizens for domestic political reasons which are generally unknown to the public. As Israeli sociologist Alouph Haveran has said, in times of conflict between nations historical accuracy is the first victim.

The Image of the Enemy and How We Sustain It
Vietnam veteran William Broyles wrote: “War begins in the mind, with the idea of the enemy.” But to sustain that idea in war and peacetime a nation’s leaders must maintain public support for the massive expenditures that are required. Studies of enmity have revealed susceptibilities, though not necessarily recognized as such by the governing elites that provide raw material upon which the leaders may draw to sustain the image of an enemy.

Freud in his examination of mass psychology identified the proclivity of individuals to surrender personal responsibility to the leaders of large groups. This surrender takes place in both totalitarian and democratic societies, and without coercion. Leaders can therefore designate outside enemies and take actions against them with little opposition. Much further research is needed to understand the psychological mechanisms that impel individuals to kill or allow killing in their name, often with little questioning of the morality or consequences of such actions.

Philosopher and psychologist Sam Keen asks why it is that in virtually every war “The enemy is seen as less than human? He’s faceless. He’s an animal”.” Keen tries to answer his question: “The image of the enemy is not only the soldier’s most powerful weapon; it is society’s most powerful weapon. It enables people en masse to participate in acts of violence they would never consider doing as individuals”. National leaders become skilled in presenting the adversary in dehumanized images. The mass media, taking their cues from the leadership, contribute powerfully to the process.

The image of the enemy as less than human may be hard to dislodge. For example, a teacher in the Boston area reported that during a high school class on the Soviet Union a student protested: “You’re trying to get us to see them as people”...

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