It is not only libidinal ties, as Freud argues in Group Psychology, but the inner and outer forces of ‘morality’ which bind us into social groups and hold our propensity for aggression in check.
Warfare undermines the restraining influences of the external prohibitions of law (you can ‘get away with it’), so more is required of the emotional restraint of individuals. Many things can weaken these restraining influences.
My father fought in what many military historians consider to be two of the bloodiest tank battles of the Second World War. Officers would speak of the impending engagement as the ‘party’ and, taking the metaphor too literally, would often enter the field of battle completely drunk.
Perhaps it was the disinhibiting effects of alcohol which caused the high number of assaults on their own side, which have only recently become widely known. On a number of occasions the gunner in my father’s tank had to disobey a direct and repeated order so as not to blow up one of his own side. Echoing the party metaphor, a recent British victim of ‘friendly fire’ spoke of the American airman who killed two of his comrades as “Like a cowboy out for a jolly”.
Unconscious phantasy can also serve to disinhibit behaviour. There is also desire and fear. Clearly the phenomenon of ‘friendly fire’ is not only confined to war. It is part of a common propensity for police and security forces to panic in certain situations.
Take the case of the policeman in Sussex, for instance, which I cite in an earlier ‘Freud Today’ piece. He and his colleagues burst into a suspect’s house and into his bedroom. It’s the wrong house, unfortunately, but that’s another story. The policemen are armed and wearing bullet proof vests and helmets. They are confronted by a naked man who has just jumped out of bed in a fright. His wife is lying terrified in the bed.
The question can be asked how a naked unarmed man can be so threatening to an armed policeman wearing a bullet proof vest that he shot him at point blank range. And this question can be asked from a ‘psychoanalytic perspective’ – not to condemn the policeman as a ‘bad person’, or even to condemn inadequate training – but to speculate about the influence of the unconscious in the tragic event.
Freud may have pointed out that a naked father can be threatening to a little boy and that the ‘little boy’ may be alive and well in the adult, for instance. Or that bursting into the bedroom of the parental couple may activate deep wells of emotion that are difficult to control. The encounter manifests what might be called ‘the micro-structure of the Oedipus complex’ – the second by second influence of oedipal dynamics in our daily lives, and had Freud lived longer he would no doubt have adopted my felicitous expression.
In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud mentions the case of a man who nearly seriously injured his child while playing with him. Of course Freud puts it down to death wishes against the child who has ‘taken his place’ in the marriage, and who, simultaneously, was tying him to a marriage he wanted to escape (he was preoccupied with thoughts of divorce).
The man’s childhood relations to his family members (his Oedipus complex) also play their part:
“A powerful determinant was in fact provided by a memory from the patient’s childhood: namely that the death of a small brother, for which his mother blamed his father’s negligence, had led to violent quarrels between the parents and threats of a divorce”.
The impulse to hurt one’s children is not uncommon, and is clearly augmented by unconscious Oedipal factors (including the residues of ‘sibling rivalry’), and a repetition of the childhood scenario.
Who knows how far such factors play a part in the disinhibition which results in incidents of ‘friendly fire’. Today’s tragic news that seven Iraqi women and children were killed at an army checkpoint – an act soundly condemned by the Washington Post – should give us pause for thought. It is not simply that we can criticise the U.S. military for shooting first and asking questions later; we can raise the possibility that an unconscious question may have been asked and answered in the few seconds before they opened fire.
Injuring others and injuring oneself are sometimes two sides of the same coin. In the same chapter on ‘Bungled Actions’ Freud tells the story of a soldier who fell from his horse in a race and subsequently died of his injuries. Freud suspected that on this occasion “suicide was unconsciously allowed to come about”:
“He had been deeply depressed by the death of his beloved mother, had had fits of sobbing in the company of his fellow officers, and to his trusted friends had spoken of being weary of life”.
In addition he had wanted to leave the service to take part in a war in Africa, to which Freud adds:
“It is evident that conditions on a field of battle are such as to come to the help of a conscious intention to commit suicide which nevertheless shuns the direct way”.
Each person who commits a ‘friendly fire’ blunder has a unique and individual story. The focus on purely systemic factors will do little to solve the problem.
Another factor is new technology. In his recent paper ‘The self-removing trousers’ published in the Journal of the Cambridge Society for Psychotherapy (December 2002), Kalu Singh talks of the ‘instinctual impatience’ that access to new technology has engendered. Not just the shoot-em-up make-believe of video games, but more innocent items.
The mobile phone acts like a symbolic umbilical chord; contact is instant, the gap between a desire or the stirrings of anxiety (‘I wonder what she’s up to?’) and the satisfaction of desire and the control of anxiety (‘I’m just walking into Woolworth’s – do you have to keep phoning me up all the time?’) is diminished. And something about human life is diminished as well.
Regretting the loss, Singh writes: “When I read recently of the teenage Hazlitt walking eight miles to hear Coleridge speak, and eight miles back, I was impressed and, most strangely, happy for him”. The forced marches of army training do not have the same maturational impact as Hazlitt’s literary pilgrimage, I suspect, and the inability to deal with frustration or separation, brought about by the magical effects of technology, may be another hidden determinant of ‘friendly fire’.