Friendly Fire

The bewildering oxymoron ‘friendly fire’ has now become familiar with use.

These tragic events are routinely described as ‘accidents’ in the press and we seldom see the outrage and anger experienced by the soldiers whose colleagues are victims of the lethal blunder. As one American soldier put it (having just been bombarded by his own side): “It kinda pisses you off”.

Such has been the number of these incidents in the first week of the Iraq War that even military spokesmen are having to look for alternative ways of explaining them. This morning a distinguished General conveyed the usual commiserations and messages of regret before lobbing in the explosive thought that these events are more likely to happen “when soldiers are tired or under stress”. For the first time in the conflict (as portrayed in the media) the ‘accident’ theory was under attack from a ‘psychological’ one.

The soldiers on the ground, of course, have always assumed a psychological theory – one involving human intentions, thoughts and feelings – and any such incident makes them justifiably angry. If they do not go so far as to suppose that the ‘friendly fire’ was deliberate, they assume that the perpetrators of the catastrophe were guilty of a reckless lack of care and failure of restraint.

In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud gives the example of a man forgetting his wife’s birthday. As many of us know to our cost, it can signal the fracturing of a relationship which no amount of special pleading (‘I’ve been under a lot of stress lately’) can repair. As a psychoanalyst, Freud was well aware of the feeble excuses that patients routinely make to explain why they are late or have forgotten to pay their bill, and more pertinently, why they are just not up to thinking about anything today (‘I’m tired’). And if you ride a bicycle and are knocked down by a car you can be sure that the driver will leap out of his seat and and say – with all sincerity – “But I never saw you!”

Freud didn’t think there were accidents in the unconscious

As we know, he emphasised the concept of ‘psychic determinism’ and looked for an unconscious logic in such everyday phenomena as slips of the tongue and bungled actions. In one example he describes his own projection of a missile at a friendly target, and how his aggressive act was connected to thoughts of death.

“One morning… when I was passing through a room in my dressing gown with straw slippers on my feet, I yielded to a sudden impulse and hurled one of my slippers from my foot at the wall, causing a beautiful little marble Venus to fall down from its bracket. As it broke into pieces I quoted quite unmoved these lines from Busch:

‘Ach! die Venus ist perdü —
Klickeradoms!–von Medici!’

Oh! the Venus! Lost is she!–
Klickeradoms!–of Medici!

This wild conduct and my calm acceptance of the damage are to be explained in terms of the situation at the time. One of my family was gravely ill, and secretly I had already given up hope of her recovery. That morning I had learned that there had been a great improvement, and I know I had said to myself: ‘So she’s going to live after all.’ My attack of destructive fury served therefore to express a feeling of gratitude to fate and allowed me to perform a ‘sacrificial act’ – rather as if I had made a vow to sacrifice something or other as a thank-offering if she recovered her health! The choice of the Venus of Medici for this sacrifice was clearly only a gallant act of homage towards the convalescent; but even now it is a mystery to me how I made up my mind so quickly, aimed so accurately and avoided hitting anything else among the objects so close to it.”

On this occassion Freud gallantly takes the analysis no further. Had he been pressed he would no doubt have admitted that the action ALSO expressed the thankfulness he felt that it was his daughter who was suffering the near-death experience and not he himself. Freud says as much in his analysis of the Non Vixit dream.

But if the extent of unconscious narcissism is difficult to accept, imagine it like this: You are crossing the road with your best friend and a bus comes careering towards you out of control. Your friend is killed and you live. Is it so surprising to say that your conscious mind thinks ‘How awful’ while your unconscious mind thinks “How lucky”? That in the awfullness of the tragedy, part of you is delighting in the fact that you have lived and another person has died? Such is the unappealing logic of unconscious thought.

Freud would have been bemused by the term ‘stress’ – he never used it himself – but he understood the idea of ‘danger situations’ which he made the cornerstone of one of his greatest works, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety. He also understood that as well as adapting to the outside world, human beings frantically try to adapt the outside world to the inner one. Our behaviour functions to change the world in a way that lessens anxiety, or which allows us to enact an unconscious fantasy.

Thus Freud would say that when soldiers are under ‘stress’ – under the threat that ‘someone is going to die’ – they can engineer a situation in which it is someone else who is under threat, and, like Freud’s sacrifice of Venus, someone else who dies instead. Through the process of projection we modulate the anxiety which threatens to overwhelm us.

Given his sensitivity to the interplay of ego, id and superego in any human activity, Freud would have pointed out that ‘friendly fire’ incidents will be greater in wars in which soldiers do not know what they are fighting for. A sense of justice, lodged in the superego, has a remarkable ability to hold anxiety in check and stabilise the personality.

If the war is committed for reasons of naked self interest and without the full support of people back home, we would expect greater amounts of ‘stress’ and anxiety for combatants and more incidents of ‘friendly fire’. The present situation was no doubt exacerbated by the illusion promulgated to the troops that when they entered the field of battle their opponents would lay down their weapons and welcome them as liberators.

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