Truth and War

It is often said that ‘truth’ is the first casualty of war, and when we look at the mangled state of language that this recent war has caused we can only agree with the sentiment.

The laughable ‘coalition of the willing’, the frightening ‘friendly fire’, the euphemistic ‘collateral damage’ or the absurd ‘war on Saddam’ are evidence of a Tweedledum and Tweedledee use of language, making anything mean whatever you want it to mean.

Meanwhile the Iraqi information minister stands up in front of the world’s press, announcing his wish-fulfilling fantasies as if they were fact, and inadvertently colluding in the myth that the war is somehow a conflict of equal forces. The grotesque triumphalism we can expect at the end of the war will be like Manchester United or the New York Yankees cracking open the champagne because they have beaten the local primary school. (Note)

However Freud may have disagreed with the unstated but optimistic assumption behind the idea of “truth”. He encountered the same kind of problematic assertions in religion.

In Moses and Monotheism Freud says:

“Pious believers … say that the idea of a single god produced such an overwhelming effect on men because it is a portion of the eternal truth which, long concealed, came to light at last and was bound to carry everyone along with it…..”

but he continues:

“We too would like to accept this solution. But we are brought up by a doubt. The pious argument rests on an optimistic and idealistic premise. It has not been possible to demonstrate in other connections that the human intellect has a particularly fine flair for the truth or that the human mind shows any special inclination for recognizing the truth. We have rather found, on the contrary, that our intellect very easily goes astray without any warning, and that nothing is more easily believed by us than what, without reference to the truth, comes to meet our wishful illusions. “

In his last work, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, he expands and confirms this view. The ego is irrevocably split, the internal world floods consciousness with its own demands, the function of speech brings the ego into connection with traces from the distant past (‘mnemic residues’). Each of these distorts the apparatus by which we grasp the real world.

In one of his most staggering assaults on human self delusion, Freud concludes:

“The equation ‘perception = reality (external world)’ no longer holds”.

The portentous aura of this statement may obscure its commonplace nature. Each of us distorts our picture of the world to serve our own interests, and anyone who has had an argument with their spouse knows this to be the case. Clearly they are completely incapable of seeing the truth.

If, in the case of war, it seems more to do with economic interests than psychological ones, perhaps the principle is still the same.

The soldiers who actually fought the battles, of course, may have a different perspective. Reports in the New York Times and Washington Post on Friday 11 April show that the great disparity between the forces is having psychological effects. Soldiers speak of feeling guilty about the slaughter, and, as one of them put it: “It takes away some of the pride”. (Up)

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