War envy, mass psychosis & McCain

War is a form of mass psychosis, during which horrifying acts are transformed into heroic deeds, through the magical moral disinfectant of state sanction.

A nice example of this is provided by an urban legend, which for the last couple of years has circulated on the Internet as a purportedly true story. Here’s the most popular version of it:

“Katie Couric, while interviewing a Marine sniper, asked ‘What do you feel when you shoot a terrorist?’ The Marine shrugged and replied, ‘Recoil’.”

The point is that the liberal, America-hating mainstream media, represented by a stereotypically feminine woman, fail to grasp that manful and masculine warriors performing manly deeds have no time for sentimental hippie nonsense about peace and love.

Note that, if the story were true and an accurate report of the Marine’s mental state, he would be a sociopath.

One of the most terrible things about war is that governments find it useful to transform a certain number of normal young men into the kind of people who feel no emotion when they kill a human being.

Most soldiers don’t become sociopaths, of course. Still, war creates moral monsters just as surely as it generates profits for “defense” contractors, and provides endless material for books, movies and television shows.

As to the latter, when historians look back on the Iraq catastrophe, I suspect they’ll discover a significant factor in this latest outbreak of mass psychosis was a kind of warrior envy, as reflected in recent popular culture.

Books like “The Greatest Generation”, movies like “Saving Private Ryan”, and television series like “Band of Brothers” are, despite some gestures toward moral ambiguity, essentially glorifications of war.

All, of course, are about World War II — the “good” war. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq one could practically smell the intense longing among our political and media elites for their very own “good” war.

“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier,” Samuel Johnson observed three centuries ago. What would bemuse Johnson no end is the contemporary spectacle of men dealing with their warrior envy not by becoming soldiers, but by living out elaborate military fantasies in books, magazines, editorial pages, and the Internet — not to mention in the White House and the halls of Congress.

Indeed, some of the support for the Iraq war came from the belief that war builds character by subjecting the pampered citizens of the modern state to a beneficial dose of suffering in the service of a great cause.

The most famous American exponent of this view was Teddy Roosevelt, who believed in “muscular Christianity” and manly self-sacrifice, and who advocated militaristic imperialism as a kind of bloody outdoor adventure program, for a nation he feared was becoming soft and decadent.

For anyone who considers this view both absurd and dangerous, McCain’s evident affection for it is a cause for great concern.

Consider this quote from a speech McCain gave in 2002: “Theodore Roosevelt is one of my greatest political heroes. The ‘strenuous life’ was T.R.’s definition of Americanism, a celebration of America’s pioneer ethos, the virtues that had won the West and inspired our belief in ourselves as the New Jerusalem, bound by sacred duty to suffer hardship and risk danger to protect the values of our civilization and impart them to humanity. ‘We cannot sit huddled within our borders,’ he warned, ‘and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond’.”

Those are the words of a man who sees war as a noble enterprise: one which builds our collective character, protects us from the moral dangers of an easy life, and gives us a chance to impart our values to the rest of the world. There can be no better reason to vote against him.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)


  1. SEAL

    It’s been a long time since the idea we would initiate a preempive strike against a perceived enemy nation using nuclear weapons has been asserted. At that time I went through all the reason why that cannot happen. My crippled hands will not allow me to do that again but I can explain some of the basics to those who have no military background experience and/or education about the military chain of command and safeguards built into the use of nuclear weapons.

    First you must understand that every member of the armed forces swears an oath to the Constitution; to protect and defend the nation from all enemies, foreign and domestic. They do not swear an oath to the Commander in Chief (president), but to the country. Therefore, they are not bound to obey any order that is unconstitutional. An order to preemptively attack another nation by the commander in cheif without a declaration of war or some other authorization by the congress is unconstitutional and the military MUST NOT obey it.

    Therefore, it’s a no-brainer. McCain could issue all the orders he wanted to attack Iran with conventional or nuclear weapons and it would not happen. Our constitution specifically prohibits our military from initiating any agression against another nation without a declaration of war by the congress. If the nation is attacked by another nation they may use force only as a matter of appropriate self defense until the congress declares war.

    As to the use of nuclear weapons there is a playbook that must be followed. Within that playbook is a system that has to justify their use. No one can willy nilly start shooting off nuclear warheads anywhere. The president can order their use but it must meet the standards.

    This is as far as I can go right now but that should give you some idea why throwing the idea arouind about Bush Or McCain using nuclear weapons or anything else to attack Iran is irresponsible.

  2. Hoosier_CowBoy

    When the Present Administration took office, those knowledgable predicted that we would invade Iraq, those same people now say that a McCain Administration will do the same in Iran.

    Indeed, if elected there is an absolute certainty that President McCain will initiate hostilities against Iran, beginning with a massive air assault producing enormous loss of life and environmental destruction from the release of radioactive material from Irans centrifuge facilities. What will follow wil be a world aflame.

    What we will not be prepared for is the response from the rest of the world, who are already dumping the dollar in preparation for the Administration of the man who may be the USAs’ last President.

    We are ready to start the next war, but we may not be able to finish it. The race does not always go to the swift, the contest does not always go to the strong.

  3. ekaton

    Sandra, I have long thought that people like Limbaugh do far more to hurt the “conservative cause” than to help. He and they certainly must effectively turn away a lot of people on the fence so to speak. Personally I’m conservative on some issues and liberal on others and I don’t need to be told how to think by some demagogue on either end of the political spectrum. Sam Seder of Air America comes to mind on the left. I find him to be most annoying.

    I think most people are a mix of conservative and liberal values, really, and thats whats wrong with a two party system. People are expected to support platforms they don’t fully agree with and it makes it easier for parties to use wedge issues in lieu of real issues to divide and conquer. And its why we so often feel like we’re voting for the lesser of two evils.

    And I have no solutions to offer. Maybe work to change laws that make it so difficult for independants or third party candidates to get onto ballots. Its would be tedious and thankless and probably feel hopeless at the beginning but its the only legal way I can think of to promote real change which might even be a return to constitutional constraints at the federal level and loosening the federal grip over the states as the constitution demands.

    — Kent Shaw

  4. Sandra Price

    Kent. You are correct! The list you printed are exactly what got me out of the GOP. I clearly remember when this movement started under Bush 41. I could not understand why so many Americans who had been working for years on a limited government, would turn away from the agenda. All of a sudden this movement bloomed into a social group against individual freedoms.

    It lost Buchanan his bid for president and it also developed Fox News.