Sam Vaknin
5 min readJan 5, 2024

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Pornography of War: Psychology of Modern Warfare

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Welcome back, Dr. Vaknin! I returned from Ukrainian territories visiting several cities in rapid succession over two weeks in late November and early December. I have war on the mind. Which makes me think about the mind in war, what is the nature of war?

Dr. Sam Vaknin:

Welcome back in one piece!

War brings out the best in us and the worst in us.

Throughout the ages, war has been perceived as the epitome and quintessence of masculinity (even when women, like the Amazons, had been doing the soldiering): valor, heroism, courage (overcoming fear), selflessness, altruism, self-sacrifice for the greater good, and protectiveness over the weak and the meek.

But violent conflict leads to negative identity formation: defining oneself in opposition to the Other by dehumanizing, objectifying, and demonizing the enemy.

Most wars are cast as morality plays (good vs, evil). They amount to role playing in an adversarial rule-based game (as revealed when veterans on both sides meet after the war is over, acting all chummy and convivial).

Winning a war validates the triumphant party: it is proof of a divine blessing and of having been chosen (akin to the Protestant work ethic which regards success in business as proof positive of God’s favor). The Nazi SS had Gott mit uns carved on their daggers and belt buckles!

Finally, war mediates the tension between individual and collective via the concept of self-sacrifice (special ops are the middle ground).

Jacobsen: What happens to human psychology around war at a distance?

Vaknin: On the one hand, there is the pornography of extreme, gory battle. War is thus perceived as the ultimate reality TV, a video game come alive, or a horror film incarnate. There is vicarious gratification in witnessing all this safely, from the comfort of one’s living room, having been spared the atrocities. A smug sensation of accomplishment, of having gotten away with it.

Distant wars also legitimize aggressive and entitled virtue signaling and competitive morality, a noxious self-aggrandizing and ostentatious form of self-imputed altruism.

There are, of course, those who empathize with the dying and the wounded and the suffering and do their best to help without seeking the attendant accolades of the professional do-gooder.

Jacobsen: What happens to human psychology in war up close?

Vaknin: From personal experience, it is a grind. There is no clear end or horizon to it all. It feels like it could last forever.

PTSD is very common and so is a mounting and all-consuming paranoia, a sense of extreme isolation and ubiquitous threat. It is as if war is a giant gaslighting experience where the very fabric of reality is torn asunder.

In many wars, there is little movement or accomplishments. The scene is frozen, surreal. Gruesome death and mutilation are constant companions.

There is an acute fear of abandonment, of getting lost and an extreme dependency on others, an external locus of control.

War regresses its participants to infancy. Primitive psychological defense mechanisms take over: splitting, alloplastic defenses, defiance, acting out/crazymaking, moral collapse, magical or superstitious thinking.

Jacobsen: What separates the psychology of a bystander in war versus a combatant in war?

Vaknin: Civilians in war are instantly and all-pervasively traumatized: they react with a form of trauma bonding or Stockholm Syndrome. They perceive soldiers — even soldiers on their side! — as looming, inexorable hotheaded, trigger-happy, demented, and reckless threats who are hellbent on endangering all and sundry. It is as if they are caught in the crossfire between two rival criminal gangs. They are wary of both parties of combatants and this radical loss of the ability to trust and to feel safe (no “secure base”) yields terror, emotional dysregulation, and self-destructive acting out in some — or a freeze response in others.

Jacobsen: When it comes to politics and its psychology before, during, and after war, what characterizes the minds of the political class citizen — from high to low status — in each of these phases of war?

Vaknin: All politicians regard war as a legitimate and integral part of the toolbox of human affairs — and justly so: it is. Hostilities are always in the background of diplomacy. Violent conflict is ineluctable, inexorable, and periodic. In many cases, warfare is considered a superior form of geopolitical signaling and the only efficacious way to securing goals. Politicians are, therefore, fatalists: they are resigned to war, inured to it, comprehend it as a force of nature and the reification of “being human”.

Jacobsen: When it comes to politics and its psychology before, during, and after war, what characterizes the minds of the non-political class citizen — from high to low status — in each of these phases of war?

Vaknin: Vociferous protestations aside, people love a good war: it is a prime variant of dramatic entertainment, a kind of exalted sport. They exult in it. This state of mind comprises extreme anxiety and fear, of course. Every experience is rendered sharper, more crisp, and memorable. In clinical terms, war is a psychotic fantasy, a mass psychegenic illness of sorts.

Jacobsen: What factors of human psychology increase the odds of war and decrease the odds of war?

Vaknin: Nothing decreases the odds of war. It is a myth that economic prosperity and democracy are bulwarks against the eruption of violent conflict. Conversely, literally everything in human psychology predisposes us to aggression. Even empathy makes us choose sides and aggress against the abuser on behalf of the victim-du-jour. War is, therefore, the natural state of the human mind: it caters to numerous deepset psychological needs. It cleanses, establishes a new equilibrium, and catalyses the replacement of the old with the new, for better or for worse.

Jacobsen: What are the positives and negatives of war in the advancement of human civilization?

Vaknin: War is a cultural-social activity that facilitates intimacy, bonding and cooperation, technological innovation, and the emergence of a cathartic new social or political order each and every time. It is a rite of passage, a redemptive ritual, an engine of progress, and a demarcator of eras.

Jacobsen: What happens to the mass psychology of a citizenry — of a society — of the original provoking power, the aggressor, and the defender, in the long term from war, after war?

Vaknin: Humans who are exposed to repeated violence — in wars, in prison, even in hospitals — grow insensitive to it. They dehumanize and brutalize both the Other and themselves. They are suspended in a post-traumatic state, replete with infantile psychological defenses, dissociation, cognitive distortions (such as grandiosity), and emotional numbing.

Jacobsen: Given the above, what can be the coda — the summative principles — of human psychology at war to comprehend individuals and humanity vis-a-vis war?

Vaknin: Like climate change, War is a human phenomenon. Rather than confront it self-delusionally, we better accept it and adapt to it. It is not going away, no matter what we do. So, why waste our scarce resources on its elimination?

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Sam.

Vaknin: Thank you for enduring me yet again. You are a brave man, indeed.

Sam Vaknin, Ph.D. is a former economic advisor to governments (Nigeria, Sierra Leone, North Macedonia), served as the editor in chief of “Global Politician” and as a columnist in various print and international media including “Central Europe Review” and United Press International (UPI). He taught psychology and finance in various academic institutions in several countries (http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com/cv.html )

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Sam Vaknin

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and a Visiting Professor of Psychology