Is War A Psychosis?


I have no future but I am a force.
— Robin Williams, as a terrorist, in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, 1996

In 1967, the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing wrote, “Insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. Normal men have killed 100 million of their fellow men in the past 50 years.” Wartime behavior deviates markedly from crosscultural social norms and values. The irrationality and emotionality of war is a radical departure from accepted normal behavior. In the heat of battle, killing becomes the norm and is reinforced, even rewarded. Wartime behavior of and by itself meets current diagnostic criteria for a severe mental disorder.

The United States was founded in war, the American Revolution, and has had wars in every generation from that time to World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and now the Afghan and Iraq wars. That is not unique to the United States. Every world region has had a war. In the context of world history, it seems war is inevitable, and as philosopher George Santayana sadly observed in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

“Why war? Of all the personality theorists, Freud came closest to explaining the psychological roots of war. He speculated that war is an outlet for the thanatos libido, the “death instinct,” a basic instinctive drive that is the polar opposite to eros libido, prosocial and life supportive. Applying Freud’s insight, under the right circumstances the thanatos libido can rise to a level that overcomes reason and logic. It also emerges in a quest for power and the impulse to win or dominate. This tendency is evident in business, government, and competitive sports.

Situations and circumstances allow this primitive and predatory drive to surface, such as in the racist paranoia of lynchings in the U.S. South and the Indian wars in America’s West, à la Custer’s infamous last stand. The thanatos libido emerged in the holocaust in Nazi Germany and more recently in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, Darfur, and Rwanda. It was economic in Japan’s need for oil and the country’s attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor that began World War II for America. The death instinct has been political and nationalistic, in the colonialism of European nations in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries and the quest for power and dominance from Napoleon to Hitler and Stalin into the twentieth century. It can be territorial, like tribal wars in ancient societies. And it can be religious, such as the Crusades and today’s extremist Muslims reinforcing millennia-old, seemingly irreconcilable differences.

There have been attempts at neutralizing this powerful instinctive drive and nonviolently resolving differences. Gandhi’s “salt march” opposing British rule in India led to India’s independence. But Gandhi was assassinated, and differences between Muslims and Hindus led to the establishment of Pakistan as an independent nation. Their armies still face each other in the continuing dispute over the Kashmir. Both have nuclear weapons.

The norm has been tens of thousands dying in religious wars, but nonviolent accommodation of religious differences does occur. Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists peacefully co-exist in many nations. They have had no religious wars.

But it is in war where the death instinct is most obvious. Atrocities–“crimes against humanity”–occur in every war. Ironically, we award medals to and hail as heroes or martyrs those who kill more of the enemy. One nation’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, even though it may be the same behavior. To Islamic terrorists, death in battle or a suicide attack is martyrdom; reward with a harem of virgins is said to be guaranteed. Suicide is especially attractive when many enemies are killed with the martyr. This was true for the 9/11 terrorists who flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, inspiring others to follow their examples in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel.

World history offers many examples of extreme wartime behaviors, including Attila, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great. More recently, leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and others in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have motivated thousands to take up arms and vent their aggression against targeted enemies. Extremist behavior is not limited just to charismatic leaders. Kamikaze pilots in World War II and today’s suicide bombers were recruited from the rank and file. Suicide as a chosen alternative has historical roots (e.g., Japanese hara-kiri).

These behaviors meet current criteria for mental disorder. For example, the diagnostic standard, the DSM-IV-TR (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) defines a dissociative disorder as “disruption in usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception of the environment and impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (p. 239). Derealization (“Can this be really happening?) and depersonalization (“Is this me?”) are listed as typical symptoms. Victims are dehumanized into objects, and robot-like violence depersonalizes the aggressor in the process.

In 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger described the state of “cognitive dissonance,” which preserves “internal harmony, consistency, or congruity among opinions, attitudes, knowledge, and values” (p. 260). Waldinger defined delusion as “a false belief firmly held despite incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary, not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the culture or subculture.” What begins as bias and opinion, usually tolerated, can lead to distortion, then wrongful belief. Reinforced by charismatic leaders, there can be a downward spiral into delusion. Genocide in Nazi Germany and recently in Rwanda and the Sudan is evidence of this tragic process. And it is not limited to mass behavior. Street crime and domestic violence reflect Elbert Hubbard’s observation a hundred years ago: “So long as governments set the example of killing their enemies, private individuals will occasionally kill theirs.”

The environment in war lacks external controls. Societal values weaken. War disinhibits and desensitizes. The horror of the holocaust of World War II became evident only as time passed, not immediately. The Allies did not give it a high priority while it was happening. The perpetrators denied personal responsibility, using “the Nuremberg defense” that they were simply following orders. Defense mechanisms of denial, externalization, projection, rationalization, and splitting block reality testing have the effect of reducing anxiety and protecting against stress. Violence then becomes part of the array of defense mechanisms.

The strong drive that leads to the practice of beheading victims, common among Islamic extremists, suggests an entrenched, inflexible belief system of delusional proportion. It involves a grandiose quality the DSM-IV-TR describes as one “of inflated worth, power, knowledge, identity, or special relationship to a deity or famous person” (p. 160). Wartime behavior suggests an extreme mental state of psychotic proportion and with it, often paranoid ideation–a simplistic “us or them” dichotomy. Killing becomes routine “business as usual.”

Delusional thinking is encouraged in signs, posters, banners, and statues that propagandize or deify a cause, leader, or martyr. Iran’s Ayotollah Khomeini, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and North Korea’s Kim Il Sung are examples. Emotion overrides reason and logic in public education and controlled news media that reinforce aggression. Schools teach children a biased version of history and current events, reinforced with songs and recitation: Hitler Youth, China and Russia’s Young Pioneers, North Korean “patriotic” school activities, and anti-West Islamic school curricula. Singled out, the United States is the common enemy (“Satan America”) and the cause of a nation’s problems. According to the DSM-IV-TR, these are neurotic defenses (externalization, displacement, isolation, denial, and rationalization).

On a smaller scale, cult-like groups develop similar impaired reality testing. Jim Jones in his People’s Church in Guyana caused the suicides of 913 men, women, and children by propagating the delusional belief the U.S. would soon invade their commune. David Koresh of the Branch Davidians refused to submit to lawful authority for almost two months, leading to his death and the deaths of most of his followers. Marshall Applewhite led the Heaven’s Gate cult in a group suicide to join with alien super-beings in Halley’s comet. The Taliban in Afghanistan executed people at soccer games, beat “uncovered” women on the street, and blew up centuries-old Buddha statues. These behaviors are not consistent with any definition of normality or sanity.

“Shell shock” of World War I and “combat fatigue” of World War II were precursors of what we now diagnose and treat as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This condition is evidence of the harmful impact of the wartime environment on both military and civilian populations. The phenomenon of war has been with us since cave dwelling tribes. Many of our fathers fought in World War I, brothers in World War II, we in Korea or Vietnam, and our children in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan or Iraq. Throughout history, war has been taking place somewhere in the world.

A major feature of psychosis is impaired reality testing, and it is evident in wartime behavior. Hinsie and Campbell (1973) observed that “psychoses differ from other psychiatric disorders by certain features.” They listed four distinguishing features: disruptive severity, withdrawal in which “objective reality has less meaning,” affect that is “qualitatively different,” and regression that “may include a return to early and even primitive patterns.” They suggested the term “collective psychosis,” if it is shared “by an entire group.”

Freud had much to say about behaviors common in wartime. He survived the rise of Nazism in Vienna and saw firsthand its aggression and violence. He saw aggression as a basic drive that inevitably leads to conflict. There is a tendency to project it onto others, for instance, Nazis onto Jews and Muslim extremists onto “Satan America.” As early as 1933, he traced psychosis to a “repressed unconscious too strong that overwhelms the conscious” and a state “when reality becomes so unbearably painful the threatened ego succumbs to unconscious impulses.”

Experimental evidence of antisocial behavior in otherwise “normal” people exists. Milgram in 1974 and Zimbardo in 1973 showed how it is possible to violate societal norms. Milgram instructed volunteers to administer what they were told were dangerous electric shocks to others. Actually, there was no current in the equipment but volunteers did not know that. Zimbardo stopped his experiment of a mock prison when “guards” became increasingly aggressive. The behavior of army reservists at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison is a recent real-life example of how aggression can become the norm in an environment of little or no external control.

Hopeful signs exist, however. The world now has a United Nations. For a thousand years, major world religions have developed and promoted moral standards. Colonialism and imperialism have given way to independence among nations. Science and technology improve the quality of life.

But wars continue. Technology develops more weapons. As in ages past, soldiers face each other with the stark realization that only one will survive. To people in war-torn nations, it may seem the world has gone mad. Many veterans of wars return home unable to cope with their own and others’ extreme behaviors.

War is a tragedy for both sides. That it continues is an even greater tragedy, a downward spiral of world civilization of psychotic dimension.

War is a psychosis!


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 2000.

Ferguson, N. War of the world. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Festinger, L. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Freud, S. New introductory lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933). New York: Norton, 1950.

Hinsie, L.E., & Campbell, R.J. Psychiatric dictionary. 4th edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Laing, R.D. The politics of experience. New York: Ballantine Books, 1967.

Milgram, S. Obedience to authority. New York: Harper and Row, 1974.

Santayana, G. The life of reason. Volume 1. New York: Dover.

Waldinger, R.J. Psychiatry for medical students. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1984.

Zimbardo, P.G. Human choice: Individuation, reason, and order vs. deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 17, 237-307, 1969.

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  • Norman Rosenblood

    MacHovec’s piece on war is refreshing and clear. It might be worth mentioning that Freud also saw one of the ways humans could put the brakes on their instincts was to establish a relationship with the other person and thereby identify with the other; hence, there is less desire to kill something that is valued. He has an interesting exchange of letters with Einstein on the topic.

    Edward Glover, also a psychoanalyst, has a good book on the topic:WHY WAR.

    • DRG

      Thank you for this refreshing view that is so very clear. Unfortunately the people that need to read it probably won’t! The recent development and use of unmanned killer drones is a terrifying bit evidence for the insanity.

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  • Frank MacHovec

    On hindsight I should have included a proviso about how to stay sane in an insane satiation. The insane situation is when someone is determined to kill you: the combat situation. To “kill or be killed” is not conducive to mental health and has highly destructive potential. The media has never made clear what you describe: conscious control over extreme behavior such as anyone who “goes off half cocked” out of control.

    A way to protect “sanity” is by using maximum force, the so-called “blitz” tactic of finely focused attack, intense and time limited, then regrouping not only to “take a break” but also to return to “normal reality contact.”

    The “psychotic” element in military service is when faced with continuing attack by an enemy who behaves irrationally such as Jihadists who kill indiscriminately – a psychotic world. Soldiers in Iraq, faced with an enemy who blends in with civilians, wear no uniforms, and strike from behind is “a crazy world.” Many vets have difficulty “making sense” out of what to them was so far removed from “normal” behavior. They had to develop and use “antisocial” behavior to cope and stay “normal” in abnormal situations. Many never returned to “normal” civilian life, some homesteading in Alaska, others taking to drink or drugs. Many never went to the VA for treatment, distrusting the government that to them sent them into an insane situation.

    Some combat situations can put you in a position that defies reason, in a “world gone crazy” where you are under severe stress, with lack of sleep, and rising uncertainty except that “somebody’s out to get you.” That potentiates paranoia, normal because someone is out to get you but abnormal because it pushes you into paranoid thinking. A symptom of its lingering effect is vets who have to “check the perimeter” at home years after military service.

    These potentials make “war” abnormal and to remain “normal” sometimes requires behavior in “abnormal” ways. War is also attractive to psychopaths, well described in John Hersey’s book The War Lover about a World War 2 pilot, later made into a movie with Steve McQueen as the psychopath pilot.

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  • sachen

    thank you

  • henry

    Extremist behavior is not limited just to charismatic leaders. Kamikaze pilots in World War II and today’s suicide bombers were recruited from the rank and file.

    • Frank M

      Yes, and we know now that the last lobe of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe, the seat of critical reasoning as well as unique personality dynamics. Development peaks at age 25, which explains high risk behaviors of he 18-25 age group and that includes WW2 kamikaze youth and most suicide bombers. The shoe bomber was 23.

  • Emchiro

    no matter how many times we change nations, government, weapons, peace strategies, and science, war will always get us. only when we change the man himself. that war will go into a standstill. forgotten.

    • Frank M

      Yes, it seems the the human race is evolving, ever so slowly, and many observers consider us as still adolescent.

  • avoiceinurhead

    humans like to kill. at one point in every persons life we have the urge to kill

    just because we where pants doesn’t mean were not animals

    i like to hurt people as much as i like to put glass in my eyes but sometimes there comes a point where you just wanna reach over and bash a persons head into a brick wall

    as johnny the homicidal maniac once said “Nothing quite brings out the zest for life in a person like the thought of their impending death.”

  • Eternity

    Good for people to know.

  • Chives

    No men – no war… very simple
    Women can´t be manipulated so easily into killing others as men can…Something is terribly wrong with male population on this planet…

    • Frank M

      While research confirms women are more “social-relational” and men more “competitive loners,” as gender equality continues crome statistics how more women are using guns. I suggest war is based more on the quest for power, and history reports women with as much a propensity for violence as men, such as the Empress of China, Catherine the Great, and in our own time so-called “iron pants” Margaret Thatcher who did not hesitate to make war oin Argentina over the Falkland Islands. And, in mythology, Greek Athena with shield and spear, Medea, Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth, and we rfer to Mother Nature in natural catastrophes.

  • u joints

    no matter how many times we change nations, government, weapons, peace strategies, and science, war will always get us.

  • Cliff Gabrellas

    Curious the author started the article referring to the U.S. but then used
    the every other country as an example of the psychosis of war. Volumes could be written about the psychosis of a country that is perpetually at war and
    bankrupts itself in the process.

    • Frank M

      My intent in writing the article was to describe war as a psychosis regardless of nation or time in history, from the decline of the Roman Empire to tomorrow’s war anywhere in the world between any two nations. It’s interesting to note how extremist Muslims wage war as jihad and a function of religion, little change from the 200-year Crusades 1000 years ago.

Frank MacHovec, MA, PhD

Frank MacHovec, MA, PhD, is a retired clinical psychologist who worked 30 years in mental health clinics and hospitals and in private practice. In addition to BA, MA, and PhD degrees, he earned two post-PhD diplomates and was a certified forensics examiner who testified as expert witness in civil and criminal cases.

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