Community Psychology, War and Militarism

Community Psychology, War and Militarism

Three things I’ve read just recently have focused my thoughts on the need for a psychology against war and militarism and I wonder if Community Psychology is the appropriate home for it.

First was a review in the March 2014 Psychologist (vol 27, no 3, p. 203) from Ron Roberts of Kingston University of a book about the Milgram experiments. The book, by Gina Perry, he says, ‘… has put Milgram in the dock [for the deception used, lack of debriefing etc.] – but perhaps the profession should be there with him. We continue to ignore a multitude of questions about obedience – not least the obedience of the discipline to the mores of capitalism and militarism. Psychology’s contribution to the security state – the enhanced efficiency of torture and state-sanctioned killing… leave Milgram’s sins trailing in their wake’.

Second was a report by Jason Leopold in the Guardian Weekly (25th April, p.5) – a wonderful paper incidentally for anyone like me who cannot cope with a daily paper – it’s been my constant companion for years. This is what the report said. James Mitchell, a retired air force psychologist, ‘regarded as the architect of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” programme’, was dismissive of a Senate intelligence committee report which alludes to the role he and another psychologist played in the torture programme. He said it ignored the context of the time, immediately after the September 11th attacks, and was not illegal at the time. He is quoted as saying, ‘I’m just a guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best that I could’.

The third was the July edition of The Psychologist, which carried summaries of a lot of what went on at this year’s annual BPS conference. One of the themes of this year’s conference was War and Psychology. I couldn’t go myself but I was keen to know what that meant and how that subject was addressed at the conference. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised but still I was disappointed. Keynotes by psychiatrist Sir Simon Wessely, historian Ben Shephard and news correspondent Kate Adie, plus three symposia, were devoted to aspects of this topic. Psychological harm for combatants, and its treatment, plus very occasional mention of stress for combatants’ families and refugees, was the predominant focus, with much discussion of PTSD. There was mention of what psychology could do in other ways for the military, for example in recruitment and training, and one whole symposium was devoted to the provision of applied psychology in the armed forces. Nowhere could I find even a hint of psychology taking as its starting point the idea that war itself is a problem. One of the symposia did include interesting topics like the effect of more women combatants on gender roles or the unintended consequences of propaganda, but even here war itself was not treated as the problem to be understood and avoided. Only Kate Adie – at least according to the summaries in The Psychologist – referred to ‘the abnormality, the violence and unfairness of war’.

This all put me in mind of a book I was very impressed by some years ago by Peter Watson, War on the Mind: the Military Uses and Abuses of Psychology (Hutchinson 1978, Penguin 1980). Peter worked in both social and clinical psychology and was associate editor of New Society for three years, and was one of the Sunday Times 'Insight' team which investigated the use of psychological warfare by the British in Northern Ireland. I was shocked at the time both by the widespread use of psychology, and involvement of psychologists, in Britain but most particularly in the USA, in techniques that can only be described as torture, but also in a wide range of military techniques.


Are other people as appalled by all this as I am, and if so do you think this is something which should be an important topic within British Community Psychology?

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Couldn't agree more Jim! And yes I think we should do something! There was a lot of interest in responding to recent atrocities in Gaza. I wonder if we build on that?

Sorry it's taken so long to reply! 

It would be wonderful if you could touch on this in the Comm Psych Festival Jim!

Yes of course. However it is worth pointing out that there is a significant Peace Psychology area of work. In the belly of the empire itself there is even an APA Division but nowhere near as powerful as the Div of Military Psychology. Psychologists for Social Responsibility too has done great work on this too.
Secondly my view is that violence is done daily not just BH the military industrial apparatus but by the system of imperialist capitalism. This we now see as austerity reveals its real nature. In societies like ours consent is manufactured but should that fail the captive State will not hesitate to fall back on violence. We need to understand how these things are linked together.

Psychology's only contribution to date is providing psychological intervention to support those brutalised by army training and war to feel better. What if we took a Liberation Psychology approach to intervention with 'soldiers' that supported their conscientización towards challenging a system which brutalises (mainly) men (from disadvantaged backgrounds) into blindly participating in cruel and degrading acts against 'others', "for the greater good". Perhaps then more and more soldiers would whistle-blow and join the anti-militarism movement that so many ex-soldiers have joined already, despite being ostracised, bullied, harassed and oppressed by the army for doing so. And how sad for us that the only modern British MP (that I know of) to consistently denounce the evil of mass murder, is no longer with us (RIP Tony Benn). 

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