The Joy of War

Articles trying to explain terrorism rarely mention how joyous and exciting the idea of going to war can be, particularly to the young, angry, and inexperienced. As the World War I critic Randolph Bourne wrote, “War is the health of the state.”[1]

War, or at least the idea of it, is very enjoyable for many people. You get to dress up in nifty uniforms that make you look great. You receive the praise and admiration of civilians—these days, they even applaud you in airports and other public places. And meanwhile, you’re preparing to play the most basic and beloved type of game: competing against tough opponents. War is its ultimate expression.
Everyone realizes, deep down, that war is hell. But for the young and inexperienced, who naturally feel invulnerable, war and the propaganda that always precedes and accompanies it makes fighting it seem a noble sacrifice for the sake of honorable ideas. You fight to defeat vile and hateful enemies; selflessly protect the innocent; and bravely defend Our Way of Life, Our Religion, our God, the Homeland. Preparing for and fighting war can mold you into a strong, enduring, brave, skillful and admired adult.

More important than we like to acknowledge in this calculus is sadism. The history of warfare (and anything else that allows the unaccountable use of force against others), is replete with wanton cruelty.  These situations may well attract some who have cruel and angry impulses, but they also arouse such feelings in many others. Wars validate such behavior by inspiring fear and hatred of the enemies and providing many apparently legitimate opportunities to behave badly. They may even bring social approval for bad actions, seeing them as just punishment for enemies expected to do the same or worse.

Americans are perhaps especially susceptible to the powerful psychological attractions of the idea of war because, unlike most other countries, we have not experienced it on our soil since the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago. Nor, have many young Americans fought in recent wars, lengthy as they have been. Very few Americans, therefore, have personally experienced the dire consequences of fighting war.

Inexperience also afflicts the young of many other countries, many of whom suffer a degree of hopelessness and despair about their futures that most Americans escape. To some of them, the siren call of jihad sings of noble sacrifice in an honorable cause, and offers an approved outlet for frustration and rage. To defeat terrorism, I think we need to fashion programs in light of these feelings.

[1] As quoted in Franklin Foer, “Why Liberalism Disappoints,” The Atlantic (September 2017), p. 47

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