Death and Forever: Some Fears of War and Peace

Does the individual ,as he soberly and thoughtfully discusses the likelihood of a nuclear war ,lose his sense of reality and his ability to envision his own death in such a war? DR. SANFORD GIFFORD, whose article deals with this question, is engaged in psyehophysiological research at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston and teaches psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School.

TWO general trends in public opinion about war are widely recognized: the polarization of attitudes into primitive extremes, with an inability to consider intermediate solutions; and the quality of unreality and helplessness that pervades discussions of possible nuclear death. The familiar belief that total resistance and total surrender are the only alternatives may be characteristic of all wars. As the danger increases, the alternatives become more absolute, until only war or military threats represent strength, and negotiations and even talk of peace are equated with weakness. Intoxicated with self-righteousness, each nation enjoys an unshakable belief in its own intentions and its adversary’s implacable malevolence, and compromise becomes impossible.

These phenomena are well known, but the unlimited scope of nuclear war intensifies primitive thinking to extremes where either alternative is equally impossible and interchangeable with its opposite. Nothing is more unimaginable than total nuclear annihilation except total submission to Soviet power, and vice versa; better Red than dead or dead than Red becomes a kind of circular reasoning, since neither extreme is conceivable in realistic terms.

The unreality of nuclear war is increased because a quantitative increase in destructiveness has created a qualitative difference that exceeds ordinary human comprehension. The reality of the Nazi extermination camps was difficult to grasp because the magnitude of six million deaths blunts their emotional significance. Estimates of fifty million deaths in a nuclear attack become even more unintelligible; the mind can handle such data only by rendering the information meaningless through various self-protective mechanisms. A process of immunization occurs with repeated exposure to lethal statistics, inducing a relative insensitivity to new information. In this refractory state the noblest manifestos and the most vivid documentary evidence become truisms and colorless platitudes which arouse irritable antipathy, as each new horror becomes a new cliché.

Another qualitative difference contributes to the unreality, as nuclear destructiveness approaches the possibility of universal, instantaneous death for each individual and his family. Until the saturation bombing of large cities during the last war, warfare itself could always be thought of as being carried out by other people in other places; even on the battlefield the soldier preserved some magical belief in his own invulnerability. Now we cannot share Hamlet’s regret at seeing “the imminent death of twenty thousand men,” because our imminent deaths are inseparable from others. Paradoxically, the necessity of considering our own personal death merely intensifies the unreality instead of making the danger more immediate.

We may believe simultaneously that no nation would dare to begin nuclear war and that if war occurred by accident, life would no longer be worth living. From either direction we reach the same conclusion, that nothing can be done, thus justifying a fatalistic passivity that is strangely comforting rather than alarming. This passivity is enhanced by other attributes of modern war — that resistance is impossible against universal destruction, that no ordinary person can understand its political complexities, and that decisions must be made by remote, impersonal experts or even by automatic underground computers after everyone is dead. Such feelings of helplessness against invisible, unpredictable, inhuman powers recall medieval preoccupations with the Last Judgment and with the Black Death, as an irresistible, universal force, striking down the prince in his tower and the peasant in his hut with the same impartial speed.

Inevitably, each person seeks refuge according to his own temperament: in apathy, in gallows humor, in false assumptions of rationality, or in the romanticism of multipurpose shelters — combination mausoleums and family dormitories that provide absolute safety against moderate fallout, dignified cremation under direct hits, and economical future burial arrangements in case of peace. Even scientific information can be used to obscure the threat underlying the fascinating technicalities of games-theory. There is some relief in our preoccupation with factual details, as in the attempts of a bereaved person to cope with emotional loss by absorbing himself in the physical minutiae of the last illness.

THESE understandable tendencies toward primitive thinking, unreality, and helplessness, and the various defensive maneuvers used to counteract our fears of war, contribute to a public opinion that cannot really believe another war will ever occur, in spite of our newspapers and all the anxious discussions about its dangers. These public attitudes have their specific counterpart in individual experience, in our inability to believe in the reality of our own personal death. Freud pointed this out in 1915, during a war that seemed to have reached new, unimaginable extremes of inhumanity but that now sounds almost naive in its innocence. Freud was cautious in making analogies between individual and group phenomena, but present-day possibilities that war means universal death justify further exploration of public and private attitudes toward death.

There is only an apparent contradiction between death as the central concern of all history and literature and the individual’s inability to conceive of his own death. Most human activities concerned with death, as Kurt Eissler’s thoughtful book The Psychiatrist and the Dying Patient illustrates, actually represent attempts to deny its reality or to undo its effects, by preserving the notion that some aspect of our individual identity has a continuous existence. The various religious and philosophical concepts of immortality are merely the more literal of these attempts, which include perpetuating our identity in artistic and scientific works, in good and bad historical actions, in the satisfactions of ordinary parents bringing up their children. The everyday rationalizations that permit us to smoke, drive cars, and travel by plane reveal an inability to believe in death. Other apparent fears of death actually represent fears of physical injury.

Freud suggested that the unconscious mind is incapable of entertaining the concept of its own extinction, and conscious attempts to conceive of death as the biological end of life are relatively abstract intellectual exercises. This is understandable in both phylogenetic and ontogenetic terms: there is no evidence that animals have any concept of death, and an awareness of death appears relatively late in human development, during the period of childhood sexual curiosity, when cosmological questions about all biological processes are both fearful and fascinating. In contrast to conscious concepts of death, however, fears of infantile helplessness, hunger, and separation from parents can be assumed to exist from the earliest weeks of life. This developmental difference may explain some complex, seemingly contradictory features of adult attitudes toward death, and all fears of death may actually represent fears of helplessness and abandonment.

In his pioneer work in 1936 on the psychology of dying, Felix Deutsch pointed out that the moribund patient is not reacting to the unimaginable fact of death but to fears of the original infantile state of helplessness and passivity, with which death is equated. Avery Weisman has recently made a similar distinction between fears of dying, as a state of weakness and physical dissolution, and fears of death, as the biological end of individual existence. These distinctions help us to understand certain clinical problems in modern medicine which present difficult choices, between progressive cardiac invalidism and a substantial operative risk, for example, or between palliation of incurable cancer and drastic surgical resection, hypophysectomy, or castration. For certain patients mutilation and passivity are more frightening than the possibility of death, although even in these extreme situations the patient is probably unconsciously choosing between two different represenations of infantile helplessness, one of which is more threatening than the other.

These individual choices between nameless dangers, symbolized by death and some even more fearful alternatives, have their counterparts in traditional attitudes about death or dishonor, liberty or death, fight or fiight, heroism or cowardice. These attitudes appear noble or exaggerated depending upon their cultural and historical context, from the most courageous acts of religious and political martyrs to the ritual suicide of a samurai warrior who feels his masculinity destroyed by some slight loss of face. Western traditions place a special emphasis on heroic masculinity, with an idealization of military virtues, and reveal contradictory attitudes toward religious values, juxtaposing the soldier and the saint, the sword and the book. Feminine, masochistic qualities are associated with the Christian philosophy of turning the other check and with the passive, contemplative aspects of Buddhism.

In the present atmosphere of reciprocal fear, distrust, and hostility between ourselves and the Russians, basic individual tendencies to deny the reality of death and to dread helplessness and castration as greater dangers are expressed in collective attitudes about the unreality of war and the fear of compromise, even of peace itself, as a greater danger than war. Among the effects of this process are an exaggerated preoccupation with the mystique of “toughness” and an excessive fear of compromise, as if the slightest conciliatory gesture represented abject weakness.

Jerome Frank, Charles Osgood, and others have described the emotional resistances against nonviolent methods and unilateral initiatives in disarmament. Frank considers the courage and resourcefulness that a failure of unilateral steps would require, while Osgood’s gradualism deals with these fears by retaining elements of mutual deterrence. Roy Menninger, a psychiatrist who has discussed disarmament with lay audiences, describes the violent fears of passivity and castration, perhaps enhanced by traditional associations between peace and religiosity. Both religious and nonreligious pacifists are the object of similar prejudices, as impractical idealists or visionaries at best, as cowards, creeps, and crackpots at worst. These epithets imply qualities of weakness and effeminacy, and fears of passivity may prevent many from taking public action who might otherwise be pacifists on intellectual grounds. Only a few pacifists of undeniable eminence, like Bertrand Russell, can hold unconventional views without some concession to these ubiquitous fears ot weakness. The idealization of aggressiveness is merely the obverse of the same problem. Although the popular image of the professor has greatly changed since Roosevelt’s first brain trust, some of the ancient stereotypes persist. Thus, fears of appearing “theoretical” in contrast to “practical” politicians may exert some pressure on intellectuals in government posts to exaggerate their “tough” qualities.

SINCE primitive thinking, denial of death, and fears of infantile helplessness arc not merely conscious attitudes, they cannot be overcome by persuasion or improved education, like the results of ignorance or misinformation. These tendencies reflect fundamental characteristics of human behavior that we are born with, modify somewhat during our development, and deal with as best we can. This pessimistic conclusion is also true of other basic properties of our biological nature, which are generally acknowledged as man’s innate need for aggressive, destructive behavior.

Einstein and Freud discussed the problem in a moving exchange of letters, written in 1932 at the request of a surviving agency of the League of Nations. Einstein pointed out that war cannot be explained by the power of a ruling elite and asked why the majority must respond to their leaders, even to sacrificing their lives. “Only one answer is possible. Because man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction.” Freud, like many others, had come to the same conclusion, and during the early twenties he had put his speculations together in the theory of the death instinct. His original aim had been to resolve certain theoretical problems in the psychology of instincts, and at the same time to deal with questions that properly belong to the realm of general biology.

One of these questions is whether there is such a thing as natural death: does it occur by accident with increasing probability, or is the tendency toward aging and death after an approximately predetermined life-span an innate characteristic of all organisms, part of the epigenetic ground plan of protoplasm itself? Freud proposed two general biological tendencies, which he called Eros and Thanatos. Eros represented a life-force, which included all strivings toward synthesis, the evolution of unicellular organisms toward higher forms, the differentiation of simple into more complex structures, and the capacity for reproduction and perpetuation of the species. Thanatos represented a primary destructiveness, including the tendency for all living matter to return to an inorganic state, for complex structures to regress and lose their differentiated qualities, and for organisms to destroy themselves, unless this destructive force was directed outward against other organisms or was counteracted by sufficient quantities of Eros.

Freud acknowledged that the theory of life and death instincts was a speculative construction, cheerfully admitting that Einstein might gain the impression “that our theories amount to a species of mythology and a gloomy one at that.” Many psychoanalysts have never accepted its full implications, regarding it as an unnecessary theoretical superstructure which can be overlooked without impairing its usefulness as the basis for a dual theory of sexual and aggressive drives. Biologists and other natural scientists may question its validity, particularly its teleological implications and its use of the term “instinct” in a specialized psychoanalytic sense. But the phenomena that Freud’s theory encompasses, whatever its terminology, represent undeniable aspects of human and animal behavior and have a particular relevance for us at the present time.

To avoid misunderstandings, two aspects of the theory must be emphasized: first, the two instincts were not regarded as existing separately but as always fused in various proportions; and, second, as basic properties of man’s biological nature, their manifestations were considered indirect, never appearing in the conscious, reasoning activities of the mind. The existence of the death instinct, for example, can only be inferred from the occurrence of aging and natural death, from certain repetitious self-destructive propensities of the organism, and from an innate biological need for rhythmical periods of rest and activity, sleep and wakefulness.

Freud agreed with Einstein that war represented a periodic manifestation of the destructive drives, but suggested that “we have always its counter-agent, Eros ... as war’s antidote,” which he equated with man’s love for his fellowman and with the complex processes of identification by means of which individuals are united to form societies. He considered the possibility of an ideal community “where every man subordinated his instinctual life to the dictates of reason . . . utterly utopian, as things are.” Nevertheless, he concluded with some attenuated, very much qualified hopes about the possible prevention of war.

Freud pointed out that the internalization of destructive instincts was the source of conscience, legal institutions, and other tendencies toward cultural development, recapitulating his wellknown belief that all the achievements of civilization result from the progressive renunciation of instinctual satisfaction. He based his hope on two factors: first, on “man’s cultural disposition,” meaning that “whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war,” and, second, on “a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take.”

When Freud expressed these modest hopes, they seemed, like E. M. Forster’s two cheers for democracy, tempered with enough pessimism to be realistic and as consoling as the political atmosphere of 1932 permitted. Like most of his contemporaries, Freud saw the future as a continuation of the past, as an unending history of periodic, increasingly destructive wars and intervals of peaceful cultural development. There was no reason to foresee scientific advances that would enable the human race to destroy itself altogether. But with our present knowledge of nuclear war, we are obliged to re-examine Freud’s theory and to consider the possibility that we are collectively suffering from a major illness, an aberration of the death instinct, in which an unexpected increase in our destructive powers exceeds our capacities for controlling them. This sudden disturbance in the equilibrium between life and death instincts may be, hopefully, temporary, if sufficient life-force is mobilized to restore the balance; temporary, but so acute that we may accidentally exterminate ourselves before a viable equilibrium can be restored; or permanent, in the sense of a fatal illness, the terminal phase of our predetermined life-span as a civilization, as a species, or even as life itself.

IN THE light of Freud’s theory, the discovery of nuclear fission is the product of both love and hate, representing simultaneously a great cultural achievement and an instrument of unlimited aggression. As a supreme example of sublimation, in which aggressive drives are neutralized and transformed into creative activities, the peaceful applications of nuclear energy could provide safe channels for destructive drives, as in innocent competitions to circumnavigate the moon, build the Aswan dam, or preserve the temples of Abu Simbel.

Considering another biological phenomenon in the light of Freud’s theory, the uncontrollable increase in world population resulting from technological advances in medicine that have unbalanced the natural incidence of illness and death represents an aberration of the life instinct — again, a disturbance in equilibrium. Ironically, this was the crime for which Aesculapius was killed by Zeus’s thunderbolt, for curing disease and disturbing the natural ecology of the Underworld. In these terms, both nuclear fission and the population explosion may be regarded as antithetical aberrations in instinctual development, or as indirect tendencies toward re-establishing a new balance on a culturally more primitive level. II some people survive a moderate nuclear war by sheer numbers, human civilization may be slowly propagated from remote outposts in Szechwan and North Dakota, as land crabs eventually repopulated the Galapagos Islands, according to recent studies of post-volcanic ecology.

If we regard ourselves as the victims of a meaningless accident in the history of scientific progress, a cultural advance has overtaken our capacities for developing long-term adaptations to a drastically altered environment. In this sense we have been compared to other extinct species, like the woolly mammoths who foundered in the swamps of the receding ice cap, although they might have survived a slower climatic change that allowed more gradual evolutionary development. In another sense, since scientific progress itself is an intrinsic element in our cultural development, we may consider our fate inevitable rather than accidental, as a civilization that is dying by its own hand, after a full life of splendors, miseries, and absurdities. Contrary to the beliefs of most poets, marble and the gilded monuments of princes may outlive our written words, the uninhabited cities of Palmyra and Uxmal may survive our civilized centers, and the pyramids of Egypt may still be standing, emanating neutrons, for some thousands of years.

Whatever explanation we choose, the end may be the same, and the possibility must be considered that the problem of war has no solution, at least within the present limitations of human nature. At this point there are two alternatives. On the one hand, like the individual patient with leukemia, we may prepare for our own death, even though we cannot believe in its reality, with as much dignity and self-understanding as we can muster. Important moral decisions must still be made, whether to emulate the tranquillity of Socrates, prepare a painless family suicide kit, or construct an ignominious burrow.

On the other hand, there may be time to consider Freud’s “natural antidote” against war, to use whatever life-force is available for taking preventive action. In the modern world this means uniting with other individuals in larger and more heterogeneous groups, from neighbors and colleagues to nations and international organizations, a recapitulation of the evolutionary step that occurred when protozoa united to form multicellular organisms. We must explore every possible basis for mutual identification, literally obeying Auden’s often-quoted admonition that “we must love one another or die.” We are ill equipped for loving our neighbors as ourselves, hampered by fear of our oddity from identifying with odd groups or objectionable individuals, or inhibited about joining any group that might restrict our individual freedom. A tolerance for incompatible bedfellows is only partially attainable, each of us within his personal limitations, but an excessive fastidiousness about others’ idiosyncrasies paralyzes any collective action to oppose war.

The most available common ground for mutual identification is fear of war itself, among ourselves and among Soviet citizens, who are obviously as frightened of our government as we are of theirs. We also share other interests, and our feverish enthusiasm for each other’s concert pianists reflects a longing for some safe, nonideological area of contact. Their fears are probably greater than ours, however, because they are systematically deprived of information about the outside world and denied the everyday opportunities of complaining about their government that we take for granted, including the right to join groups opposed to war. Since we alone enjoy freedom of political action, naturally we must take every possible initiative to diminish the reciprocal mistrust that immobilizes our negotiations.

At this moment in history, utopian, even quixotic demonstrations of mutual trust seem more “realistic” than a continued exchange of threats. A policy of “real toughness” and our well-meaning attempt to have it both ways, by simultaneously proclaiming our devotion to peace and our determination to resume nuclear tests, have not been particularly effective. An unwavering decision to renounce all nuclear weapons, unilaterally if necessary, seems more appropriate than highminded rhetoric about democratic ideals, which sounds as alien to Soviet cars as their catchphrases sound to ours. Carrying out such a decision is a supremely difficult and complex undertaking, but the aim is simple, requiring only Eliot’s “condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.”