Winter 2000–2001

Something Where There Should Be Nothing

On war and anxiety

Renata Salecl

We live in an age of anxiety but a particular problem of anxiety applies to modern military warfare. The media often reports on cases of soldiers’ psychological breakdowns on the front and their continued traumas after the war. These breakdowns have had different names through history. After World War I, for example, which was fought primarily with artillery, psychologists referred to the trauma as “shell shock.” The Vietnam War introduced the concept of­ “post-traumatic stress disorder,” still in wide use in the categorization of depression, anxiety attacks, and nightmares suffered by soldiers after experience in combat. This term was invented in an attempt to rid the soldier of guilt—his condition was no longer caused by his psychological predisposition but by external circumstances.

For decades, military psychiatrists have tried to understand what incites such breakdowns in the middle of combat and why many veterans continue to have nightmares, depression, or panic attacks for years. How do breakdowns in war usually occur? A soldier is often able to engage in combat for a considerable time, under conditions of extreme danger and discomfort, until an event takes place that the soldier’s defenses cannot encompass. As one psychiatrist explains: “The actual events varied tremendously, ranging from things as simple as a friendly gesture from the enemy or an unexpected change in orders, to the death of a leader or a buddy.” In all of these cases, the soldiers were faced with a situation in which their perception of the situation radically changed and they were unable to continue fighting. These soldiers did not suddenly become cowardly; rather, they experienced a special state of anxiety that is radically different from fear.

The usual perception is that we fear something that we can see or hear; i.e., something that can be discerned as an object or a situation. Fear concerns that which can be articulated; that about which we have the ability to say, for example, “I have a fear of darkness,” or, “I fear barking dogs.” In contrast, we often perceive anxiety as a state of fear that is objectless, which means that we cannot easily say what makes us anxious. Anxiety would thus be an uncomfortable affect, more horrible than fear precisely because it is unclear to us what provokes it. This definition of the difference between anxiety and fear corresponds to what we think we experience in our daily lives. Psycho-analysis, however, gives a more complicated view of this difference. Freud pointed out that anxiety is a state of affect that has been provoked by excitation. He had two theories of anxiety: one which links anxiety to an excess of libidinal energy that has not been discharged, and another which takes anxiety as a feeling of an immanent danger to the ego, thus pushing the subject into a state of panic. He also pointed out that anxiety is linked to a special state of preparedness: it looks as if the subject is defending himself against some horror with the help of anxiety.

When French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan speaks about anxiety, he first introduces the problem of castration and the subject’s relation with what he calls the Other. However, it is not that the subject has some kind of a castration anxiety in regard to the Other, i.e., that he or she takes the Other as someone who might take something precious from him or her. Lacan points out that the neurotic does not retreat from the castrating Other, but from making of his own castration what is lacking in the Other. What does this mean? When psychoanalysis claims that the subject undergoes symbolic castration by entering language, this must be understand as the fact that the subject per se is empty, nothing by him- or herself. All of the subject’s power comes from the symbolic insignia that he or she temporarily takes on. Here we can take the example of a policeman, who might be a nobody—a boring, insignificant man—until he puts on his uniform and becomes a person with power. The subject is therefore castrated, i.e., powerless by himself, and only by occupying a certain place in the symbolic order does he or she temporarily acquire some power or status.

The subject is also always disturbed by the fact that the Other is inconsistent, that the Other is split and non-whole, which means that, for example, one cannot say what the Other’s desire is or how one appears in the desire of the Other. The only thing that can guarantee the meaning of the Other (and provide an answer to the question of the desire of the Other) is a signifier. Since such a signifier is lacking, the missing place is occupied by a sign of the subject’s own castration. To the lack in the Other, the subject can only answer with his or her own lack. And in dealing with his or her lack, as well as with the lack in the Other, the subject encounters anxiety. However, anxiety is provoked in the subject not by the lack, but because of the absence of the lack, by the fact that where there is supposed to be lack, some object is in fact present.

One of the ways the individual manages his or her anxiety is to create a fantasy. Fantasy is a way of covering up the fundamental lack by creating a scenario, a story that gives his or her life a perception of consistency and stability, while he also perceives the social order as being coherent and not marked by antagonisms. Fantasy and anxiety present two different ways for the subject to deal with the lack that marks him as well as the Other, i.e., the symbolic order. If fantasy provides a certain comfort to the subject, anxiety incites the feeling of discomfort. However, anxiety does not simply have a paralyzing effect. The power of anxiety is that it creates a state of preparedness so that the subject might be less paralyzed and surprised by the events that might radically shatter his or her fantasy and thus cause the subject’s breakdown or an emergence of a trauma.

Fantasy, however, also helps prevent the emergence of anxiety, i.e., the emergence of the horrible object at the place of the lack. Here we can take the example of the Israeli soldier Ami, who had served both in the Yom Kippur and in the Lebanon Wars. Ami had been an avid filmgoer in his youth and during the Yom Kippur War he felt as if he was playing the part of a soldier in a war movie. This fantasy sustained him throughout the war: “...I said to myself, it is not so terrible. It’s like a war movie. They’re actors, and I’m just some soldier. I don’t have an important role. Naturally, there are all the weapons that are in a war movie. All sorts of helicopters, all sorts of tanks, and there’s shooting. ...[But] basically, I felt that I wasn’t there. That is, all I had to do was finish the filming and go home.” Later, in the Lebanon War, Ami felt as if he was a tourist observing pretty villages, mountains, women, etc.…

But at some point, the fantasy of being on a tour or in a movie collapsed. This happened when Ami witnessed massive destruction in the Lebanon War and was involved in heavy face-to-face fighting. The scene that triggered his breakdown happened in Beirut when he saw stables piled with corpses of Arabian racehorses mingled with corpses of people. The scene filled him with a sense of apocalyptic destruction, and he collapsed: “I went into a state of apathy, and I was not functioning.” Ami explains the process as follows: “In the Yom Kippur War, I put my defense mechanism into operation and it worked fantastically. I was able to push a button and start it up…. In Lebanon, the picture was clearer. In the Yom Kippur War, we didn’t fight face-to-face or shoot from a short distance.... If I saw a corpse, it was a corpse in the field. But here [in Lebanon] everything was right next to me.... And of all things, the thing with the horses broke me.... A pile of corpses...and you see them along with people who were killed. And that’s a picture I’d never seen in any movie.... I began to sense the reality [that] it’s not a movie anymore.”

Anxiety emerges when, at the place of the lack, one encounters a certain object that perturbs the fantasy frame through which the individual previously assessed reality. For the soldier Ami, this happened when he saw the pile of dead horses. If Ami was able to observe dead soldiers on the field through the distance of a fantasy frame, which made him believe that he was an outsider just watching a movie, the emergence of the unexpected object—the horses—caused his fantasy to collapse and incited Ami’s breakdown.

With fantasy, the subject creates for him- or herself a protective shield towards the lack, while in anxiety the object which emerges at the place of the lack devours the subject, i.e., makes the subject fade. Anxiety is first the response to the most original danger (Hilflosighkeit)—to the absolute distress of the subject’s entering the world. But subsequently, it is taken up by the ego as a signal of the slightest danger of the threats from the side of the id. The fading of the subject can thus be understood as the collapse of the ego, as the collapse of the subject’s self-perception.

Anxiety is also linked to the desire of the Other—the fact that the desire of the Other does not recognize me provokes anxiety, but even if I have the impression that the Other does recognize me, it will never recognize me sufficiently. The Other always puts me into question, interrogates me at the very root of my being.

In the cases of breakdown in war, we also find a specific problem that the subject has with the desire of the Other. Psychiatrists have, in the past, taken into account the fact that soldiers’ breakdowns are often triggered by changes in the basic pattern of the soldier-group relationship. “This might be an actual change in the structure of the group, or something affecting the individual directly and subsequently his relationship with the group. In either case he lost his place as a member of the team; alone now, he was overwhelmed and became disorganized.”

In traditional war, the group provided the most important basis for the subject’s psychic stability as well as for his motivation for fighting. Some military theorists therefore conclude that “the men were motivated to fight not by ideology or hate, but by regard for their comrades, respect for their leaders, concern for their own reputation with both, and an urge to contribute to the success of the group. In return, the group provided structure and meaning to an otherwise alien existence, a haven from an impersonal process apparently intent on grinding the life from all involved.” This group relationship very much involves the desire of the Other. The soldier thus wonders what kind of an object he is supposed to be for the desire of the Other when he questions his role in the group.

Peter Lew, Untitled #23 (Pig Blood Series) (1999)

Studies in military psychiatry have shown that the soldier who has suffered breakdown is best treated near the battlefront where he is close to his comrades. Soldiers who have been removed from the war-zone or sent back home suffer longer from their breakdowns. Paradoxically, the Soviet army in World War II, which kept the soldiers on the front no matter what and did not acknowledge psychological breakdown as an excuse from battle, suffered a smaller number of long-term psychiatric casualties than other armies that tended to send the troubled soldiers out of the war zone.

But if military psychiatry at the time of World War II was still considering group relations as the most important for the soldier’s endurance of the war situation, later, in the case of the Korean War and especially in Vietnam, the military embraced the idea of individualism. The soldier was trained as an individual who could be placed into a group for a short time, and quickly removed from it when necessary and placed into another one. At the time of the Korean War, psychiatrists thus started talking about “short-termer’s syndrome” and “rotation anxiety.” With the disruption of group support, combat now became an individual struggle and the short-term soldier felt very much disengaged from his comrades. Similarly, in Vietnam, psychiatry used the term “loneliness disorder” to describe states of apathy, defiance, or violent behavior that emerged among the soldiers on the battlefield. In Vietnam, the military used twelve-month rotation, which meant that individual soldiers were injected into a war zone as individual replacements and after a year they were also individually extracted—often they were deposited back into normal civilian life within 24 hours after they left base camp. The Vietnam veterans also encountered enormous public antipathy in their home towns, which took away the possibility of finding some moral “repayment” for their actions by perceiving it as something that was done for the public good.

Similar problems occurred with the peacekeepers that recently served in Bosnia. The Canadian media reported that their soldiers who acted as peacekeepers in Bosnia suffered from numerous attacks of anxiety and depression when they returned from the front. Wendy Holden points out that peacekeepers suffer from the fact that they must observe atrocities but are helpless to fight back or to defend properly those they have been sent to save. “Proud to become professional soldiers and keen to fight a war, they are, however, distanced from death and the reality of killing. They are members of a society that finds fatalities unimaginable. When presented with the unimaginable, they crack.” British peacekeeper Gary Bohanna came to Bosnia with a belief that a peacekeeping role is better than war in which colleagues get killed. But he quickly became disillusioned when he saw numerous civilians killed, women raped, and whole families slaughtered. For him the most traumatic event, which precipitated his breakdown, was when he saw a young girl who had “shrapnel wounds in her head, half her head was blown away. Her eye was coming out of its socket and she was screaming. She was going to die, but I couldn’t bear her pain. I put a blanked over her head and shot her in her head. That was all I could do.” Here again we find a case of the soldier who comes to the war with the protective shield of a fantasy—this time it is a fantasy that he is actually coming to do good deeds and is not fully engaged in war. However, this fantasy quickly collapses when an event undermines the story he was telling himself beforehand.

Since fantasy protects the subject from anxiety, military psychiatry in the past has tried to use its power to incite soldiers to engage in combat. The Allies, for example, tried to artificially create fantasies that would help the soldiers be willing to engage in killings in the first place. This need for psychological training in aggression was especially strengthened when military theorist Colonel S. L. A. Marshall reported that almost three-quarters of the soldiers were not willing to kill in combat. This figure was later proclaimed fake, but it nonetheless determined the perception that psycho-logy was needed to incite aggression in the soldiers. In the early 40s, the British army, for example, introduced special “blood training” and “battle schools.” “Animals’ blood was squirted onto faces during bayonet drill; men were taken to slaughterhouses and encouraged to test the ‘resistance of a body’ by using their ‘killing knives’ on the carcasses; and ‘kill that Hun...kill that Hun’ was chanted from the loudspeakers as soldiers waded through water and mud pits, were shot at with live ammunition, and fired their own weapons at three-dimensional imitation Germans and Japanese.”

To teach soldiers how to kill and to incite their desire to do so, it was therefore important to create an artificial fantasy scenario, i.e., killing needed to be presented in light of a story with which the soldiers were able to identify. One possible scenario was to present killing as a hunt for animals. An Australian training instruction pamphlet reads, “The enemy is the game, we the hunters. The Jap is a barbarian, little better than an animal, in fact his actions are those of a wild beast and he must therefore be dealt with accordingly.” This training tried to incite the subject’s inner aggressiveness and to control his anxiety and guilt. Some of the trainers who had had some contact with psychoanalysis also tried to present killing the enemy as a mythical rite in which the death of the leader of the enemy-group is celebrated in “an orgy of displaced violence.” Since this slaughter satisfies “deep-seated, primitive unconscious strivings derived from early childhood fantasy...The enemy is a sacrificial object whose death provides deep group satisfaction in which guilt is excluded by group sanction. Combat is a ritualistic event, which resolves the precarious tension of hatred created by the long-drawn frustrations of training. Without these frustrations, a group would not be a military force.” The incentive here is supposedly to recreate, in reality, the Freudian theory of the killing of the primal father (in the guise of the enemy leader) and the establishment of strong brotherly bonds among the soldiers.

While military psychologists tried to artificially create fantasies with which the soldiers would identify, the soldiers actually created their own fantasies. Soldiers in their diaries often reported on how they killed someone with a bayonet and how just before dying the victim looked into the attacker’s eyes with dismay, as if shocked to see who the killer was. This memory of being recognized by the victim is quite common among soldiers; however, military statistics show that the bayonet is rarely used in war and that most of the killing in war is done from a distance where the killer remains anonymous. It is thus obvious that the memory of the bayonet killing is in most cases a fantasy, a scenario produced by the soldier himself. This fantasy is obviously extremely valuable, since even in today’s armies, where one cannot expect many one-on-one battles, soldiers are still extensively trained in bayonet killing. However, by World War I military instructors already had great trouble teaching soldiers how to use the bayonet properly. Most soldiers had the strange idea that they needed to toss the bayoneted enemy over their shoulder. Many accounts of combat in popular literature also depicted scenes in which a soldier bayonets an enemy and hurls him over his shoulder, “just as a man might toss a bundle of hay with a pitchfork.”

Soldiers claim that they prefer bayonet killing to anonymous killing because it is more personal and the responsibility is clear. Military psychologists have tried to convince soldiers that war is just an impersonal game in which they are not responsible for their actions since they have sacrificed themselves for a higher cause. The paradox is that soldiers responded to this explanation by creating their own fantasies of killing. In the memories of the bayonet killing that never took place, it is crucial that the enemy recognizes the killer with his shocked gaze, but by pitchforking the enemy, the killer then tries quickly to get rid of this gaze. This example shows that soldiers also have no desire to give up the feeling of guilt for their actions. As military psychologists were explaining to soldiers that they are not responsible for their killings, the soldiers insisted on their guilt to the point of inventing crimes they had never committed.

If in past wars there was still minimal engagement between the soldier and the victims on the battlefield, in recent wars the soldier is often just a distant actor who shoots from afar and does not even know what happens on the actual front. Contemporary wars are supposed to be aseptic, so that American soldiers might fly for a couple of hours to drop bombs over Kosovo and then return home to watch the football game on TV. For those soldiers who will still need to engage in direct fighting, military psych-iatry is trying to invent special medication which will alleviate any possible anxiety and turn the soldiers into almost robotic creatures who will not be emotionally engaged in the atrocities they are committing. One theory why it is necessary to invent such drugs is that the war has become too horrible for the human mind and body to realistically tolerate. Military psychiatry therefore has an expectation that in the new types of war, anxiety will just be too overwhelming and paralyzing, and a chemical substance will be necessary to alleviate it. So far all attempts to create such drugs have failed. The anti-anxiety drugs used on the front not only did not alleviate anxiety, but they produced numerous side-effects that made soldiers zombie-like creatures, barely able to function and perform war duties. This trend to make war anxiety-free paradoxically goes hand in hand with today’s attempts to make wars independent from political struggles. In the way the West assessed the whole situation in former Yugoslavia, we can see how political dimensions of the conflicts were constantly overlooked or too quickly historicized. Many Western observers often still cling to the view that Yugoslavia collapsed because of the separatist tensions of Slovenia and Croatia and that some European states contributed to the collapse by too quickly recognizing the independence of these two republics. These observers forget that it was Milosevic’s assumption of power in the mid-80s that actually incited the secessions, and that Yugoslavia collapsed not because centuries-old nationalistic hatreds suddenly resurfaced, but because Milosevic’s political bid for power incited these hatreds.

The problem with the interventions that NATO made in the past few years in the former Yugoslavia is that they were publicly presented as simple humanitarian missions that had nothing to do with the political situation in the region, and that did not admit the West’s strong economic interests in the Balkans. This ideology of humanitarianism goes hand in hand with the way the war has been presented in the media. On the one hand, we get pictures of the intervention that present war as a simple computer game in which the soldiers dropping the bombs from the air are completely detached from the reality of the situation on the ground. On the other hand, we get images of suffering victims of the war in which we can see the most horrible distortions of villages; numerous people killed; wounded and dead bodies exposed on the screen; and so on. It is as if in contemporary war everything can be seen regarding how the victims of the nationalist conflicts suffer on the ground, while the machinery of the Western intervention into the conflict looks like a distant computer game. This over- visibility, on the one hand, and complete invisibility, on the other, are very much linked to the fact that the economic and the political logic of the war remained unraveled.

The attempts of military psychiatry to alleviate soldiers’ feelings of anxiety go hand-in-hand with these trends in today’s wars. The ideal soldier will be completely detached from the situation (an outsider not really present in the war) and will neutrally observe the atrocities going on in the war. The problem with the military’s attempts to find anxiety drugs is that rather than preventing the soldiers’ anxieties, such drugs actually help to incite new ones. While it is unclear how much the military has actually tested such drugs on the battlefield (for example, at the time of the Persian Gulf War), soldiers have indulged in numerous conspiracy theories. A whole set of new anxieties is emerging in regard to the scientists who are supposedly testing dangerous drugs on the soldiers, and in regard to the paralyzing side effects these drugs have. The ultimate trauma for the soldiers becomes a fight against the hidden enemy among those who have sent him to war in the first place.

Renata Salecl is a researcher at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Her latest book is (Per)versions of Love and Hate. Salecl is a contributing editor to Cabinet.

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