Who in Their Right Mind Wants War?

corybeckersite | October 1, 2014

Further engagement with Christopher Hedges’ book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Despite the fact that we pride ourselves on be a rational species, warfare appears to be one of the invariable constants in human history. From William James’ The Moral Equivalent to War (1910) to the recent highly acclaimed book of Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, those seeking an end to the institution of warfare have been suggesting that internal, spiritual factors are at least as important in contributing to our addiction to warfare as are external, material factors. Liechty reads this tradition with special focus on interpretive insights drawn from psychological works of Otto Rank, Ernest Becker and Robert Jay Lifton.

Early in the 20th century, in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” William James (1910) drew dramatic attention to an aspect of human thought that many in his time would have rather ignored, namely, the paradoxical human attitude toward war and violence. James’s astuteness here is seen in hindsight as all the more amazing, given that he was writing at a time when his progressive colleagues in America and Europe largely assumed that in the modern world, major armed conflict between nations was a thing of the past. War was stupid, irrational, counter-productive, and made obsolete by the exponentially increased destructive power of modern weaponry. This was clear to any right-minded person, it was thought. Unfortunately, as we know only too well from the subsequent history of the century, the coming decades brought not the peace and prosperity such progressive thinkers expected, but the most terrible wars of human history, in which the exclusionary lines between combatant and non-combatant were simply erased. Over the course of the 20th century, warfare became, if anything, even more widespread, sporadically permanent, disorganized, destructive and apocalyptic than ever.

Now in these early years of a new millennium, we turn with new respect to wisdom of this Jamesian tradition. James saw clearly that while human beings generally agree that war is hell, people are drawn to this hell, are fascinated with this hell, and actively seek this hell in response to some inner urging we only vaguely understand. The power of this inner urging to embrace war is deterred very little by demonstrating the irrationality and horror of warfare and violence. If anything, it seems that the horrors are intrinsic to the thrill. The horrors increase the fascination and response to this deeply felt urge to embrace the massively destructive power that war represents.

James clearly recognized that a substantial element of our attraction to warfare was beyond reason and logic. James described this as life in extremis. He took seriously the body of military literature extolling warfare and the martial character, largely ignored by his progressive thinking colleagues. In this body of writing, James encountered a mystical love and fascination with warfare, which remained impervious to rational arguments on the level of an economic cost/benefit analysis.

In this literature, a world without war and preparation for war is pictured a world of soft virtues and malleable spirits. War is depicted almost as a religious sacrament of salvation. A world without the risks and daring of war is a world devoid of adventure and romance. War is the spice that makes life worth living. Facing down the enemy in a battle to the death inspires that quality of dispassionate or disinterested contempt for life, which is the chief characteristic of moral strength. Military organization requires that common submission of the individual to the discipline of the collectivity. Warfare is a gift from God, the very mechanism by which God calls forth and judges nations on the stage of history, weighing the totality of virtues of each nation in the balance. Through warfare a people and nation proves its superiority before the highest court available, the court of history and of the gods.

James’s essay was not well-received in its time, and despite the subsequent history of the century, it still has not received the attention it deserves. However, James’s basic message has been echoed by others, who have felt that strange attraction to war in their own bodies and minds. Often the writing in this genre is produced after the crash of events produced a deep disillusionment in the mind of the writer, who then looks back to relate his or her experiences as baffling even to the author. Only rarely, however, is writing in this genre of such character that it merits entry into the arena of serious and widespread scholarly review. Such has been the case recently with the book by the Yale-and-Harvard-educated war correspondent, Christopher Hedges, entitled War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. (Hedges 2002a) Here I will briefly review this book, placing it in the context of the literature of its kind reaching at least back to William James, and then bring Hedges’ book into conversation with ideas coming from Otto Rank, Ernest Becker and Robert Jay Lifton as a means of furthering Hedges’ own analysis and fostering some further insight into the mystical psychology of warfare.

I
While William James concentrated on war as seen through the eyes of military leaders and theorists, Christopher Hedges’ informants were himself and common people he encountered in war zones and battlefields in Central and South America, Southeastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Among this group of informants, there was a much more easily expressed and acknowledged element of fear and terror than among James’s military specialists. But in many other ways, both of these groups expressed eerily similar views pertaining to war’s attractions; what Hedges credibly labels the addictive, narcotic effect of warfare. In a recent issue of Amnesty International NOW magazine, Hedges wrote:

War and conflict have marked most of my adult life. I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, locked in unnerving firefights in the marshes in southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held for a week by Iraqi Republican Guards, strafed by Russian Mig-21s in central Bosnia, shot at by Serb snipers and shelled with deafening rounds of artillery in Sarajevo that threw out thousands of deadly bits of iron fragments. I have seen too much of violent death. I have tasted too much of my own fear. I have painful memories that lie buried most of the time. It is never easy when they surface. And yet there is a part of me that remains nostalgic for war’s simplicity and high. (Hedges 2002b)

This attraction to war, not necessarily even to fighting in war but simply to be there, to be around it, is something Hedges was surprised to find not only in war correspondents such as himself, but also in those with whom he spoke and interviewed on a regular basis. It is this that became the source of his paradoxical recognition that war is a force that gives us meaning. Here again is Hedges’ take on it.

The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it gives us what we all long for in life. It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our news. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those that have the least meaning in their lives-the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the lost legions of youth that live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world-are all susceptible to war’s appeal. (Ibid.)

And he further elaborates on this point.

The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by myth makers -historians, war correspondents, filmmakers novelists and the state-all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks just below the surface within all of us. War makes the world understandable, a black-and-white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good; for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically, war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning. (Ibid.)

There is much else I could touch on to commend this work by Hedges. Certainly it goes without saying that everyone who is deeply concerned with problems of war, peace and human violence will need to spend some quality time with this astonishing book. In terms of the micro-level perspective it offers, along with the on the ground feeling it conveys, it is one of the most important contribution of the past decade to what I have been referring to here as the Jamesian tradition on warfare. However, when Hedges takes a step back from the micro-level perspective, and attempts to offer a theoretical wrap-up of his experiences, he falters. Landing upon and attempting to resurrect Freud’s category of Thanatos, the death instinct, that drives human behavior and motivation, Hedges (2002a) suggests in his concluding chapter that all of human individual and collective life can be seen as a battle between Eros and Thanatos, between love and the death instinct, and that at any given time, one or the other of these urges is ascendant.

Recognizing that Hedges is a journalist and not a theoretician, it behooves us nonetheless to question this simplistic notion of the origins of our attraction to warfare and violence. Freud’s formulation of a death instinct, after all, is not only outmoded and even discredited in style and content, it never was more than Freud’s own rather ad hoc attempt to shore up other aspects of his theory in the face of the massive destruction of the European wars. My suggestion here is that we find a much firmer foundation for intellectual placement of the Jamesian tradition in the psychological works of Otto Rank and his interpreter Ernest Becker, and the extension and expansion of these ideas in the work of R. J. Lifton.

II
Ernest Becker’s own restatement and expansion of the theories of Otto Rank give a solid handle on this dark human love of violence and fascination with massive destructive power (Becker 1972, 1973, 1975), and it is to him that we turn first in our attempt to answer the questions, “Who in their right mind wants war?”

Becker did not dispute that this dark love of violence and fascination with massive destructive power is irrational. But as in the Jamesian tradition that Christopher Hedges represents, Becker did suggest that there is method in this human irrationality, and that any attempts to ameliorate the consequences of this human attraction will be possible only as we face as honestly as possible the sources of this irrational attraction.

Based on his extensive theoretical studies, Becker followed Rank in concluding that the root motivation for human behavior is deeper than sexual and aggressive drives, deeper than power and acquisitive drives, deeper than imitative or conformity drives. (Liechty 1995, 1998a, 1998b) He demonstrated that what appears to be a root motivation in each of these psychological and sociological theories can best be understood as a particular mode or strategy for coping with overwhelming death anxiety. With this discovery of the centrality of death anxiety, Becker developed a psychological anthropology which is able to interpret the wide complexity of human psychological, sociological and spiritual reality which avoids the materialistic reductionism of scientistic or Marxian influenced views on the one hand and also avoids the ethereal esotericism of the Jungians or the more flighty humanistic theories on the other hand. Becker’s psychological anthropology is firmly rooted in biological reality, the universal fact of death.

Working within an evolutionary frame of reference, Becker came to the conclusion that the main characteristic, which sets the human species apart from other species, is the human ability to use language – or more specifically, to use language which contains the first person singular (Becker 1972). Whatever else is involved in the early socialization process, the very key to what it means to be human is learning the proper use of the linguistic first person. It is in learning this linguistic function that self-consciousness is born. In this view, the most basic definition of human being is that of a self-conscious animal.

A self-conscious animal. That is very simple, but it takes on an almost frantic dimension when we realize that a self-conscious animal is actually a sort of oxymoron. Animals are certainly conscious, but as far as we can tell, even the higher primates are not self-conscious. To put it differently, human beings are animals, but among all animal species, human beings are not dumb animals. At its most basic level, the frantic aspect to this evolutionary product we call the human species is (to speak anthropomorphically) simply this: The evolutionary process has endowed all living things with a large dose of what has been called a survival instinct, a basic and overriding will to continue existing. But in producing a self-conscious animal, the evolutionary process has endowed human beings with a very complex survival mechanism, the human brain, which sets it psychologically at odds with the very survival instinct that we share with all other species of life. We among all life species know and understand the fact of death long before it ever happens to us. This knowledge, when placed against the overriding survival instinct we share with all life species, can easily be seen to be the source of an enormously stunning and potentially crippling load of psychological anxiety. If we were genuinely aware in each moment just how vulnerable we are to immediate death, we would be unable to act. If we were genuinely aware in each moment of the dread of our mortal condition, we would be unable to act.

There is no doubt that the human brain is a powerful tool of survival. Our ability to think of ourselves in the third person, to freeze time into past, present and future, and to imagine environments that do not exist in nature, project ourselves imaginatively and symbolically into those environments, and then set out to create such environments, has made us, at least temporarily, the most successful species on the planet. But producing a brain with this measure of thinking power carried with it a side effect, the consciousness of death and our mortal condition. We might say that potentially overwhelming death anxiety is an evolutionary spandrel, which is the byproduct of self-consciousness. And as is often the case with evolutionary spandrels, the byproduct comes to assume as important and central a role in the future of the species as the characteristic of which it is the side effect.

That we human beings live at a different level of consciousness than other animals is both our blessing and our curse. The blessing is that it has made us a very successful species. The curse is that the gift of self-consciousness sets us at odds with that most basic primary narcissism, which we share with all living things. Awareness of mortality is the dark side of self-consciousness, of not being a dumb animal. (Kauffman 1995) Mortality awareness confronting the universal Eros we share with all living things creates an incredible level of terror deep within the psyche of every human being. We confront this terror most nakedly in the experience which St. John of the Cross referred to as ‘the dark night of the soul,’ that experience of sheer horror, of nothingness, when you lay there in a cold sweat, mentally, emotionally and spiritually wrestling with the Devil himself.

According to this view, our general psychic movement is constantly one of repressing the massiveness of that terror and then calling it up and confronting this terror in smaller, more manageable doses. As has now been robustly demonstrated by empirical experimental investigation, finding strategies for taming and managing this most basic terror is quite literally the central human task (Solomon et al. 1998 and 2002). For without some success in taming this terror – in suppressing it from immediate consciousness – a person would be psychotically stunned and unable to maintain forward movement.

Strategies for taming this basic terror are myriad, but tend to reflect one of two basic types. The first tendency is to continue the movement of individuation and to try to symbolically earn personal immortality, even at the expense of others. This strategy allows one an illusory sense of superiority over the ‘merely human’ by attachment to a game in which one obviously stands above the rest. The second strategy is to move in the opposite direction, finding one’s symbolic immortality in the eternal survival of the species. Actual historical examples of symbolic immortality strategies will be most likely some mix of these two types. All such strategies have in common an identifiable mechanism for taming of the terror of mortality awareness; this mechanism is the creation of symbols of immortality with which people identify themselves and through which people vicariously participate in immortality. It is the creation and participation in what Becker called ‘immortality projects,’ both on a personal and social/communal level, which is the very energy and substance of both individual human psychology and of human culture (Becker 1973; Farrell 1998 and 2002).

According to this view, we all want to endure and prosper and in some sense gain immortality. But because we are mortal, and therefore subject to overwhelming anxiety in the face of our mortality, we must strive to mask the fact of mortality and suppress awareness of it from consciousness through participation in projects of immortality. Each and every person is doing this all the time. Each and every society and culture contains dominant immortality strategies, those shared by the largest number of people. These generally correspond to what Marx called the dominant social ideologies of a given society. There are subdominant immortality strategies at work as well and any human culture can be analyzed as a complex amalgam of hundreds and thousands of immortality games and strategies, which are offered to the people of that culture by which the people maintain a sense of individual and collective immortality. This view parallels closely the ‘game’ approach to understanding self-esteem maintenance in the context of communication strategies (Becker 1964; Goffman 1959; Greenberg et al. 1993)

III
In his published works, Ernest Becker mainly wrote about the negative aspects of immortality striving, of being driven by the urgent need to create a symbolic picture of oneself as participating directly or vicariously in cultural projects of symbolic immortality. At nearly the same time, working with some similar sources but apparently completely independently, Robert Jay Lifton arrived at very similar conclusions concerning the human urge for symbolic immortality. Lifton, however, was much more reticent to ironically pathologize a psychological dynamic, which he recognized as a universal human need in the maintenance of good mental health. In a truly astonishing work on death and its symbolic continuity in life, Lifton (1979) distinguished between healthy and unhealthy immortality striving. Introducing the concept of symbolic immortality, Lifton wrote simply: While I cannot imagine my nonexistence, I can very well imagine a world in which ‘I’ do not exist. That imaginative capacity is the basis for our theory of symbolic immortality. (p. 8) Lifton also wrote, While the denial of death is universal, the inner life-experience of a sense of immortality, rather than reflecting such denial, may well be the most authentic psychological alternative to that denial. (p. 13)

Lifton went on to outline five basic levels of symbolic immortality, each of which can be either healthy or unhealthy in the lives of people:

  • The biological mode, “epitomized by family continuity, living on through, psychologically speaking, in one’s sons and daughters and their sons and daughters, with imagery of an endless chain of biological attachment” (p. 18).
  • The theological or religious mode, which “may include a specific concept of life after death” (p. 20).
  • The creative mode, experienced “through great works of art, literature, or science, or through more humble influences on people around us” (p. 21).
  • The mode of nature itself, “the perception that the natural environment around us, limitless in space and time, will remain” (p. 22).
  • The mode of experiential transcendence, a psychic state “so intense and all-encompassing that time and death disappear. This state is the classical mode of the mystic” (p. 24).

These modes of symbolic immortality serve as psychological buffers against naked death anxiety. There are healthy and unhealthy forms of each of these modes. Each mode can facilitate a life of love, compassion, and psychological and spiritual growth, or each mode can function as an immortality ideology that fosters a life of compulsive denial. We may notice also that each of these modes contains an element of encouraging further individuation and an element of encouraging transferential attachment and melting into that which is beyond the individual symbolic self.

There is no doubt that when Christopher Hedges outlines the qualities of war as a force that give us meaning, he is pointing toward war as a colossal immortality ideology. Meaning in life, maintaining a sense of purpose and participation in that which is larger-than-life, is perhaps the absolute psychological baseline for taming the terror of mortality. In the absence of such life meaning, mere existence becomes empty and mechanical, and the burden of our abject physicalness of our being on this planet bears down on us with full force. When one has a clear sense of meaning in life, a fullness of purpose and conviction that one indeed participates in a project that is larger than life, the heart is light and one steps forward easily, even in situations of extremity or adversity. Our burden then becomes one of being able to maintain this sense of purpose and conviction.

We tend to encounter ‘outsiders’ with suspicion and as potentially threatening less because we have had repeated experiences of being physically attacked by strangers, but rather because we have an intuitive sense that they are not invested in our life games, and therefore have the potential of revealing to us the fictitious character of what we are doing. We neutralize this potential threat by converting them (making them participants in our games) or by denigrating them (convincing ourselves that their differing view is not important or worthy of attention), or defeating them in real and symbolic battle (proving once and for all, on the stage of history, who is right and who is wrong.)

Much of the culture of warfare that Hedges outlines is easily analyzed as the pageants we perform in order to protect our cause, national ideologies, our larger than life project, from being deflated and debunked, thus depriving us of that sense of meaning and purpose that war gives. Bringing the work of Rank, Becker and Lifton to bear on that of Christopher Hedges, I think we find a much firmer and more clearly nuanced field for understanding the undeniable attraction we human being feel toward warfare.

The Biological Mode. Hedges suggests that every national ideology is ultimately a racist ideology. It is ultimately rooted in an implied or explicit insistence that ‘our’ people are in some way, or in all ways, ‘superior’ to those other people. The melting of the symbolic self into the superior species is both a rush of transferential attachment and of individuated self-assertion over others.

  • The Religious/Theological Mode. While modern national ideologies are perhaps less likely to appeal explicitly to concepts of life after death, it is easily seen that even in officially atheistic nations, the trappings of patriot display very quickly assume overtly religious and theological dimensions.
  • The Creative Mode. Although this aspect is perhaps most covert, since sure art is most opposed to destructive warfare, we only need to remember how we all of us (pacifists included) sat there raptly during the Gulf War and watched American smart bombs thread their way down the hatch of building ventilation systems to know how much this creative mode of symbolic immortality is present in modern warfare.
  • The Mode of Nature Itself. Here again, while we might assume that destructive warfare is most clearly opposed to Nature Itself, there is an undeniable appeal among warriors – and Chris Hedges even found this in himself and other civilians at key moments – to smear oneself with blood, put on camouflage of various kinds and immerse oneself totally in the embrace of primitive Nature. Again, here, the rush of transferential attachment and of individuated self-assertion are inextricably combined into one movement.
  • The Mode of Experiential Transcendence. In a way, all of the above come together in this mode of experiential transcendence. We need only look at a few quick quotes from Hedges’ book to establish that war creates an intensely eschatological Kairos. It is a time and situation of absolute moral clarity, in which the salient issues are divided into absolute right and wrong, and we are moved by the highest forces of the cosmos. Life is simplified into one major focus, with little attention to causes and all attention focused on outcomes.

In short, as Hedges (2002a) states, The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give is what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning and a reason for living. (p. 3) Peace [exposes] the void that the rush of war [fills.] (p. 7) And he even goes so far as to ascribe a kind of love, a love that soars far beyond mere happiness, to the feelings and emotions this eschatological Kairos engenders. Happiness is elusive and protean. And it is sterile when devoid of meaning. But meaning, when it is set in the vast arena of war with its high stakes, its adrenaline-driven rushes, its bold sweeps and drama, is heartless and self-destructive. The initial selflessness of war mirror that of love. And this is what war often looks and feel like, at its inception: love. (pp. 158-159)

IV
Reversing the interpretive method experimentally, and using Hedges’ work to criticize and expand on Lifton’s outlines of the modes of achieving a sense of symbolic immortality as an antidote to the problem of death anxiety and death denial, we might posit a 6th mode of symbolic immortality, the Transferential Mode, in which a sense of symbolic immortality is achieved by the cultural creation of symbolic larger-than-life forces and then attaching oneself to one or more such forces as mediator of expansion beyond the mortal in which one now participates vicariously through via the symbolic attachment.

As has been seen, there is a dynamic transference involved in each of the modes Lifton outlines. However, in light of Hedges’ work, and quite in agreement with the views of Ernest Becker, it bears its analytical weight to distinguish this dynamic transference as a mode for achieving a firm sense of symbolic immortality, because it underlines the risk and potential dangers inherent to the transference dynamic and draws a focused beam on the human predicament itself. In light of the analysis of generative death anxiety we draw from the empirical and clinical work of Rank, Becker, Lifton and others, of which very key elements have held up astonishingly well under the sophisticated scrutiny of manipulative laboratory testing (cf. Greenberg et al., 1993; Solomon et al, 1998 and 2002) in the form of Terror Management Theory research, it would appear that transferences of one sort or another in pursuit of a firm sense of symbolic immortality is both inevitable and necessary for continued mental health and sanity. It is inherent to our psychological nature as human beings – as self-conscious mortals. Life without transference is not human life. Transference is, in a very real sense, the human life force itself, at least psychologically speaking. Yet as we look at the actual outcome of human transferences, it hits us square in the face that transferential movement on the part of human beings is by no means a clear-cut force for our overall well-being as a species. Viewed in light of this tradition, transference is, psychologically speaking, something very like the German philosopher Rudolf Otto’s category of mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which, as many of you already know, was Otto’s preferred phrase for reference to God. (Otto 1923) Or we might suggest, again, psychologically speaking, that transference corresponds to something like Nietzsche’s idea of beyond good and evil. Transference dynamics are at the heart of our most noble and selfless acts of charity, altruism and love. But such transferentially motivated energy of charity, altruism and love can, it seems, be as easily channeled into concrete behaviors of selfless killing and self-sacrificial violence as into feeding the poor and clothing the naked.

The value of specifically citing the transferential mode of symbolic immortality as a 6th mode added to Lifton’s list is that it places the ambiguous nature of immortality striving again in front of us, and there demands a clearly moral choice to be made: Which God we will serve: the god of death or the god of life?

Becker’s parting vision was very dark and pessimistic concerning human prospects. Lifton looked at much the same data and provided a much more open, optimistic and hopeful avenue of interpretation. Like a sunny window in a stale dungeon, Lifton’s writings here have been very much appreciated among those of us, myself most definitely included, who often felt almost immobilized by Becker’s vision. I suppose I am here indicating that the darker view still carries an enormous amount of interpretive power, even when, as it surely must be, it is coupled with Lifton’s more hopeful interpretation.

In conclusion, I once again express my admiration for Hedges’ work and the care with which he wrote this book. Despite the witness to killing and carnage that forms its background, this book exhibits a depth of thought and experience that is unfortunately only too rare in the public discourse that garners strong media attention. My intention here, for which I hope I have been at least minimally successful, has been to demonstrate that Hedges’ ideas expressed in this book are even better and more firmly supported when placed in the context of the psychological works of Otto Rank, Ernest Becker and Robert Jay Lifton, rather than only in the context of Freud’s ad hoc theory of the death instinct.

I do think we are still left with many open questions, however. The most pressing one is, now that we know this about ourselves, that we have this great susceptibility to the lures of war, what do we do about it? Here, of course, is the place where I cannot claim any more expertise than the next person. I think that reading the Jamesian tradition, up to and including now this book by Hedges, in light of the Rank/Becker/Liftonian perspective, will certainly drive home the point that much of modern warfare is produced first and foremost at the level of nationalistic ideology and propaganda. This perhaps focuses attention once again on the key role that intellectuals can and should play in helping to eliminate war from human endeavors. However, as this tradition also makes clear, there also can be no illusions about how difficult that mission is. At a certain point in the propaganda continuum, arguments simply don’t matter anymore. Furthermore, as Hedges shows, there is never a shortage of intellectuals more than happy and willing to line up behind the nationalistic propaganda.

I cannot, therefore, end this paper with a convincingly rousing cry for us to all man the barricades of the anti-war movement. On the other hand, there are policy issues on which this line of interpretation might lead us into further reflection. For example, James’s analysis focused on finding a moral equivalent of war. Although his language, with its focus on the need to develop the manly character is obviously dated, he does make a good point that has since been only strengthened by a wide spectrum of social research. Namely, James suggested that it is really essential for young people everywhere to have experience of life in extremity, to face overwhelming odds and, by relying on self and others, to come through this victoriously. In short, society must have some way of providing a socially sanctioned rite of passage, in which adolescents can test their mettle, prove themselves heroic, and pass into a stage of socially acknowledged adulthood. James cogently argued for universal conscription for troops to fight forest fires as one possibility. There are certainly myriad other possibilities. We are beginning again to hear talk about the democratic benefits of a reinstitution of universal conscription. (Just 2003; Glastris 2003) Although I do not like the circumstances in which such proposals are generally couched, in light of this line of analysis I wonder if perhaps people like me are simply too knee-jerk in terms of a negative reactions to proposals for universal conscription. Perhaps we would get beyond the simple liberal versus conservative dichotomy in which in the current discussion is usually couched by rereading our James and being able to point out the many positive aspects of this proposal, as well as, having also read our Rank, Becker and Lifton, remaining well aware of the potential dangers in assembling so large a body of potential soldiers.

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Farrell, K. (2002).The industrial organization of anxiety. In D. Liechty (ed.), Death and Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker (pp. 125-136). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood Publishing Group.

Glastris, P. (2003). First draft: “The battle to create universal national service has just started.” The Washington Monthly, 35(2), pp. 11-13.

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Solomon, S., Greenberg, J. and Pyszczynski, T. (2002). “A perilous leap from Becker’s theorizing to empirical science: Terror management theory and research.” In D. Liechty (ed.), Death and Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker (pp. 3-16). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood Publishing Group.

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