Distorted Views of the Enemy and Bush’s “Axis of Evil”

Many years ago, while the war in Vietnam still raged, the psychologist Ralph K. White wrote a book entitled Nobody Wanted War that has resonated deeply with my own thinking about war. I’ve long believed that the willingness of our government to kill and bring misery to millions of powerless people in nations like Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, which represent no direct threat to us, cannot be justified alone in terms of a broad strategic conception of national defense. Instead, it must for the most part be rationalized by an appeal to the darker dynamics of human psychology.

White’s book, though it was focused primarily on the Vietnam War, seeks broadly to identify psychological factors common both to that war and to World Wars I and II that can distort our perceptions of an adversary’s true motivations and thereby justify making war against him. Today, it seems, those same factors can also shed light on the relentless militancy of America’s foreign policy and, in particular, our continuing “war on terrorism.” The principal factors White sees in producing distorted views of the enemy can be characterized in capsule form as follows:

  • A diabolical enemy-image. The enemy is bad and must be destroyed. He is perceived as externally aggressive and internally suppressive. His institutions and ideology are a cancer that must at any cost be prevented from spreading. This diabolical enemy-image is well exemplified by the slogan popular in the fifties:…

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