Most psychoanalysts work on their own with their individual patients. However many of them are also concerned about the way our world is dissolving into chaos and they want to contribute to healing of the global community as well as of their individual patients. In my keynote address, delivered at the opening of the 53rd Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association on 26th July 2023 in Cartagena, Colombia, I used the opportunity of addressing the global psychoanalytical community, in person and on-line, to encourage them to make their contribution as a profession, but to realize that it would not be possible to do this successfully without collaboration with other professions and communities. There are exceptions, but for many psychoanalysts, working with other professions is not their normal modus vivendi. The world cannot afford for us to stay in our academic and professional silos. The dangers and demands of our times are too urgent and existential.

Addressing the theme of our Congress – Mind in the Line of Fire – we may naturally think first about the mental and emotional pressures that impact on the well-being, effectiveness, and capacity of colleagues in the caring professions to think clearly when working for healing in communities afflicted by violent conflict. We will also be wondering about their clients who are living in the midst of conflict.

Many of you have lived and worked in places where bloodshed was commonplace, because of gang-related crime or as a result of terrorism and politically motivated violence.  Outside observers, especially those who come from peaceful, democratic societies, may assume that almost everyone in such societies must either be violent themselves or be living in constant fear. While episodic violent incidents will produce an anxious state of mind, it is remarkable how resilient human beings can be when they have to survive regular episodes or chronic violence. There is a story about a woman in Belfast during the Troubles there, who, hearing a very loud bang asked her friend what it was.  On being told that it was probably a bomb she replied, “Oh, I’m glad that it wasn’t thunder.  I hate thunder.”  This kind of black humour is common in places that experience chronic communal fighting.  Humour can help us through otherwise unbearable situations. The amusing paradox of being neurotically anxious about thunder which produces no physical harm, while being inappropriately blasé about the real risks of a bomb attack is one of the psychological responses we adopt in living with the constant threat of being injured or killed.  A rational response to living in a violent community with a genuine risk of harm to oneself and one’s family might be to leave for somewhere safer. This option may not be available for social or economic reasons, but it may also be unacceptable to run away and leave one’s home in the face of unjustified attacks.  If we cannot, or will not flee from violence, how do we manage psychologically?  What do our minds do when they are in the line of fire?

While some people use alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs, or anxiolytic medication to relieve the tension, research has shown that there is a greater increase in the use of tranquillizers in the areas surrounding the violence than where the disturbances are actually taking place.  The fear about what might happen is greater among those in the penumbra who have not yet experienced it. They fear what may happen. When a community is under regular attack people usually take action to defend themselves, attack back, and build up strong supportive relationships. Communal action and social support contribute to resilience.  If the security forces cannot give enough reassurance, communities can create shared protection through setting up vigilante groups that patrol the streets of their own areas. Meeting to plan how to protect themselves and repel attackers, as well as positive actions such as putting up barricades, can mitigate otherwise overwhelming anxiety.

This protective activity is often accompanied by a form of thinking that we might describe as paranoid, though a common joke amongst colleagues in Northern Irish psychiatry was “Just because you are paranoid does not mean that they are not out to get you!”  We identify with those around us and become highly suspicious and untrusting of anyone from outside our circle of friends, family, and trusted neighbours.  It is too dangerous to start from the premise that everyone is well-disposed until proved otherwise. The contrary posture is a better form of defence.

However, we also identify with our attackers.  Psychoanalysts call it ‘identification with the aggressor’ and it is an example of what René Girard called mimeses.  At a large group level, when Israel and Iran become aggressively preoccupied with each other they act in mimesis. Israel’s development of an undeclared nuclear weapon is imitated by Iran.  As the interaction proceeded, Israel also became dominated by extremist nationalists and religious fundamentalist leaders who react violently against those with whom they differ or disagree. There is a dissolution of the capacity of the community to think and act reflectively, tolerating difference within a framework of liberal democracy. This is a group level example of damage to the mind in the line of fire, and we see it in many places today.

While psychoanalysts tend to focus on how individuals respond to the experience of violence, this week, coming together as a global family of psychoanalytical thinkers and practitioners, we ought to give some thought to what is going on in our wider world. The nature of war remains the same as ever. It involves one group of people trying by physical force to impose their will on another group, who resist with force.  In the course of this interaction, which goes on for some time, a lot of people are killed.  None of that is new.  However, while the nature of war has not changed since ancient times, the character of war has seen dramatic change and there are now quite unprecedented threats to the survival of our species. 

As a result of the First World War, Sigmund Freud had to modify his theories.  Faced with the horrifying mass killing in Europe as well as the evidence coming from the couch, he realized that he had to go beyond the pleasure principle and take greater account of aggression. In our time the threats to the survival of mankind are even greater. However terrible the destruction in the two World Wars, and however many people died, it could be assumed that the world would recover, and our race would survive, even if many individuals, families and communities did not.  That reassurance ended in August 1945 with the detonation of nuclear weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The shock waves that reverberated around the world from the bombs that had been named ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’ were more than physical. Until then we could be saved by the limitations of our own destructive powers. Now nuclear weapons could bring destruction on an inconceivable scale and render the world uninhabitable for human beings and much other life too.

I think it was also the case that when the potential depths of man’s inhumanity to man were revealed as the Holocaust came to light the psychoanalytical community was particularly affected because so many of its members were Jewish. It seems to me that there was an understandable tendency to turn away from the horrors of the wider world and focus more completely on the clinic than on society.  Even in the 1930s Freud found it difficult to engage with Einstein on the question of war, but I believe that the world lost out when the psychoanalytical lens was not being focussed on our greatest existential challenges.  

Meantime, although wars did not stop, the two remaining super-powers, the USA and the USSR engaged by proxy to mitigate the danger of escalation into nuclear war.  The US involvement in the Korean War saw the death of almost 40,000 soldiers and ended with an armistice rather than outright victory.  America claimed that it had contained communist expansion but that could not be said of the Vietnam War.  In 1954, after France was driven out by a left-wing revolutionary movement the US took on the financial and military support for the South Vietnamese state, and over the next twenty years, nearly 60,000 US service personnel lost their lives, huge numbers were injured, and there were even greater casualties among the Vietnamese.  In geo-political terms its significance was that the USA had lost a war into which it had poured massive resources, but the psychological effect was interesting.  Many years later, during the war in Afghanistan, one of the CIA’s most senior officials told me why lessons had not been learnt from Vietnam. He said, “The defeat in Vietnam was such a profound narcissistic blow that no-one wanted to think about the implications.  Everyone just wanted to put it behind us.”    

The collapse of the Soviet system bolstered American confidence, and the establishment of the European Union, increasing globalization of trade, and the creation of institutions of international law, led many to believe that a new golden age was dawning.  However, below the surface there were less encouraging signs, and some psychoanalytically informed thinkers observed an underlying trend towards increasing violence and instability.  September 11, 2001 was a dramatic wake-up call.

While the US withdrawal from Afghanistan twenty years later on 30 August 2021 may not have been as dramatic as 9/11, it may go down in history as similarly significant. In 2001 the USA reacted forcefully to a deadly attack on home territory, similar to the response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 that resulted in direct US engagement in World War 2.  An attack on Afghanistan was probably inevitable because it hosted Al Qaeda, but when the most powerful military machine in history was turned on this small mountainous country there were greater problems than expected about the time scale, cost, and lack of success of the US-led operation. Twenty years later, US$2.5 trillion had been devoted to the war effort, almost a million US service personnel had come and gone – more than 20,000 of them seriously injured, and some 2,350 killed – and not only did the United States withdraw without victory, but the Taliban, whose hosting of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda had been the reason for the American-led intervention, returned as the government of Afghanistan, and those who had cooperated with the Western Alliance had to flee the country or fear for their lives. It was a striking demonstration of the limitations of even the most powerful and sophisticated military force in the world. The defeat in Afghanistan showed that, with sufficient passion, geographical advantage, and motivation, a relatively modestly armed military outfit had resisted and repelled the US forces despite their massive arsenal and liberal democratic political underpinning. Ironically both conflicts lasted exactly twenty years – 1955 to 1975 in Vietnam and 2001 to 2021 in Afghanistan.

The failed intervention in Afghanistan and the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, demonstrated the limitations of military force – it could wreak havoc, but it could not bring peace or build democracy.

On February 24, 2022, the world witnessed the beginning of another historically significant conflict – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  The outcome remains uncertain but despite Russia’s military, economic and numerical superiority, Ukrainians have demonstrated remarkable resistance.  How do we explain why great powers with ever more sophisticated and deadly weapons — including nuclear and hypersonic weapons and psycho-social operations in cyberspace — are no longer winning wars?  We have long believed that rational judgements, a healthy economy, and a liberal democrat polity were the best ways of constructively channelling human energies and passions, so why do weaker actors in armed conflicts repeatedly prove themselves resilient, and effective, while victory eludes the powerful?  People are turning away from the rationality and liberal democracy that was assumed to be the best way of living as human communities. It is not just our individual minds that are struggling to cope with the emotional pressures of living in the line of fire.  Just as the classic liberals of the early twentieth century had to radically revise their understanding of society, so Freud, who described himself as a classic liberal, had modify his psychoanalytical theories.  A century later we may need to address unwelcome challenges to some of our key assumptions in psychoanalysis.  

Society employs a range of disciplines to try to understand armed conflict.  Anthropologists analyse the societal elements that impact its occurrence and conduct.  Psychologists, including psychoanalysts, explore it from the perspective of the individual and the small group.  Changes in the technology of war are the focus for engineers and scientists, from explosives to satellites and cyberspace.  Lawyers, political scientists, theologians, artists, musicians, and mathematicians all view the character of war through their particular lenses, and all find a need to address the subject of ‘war’ because it is such a fundamental element of human relationships. Separation into different disciplines has been our traditional way of trying to make sense of the complexity of the universe and our experience of it, but recent decades have seen attempts to go beyond such subject boundaries and understand the complexity and interaction of different levels of evidence and understanding.  This has become necessary because some of the received wisdom that previously guided our interpretation of reality has been found wanting – from fundamental physics to economics and even psychoanalysis.  

Violent political conflict involves more than one person or small group.  Many thousands, and sometimes millions of people are involved.  In thinking about ‘mind in the line of fire’ we should ask whether we analyse each individual mind operating in the line of fire, or whether some effects are impacting many different minds at the same time. We cannot make sense of a murmuration of starlings by analysing the behaviour of each individual bird or by trying to identify a leader, where there is none. Such considerations require a systemic and even a ‘complexity science’ approach to understand what is happening to our world.

Until recently political theory viewed people’s actions through the lens of instrumental, utilitarian, rationality, believing that people judge everything through a cost-benefit analyses, weighing the socio-economic and power interests at stake. This remains the dominant paradigm for many military, political, and economic experts.  I trained in psychoanalysis because I found this rationalistic perspective unconvincing.  It did not explain the violent political conflict in my own country. However, I could see that psychoanalysis took account of people acting against their own best socio-economic interests.  As I explored this in my own community and beyond it became clear to me that rather than being won over by the offer of socio-economic benefits, partisans in situations of historic conflict were often even more resistant to compromise when offered material benefits, but open to symbolically significant offers.  Revolutionaries and insurgents often sacrifice everything for their cause, are frequently committed more strongly to their comrades than even to their families, and regularly prevail against overwhelming odds. This is especially the case when they are fighting professional armies that rely on the material incentives of pay and promotion.   What is happening in the minds of those who are willing to put themselves in the line of fire for the sake of their cause?  When experiencing existential threat, they move from being rational actors to being ‘devoted actors’ driven by faith or commitment to defend or advance non-negotiable ‘sacred values’, whether religious or secular.  Anyone who tries to weigh up the socio-economic values of faith in God, loyalty to country, or commitment to a political cause will simply be left bemused, for these cannot be judged by socio-economic metrics.  People make sacrifices because they believe it is ‘right’ not because of a cost-benefit call.

The combination of insights from anthropology, psychology, neuropsychology, genetics, and biological science has been given the term ‘cultural neuroscience’ and it may be that by moving beyond single-discipline study we may be able to understand better how the mind operates when it is ‘in the line of fire’.  

There are at least two interacting factors involved in the non-rational elements of human functioning.

Understanding the biological substrate can help elucidate why rational actor models underestimate the influence of ‘right and wrong’ in behaviour and the emerging psychology of large groups, can illuminate what drives people to engage in actions that may not be in their individual interests.  

Freud started trying to understand his patients’ problems from a biological point of view but science had not evolved sufficiently and so he re-focussed on the psychological, always with the caveat that eventually our biological understanding would be better. Have we made enough progress in understanding the biological substrate of brain function to appreciate why cost-benefit analysis needs to be set alongside considerations of how ‘right and wrong’ affects conflict dynamics?

Recent research has shown how in the profound anxiety of existential threat the brain adopts a different form of functioning, where decision-making on the basis of firm principles, takes over from weighing up the costs and benefits of a course of action. We can now assay the levels of brain neurotransmitters, observe and measure the electrical activity in different parts of the brain in response to various stimuli, visualize the functioning of the brain in real time using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and sequence genomes and see how they function.  These capacities are beginning to enable us to understand more about how our thoughts, feelings and behaviour are influenced and limited by our genetic predispositions and our physical brain and body functioning. They are furthering our understanding of the body/mind question and showing how much we are in thrall to our biological substrate. Genes do not determine political beliefs, but when we are presented with a choice of focussing on either the individual or the social milieu our choice is both culturally and biologically mediated.  Our mode of thinking about, and our reactions to others are less voluntary and self-constructed than we wish to believe, though of course our experience and environment also affect the content of our ideas.

While our genes may be a ‘given’ that is not altered by experiences, epigenetic studies show that experiences can affect the expression of our genes. Negative experiences can result in impacts that last a lifetime and perhaps even be transmitted to the next generation. This may be one reason why today’s violence will continue to cause problems long after the violent activity has ended.   

Research using fMRI scanning shows that, when people come from communities that are under existential threat, they think and react in different ways, mediated through parts of the brain that operate with a different grammar and syntax of thinking than those living in stable peaceful contexts.  fMRI investigations of people involved in violent inter-group conflict enable us to observe a range of phenomena where psychological function and brain function operate in conjunction with each other in real time.  The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, inferior frontal gyrus, and parietal cortex have been implicated in calculating costs and consequences – rational actor function – while increased activity in the left temporoparietal junction and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex has been associated with semantic rule retrieval – that is to say, operating under rules of right and wrong, rather than cost-benefit analysis.  Whether we are addressing a problem by weighing up the costs and benefits or using the rules of right and wrong, is not just a matter of psychology – different parts of the brain are operating.

While soldiers of a state often see their professional role as a job for which, like other jobs, they are contracted and remunerated – costs mitigated by benefits.  Those who volunteer to engage in terrorism and violent intergroup conflicts are more likely to be motivated by moral commitments to abstract ideals such as God or nation.  These ‘sacred’ values are not necessarily religious but are values that transcend individual benefits and are largely insensitive to material trade-offs.  Such individuals and groups behave as ‘devoted actors’ rather than ‘rational actors.’ The fMRI studies already referred to have shown that as they indicate their willingness to fight and die for sacred and non-sacred values, and react to peers’ ratings for the same values, we can see diminished activity in those regions of the brain that have been implicated by other studies in calculating costs and consequences.  They are making decisions using parts of the brain where decision-making is not based on the calculation of costs and consequences and as a result, they have a greater willingness to die for their cause. They also perceive their spiritual strength as being more important than physical resources such as numbers and sophisticated weapons. This has been validated by measuring the numbers of casualties sustained and how long they are prepared to stay at the front line. This spiritual strength is mediated through group bonds where trust between group members is maximized, tending to confirm that cultural mores, core values, and non-material issues are essential to an understanding of the thinking of people in the line of fire.

There is a seeming evolutionary challenge in exploring the impact of conflict on the thinking of individuals.  When they use decision-making processes based on rules of ‘right and wrong’ rather than weighing up the costs and benefits to them, their decision may be contrary to their individual well-being. Armed conflict is often more successfully prosecuted by committed leaders and followers willing to sacrifice and die, than by those who prefer to assess whether it is best for them, as individuals, to live to fight another day. In one of the examples of this phenomenon, my colleague Dominic Johnson showed how the first President of the United States, George Washington, would probably not have won independence from Britain if he had weighed up all the apparent realities of the respective military resources and strengths of his supporters and opponents. Washington refused to let military reversals and apparently poor prospects dent his determination and he not only won the American War of Independence but altered world history as a result. Enlightenment expectations have tended to focus not only on rationality, but also on the welfare and autonomy of the individual, however the survival and evolution of the group may well require commitment beyond what is rational including individual sacrifice. 

Psychoanalysis has long focussed on disturbances of individual thought, feeling and behaviour, though less on the complex relationship between our physical substrate and our psychological functioning.  In addition, human beings do not operate only by themselves, but in relationship both with those close to them and their communal culture.  The pressures of dealing with large numbers of disturbed individuals affected by their experiences in World War 2 encouraged psychoanalysts to experiment with therapy in groups. This revealed that, when a group of individuals developed an identity as a group, a new entity was formed that functioned in ways that were not seen when studying individuals. Families and small therapeutic groups became a regular mode of treatment leading to new understandings of systems theory in working with people – an example of how World War 2 affected psychoanalytic theory and practice.

Three new insights have emerged.

In situations of threat – ‘the line of fire’ – individuals can become ‘fused’ with others forming powerful attachments that enable them to make sacrifices for each other and their larger community. These bonds go beyond what they feel even for their families of origin and may be very long-lasting. (eg veterans who have shared war experiences) Throughout history this phenomenon of the ‘fusion’ that grows out of experiences of existential threat has been used to create powerful group bonds by requiring initiation rites for young men.  These are often painful and damaging and do not make much sense at the individual level, but the way they produce powerful group bonds makes their evolutionary value clearer.

The study of ‘complex adaptive systems’ has opened new possibilities for understanding how large groups of people function differently than collections of individuals.  This has particular significance in dealing with conflict, for example in the way states deal with terrorism.  When a terrorist act is understood simply as ‘a crime’, the state implements its normal process of policing and administration of justice.  This rarely succeeds in stopping the campaign if the terrorists are prepared to make personal sacrifices on behalf of the large group.  One is not dealing with an individual problem but with a ‘large group’ disturbance of which the individual is a small part. The ordinary criminal justice system can generally do little about this since it is established to apply the law and its sanctions to individuals.  Understanding terrorism as a large group problem raises many political, legal, and moral questions, but this is often the case when progress involves a shift from an old paradigm on which social boundaries were created.

Thirdly, psychology moved from considering the disturbed individual, to the ‘normal’ individual, to addressing small groups and families, and more recently to large groups of hundreds of thousands or millions of people, who will never meet or know each other, but nevertheless operate as groups. Supporters of major soccer teams may be dispersed throughout the world but share their passions when watching a match, and if they do meet they feel a sense of kinship. Just as fundamental ‘particles’, and then atoms and molecules, and finally cells and multicellular organisms have similar features, but also differ in their properties when they have different complexities of structure, so the psychologies of individuals, families, small groups, and large groups are both similar and different. As these large groups have been studied, new understandings have emerged.  An example from my involvement in the Irish Peace Process may be useful.

After centuries of recurring violence in Ireland, we moved away from rational actor models that focussed on the law and political structures and engaged on the analysis of three interlocking disturbed historic relationships between communities of people – Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists within Northern Ireland; the people of Ireland, North and South; and the peoples of Britain and Ireland.  We addressed these three sets of relationships in three matching strands of negotiations and the outcome was three interlocking sets of institutions.  Confirmation of the value of this analysis of multiple sets of communal relationships became clear, not only in the success of bringing the violence to an end through the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, whose 25th Anniversary was recognized in Belfast in April this year, but also later when the neglect of them contributed to subsequent problems not only within Northern Ireland, but between the United Kingdom and Ireland after Brexit. These British/Irish problems arose from the requirements of two other ‘external’ sets of relationships – with the European Union and the USA.  They were only resolved when the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak and EU President Ursula van der Leyen abandoned the transactional regulatory arguments that had resulted in the stand-off and returned to developing a positive working relationship with each other. This is an example of how developing a theory based on the complexity of relationships of communities rather than on the linearity of rational transactional political theory can produce a positive outcome in a previously intractable conflict.

The importance of the psychological aspects of war and intractable conflict has long been appreciated by military and political strategists. Anwar Sadat, the former President of Egypt, told the Knesset in 1977 that psychological issues were 70% of the problem between Israel and the Arabs.  In August 2021 President Joe Biden said “We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force …. What we could not provide them was the will to fight”.  This ‘will to fight’ is not impossible to understand if we recognize that the ‘will to fight’ and preparedness to sacrifice, are different from the psychological drivers that apply in relatively peaceful stable societal contexts, and must be explored at various bio-psycho-social levels.

I finish by referring to two other elements of mind in the line of fire.

Some years ago, we began to realize that young people who have not themselves experienced trauma seem to suffer adverse effects from trauma that their parents or grandparents experienced.  We initially thought the next generation’s post-traumatic problems were a result of transmission through commemorations and the re-telling of stories of humiliation or injury.  However, it appears that some of the transgenerational transmission of trauma may arise in the absence of any clear psychological connection with the communal trauma, and epigenetics may be showing that changes in the expression of genetic coding may not only arise in traumatic situations but may be transmissible across generations.  If this were to be conclusively demonstrated, it would imply that the massive trauma inflicted on children in violent conflicts around the world today may not just be maintained in the mind but in the body and may be long-lasting.

Finally, we have created entirely new digital challenges.  The impact of social media and its manipulation on our thinking as individuals and as communities is much greater than most people appreciate. It is not just a question of fake news or disruptive messages being sent out by malign actors.  There are disruptive processes, conducted by automated devices, for example the amplification of conflicting messages that promote the creation of splits in our countries so as to undermine community cohesion. We face the use of artificial intelligence to automate the firing of artillery weapons and missiles at speeds that make human thinking and intervention impossible, the use of relatively inexpensive drones and precision weapons that reduce of possibility of having any safe space – even in this room you could be attacked by a mini-drone – and there are programmes that enable computers to mimic human thought so that you cannot tell the difference. 

In all these ways we now have the capacity both to engage positively with each other across the globe, and also bring all life on it to an end by a failure of responsibility both in how we engage with our environment and by rejecting peaceful ways of disagreeing with each other and resorting to nuclear, hypersonic, and biological weapons.  For the first time in history, our decisions and actions as human beings may determine the outcome for our species and many others too, either for temporary good or permanent catastrophe.  Addressing these issues requires new conceptual models which cross the boundaries of our various academic and professional silos. None of us, and none of our disciplines, will find the answers on our own, not even psychoanalysis. 

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