Militarism is a Form of Slavery: Community Psychologists take Notice

Shows image of war across the ages

Written by Serdar M. Değirmencioğlu

Stockholm Syndrome refers to a strange response observed in some captive persons. The captive person might begin to identify closely with his/her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands. Militarism involves a very similar process but at a much larger scale: Masses identify closely with the agenda and demands of a very small but very powerful interest group (or a regime) despite the fact that this is totally against their interest to do so. Unlike Stockholm syndrome, which emerges in the absence of deliberate external factors, militarism requires constant political promotion and marketing starting in preschool (Değirmencioğlu, 2013).

I have spent about two decades studying militarism. This was no ivory tower exercise. I studied militarism closely in order to defeat it. My entire life, up until now, has been impacted by militarism. But I am not an exception. Millions of people in Turkey and around the world have suffered from militarism because it is so pervasive. Still, many are not aware of the extent of the influence of militarism on their lives, even though the consequences and the marketing are plain to see. This huge crowd includes – sadly enough –most mainstream psychologists.

Such a mind-blowing lack of awareness can only exist in the presence of systematic and persistent reasons. One such reason is the way history is taught. Wars are portrayed as short-lived and extraordinary moments in history. They are “necessary” and “righteous”: That is why they must be waged and waged efficiently. A modern war is very much like a Broadway performance: There is a brilliant director, a cast of skillful performers and it lasts for a short period of time. It is fun to watch, and the cost is minimal. What happens backstage -all the suffering – is never visible and does not matter.

Morally Bankrupt

Many psychologists around the world still believe that militarism works. This is certainly true for psychologists in the U.S. whose mindset was shaped by war-time propaganda during World War II (WW II) or by the fierce propaganda campaigns that were part and parcel of the Cold War. Now, 76 years after the end of WW II and some 30 years after the end of Cold War, there is little left to believe in the official “good war” narrative. The “good war” narrative always instills a sense of righteousness in public opinion. Whatever evil that happened during the war can be justified by the relentless evil that exists around the world. Evil is necessary to defeat the evil enemy, to win the war or to end the war. Evil is not part-and-parcel of the machinery that is built and maintained to engage in war.

Today it is clear that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not necessary to end WW II. They were unjustifiable nuclear massacres. The “moral threshold” regarding such massacres had been crossed with the napalm bombing of major cities in Japan (Değirmencioğlu, 2020a). The end of World War II was not the beginning of an era dominated by a devotion to peace. Instead, the defining mindset of the period was militarism with no moral limits. Nuclear war was now possible and more was on the way. The prevailing belief among those who ruled the U.S. was that a “total war” (atomic, chemical, and biological warfare combined) with the Soviet Union was in the making. There was even a projected start date: 1952. The US had to prepare for it.

For those who produced and believed it, the “total war” scenario justified everything. In her book titled “Operation Paperclip”, Annie Jacobsen (2014). describes how Nazi scientists were identified, sought out and then recruited by the US government:

“The men profiled in this book were not nominal Nazis. Eight of the twenty-one—Otto Ambros, Theodor Benzinger, Kurt Blome, Walter Dornberger, Siegfried Knemeyer, Walter Schreiber, Walter Schieber, and Wernher von Braun—each at some point worked side by side with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, or Hermann Göring during the war. Fifteen of the twenty-one were dedicated members of the Nazi Party; ten of them also joined the ultra-violent, ultranationalistic Nazi Party paramilitary squads, the SA (Sturmabteilung, or Storm Troopers) and the SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Squadron); two wore the Golden Party Badge, indicating favor bestowed by the Führer; one was given an award of one million reichsmarks for scientific achievement.” (p.5)

“All of the men profiled in this book are now dead. Enterprising achievers as they were, just as the majority of them won top military and science awards when they served the Third Reich, so it went that many of them won top U.S. military and civilian awards serving the United States. One had a U.S. government building named after him, and, as of 2013, two continue to have prestigious national science prizes given annually in their names.” (p.7)

Operation Paperclip was a huge success. Those who served Hitler’s “evil” killing machine were imported to serve the “righteous” killing machine. Hitler’s heroes were transformed into heroes of the “free world”.

After the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969, columnist Drew Pearson … wrote in his column that von Braun had been a member of the SS. But von Braun’s glory had reached epic proportions, and Pearson’s article went by relatively unnoticed. Von Braun was an American hero. Citizens all across the nation showered him with praise, glory, and the confetti of ticker-tape parades. After the Apollo space program ended, von Braun moved into the private sector. In his new life as a defense contractor, he traveled the world and met its leaders, including Indira Gandhi, the Shah of Iran, and Crown Prince Juan Carlos of Spain.

The year before he died, there was a motion inside the Ford White House to award Wernher von Braun the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The idea almost passed until one of President Ford’s senior advisers, David Gergen, famously wrote, in a note passed to colleagues, “Sorry, but I can’t support the idea of giving [the] medal of freedom to [a] former Nazi whose V-2 was fired into over [sic] 3000 British and Belgian cities. He has given valuable service to the US since, but frankly he has gotten as good as he has given.” Von Braun was awarded the Medal of Science instead. He died on June 16, 1977. His tombstone, in Alexandria, Virginia, cites Psalm 19:1, invoking God, glory, heaven, and earth.

The imports did not stop there. Militarism also justified the recruitment of Nazi operatives. Klaus Barbie, the head of Gestapo in Lyon – a.k.a the “Butcher of Lyon” – was one of them. When the “Barbie Affair” became impossible to deny, the U.S. Department of Justice produced a report in 1983: officers of the United States government were directly responsible for protecting a person wanted by the government of France on criminal charges and in arranging his escape from the law. As a direct result of that action, Klaus Barbie did not stand trial in France in 1950; he spent 33 years as a free man and a fugitive from justice.

In short, those guilty of crimes against humanity were turned into “intelligence” or “military” assets. Those who were involved in turning Nazis into assets had no moral dilemma or misgivings. The military machine required a job to be done and they carried out their jobs masterfully.

It is now clear than ever that militarism is morally bankrupt. It can justify everything: Nuclear massacres, nuclear weapons, hundreds of military bases around the world, toppling regimes in Guatemala, Chile, Grenada or any other country for that matter. Add an undeclared war on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Add napalm and Agent Orange. And no, it did not stop when the Cold War ended. Militarism justified the invasion of Iraq and of Afghanistan, black sites, Guantanamo and so on. Militarism has always served and justified injustice – at home and away from home.

Emotional Slavery

Militarism also produces an emotional bias, one that is so strong that it amounts to a form of emotional slavery. In 2014, I published a book on how militarism benefits from the promotion of martyrdom (Değirmencioğlu, 2014). In one of the chapters, I describe a funeral where the wife of the fallen soldier wore a t-shirt with a slogan indicating her desire to become a martyr. The ceremony was held in the local schoolyard and the emotional hysteria spread to others. Teenage boys shouted at the highest ranking officer attending the ceremony: “Take us, too!” That was the desired outcome. The military machinery that had sent a soldier to an unnecessary death was not condemned. Instead, it was endorsed: The wife expressed her willingness to die. Boys from the local school expressed their desire to serve as soldiers. Journalists rushed to spread the hysteria across the country. Militarism won, again.

Emotional slavery works in the US, too. Wars do not bring peace or security, but it is hard to condemn wars and the military when a neighbor has a son in Iraq, another a husband, and yet another a dad who was disabled in some other war. The bigger the military, the larger the number of neighbors, teachers, coworkers who are directly touched by a war. Militarism is morally bankrupt, and it regularly sends people to kill and to die, but Stockholm syndrome lingers on: Captives of militarism identify with it: Instead of saying “No more war!” or “Bring our troops home!”, many people display ribbons and say: “We support our troops!” in Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever they might be.

Lessons for Community Psychologists
Militarism is morally bankrupt, but it is very much alive in politics. The “military-industrial complex” continues to thrive on wars. In the absence of wars, the “war money” would disappear. Militarism serves imperialism and its modern imperial algorithms. Community Psychologists should be aware of the emotions that are associated with militarism and the gimmicks the “military-industrial complex” continues to produce such emotions in the society. Mainstream psychology in the U.S. keeps on failing Ethics 101 (Boyd, 2014) and siding with militarism (Değirmencioğlu, 2010). Community Psychologists should not do the same. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and the US public is faced with the insanity of the invasion of Afghanistan, there is probably no better time than this time to focus on militarism and be honest about the fact that psychology should choose peace over militarism.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced psychologists to recognize that the world is faced with catastrophic conditions, such as pandemics, climate change and loss of biodiversity. It has also shown that in a world full of inequalities, solidarity plays an essential role. The pandemic has also confirmed long-standing arguments that nuclear weapons, massive armies and border walls do not make humans more secure. The killing of George Floyd has forced psychologists to reckon with racism, discrimination and police violence. Psychologists can only go forward by grasping causal links between economic development, disappearing biodiversity, climate change and pandemics. Psychologists must prioritize public health over private interests and stop the forces that cripple health services. Psychologists must choose peace over militarism: Militarism wastes funds that should go to public health and puts the world in danger. Psychologists must prioritize addressing racism and discrimination across the world and in their own work settings, organizations and structures. (Değirmencioğlu, 2020b)

Boyd, J. W., LoCicero, A., Malowney, M., Aldis, R., & Marlin, R. P. (2014). Failing Ethics 101: Psychologists, the US military establishment, and human rights. International Journal of Health Services, 44(3), 615-625.

Değirmencioğlu, S. M. (2020a). From ending war to permanent war. Peace Review, 32(3), 278-284. (Special issue: Reevaluating the Hiroshima and Nagasaki at 75.)

Değirmencioğlu, S. M. (2020b). A time to speak up. Part of a report titled “How 2020 changed us: Psychology leaders offer their take on how this has been a year of turmoil and transition”. Monitor on Psychology, 51(8).

Değirmencioğlu, S. M. (2014). ed., “Öl Dediler”, Öldüm: Türkiye’de Şehitlik Mitleri. (“They Said ‘Die’ and I Died”: Myths of Martyrdom in Turkey.) Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları.

Değirmencioğlu, S. M. (2013). Young people in Turkey besieged by militarism: Past and present. Owen Everett (ed.), Sowing Seeds: The Militarization of Youth and How to Counter it. London: War Resisters’ International. (71-78)

Değirmencioğlu, S. M. (2010). The psychology of napalm: Whose side are psychologists on? Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy, 10(4), 196-205.

Jacobsen, A. (2014). Operation Paperclip: The secret intelligence program that brought Nazi scientists to America. New York and Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Posted in: ,

Contact Us