BOOK REVIEW / A war by any other name . . .: War machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age by Daniel Pick, Yale pounds 19.95
Sunday 02 May 1993
Daniel Pick has assembled popular fiction, war propaganda and virtually every major literary and social-scientific development of the 19th century. In his gallery of Rationalists we find Richard Cobden, the apostle of free trade who saw war as feudalism's revenge on capitalism, arm-in-arm with Friedrich Engels, who believed that competition for trade would result in ever bloodier international warfare. The more pessimistic Romantic view is represented in war propaganda, ruminating about the 'deep sources' of national identity, and in the writings of Ruskin and Valery.
Pick uses the term 'rationalisation' in the Freudian sense - the use of rationality to disguise from consciousness an experience found to be disturbing. The dehumanisation of modern warfare brings a dehumanised vocabulary to describe slaughter, the fake detachment of words like 'neutralisation' and 'smart weapons'. Pick closes with a discussion of Freud's correspondence with Einstein on the question 'Why War?', and quotes Freud to describe the hatred of relationships with others, the fear, grief and guilt that the rationalisation of war blots out.
Typically, Pick concentrates on a single extract from authors and then highlights tensions in their positions. This literary-critical approach can be plodding ('Note that telling pronoun 'one' and the swift abandonment of his own caveat'), and it prevents him from developing his own view, an intriguing if unfashionable one which seeps through only in commentaries on works of which he especially approves.
Pick's chief theoretical debt appears to be to the group psychology developed by the followers of Melanie Klein, who hold that individuals in groups may see others not as people but as aspects of themselves they do not wish to recognise. The Draconian conditions of modern warfare provide a pretext for refusing to recognise either the humanity of others or one's own inhumanity. The result is a radical splitting of the self: 'schizoid depersonalisation'. But how does group psychology fit in with other modes of historical explanation, such as economic analysis? Pick's approach raises as many problems as it solves.
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