War’s Attraction: Love or Fascination?

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A review of A Terrible Love of War,
by James Hillman
Reviewed by Gary Trosclair, LCSW, DMA

In his latest and perhaps final book, A Terrible Love of War, James Hillman urges us to embrace war with a loving imagination in order to understand it (p. 211). If we don’t, he claims, we will never truly comprehend war, nor could we possibly speak of peace or disarmament.  Such an exploration is badly needed. Unfortunately, Hillman’s imaginings are unlikely to resonate with most readers. His efforts to convince us that deep down we all really love war, narrowly defined as actual combat between nations, stretch the imagination to breaking point, for while many of us feel a fascination with war, an actual love of war is exceptional rather than universal.

Hillman overstates his case and in doing so loses the reader: War, he writes, is “the first of all norms, the standard by which all else be measured, permeating existence and therefore our existence as individuals and as societies” (p 40); “War presents the ultimate truth of the cosmos” (p. 41);  War is “the father of all things” (p. 76).  These statements are indicative less of an archetype than they are of a complex. Surely if a subject in an association test responded with “war” to the phrases “the father of all things,” “the first of all norms,” and “the ultimate truth of the cosmos,” the tester would conclude that the subject was under the sway of a complex. Hillman’s war complex will not resonate with many readers.

The examples Hillman chooses of men supposedly loving war are hardly representative, and sometimes misleading. He begins by quoting General George Patton as he surveys the destruction after a battle scene: “I love it. God help me I do love it so. I love it more than my life.” (pg 1) Hillman quickly extracts a universal tendency from this one highly unusual individual’s experience. But for better or worse, most of us are not like Patton. Hillman goes on to quote other soldiers extensively, but his sample and his interpretation are skewed: his evidence does not support postulating the love of war itself as a universal tendency.

Hillman could have built a far more believable and effective argument if he had distinguished the love of war from a fascination with war. Love knows its object; fascination is based on a fantasy about something not truly known, and it usually seeks an archetype more basic than the object of its fascination. Love between partners can never really occur until the fascination with the archetype is replaced by love of a real flesh and blood person. Hillman interprets Aphrodite’s illicit affair with Ares as demonstrative of our love for war. But she’s not dying to get into the trenches: she wants to be penetrated by the feel of war, war once removed, someone who wars—not war itself. Once caught in flagrante, once the deception is revealed, the two are never seen together again. This was a fascinating fling, not love.

Many of us, most of us if we are honest, do have a fascination with war. War movies, war history, war novels, and now war video games, command a huge market. But this is not to say that we universally love war. This is voyeurism—a comfortable curiosity from afar. Hillman, surprisingly, asks why men willingly go to war but need coercion to remain there. Once they are exposed to the reality, the fantasies about underlying archetypes are dispelled and another motivation is needed to keep them on the front.  He fails to contend with the enormous discrepancy between what we imagine about war and its reality.

Hillman argues that one reason we love war is because it is sublime—it holds a terrifying form of beauty. This confuses the side effects of war with war itself. War may “reveal the sublime,” as Hillman puts it, but this is through contrast and bold relief rather than an aesthetic appreciation for war itself. He writes about a German soldier decorating his trench with trees and flowers, as if that indicated that the soldier felt that war is beautiful (p. 117). It is more likely that it is the pure ugliness of war and absence of beauty that compel men to seek out the sublime in the midst of battle.

In fact, it is probably more accurate to say that we become numb to war itself and focus on other things to buoy us in such situations. Hillman quotes journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who wrote that during the 1940 bombing of London he felt “a terrible joy and exaltation at the sight and sound and taste and smell of all this destruction.” (pg 116) While it’s possible to have more than one feeling at a time, this sort of aesthetic enthrallment requires oblivion to the utter horror that people and their homes and culture are being decimated.  In reality, rather than achieving a heightened aesthetic sense, most soldiers survive by numbing themselves, as did a soldier at the end of the German film Stalingrad.. Stumbling through snow-covered Russia with little hope of survival he says, “The good thing about the cold is that you don’t feel anything.”

Hillman also argues that war is inhuman, an autonomous force, a God to be respected. It is true that an inhuman rage or ferocious passion may take over during battle (p. 80) and it may well be understood as an autonomous force. But this force also takes over in other circumstances and is not specific to war in the sense that Hillman uses the term. People can be possessed by intense fury in individual situations (which Hillman excludes from his definition of war), and they can be possessed by it in the fight for many other causes. Warlike behavior is evidence of archetypal energy manifest in just one particular way. The energy is far more deep, pliable and profound than Hillman’s war. Just as the intensity of the coniunctio (the sacred marriage) can find expression in alchemy, passionate sex, and the analytic process, the archetypes that find expression in combat are also found in a host of other situations. Hillman’s description of the ancient god of war—(p. 82) wild, untamable, overpowering, excessive, insane, bloody, assured, wanton–could just as well be applied to jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, abstract expressionist Wassily Kandinsky, or boxer Mike Tyson. This God does not need combat to show his face.

Yet how are we to understand the experience of those soldiers whose experience did yield meaning, who experienced courage, altruism, or a mystical connection with something greater than themselves, and whose fascination seems to linger even after they’ve been through the real thing? Hillman quotes one soldier who wrote, “You know that I do not love war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive, as I have not felt alive before or since” (p. 11). Here as elsewhere, Hillman confuses a love of war and a reaction to it.  The compassion that soldiers develop for their comrades is more likely born of their mutual hatred of war as the enemy rather than their love for it. This sense of being more alive has less to do with a love of war and more to do with a forced appreciation of life.

For some, war seems to engender an intensity which makes peace seem painfully mundane. Veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges explores this phenomenon in his powerful book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, reaching far different conclusions than Hillman. Hedges argues that what appears as a love of war is actually an addiction to a substitute for true meaning in life. This sort of addictive intensity is not limited exclusively to battle combat. Greg Henderson, a physician caught in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and trying to administer medicine under horrific conditions wrote, “This is an edifying experience.  One is rapidly focused away from the transient and material to the bare necessities of life.” Further examples could be drawn from firefighters, cancer survivors, and political campaigners, among others. All of these gripping experiences say less about war, fire, cancer, and politics, specifically, and more about what happens when the veils of the trivial are removed.

Jung expressed the same idea in 1939 when he spoke of the neurosis of a banal and meaningless life.  “They are simply sick of the whole thing, sick of that banal life, and therefore they want sensation. They even want a war: They say, ‘Thank heaven, now something is going to happen—something bigger than ourselves.’”   v. 18 par 627

For a small number, war may serve as the occasion for meaning, as an alchemical vas or vessel, an opportunity for transformative experiences of more fundamental archetypes, many of them described in alchemy: calcinatio, burning away the impurities of banal and materialist life; solutio, dissolving old rigid ways of being; mortificatio, dying away of the old ruling attitudes; coincidentia oppositorum, the conflict of opposites which potentially leads to a new beginning. Add to these the confusing possibility of concretizing the hero’s journey, and it is no wonder that war is not only fascinating but also transformative for some. But again, one should not confound the vessel with the gold.

Hillman’s vision of Ares changes dramatically in the last 17 pages (pg 200). After 200 pages as the beserk, furious and insane god, Ares suddenly becomes a god of restraint and the protector of civilization. Hillman suggests a homeopathic cure: worshipping Ares and asking him for the courage to restrain from impulsive war. While this shift is quite welcome and redeems Hillman from some of his earlier excesses, these final pages also harbor a psychological approach questionable to many Jungians. Hillman recommends that we “leash” the energies of war, and in so doing he advocates sublimation, failing to differentiate it from the alchemical process known as the sublimatio. Sublimation is a Freudian concept, a higher level defense mechanism: channeling unacceptable id energies into socially acceptable behavior. Sublimatio, on the other hand, traces the energy back to the prima materia and raises it to its own highest level, rather than allowing the energy to flow into less constructive uses.  Leashing war is sublimation, not an alchemical sublimatio. The energies that serve as fuel in war’s hijackings have the natural and inherent capacity to serve greater ends.

None of this is to say that it would be a waste to read Hillman’s book. He points out, perhaps too broadly but with some justification, how war and religion are destructively intertwined, and how monotheism in particular leads to intolerance and war. He calls Christianity to task for its over-emphasis on love and its failure to acknowledge the role that Ares plays in life. He helps us to understand why some men would want to go to war and at the same time reminds us why the rest of us abhor it.

But more importantly, while Hillman may fail as psychopomp for a collective imagining, he succeeds as provocateur. He consciously chooses war as his method: he aims to “induct our minds into military service,” “to disturb the peace”, to effect “shock therapy,” destabilize, desubjectivize, and destroy, just as war itself does (p. 110).  While on the surface he invites you to imagine with him, underneath he is actually challenging you to battle. So, rather than going with Hillman into his own active imagination, you may choose to go against him into battle. Then your imagination can take you where you actually need to go. You may have an experience of fascination with war via an image less specific than Hillman’s prescription, and more to the point. Hillman says that he likes to “set fire to the passions of thought (p. 111)”. In this he may be successful.

In fact, one of Hillman’s gifts to us have been his provocations. He describes himself as a “child of Mars” who has “a native need to be at war,” one who finds a deep resonance in the subject (p. 111). Because he’s so passionate about his material, and because he is willing to stretch the imagination as far as possible to fit his thesis, it’s hard to remain a passive and innocent bystander as you read. Through his willingness to take a chance at being wrong, he invites us to argue with him, and in doing so, we may become aware of what we do imagine ourselves.  He provokes us to reflect imaginatively and seriously about war, which is, unfortunately, quite out of fashion and much needed these days.

Hillman suspects that this will be his last book. If it is, it will be a loss for us all. He’s often taunted us into war with him. Even when he is wrong, the battle he engages us in often awakens us to more conscious living. And that is a loveable war.

Gary Trosclair is a Jungian Analyst in private practice in Manhattan and Westchester County, New York.

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