War is the Health of the State: Its Meaning

Ξ May 28th, 2007 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Politics and Society |

[Guernica - Pablo Picasso]

    What happens to the individual in the process of society and Government being dominated by the State? In times of peace, an individual acts according to his own conscience to secure what he believes to be in his self-interest, which usually includes pursuing prosperity, security for the family, and spending time on unique interests e.g. hobbies. Individuals interact peacefully in society without any necessary co-ordination because the interactions are sparked by a common desire (such as attending a football game, or exchanging goods for money) without any loss of individual choice.

    In times of war, individuals become what Bourne refers to as "the herd." He describes what is meant by this term, "The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized." Bourne clearly acknowledges that the herd is not an emotional whole, but may include a wide range of emotional and intellectual reactions to wartime events and to the war itself. Nevertheless, "by an ingenious mixture of cajolery, agitation, intimidation, the herd is licked into shape, into an effective mechanical unity, if not into a spiritual whole."

    Just as the line between the State and society blurs so, too, does the line between the State and the individual. The State attempts to draw upon the powerful force of individual choice by appealing to the patriotism of people and asking them to make the "choice" to enlist and otherwise support the war effort. Usually, the individual obliges because "[in] a nation at war, every citizen identifies himself with the whole, and feels immensely strengthened in that identification." But, if the individual makes the wrong choice -- the choice to not volunteer, to not co-operate with wartime measures -- the State reveals that choice was never the real issue. "Men are told simultaneously that they will enter the military establishment of their own volition, as their splendid sacrifice for their country's welfare, and that if they do not enter they will be hunted down and punished with the most horrid penalties..."

    Usually, the individual does not rebel against this massive violation of rights because he feels what Bourne calls "a large element of pure filial mysticism" toward the State, especially the wartime State. Bourne likens this mysticism to the response often offered to religion. "As the Church is the medium for the spiritual salvation of men, so the State is thought of as the medium for his political salvation." The same feeling of patriotism that brings tears to the eyes of those saluting the flag at ball games is magnified by -- some would say 'distorted and exploited by' -- the wartime State to make individuals conform. Feeling strengthened by "identifying with the whole," people cease to be individuals and become, instead, citizens of the State. The man who dissents and remains an individual feels "forlorn and helpless," while those who think and feel as the others in the herd have "the warm feeling of obedience, the soothing irresponsibility of protection."

    Thus, "people at war become in the most literal sense obedient, respectful, trustful children again, full of that naive faith in the all-wisdom and all-power of the adult who takes care of them..." "This great herd-machine" functions under "a most indescribable confusion of democratic pride and personal fear" that makes the individuals who constitute the herd "submit to the destruction of their livelihood if not their lives, in a way that would formerly have seemed to them so obnoxious as to be incredible."

    This, too, is the meaning of 'War is the Health of the State': war is the death of individualism.


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