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Putting the War on Terror on the Couch: Vamik Volkan’s Blind Trust

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

Blind Trust: Large Groups and Their Leaders in Times of Crisis and Terror. By Vamik Volkan. Pitchstone Publishing, May 2004. $19.95

Among the myriad books tracing the path from poor airline security to the occupation of Iraq, very few analyses examine the trajectory of the war on terror through anything other than a geopolitical lens. In most treatments, forging a link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein as equal partners in an Axis of Evil, whether termed “preemptive” or “opportunistic,” is seen as a clear objective in a deliberate foreign policy.

In his new book, Blind Trust, psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan offers starkly different terms for what he sees as a troubling “societal regression.” Volkan looks at bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and the Bush administration and sees id, ego, and superego; he sees the war on terror as a series of “psychodynamics” and explains foreign policy as trickle-down Freudianism. Welcome to the world of psychopolitics.

At once idealistic and sobering, Volkan’s premise is that state-sanctioned aggression is a universal exhibition of human nature. Large groups, he argues, function the same way as individuals do. When traumatized, they regress. Regression need not be unhealthy—in fact, it is the quickest way to creativity when coupled with progression, writes Volkan. The problems begin when the defense mechanism either is disproportionate or just won’t shut down. The problems begin when regression becomes malignant.

Much of Volkan’s thesis is fundamental enough in its psychoanalytical rhetoric to be recognizable to any reader with democratic sympathies. His symptomatology of large-group regression includes loss of individuality, unquestioning support for a leader, dehumanization of outsiders, adoption of symbols, and sensitization to blood and borders. Other aspects, rooted more deeply in Freudian theory, are provocative but less compelling: further steps of regression, apparently, will leave us all with an inability to differentiate beauty from ugliness and a tendency to reduce our environment to “a gray-brown, amorphous (symbolically fecal) structure.” If you are skeptical of the latter danger, notes Volkan, just look at the once-glorious, now-dismal Russian city of Vladimir, victim of severe societal regression during the nadir of the Soviet Union.

Volkan has been practicing political psychoanalysis for over two decades. His first “patients” were high-level delegations from Israel and Palestine, with whom he engaged in “unofficial diplomacy” for six years. He credits the late Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, with opening the field with his 1977 declaration that “70 percent of the problems between Arabs and Israelis are psychological.” Ten years later, Volkan established the Center for the Study of the Mind and Human Interaction, the world’s only conflict resolution organization housed in a medical center. Because Volkan’s brand of therapy depends on individual breakthroughs to affect mass behavior, it is difficult to quantify “progress.” The clinical effects of his work, by nature, may never be proven. Such is the persistence of man-made trauma.

Blind Trust is not a book about the war on terror. It is a study of wars of terror and how societies cope with trauma generally. Case studies come from the Middle East, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, as well as from societies that have psychologically incorporated “chosen traumas” of their forebears. Cuban exiles and Armenian refugees can be said to exhibit demands for reparations for the previous generation’s sufferings with a level of injury rivaling communities that still experience injustice or oppression. Volkan surveys history as well as the globe for lessons on group crisis behavior—the legacy of the Holocaust, the formation of a modern Turkish identity, and the annihilation of cultural and religious expression in populations under Soviet rule are all appropriate subjects for his theory. Some curious comparisons emerge as well—17th-century Old Believers and modern suicide bombers, for example. As with any survey that is strong on anecdote and long of reach, Blind Trust has its own strains of schizophrenia; casual readers may become disoriented by the placement of Bob Jones University in one paragraph and Jim Jones in the next.

Perhaps the strongest segments focus on leadership during crises. Saddam Hussein, Adolph Hitler, and Joseph Stalin are subjected to psychoanalytical scrutiny with the usual results (self-deification, projection of faults onto enemies, malignant paranoia). The Taliban’s Mullah Omar becomes the poster child of “reality blurring,” a power tactic effective among regressed groups, in a story of his donning of the Holy Cloak of the Prophet. In a lengthy study of the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, the author examines both the messianic delusion of leader David Koresh and the role of the government in that tragic confrontation. He concludes that the absence of training among law enforcement agents to respond in a “therapeutic fashion” to the regression emitting from the Mount Carmel Compound was a direct cause of the resulting conflagration. His suggestions, by the way, come from his chairing of an advisory commission to the FBI and were reputedly adopted in the later standoff with Montana Freemen with positive results.

Even more interesting is Volkan’s odd pairing of prototypical “successful narcissistic leaders” Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Richard Nixon. What these two otherwise unallied figures have in common, writes Volkan, is the pursuit of positive societal legacies (such as full literacy or cold war détente) as a means of self-aggrandizement. Making the case for the man who created a modern nation state from the ruins of empire and gained the title “The Eternal Leader” is simple; arguing for the “reparative” nature of the disgraced former president is not. Here Volkan returns to the psychodynamics of large groups, noting that Nixon’s disgraced resignation was easily absorbed “by generalized public denial that a large-group’s leader might be a troubled person.” It is an interesting maxim for present times, as well as a paradoxical reading of the healthiness of denial.

Because Volkan is a well-traveled practitioner as well as an academic, Blind Trust is as entertaining as it is authoritative. Anecdotal accounts and personal histories make the book accessible to a general audience, but the index indicates the high level of scholarship (predominantly Freudian) on which it stands. The title is homage to the late Erik Erikson, often credited with the creation of the concept of identity. Erikson identified the first stage in psychosocial development as the ability to trust. Volkan asserts that the perversion of that primitive milestone, basic trust, during times of regression results in “blind trust.” In such a scenario, the psyche of the leader becomes paramount.

Last year, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara agreed to star in a feature-length documentary/memoir. A bank of cameras stood in place of the couch, and McNamara’s only discussant was the disembodied voice of a producer, but in many ways The Fog of War is a cinematic psychoanalysis session, as well as a fascinating account of the most regressive period in America’s recent history. “It’s not that we’re not rational,” muses McNamara about his role in the failed escalation of war in Vietnam. “We are rational. But reason only takes you so far.”

In the Freudian model of “blind trust,” Volkan refers to our present predicament thus: Americans are confronting terrorist elements (id) with punitive omnipotence (superego) as opposed to unemotional, nondivisive solutions (ego). In such a scenario, problem solving becomes counterproductive at best, regressive at worst: “A purely superego response derails any possibility of advancing civilization.”

Reason has its limits, realpolitik its contradictions, legality its subjective interpretations. Clearly there can be no harm in applying the tools of psychoanalysis to better understand human behavior and leadership in crisis—particularly if the advancement of civilization remains a touchstone of our ideals.


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