Casual ties become casualties: Human bonds and the prevention of war

An excerpt from a talk given at a recent interdisciplinary conference entitled “Is War Inevitable?” (NYC, 2012) addresses what psychoanalysis can contribute to the prevention of war

By Steven Botticelli

This piece is part of a longer presentation given at the conference, “Is War Inevitable? An Interdisciplinary Conference” held in NYC, Feb. 25, 2012.—Eds

In “Why War?” Freud presents us with the idea that “anything that encourages the growth of emotional ties between men must operate against war” (1933, p.212), and that such ties are often formed by identifi cation. Through identifi cation, we are inevitably “implicate[d] in lives that are not our own,” (Butler, 2003, p.14), our “singularity…always inscribed with a multitude” (Grand, 2010, p.181). The American socialist Eugene Debs gave voice to an expansive sense of the possibilities of identifi cation as a basis for social action at his trial for sedition near the end of World War I: “While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison I am not free” (cited in Bartlett, 2002, p.606). Conscientious objectors are often motivated by their identifi cation with those they are being asked to fi ght or exercise authority over. For instance, many of the Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories are moved by their identification with the suffering of Palestinians. As refusenik Ramie Kaplan expresses it, “I couldn’t remain indifferent to the Palestinians’ suffering and degraded living conditions. I didn’t feel good manning a checkpoint where I’d detain or interrogate poor Palestinians heading to work at four in the morning” (quoted in Chacham, 2003, p.38).

But in exploring the possibilities of identification as a basis for the prevention of war we quickly encounter a problem, one that inheres in the structure of identifi cation itself. As Judith Butler points out, any identifi cation is assumed “through a set of constitutive and formative exclusions” (cited in Fuss, 1995, p.9). Any identifi cation implies a disidentifi cation: if I am this, I must not be that. Patriotism is one malign manifestation of this structure, as it at least implicitly requires that we disidentify with those of other nationalities. In the process of assuming the mantle of “our” nationality we render those others less worthy of our concern, if not actually competitors or enemies. How selective we tend to be in our sympathies and identifi cations, and how easy it seems for politicians to wrangle this selectivity for their own purposes. Thus Obama, in justifying the Israeli attack on Gaza that directly preceded his taking offi ce, referred hypothetically to what he would do if his daughters had rockets falling on them, leaving out of consideration the Gazans on whom the rockets were, as he spoke, now being dropped. It’s an accident of language, rather than a fact of etymology, that the word “casualties” breaks down into “casual ties,” but no accident at all that our willingness to accept the deaths of people we do not see as being like ourselves reveals our ties to them to have indeed been casual.

From this perspective, the question becomes whether it is possible to work against our tendency to form such restricted identifi cations. Toward this end, Judith Butler has proposed that a mindfulness of our common human bodily vulnerability could be the basis for establishing a wider sense of community with the rest of the people in the world. We all can be injured, lose our lives; we all know what it is to lose someone. “Loss has made a tenuous ‘we’ of us all” (2003, p.10). The experience of mourning puts us in touch with the intensity of our connections to other people: “grief displays…the thrall in which our relations with others holds us” (p.13). Listen here to how deeply Butler thinks into the way in which “I” am formed by “you” is revealed through the process of grieving: when we mourn someone, she writes,

Something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are. . . . It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. . . . Who “am” I, without you? When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well. At another level, perhaps what I have lost “in” you, that for which I have no ready vocabulary, is a relationality that is neither merely myself nor you, but the tie by which those terms are differentiated and related. (p.12)

I wonder how broadly these ideas may extend. Are we affected in some way by the loss of people we’ve never known, but whose deaths we bear some responsibility for? Does the loss leave any trace in us? And even if we cannot locate the trace, does that mean that none exists? Might we unknowingly be haunted by such deaths, which we know of only in general, not in their particularity? How much of our personal and collective melancholy can be laid at the feet of our refused mourning of these losses, of which we cannot help but be aware, however peripherally?

In fact, when not denied or taken to be the exclusive prerogative of the group of which one is a member, grief can be a powerful resource for politics. Consider, for example, the Parents Circle, a group of Palestinian and Israeli parents whose children have been killed in the conflict between their peoples. In recognizing each other’s grief, these parents function as a bereavement support group as well as political advocates for peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Those who wage wars implicitly understand the incompatibility of mourning and belligerence. They know how grief can put  a brake on violence, and  therefore act in various ways to stanch it. Thus, ten days after the September 11 attacks George Bush declared that the time for grieving was over and now it was time for decisive action. The bombing of Afghanistan began less than three weeks later. Once the war was under way a blackout was imposed on the depiction of images of American soldiers’ coffins in order to keep “our” losses out of public consciousness; even less was said or shown of Afghan civilian deaths. (The deaths  of Taliban and other Afghan combatants were of course re- ported as occasions for jubilation, as if these people  were not members of families andcommunities who  would suffer from their loss, in effect banishing them from the realm of the human.) The government, with the acquiescence of a compliant mainstream media, brought the same strategies to bear when it launched the Iraq War a year and a half later.

At intervals during the first years of the Iraq War, the New York Times published articles along the lines of “How Many Casualties Will Americans  Tolerate?” Opinions  varied, but questioner and questioned alike always assumed the question applied exclusively to American casualties, the  tolerability of Iraqi casualties apparently presumed to be limitless. As the wars dragged on and antiwar sentiment grew, one saw letters to the editor bemoaning “the loss of blood and treasure” to  the war effort, once  again with “blood” implicitly if not  explicitly taken  to  refer to American  blood. One had to read the leftwing press to see references to the Afghans and Iraqis we were killing as lives that might matter to anyone. I should note here the uncertain relationship between the representation  of the victims of war and the mobilization of efforts to stop those wars. The display of the images of victims does not necessarily move people to rise up to try to stay the hand of the ag- gressor, even  when  that  aggressor is their own government and thus within their power to influence. (As I’ve been describing, however, since the Vietnam War the American government  through its aggressive efforts at censorship  hasn’t been taking any chances.) Over the course of her career Susan Sontag gave a great deal of thought to the impact of war photographs on our emotional and political responsiveness, to how we “regard the pain of others” depicted  therein. In “On Photography,” Sontag expressed her frustration with war photography for its ability to excite outrage without providing a way to channel that outrage into political action. Exposure to such images could, perhaps, just as easily lead to numbness or dissociation as to protest. In her later writing, still uncertain about the question of the relationship to political action, Sontag nevertheless declared “Let the atrocious images haunt us” (quoted in Butler, 2009, p.96). One thing is certain: with the repression of such images, we are already being prepared for the next war, with its unnamed, uncounted, and unseen victims.

The  promulgation  of the  myth  of the war hero  is another  method  by which  war makers attempt to foreclose mourning and whatever political effects might follow from it. Sue Grand (2010) has observed that the myth of the  hero “never converses with  loss and grief ” (p.57). Presented with stories of heroes, we are “blind(ed)…to the ordinary body” (Grand, 2010, p.58) in all its vulnerability and invited to soak in the triumphalism of grand accomplishments  and  national  pride. When such stories are not readily at hand, they can be invented. Jessica Lynch was an American soldier who in the first days of the Iraq War allegedly fought bravely against Iraqis who had ambushed her. She was reportedly mistreated at an Iraqi hospital before being rescued by US Special Operations  Forces. This account became the stuff of newsmagazine cover sto- ries and TV movies until it emerged that the story had been made up. Lynch never fired a shot after her truck was ambushed, and was well cared for by Iraqi medical personnel, one of whom even sang to her to make her feel at home. Years later, testifying before a congressional committee, she expressed her confusion and resentment  of the Pentagon for portraying her as a “Rambo from the hills of West Virginia.” After he was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, Pat Tillman, who had foregone a profes- sional football career to serve in the US Army, was honored as a war hero in a nationally televised memorial service after reportedly having been killed in a firefight with the Taliban. It later emerged that the Army had known all along that friendly fire had killed him.

We have a lot in the culture to work against here, challenging the cult of the war hero while also working  to  elevate  those killed in our wars to what Butler refers to as grievable lives. Psychoanalysis at its best is a practice that promotes mental freedom, and in that spirit I invite us to imagine the nearly unimaginable, that we could be made to con- sider the lives of the victims of our wars in all their humanity and particularity. What would it be like if the Times printed capsule memorials  (of the type they ran of the victims of the September 11 attacks, with photographs and personal details) for the Afghan and Iraqi victims of the US wars, and, for that matter, for the American soldiers who died in these wars? What if these lives were to be memorialized in the manner  that the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt did for people who died of AIDS, each life represented by an individual panel that evoked these lives in a lovingly personalized way, each panel assembled into a quilt that traveled the country and the world for display? What  if, as Sebastian Junger has proposed, a memorial were built to allow American veterans to honor the civilian deaths they caused?

Grief, yes, and protest too: ties are rele- vant here as well. In a trenchant piece he wrote for the New Yorker, “Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” Malcolm Gladwell (2010) argues that activism that aims to have an impact on deeply rooted social problems requires taking risks—of social censure, of mock- ery, of arrest, of bodily harm—and that  this in turn requires strong  ties between  people, the kind that can only develop over time and through  face-to-face encounters. The  “weak tie” connections  made possible through the Internet  may be useful for networking  and providing access to information, but in order to maintain the discipline, develop the strate- gies, and persevere in the face of the dangers entailed in the effort to confront socially entrenched norms and practices, people need to feel strongly bonded to each other.

Such  was  certainly  the  case  for  Brian Willson, a Vietnam War veteran who in the 1980s fought against American military inter- ventions in Central America. He and a group of activists attended  the Congressional hearings on approving funding for the Nicaraguan contras held in 1986. Infuriated by Congress’s approval of  the  funds,  he  and  these  men and women  held a fast on the  steps of the Capitol for a month  and a half. “We wanted to be proxies for all those people in Central America who couldn’t be there, who were go- ing to be dying because of United States policies” (1992, p.59), he wrote later. “We wanted to share our anguish with other people in the United States. We wanted them to feel some- thing” (pp.59–60). The  next year they organized a veteran’s peace brigade, walking along a road over a period  of weeks through the Nicaraguan countryside, exposing themselves to the same dangers from land mine explosions and potential ambushes by the contras to which ordinary Nicaraguans were subject.

The bonds forged among Willson and his fellow activists through  their shared struggle were crucial for creating the emotional context for their next campaign. On Sept. 1, 1987, Willson and two of his comrades placed their bodies in the path of a train carrying arms to Central America from the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California. Though Willson had informed the authorities of their intended actions in advance, the train accelerated as it approached the men. The two others jumped out of the way of the train in time to escape with only minor  injuries. Willson was hit by the train and lost both of his legs.

It would be easy to dismiss Willson’s act of civil disobedience as quixotic, even crazy. But I think we should honor it, as an example of what people become capable of when joined in struggle with other human  beings. As Sue Grand eloquently  puts it, “Courage is not  an essence, it is a relational process” (2010, p.17). I think we should also be clear that it is only through such courageous acts, multiplied many times, performed by many individuals, that it becomes possible to hold off the powerful forces that are determined to make war. Three people on the tracks were not enough  to stop  the  train that  day. But what if it had been 30? 300? 3,000?

Furthermore,  Willson offers an instructive example of how one takes a position in opposition, motivated by anger, without losing touch with the humanity of those one opposes. In this he embodies a particular dialectic between paranoid-schizoid  and depressive positions (Altman, 1997) we would do well to study further. His experience also suggests that while anger may be important  in instigating protest, in order to sustain protest one must come to love and care about one’s comrades.

In speaking to you today about what psychoanalysis has to contribute to the prevention of war, I hope to have made at least two things clear. In order  to be useful, our psychoanalytic ideas have to be placed within a framework  of how power operates in the world. For our purposes as Americans, this largely means the power of the U.S. government, the only entity we as Americans realistically have much ability to influence. Second, if we’re serious about the effort, we can’t afford to approach the matter in an abstract mode of philosophical speculation. And in our current auspicious moment, there’s no need to approach it in such a manner. For the first time in the lifetimes of many of us, there’s a vibrant movement on the ground that aims to change the priorities of the system we live under, including the priority given to the production, export, and direct use of weapons in war as a basis for both  the domestic economy  and foreign policy. One popular chant at Occupy Wall Street protests in the fall of 2011 went, “How do we end the deficit? Stop the wars! Tax the rich!” As the occupiers and many others seem to be increasingly aware, the success of our efforts to achieve the goal of preventing war may depend on the strength of the ties we can form in the process of fighting for it.

About the author

Steven Botticelli, PhD, is on the faculty at the NYU Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, and a contributing editor for Studies in Gender and Sexuality.


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