Why are Americans so uninterested in why the U.S. went to war in Iraq?  --  It may be, according to James Carroll, writing back in 2003, that Americans are self-deluded, in the grip of "primitive impulses" that are satisfied by war: "[S]omething powerful is moving below the surface of the American psyche.  Two things suggest themselves. We are lost in time. And we are lost in space. War helps to locate us in both."[1]  --  It may be, in other words, that there is something in the state of war that satisifies needs frustrated by the character of contemporary life, and that attaches us to it.  --  For more on James Carroll's ideas, see a recent interview with a man who is at once the son of a lieutenant-general who was the founding director of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, a former Catholic priest, and a veteran antiwar activist of the Vietnam era.  --  This piece also appears on pp. 202-04 of Carroll's book, Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War (Metropolitan Books, 2004)....

By James Carroll

Boston Globe
June 17, 2003


Now that Americans have begun facing the fact that, in the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the stated purpose of the war was false, a new question presents itself: Why, actually, did the United States go to war? And why, even now, do citizens of the United States apparently feel so little compunction about having waged war without justification?

A prominent U.S. senator and candidate for president can ask tough questions about the Bush administration's falsification of WMD intelligence data even while still affirming his own vote in favor of the war that data supposedly made necessary. What is going on here?

Many forms of human behavior can involve stated purposes and hidden purposes. When the former are debunked, attention necessarily shifts to the latter. Hidden motivations for war-making are well known and much discussed -- from Homer to Freud (See authors like Ernest Becker and Lawrence LeShan). War gives otherwise alienated human beings a sense of cohesion. War, by dividing reality into realms of good and evil, purges unconscious guilt and reinforces feelings of virtue. War offers redemption from the burdens of mundane existence. War justifies the creation of victims whose negation provides the thrill of victory, which is itself experienced as an opening to transcendence. And so on.

We post-Freudian Americans normally consider ourselves beyond such primitive impulses, which is why the United States prides itself on going to war only for good and solid reasons. But that is what makes the debate over the missing weapons of mass destruction salient. If the war can no longer be justified as an authentic act of ''prevention,'' why do Americans still feel fine about it? It does not take a psychoanalyst to see that something powerful is moving below the surface of the American psyche. Two things suggest themselves. We are lost in time. And we are lost in space. War helps to locate us in both.

Recall the overwhelming anxiety with which we watched the clock tick down to the mythic moment of Jan. 1, 2000. We anticipated unknown disasters even if we attached them to the ''rational'' problem of Y2K, a computer glitch that threatened everything from power grids to air traffic control. In hindsight, we can recognize that despite our sophistication, we were gripped by a millennial panic worthy of our ancestors of 1,000 years ago.

Apocalyptic fear consists in the expectation that the end of time has drawn near, and every creature conscious of the passage of time is vulnerable to it. (I am particularly instructed on apocalyptic time by Richard Fenn in the current Daedalus.) It is human, that is, to be mightily afraid of the end of time, and that mythic prospect worked on the American unconscious with Y2K. It was a threat we thought we had survived -- until 9/11. The millennial catastrophe -- complete with air traffic chaos -- came a little late, that's all. And as was true in Christendom at the last millennium, our unconscious response was to launch crusades. Millennial crusades aim to eliminate disorders that in other times human beings find ways to live with.

And so also space. It is well known that American market capitalism and information technologies are at the center of a new globalization, but these innovations have quietly obliterated traditional definitions of place. With instantaneous access to experience everywhere available not only through computers but now through cellphones, the boundary between here and there is no longer clear. This development is momentous because that boundary has served as the first marker in human consciousness, the primal source of identity and meaning. Persons become who they are -- members of family, tribe, people, nation -- by pacing out territory and discovering who shares it. But what is territory in the age of television? Migration, mass media, McWorld, the mall -- the very structures of contemporary life are sources of a literal displacement. Human beings across the world are left wondering, Where am I? But Americans, assuming a natural right to dominance, find an answer by staking a claim to the globe itself. The aim of our wars launched in uncertain time is to redefine uncertain space. America is the world. Every place is our place.

It does not matter, therefore, if Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction turn up. It does not matter if the Bush administration's prewar justifications were the result of intelligence ineptitude or outright lies. It does not matter whether the post-9/11 wars against Afghanistan and Iraq were related to the purposes offered. It does not matter, apparently, even if there are more dubiously justified American wars to come.

But it matters that we are thus a people in the grip of millennial, apocalyptic impulses that we are determined to deny. That we are so primitive makes us human. That we are so blind makes us dangerous.

--James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.