To the Death: George Bush and the Addiction to War

"People may suffer stoically for a while, but sooner or later the ruler's relationship with heaven is exposed as a delusion or a lie."
-- Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress

By Mark Leith | 2006-01-01 12:00:00

It was a moment choreographed for spectacle, one that has been replayed countless times throughout history. Although the props were larger and more magnificent, the message was the same: We are the victors and we have won. But grown larger as well were the accompanying lies that say we went to war only with great reluctance; that it was our solemn duty to vanquish the evil other; that we are not in love with war. All addictions require lies.

George W. Bush, casting himself as buoyant conquering hero, stands before the flapping banner "Mission Accomplished." The slogan, drawn from a television program, implies a murderous, modern efficiency. Yet the scene could have occurred thousands of years ago, with Bush holding aloft the dripping severed head of Saddam Hussein to a jubilant and raucous crowd.

Most of recorded history is about men killing other men. What does it matter if the battle was 1884 or 1885? If the army attacked from the east or the west? If the heavy artillery was fully deployed or not? Who won and who lost? What have we learned from all this beyond keeping score?

Males remain enthralled by war, weapons, and killing. It is boys' play and men's entertainment. It is the morning story and the evening news. It is the marching band and jetfighters flying overhead. It is the full court press and the power play. It is heroes and villains. It is being one of the boys and getting the girl. It is the awe of weaponry and the beauty of destruction. While we decry its horror, we just can't get enough of war.

The Self-Destructing Brain

The human brain contains its own evolutionary history. It exists solely for its own survival. But it is an organ at odds with itself. Its attempt to survive may also be its undoing.

At its base, our rudimentary, reptilian brainstem keeps our hearts beating and our lungs breathing. On top, our cortex, amongst many other things, receives and processes new information. But the real action is in between these two layers in the midbrain. It is here our emotions and pre-programmed instincts reside. It is here our ravenous appetites for survival drive our behavior.

We are born hungry, looking for our next meal. The cord is cut and we are placed to our mother's breast. So it goes - blood, milk, money. From the dictates of survival, nothing must be allowed to interrupt these thirsts.

Freud labelled two instincts, Eros and Thanatos, one of affiliation, the other of destruction. All human motivation can be reduced to two precepts - connection and competition. Both exist in the service of survival. But in the nuclear age, the latter has turned on itself. Destruction of the other has become destruction of the self: Thanatos. Competition as expressed in war has been rendered absurd. But our appetites won't relent. The midbrain wants what the midbrain wants.

Young George

What is remarkable about the upbringing of George W. Bush is how unremarkable it was. Like all of us, he is a product of his family, his time, and his nature. Born to an elite wanting to preserve its advantage, he is one more prince who became king and wants to rule the world.

Bush was born to a family with one foot in the British Empire and the other in the Wild West. His Episcopalian pedigree traces back to Mother England but he was raised in the Texas badlands where his blue-blooded Connecticut father had left New England to strike it rich with Texas oil. Imprinted on him were both the ambitions of empire and the recklessness of the frontier.

The family, however, was struck by tragedy. When George was seven his younger sister Robin, aged three, was diagnosed with leukemia. As the eldest son whose father was away so frequently on business, an impossible responsibility fell on George. He had to curb his boisterous, bullying nature and "be strong" for his mother. Robin's illness lasted a year before her death. But grief remained largely unspoken in a family that prides itself on action as opposed to feelings and words. George's mother, Barbara, found comfort in the birth of another daughter, Doro, four and a half years later.

For George, the unarticulated sorrow and anger about the burden and restrictions imposed by Robin's illness and death remained unexpressed until a lost drunken week much later in his life.

I'd Love to Turn You On

The meso-limbic dopaminergic pathway in the mid-brain is the brain's self-reinforcement system. The brain experiences the release of dopamine from stimulation of these nerves as exciting and pleasurable and is therefore driven to direct our behavior in ways that maximize the firing of these cells. These behaviors include sexual pursuit and aggression. Connection and competition. Eros and Thanatos. Sex and violence. Love and Death.

Thus the brain has evolved to reinforce behaviors that have allowed it to survive with the sensation of pleasure. That is, survival behavior has led to pleasure and pleasure has maintained survival behavior. Until now. The brain has also learned to trick itself. One way is through substances that when ingested, act directly upon the meso-limbic nerves to release dopamine and create the experience of pleasure - drugs. The other is war.

The Making of a War President

George attended Yale in Connecticut, the state where his paternal grandfather had been a US senator. There he belonged to a fraternity and the singular and secretive Skull and Bones Society. Both traded in oaths and initiation rites, although the latter aimed at separating the true elite from the merely privileged. George took his turn applying the hot branding iron to the backs of the new pledges for Delta Kappa Epsilon. When a Yale student objected to this practice in an article in the Yale Daily News, Bush expressed amazement and added that at colleges in Texas a cattle branding prod was used. Year's later, members of his administration would dismiss evidence of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as no more than college fraternity pranks.

It was also at Yale that George began his career as a heavy drinking "partier." Bush's pattern of drinking continued well beyond the boisterous days of what he has called his "young and irresponsible" phase. The drinking continued through the ups and downs of his adult business and political career. It culminated in a one-week bender following the diagnosis of leukemia in his closest friend and drinking buddy Jimmy Allison -- the same illness that had claimed his sister Robin. Bush, however, has never been one to reflect on himself and the underlying motives behind his drinking. He has been quoted as stating, with some pride, "I work hard and play hard. I'm not very good at psychoanalyzing myself but I've learned to fly jet planes."

Billy Graham, confidant of presidents and icon of the American Christian Evangelical movement, is credited with getting Bush to stop drinking. With the increasing toll on his life and his marriage Bush decided to stop drinking and "recommit his life to Jesus Christ" the morning after a heavy drinking fortieth birthday party.

So Bush replaced one addiction with another. He replaced alcohol abuse with the fervor of religion. He would go on to combine it with the righteousness of war.

Primate Man

The Creationists are insulted by the idea that we are primates. But the evidence is there for all to see. In a police line-up with say a turtle, a zebra, and an ape, it's not hard to pick out our cousin. This illusion of exceptionalism, of being special, whether as a species or a group, is at the root of the denial and rationalizations of war.

Our closest cousin, the chimpanzee shares 99 percent of our DNA. Chimpanzees hunt in groups of males who attack and kill, not just prey but other chimps that intrude on their claimed territory. Like humans, they are instinctually male-dominated, with the submissive females attracted to the more aggressive males. Out of a related species our species, homo sapiens, evolved two million years ago. Thus our midbrains are pre-programmed for the same behavior, similarly shaped by natural selection.

Evolution has two facets - genetic and cultural. Genetic refers to the physical manifestations of the brain; cultural to the things it produces. The physical changes in the human brain plateaued around a quarter of a million years ago, whereas cultural evolution has grown exponentially. These developments have created a survival advantage.

Cultural evolution has led humans to live together in increasingly large, more complex societies. It has also led to the hypertrophy of man's most favorite tool, the weapon. Hypertrophy is a term coined by Edward O. Wilson, the eminent scientist and father of sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of social behavior. Hypertrophy refers to the exaggerated evolutionary growth of pre-existing structures, such as the lengthening of elephant teeth into enormous tusks or the sprouting of the cranial bones of the male elk into great, branching antlers. Human weapons have hypertrophied from found stones to nuclear bombs. Instead of offering survival advantage for some, they now threaten exactly the opposite for all. The concept of hypertrophy, like addiction, rests on the assumption that at times you can have too much of a good thing.

The Drumbeats of War

The drumbeats of war started shortly after the surreal plane crashes of 9/11. Although Bin Laden, at least at a tenuous distance, was connected to this crime, Saddam Hussein had for some time been the preferred villain. Unlike the elusive and romantic Bin Laden, Saddam offered the classic features of an evil other who lets us feel special about ourselves. For Bush, eight months into his rudderless first term presidency, this provocative rock through the American picture window was the perfect gift. He threw himself with vigor into his and mankind's ultimate addiction - war.

Drawing on themes of America's exceptional virtues and freedoms and with considerable aid from the jingoistic corporate media, Bush whipped up the frightened American populace to a fevered, battle-ready pitch. That the administration's facts were lies mattered little to the Fox News Channel or vengeance-seeking Americans.

Propaganda does not trade in rationality. The marketers of this war well understood, as did Goebbels, that it must appeal to the midbrain, not the cortex. Like the orgasm, it is intense but transient. Yesterday's friend is today's enemy. Yesterday's enemy is today's friend. Saddam Hussein and the Coalition of the Willing respectively prove this point. It creates in us an intoxicating and intense righteous indignation, at least for ten minutes. It is the dance moving to the climax. It is the rush as the drug hits the brain.

Bush loathes introspection and has refused to look at the unconscious sorrow, anger, and seeking of comfort and approval that drove his alcohol addiction. He is not one to admit to himself that he is a man of mediocre ability inheriting a legacy of great expectations. Rather, he presents himself as God's humble messenger to bring goodness to an evil world. This old pretension has given people permission to murder and destroy others for their own good. Religion, the original master of propaganda, has always preached out of both sides of its mouth, extolling both empathy and exceptionalism. Clergy exhort their congregants, on the one hand, to love their neighbors, and on the other, to honor only their own tribe.

The treatment of addiction starts, of necessity, by confronting denial, admitting that there is a problem in the first place. No other institutions perpetuate the assumptions of exceptionalism more than national armies and military alliances. Too sheepish in this modern age for the now antiquated term, Ministry of War, they are now euphemistically called the Department of Defence. But if no country has a Department of Offence, why do we all require a Department of Defence? The midbrain is such that, though there may not always be enough work for one army, there will always be plenty for two.

War and the related arms trade, like other addictions, squanders resources -- in this case one trillion dollars a year. Compounding each decade are catastrophic humanitarian and environmental problems. The world has become a street junky, living in squalor and shooting smack into its arm.

The recognition that mankind is addicted to war is essential for survival. It is necessary if we are to evolve further to the only sustainable level of social organization - a truly global society, one regulated by policing under due process of international law instead of the vigilantism of armies and alliances.

Required: International Law Enforcement

The last fifty years have been filled with interminable disarmament talks. They have failed to stem the tide of armaments, which are the drugs of war. They are not holding the beast at bay. If anything, this fragile edifice is unravelling, as exemplified by the recent fraying of the Anti-Ballistic Missile and Non-Proliferation Treaties. Disarmament cannot hold against the powerful competitive pulls of armies and alliances. We will not have a sustained reduction in arms until we develop a reliable system of international law enforcement.

In William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies, British schoolboys are stranded on an island while fleeing a warring world. The boys break into two factions. The more aggressive ones, who call themselves the Hunters, start to hunt and kill the other group. The boys fear that a monstrous beast lurks somewhere on the island who must be found and killed. Simon, one of the boys who will later die at the hands of the Hunters, disagrees. "Maybe it's only us," he says. He was right.

Mark Leith is a psychiatrist and activist in Toronto.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2006

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2006, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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