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A Psychological Defense Against Suffering and Feelings of Powerlessness

War and Dissociation

by SUSAN ROSENTHAL, MD

When Tina Turner sang, "Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken," we all knew what she meant. In a world filled with pain, nature provides a defence against suffering called dissociation.

Experiences that are too horrible to be integrated into our understanding of the world are split off from conscious awareness. Dissociation provides a mental escape when there is no physical escape.

Dissociation separates contradictory experiences to avoid internal conflict, making it possible to love our own children and support wars that kill other people’s children; to want freedom and support wars that deny others their freedom. To feel outrage at being robbed and support wars that rob the people of other lands.

Dissociation mentally disconnects us from intolerable experiences. When thinking brings pain, dissociation helps people to move through life without thinking; we shut out the world or imagine it to be much safer than it really is. By numbing fear, anger and pain, dissociation creates a false sense of safety, reducing our motivation to remove the dangers that threaten us.

Severe dissociation numbs compassion and empathy, making it possible for people to do cruel and monstrous things that they would never do in a non-dissociated state.

An unthinkable war

The barbarism of the Iraq war is creating mass dissociation in Iraq and America. Iraqis are going out of their minds with suffering. So are their tormentors, the American soldiers who are themselves tormented by what they have seen and done.

Ordinary Americans must also dissociate in order to live "normal" lives while a horrific war looms menacingly in the background. Such dissociation provides temporary comfort, while allowing the war to continue.

The media encourage mass dissociation, presenting sanitized coverage of the war and sedating commentary that drips with lies. "Doublespeak" promotes dissociation to make the unacceptable acceptable. Invasion is defense; civilian deaths are collateral damage; a freedom fighter is a terrorist working for us; and a terrorist is a freedom fighter working for them.

Politicians revel in doublespeak. On Independence Day, President Bush equated the U.S. war to dominate Iraq with America’s fight against British domination. Such upside-down distortions encourage people to dissociate from the fact that their government is conducting mass murder in their name.

Dissociation in the face of terrible injustice is mistakenly perceived as a lack of caring instead of what it really is: a psychological defense against feeling powerless.

Polls consistently show that Americans are very concerned about the war, and most want it to end. Yet, they see no way forward. The Democrats consistently betray the anti-war movement, and liberal leaders of the social movements tail the Democrats. The recent vote to bring most American combat troops home next April is just another sham.

All troops must come home now, combat and occupation forces, because Iraq belongs to the Iraqis. Delaying the pullout only compounds the misery and provides politicians with enough time to change their minds.

While the powers-that-be promote war as necessary for peace, prosperity and security, peace never comes, only the wealthy prosper and life becomes increasingly insecure. The ordinary American, the American soldier and the people they are supposed to hate, all are victimized by the rich and powerful who feed off their suffering.

Americans don’t need to care more about the war. They need an uncompromising anti-war movement that can organize them into a force powerful enough to end it.

Dr. Susan Rosenthal has been practicing medicine for more than 30 years and has written many articles on the relationship between health and human relationships. She is also the author of Striking Flint: Genora (Johnson) Dollinger Remembers the 1936-1937 General Motors Sit-Down Strike (1996) and Market Madness and Mental Illness: The Crisis in Mental Health Care (1999) and Power and Powerlessness. She is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. She can be reached through her web site www.powerandpowerlessnes.com or by author@powerandpowerlessness.com