As the bellicose war of words between the United States and Iran continues, it is useful to reflect on the influence of psychological factors on war. In this light, a return to the classic literature is pertinent.
In 1895, Gustave Le Bon, a French social psychologist, published a seminal book on the psychology of crowds, “La psychologie des foules.” He probably never imagined that it would become a classic in its genre, and a basic source for Sigmund Freud when dealing with the same subject. Le Bon´s ideas, which are pertinent even today, were later further elaborated by other authors and put to use in other tragic historical events, as happened in Germany with the Nazis.
Although Le Bon wrote mainly about the psychology of crowds, his ideas can also be applied to populations. Even though both are different entities, they share some common characteristics. Crowds are transitory and tend to gather because they are homogeneous in their ideas about a specific subject or event. Populations are groups of people with different ways of thinking, living in a place geographically defined but who, like crowds, can be swayed by mass media or by a leader acting through it.
In his analysis of Le Bon´s work, Sigmund Freud wrote, “A crowd is trusting and easily influenced; it is non-critical. The concept of improbability doesn´t exist…Whoever wants to influence it doesn´t need to present logical arguments. It is only necessary to paint the most alluring images, to exaggerate and to repeat the same concept several times.”
According to Le Bon, crowds are subject to the magical power of words, which can provoke the most serious storms in the soul of its members, or can also contribute to calming them down. In this regard, what greater insult can be used against a country than to call it part of an “axis of evil”?
As is now widely known, the Iraq war was conducted on false premises, something that became increasingly evident with time. However, as Le Bon pointed out, “Crowds are never thirsty for truth. They demand illusions, to which they are unable to renounce. Irreality prevails over reality, irreality acting almost as strongly as reality. The visible tendency of the crowd is not to make any difference between them.”
The Bush administration used the concept of eliminating a tyrant and bringing democracy to Iraq with great effectiveness. The Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein, was eliminated. But Iraq is still in chaos, corruption is rampant and the nefarious effects of the war led by the U.S. on Iraqi children, on that country’s education and health systems, and on its democracy continue to be felt.
Both crowds and populations are subject to the influence of their leaders´ ideas and beliefs. Through his actions and his words, a democratic leader can bring peace to a country, and to the world. When a leader is misguided, a terrible war can be his most devastating legacy.