Last month I had the opportunity to share some thoughts at a Divest Philly from the War Machine event, hosted by Wooden Shoe Books and sponsored by World Beyond War, Code Pink, Veterans for Peace, and other anti-war groups. Below are my remarks, slightly edited for clarity. My thanks to everyone involved.
In late May, Vice President Mike Pence was the commencement speaker at West Point. In part, he told the graduating cadets this: “It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life. You will lead soldiers in combat. It will happen…And when that day comes, I know you will move to the sound of the guns and do your duty, and you will fight, and you will win. The American people expect nothing less.”
What Pence didn’t mention that day is why he could be so sure that this will come to pass. Or who the primary beneficiaries will be, if or when it does. Because the winners won’t be the American people, who see their taxes go to missiles instead of healthcare and education. Nor will they be the soldiers themselves—some of whom will return in flag-draped caskets while many more sustain life-altering physical and psychological injuries. The winners also won’t be the citizens of other countries who experience death and displacement on a horrific scale from our awesome military might. And our planet’s now-fragile climate won’t come out on top either, since the Pentagon is the single largest oil consumer in the world.
No, the spoils will go to our massive and multifaceted war machine. The war machine is comprised of companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Raytheon, among others, that make billions of dollars each year from war, war preparations, and arms sales. In fact, the U.S. government pays Lockheed alone more each year than it provides in funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department, and the Interior Department combined. The war machine also includes the CEOs of these defense contractors, who personally take in tens of millions of dollars annually, and the many politicians in Washington who help secure their jobs by collectively accepting millions of dollars in contributions from the defense industry—roughly evenly split between both major parties. And let’s not forget the retired politicians and retired military officers, who travel the pot-of-gold pipeline to become highly paid board members and spokespersons for these same companies.
Vice-President Pence also didn’t mention to the cadets that the U.S. military budget today exceeds that of the next seven largest countries combined—an enthusiastic display of Congressional bipartisanship at its very worst. Nor did he note that we’re the largest international seller of major weapons in the world, with ongoing efforts to promote even bigger markets for U.S. arms companies in countries run by ruthless, repressive autocrats. That’s how it came to pass last August, for example, that Saudi Arabia used an expensive Lockheed laser-guided bomb to blow up a bus in Yemen, killing 40 young boys who were on a school trip.
Given these realities, I’d like to offer my perspective—as a psychologist—on a question that has never really been more timely: How is it that the war profiteers, card-carrying members of the so-called 1%, continue to thrive despite all the harm and misery they cause for so many? We know that the 1%—the self-interested very rich and powerful—set the priorities of many of our elected officials. We also know that they exert considerable influence over the mainstream media regarding which narratives are promoted and which are obscured. But in my own work, what’s most important—and what too often goes unrecognized—are the propaganda strategies they use to prevent us from realizing what’s gone wrong, who’s to blame, and how we can make things better. And nowhere is this more apparent or more consequential than when it comes to the one-percenters who run our war machine.
My research shows that their manipulative messages—what I call “mind games”—target five concerns that dominate our daily lives: namely, issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. These are the psychological templates we use to make sense of the world around us. Each is associated with a key question we ask ourselves regularly: Are we safe? Are we being treated fairly? Who should we trust? Are we good enough? And, can we control what happens to us? And it’s no coincidence that each is also linked to a powerful emotion that can be hard to control: fear, anger, suspicion, pride, and despair, respectively.
War profiteers prey on these five concerns with two simple goals in mind. First, they aim to create and maintain an American public that either embraces or at least accepts an endless war mentality. And second, they use these mind games to marginalize and disempower anti-war voices. For each of these five concerns, I’d like to provide two examples of the mind games I’m talking about, and then discuss how we can counter them.
Let’s start with vulnerability. Whether as quickly passing thoughts or haunting worries, we tend to wonder if the people we care about are in harm’s way, and if there might be danger on the horizon. Right or wrong, our judgments on these matters go a long way in determining the choices we make and the actions we take. Our focus on vulnerability isn’t surprising. It’s only when we think we’re safe that we comfortably turn our attention to other things. Unfortunately, however, we’re not very good at assessing risks or the effectiveness of potential responses to them. That’s why psychological appeals targeting these vulnerability concerns are a core element of the war machine’s propaganda arsenal.
“It’s A Dangerous World” is one vulnerability mind game that war profiteers regularly use to build public support for their greed-driven activities. They argue that their actions are necessary in order to keep everyone safe from ominous threats. They exaggerate or entirely fabricate these dangers—whether they’re talking about dominoes falling to the Red Menace in Southeast Asia, or the Axis of Evil and mushroom clouds over U.S. cities, or anti-war protestors purportedly posing a threat to our national security. They know that we’re soft targets for such psychological tactics because, in our desire to avoid being unprepared when danger strikes, we’re quick to imagine catastrophic outcomes no matter how unlikely they may be. That’s why we can be easy prey when they urge us to fall in line, comply with their instructions, and perhaps relinquish our civil rights as well.
At the same time, war machine representatives often turn to a second vulnerability mind game—“Change Is Dangerous”—when they’re trying to marginalize their critics. Here, when a proposed reform would hamper their ambitions, they mislead us by insisting that these changes will place everyone in greater jeopardy—whether the proposal is about reducing our staggering 800 overseas military bases; or withdrawing troops from Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq; or cutting our enormous defense budget. This mind game often works because of what psychologists call “status quo bias.” That is, we generally prefer to keep things the way they are—even if they’re not particularly good—rather than face the uncertainty of less familiar options, even if those other alternatives are exactly what’s needed to make the world a safer place. But, of course, our welfare is not the most pressing issue as far as the war profiteers are concerned.
Let’s turn now to injustice, the second core concern. Cases of real or perceived mistreatment frequently stir anger and resentment, as well as an urge to right wrongs and bring accountability to those who are responsible. That can all be very good. But our perceptions about what’s just and what’s not are imperfect. This makes us potential easy targets for manipulation by those who have a selfish interest in shaping our views of right and wrong to their advantage—and it’s exactly what representatives of the war machine work hard to do.
For example, “We’re Fighting Injustice” is one of the war profiteers’ favorite injustice mind games for generating public support for endless wars. Here, they insist that their actions reflect an abiding commitment to combating wrongdoing—whether they’re falsely arguing that Iran has engaged in unprovoked hostility; or that Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, who exposed U.S. war crimes, deserve punishment for treason; or that government surveillance and disruption of anti-war groups are necessary responses to purported unlawful activity. This mind game is designed to misappropriate and misdirect our sense of outrage over injustice. It takes advantage of our psychological tendency to believe that the world is just, and to therefore assume that those who have obtained positions of power are fair-minded rather than driven by craven self-interest—even though their actions so often harm rather than help the prospects for peace.
Simultaneously, “We’re the Victims” is a second injustice mind game, and it’s used to marginalize critics. When their policies or actions are condemned, representatives of the war machine brazenly complain of being mistreated themselves. So, for example, the Pentagon expressed outrage that the Abu Ghraib torture photos were disseminated without its permission; the White House blusters that the International Criminal Court has a vendetta against innocent American soldiers, or so they say; and bomb-making companies gripe that they shouldn’t be criticized for selling weapons to overseas dictators since our government has authorized the sales—as if that somehow makes it the right thing to do. Claims like these are designed to encourage uncertainty and disagreement among the public over issues of right and wrong, and victim and perpetrator. When this turning of the tables is successful, our concern is directed away from those who actually suffer from our endless wars.
Let’s move to our third core concern, distrust. We tend to divide the world into those we find trustworthy and those we don’t. Where we draw that line matters a lot. When we get it right, we avoid harm from those who have hostile intentions, and we’re able to enjoy the rewards of collaborative relationships. But we often make these judgments with only limited information of uncertain reliability. As a result, our conclusions about the trustworthiness of particular people, groups, and sources of information are frequently flawed and problematic, especially when others with ulterior motives—warmongers immediately come to mind—have influenced our thinking.
For instance, “They’re Different from Us” is one distrust mind game that war profiteers rely on when trying to win over the public’s support. They use it to encourage our suspicions of other groups by arguing that they don’t share our values, our priorities, or our principles. We see this regularly, including in the highly lucrative business of promoting Islamophobia, and also when other nations are repeatedly characterized as primitive and barbaric. This mind game works because, psychologically, when we don’t perceive someone as part of our ingroup, we tend to view them as less trustworthy, we hold them in lower regard, and we’re less willing to share scarce resources with them. So, convincing the American public that a group is truly different or deviant is a significant step toward diminishing our concern for their welfare.
At the same time, representatives of the war machine turn to a second distrust appeal—the “They’re Misguided and Misinformed” mind game—to smear anti-war opponents. They spur distrust toward these critics by arguing that they lack sufficient knowledge, or suffer from unrecognized biases, or are the victims of others’ intentional misinformation—and that, as a result, their dissenting views are unworthy of serious consideration. So, for example, the war profiteers disparage and try to discredit anti-war groups like World Beyond War, Code Pink, and Veterans for Peace with demonstrably false claims that the activists don’t understand the real causes of the problems they seek to fix, and that their proposed remedies will only make matters worse for everyone. In fact, the actual evidence rarely supports the positions of endless war enthusiasts. When this mind game is successful, the public disregards important voices of dissent. And when that happens, crucial opportunities for tackling out-of-control militarism and advancing the common good are lost.
Turning now to the fourth core concern, superiority, we’re quick to compare ourselves to others, often in an effort to demonstrate that we’re worthy of respect. Sometimes this desire is even stronger: we want confirmation that we’re better in some important way—perhaps in our accomplishments, or in our values, or in our contributions to society. But in these efforts to bolster our own positive self-appraisals, we’re sometimes encouraged to perceive and portray others in as negative a light as possible, even to the point of dehumanizing them. And since the judgments we make about our own worth—and the qualities of others—are often quite subjective, these impressions are also susceptible to manipulation by the war machine.
For example, the “Pursuing A Higher Purpose” mind game is one way that war profiteers appeal to superiority in order to build public support for endless war. Here, they present their actions as an affirmation of American exceptionalism, insisting that their policies have deep moral underpinnings and reflect the cherished principles that lift this country above others—even when what they’re defending is the pardoning of war criminals; or the torturing of terrorism suspects; or the internment of Japanese-Americans; or the violent overthrow of elected leaders in other countries, to name just a few instances. When this mind game succeeds, contrary indicators—of which there are a lot—are disingenuously explained away as the mere, small imperfections that always come with the pursuit of collective greatness. Too often, the public is fooled when greed is disguised in ways that tap into our sense of pride in our country’s accomplishments and its influence in the world.
Representatives of the war machine simultaneously aim to marginalize their critics with a second superiority appeal: the “They’re Un-American” mind game. Here, they portray those who oppose them as disgruntled and unappreciative of the United States and the values and traditions that “real Americans” hold dear. In doing so, they take particular advantage of the public’s entrenched respect and deference toward all things military. In this way, they prey on the allure of what psychologists call “blind patriotism.” This ideological stance involves the staunch conviction that one’s country is never wrong in its actions or policies, that allegiance to the country must be unquestioning and absolute, and that criticism of the country cannot be tolerated. When this mind game is successful, anti-war forces are further isolated and dissent is ignored or suppressed.
Finally, in regard to our fifth core concern, real or perceived helplessness can sink any undertaking. That’s because believing we can’t control important outcomes in our lives leads to resignation, which wrecks our motivation to work toward valuable personal or collective objectives. Social change efforts are severely hampered when people feel that working together won’t improve their circumstances. The belief that adversity can’t be overcome is something we fight hard to resist. But if we reach that demoralizing conclusion anyway, its effects can be paralyzing and difficult to reverse, and warmongers use this to their advantage.
For instance, the “We’ll All Be Helpless” mind game is one way that war profiteers appeal to helplessness in order to win over to the public’s support. They warn us that if we fail to follow their guidance on purported national security matters, the result will be dire circumstances from which the country may be unable to ever escape. In short, we’ll be much worse off, and without the capacity to undo the damage. The threat that so upsets advocates of endless war may be a proposal to restrict domestic surveillance; or an effort to intensify diplomatic overtures rather than military interventions; or a plan to place limits on runaway Pentagon spending; or calls to reduce our nuclear arsenal—all reasonable paths to protecting human rights and encouraging peace. Unfortunately, prospects of future helplessness are often frightening enough that even deeply flawed arguments against worthwhile recommendations can seem persuasive to an apprehensive public.
At the same time, the war machine works to disempower its critics with a second helplessness appeal: the “Resistance Is Futile” mind game. The message here is simple. We’re in charge and that’s not going to change. Innumerable lobbyists, high-tech displays of “shock and awe” weaponry, and not-so-subtle carrots and sticks with our elected officials are used to create an aura of invincibility against anti-war efforts that aim to moderate the military-industrial complex’s outsized footprints and profits. They work to demoralize, sideline, ostracize, threaten, and intimidate those who seek to restrain them. This ploy works if we’re convinced that we can’t succeed against the war profiteers, because then our change efforts quickly grind to a halt or never get off the ground.
There are many others, but what I’ve described are ten important examples of the mind games that war profiteers have used and will use to pursue their aims. Because these appeals often have the ring of truth even though they’re as flimsy as a conman’s promises, combating them can be daunting. But we shouldn’t be discouraged. Scientific research on the psychology of persuasion offers a guide to how we can hold firm against the war machine’s self-serving propaganda.
One key is what psychologists call “attitude inoculation.” The basic idea comes from the familiar public health approach used to prevent contracting and spreading a dangerous virus. Consider the flu vaccine. When you get a flu shot, you’re receiving a modest dose of the actual influenza virus. Your body responds by building up antibodies, which will prove essential in fighting off the full-blown virus if it later attacks as you go about your daily life. A flu shot doesn’t always work, but it improves your odds of staying healthy. That’s why we’re encouraged to get one each year before the flu season begins.
Consider, then, that the war profiteers’ mind games are similarly like a virus, one that can “infect” us with false and destructive beliefs. Here too, inoculation is the best defense. Having been warned that this “virus” is heading our way—spread by the enormous megaphones of the military-industrial complex—we can become vigilant and prepare ourselves for the onslaught by learning to recognize these mind games and by building and practicing counterarguments to them.
For example, contrary to the claims of warmongers, the use of military force often makes us more vulnerable, not less: by multiplying our enemies, placing our soldiers in harm’s way, and distracting us from other pressing needs. Likewise, military action can be a profound injustice in its own right—because it kills, maims, and displaces untold numbers of innocent people, with many becoming refugees, and because it drains resources from critical domestic programs. So too, distrust of a potential adversary is hardly sufficient grounds for military assault, especially when opportunities for diplomacy and negotiation are prematurely pushed aside. And when it comes to superiority, unilateral aggression certainly doesn’t represent the best of our values, and it often diminishes our image and influence in the world beyond our borders. Finally, there’s a proud history of non-violent civil resistance, with successes large and small, and it shows us that the people—educated, organized and mobilized—are far from helpless against even unbridled and abusive power.
Counterarguments of this sort—and there are many—are the “antibodies” that we need when we’re faced with all-out mind game assaults from the war machine and its supporters. Just as importantly, once we’ve inoculated ourselves against them, we’re able to become “first responders” by actively participating in the crucial discussions and debates that are necessary to persuade others that it would be worth their while to try looking at the world differently from the way the war profiteers want us all to see it. In these conversations, it’s especially important for us to emphasize why representatives of the war machine want us to cling to certain beliefs, and how they are the ones who benefit when we do. In general, when we encourage skepticism and critical thinking in this way, it makes us less susceptible to misinformation from those looking to take advantage of us for their own selfish purposes.
I’ll conclude by briefly quoting two very different people. First, returning to West Point, there’s this from a cadet who graduated over a hundred years ago: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” That was retired General Dwight Eisenhower, shortly after being elected President in 1952. And second, the late anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan reportedly gave the shortest high school graduation speech ever in New York City. All he said was this: “Know where you stand, and stand there.” Let’s do that together. Thank you.