Here is a warning dream that describes what I mean. It was dreamed by Dr. Harry Wilmer, a Jungian psychiatrist well-known for his group psychotherapy with returning Viet Nam vets:
"I am trying to warn people that another war is coming and people are
laughing at me. I am in Dallas and we are going in a chopper to secure
a position. I am trying to warn people: 'Hey! There's a war fixing to happen!
You better take cover and get off the street!' But they were laughing and
scoffing and they wouldn't listen to me. I was trying to reason with the
people when the helicopters flew off and left me there. I woke up angry
because I couldn't get the people to understand what was really happening."
(See Anthony Stevens, The Roots of War, p. 195)
Wilmer had this dream before his death in 2005, so we might think, "Well, that has nothing to do with us today," but that is just the point. The dream is archetypal in nature. It defies time and belongs to the ages because war itself is timeless, shaping the contours of civilization through the centuries and painfully extending to this present moment when you and I witness in our living rooms, thousands of miles away, the atrocities of brutal aggression under the command of Russian militarists, as if playing infantile war games under the hand of a dictator who appears to be acting out a fantasy of revenge kindled by old grievances that festered a complex of inferiority.
We may look away in bewilderment as if this is not real, and at any moment there will be a humorous pause for a commercial break. But it is real. The civilians of Ukraine are themselves taking up arms to defend their homeland. They scatter to the streets as homes are being destroyed. The sick, the elderly, the children, the household pets—all are caught in a shocking trauma of bombs, rockets, airplanes, tanks, and squadrons of fully equipped troops trained to fight, search, and destroy for a cause that serves no rational purpose except to further the creeping tide of authoritarianism.
So why do I write this blog? We see the war as it unfolds, and like you in all likelihood, I am deeply distressed. But I cannot take up arms and go fight. I can make donations. But, in addition, I can reflect with you on the meaning of war, and this war in particular. After all, this is the purpose of my monthly blogs: to reflect upon current events through the perspective and lens of depth psychology, mythology, symbols, and theology.
And so we may ask, what is this propensity we have for war? Why does war fascinate us? Why do we shape our culture to play war games? Why is it that in recent years politicians have begun to pitch their campaigns by saying they will fight for us? Everybody is "fighting" for us or against us as the political dynamics ebb and flow. The politicians do not say, "I will work for you. I will support you." No, they will proclaim in their most solemn voice, "I will fight for you." Why do fighting and war fascinate us so?
Consider how social groups evolve. There is the "in group" and the "out group." There is the dominant group or person and the submissive person or group. There is the champion and the defeated, the winner and the loser, the conqueror and the fallen. Consider the biology of these dynamics. In sex play, it is S&M, or sadism and masochism, which suggests that fascination lies in the deepest erotic encounter of dominance and submission, where we see the titillation of war-like encounters between lovers. These binary arrangements set up our culture's obsession with the many games we enjoy.
I refer to these examples simply to describe the presence in social groupings where the hint of war exists. In my counseling and consultations with individuals, couples, and groups, I am often confronted with the challenge of sorting out the unconscious dynamics which lead to conflicts. The question I ask myself is whether or not there is a moral center. Without that moral center, the conflicts or "war games" escalate out of control.
And this question of a moral center, or its absence, is what appears to disturb people around the globe who witness the aggressive attacks by Russia on an undeserving country. Although attempts have been made to portray Ukraine and its government as evil, no shred of truth has been presented to substantiate that claim. In other words, the invasion itself is without a moral center, and there appears to be no rational source to which Ukraine and the world may appeal to stop the war.
And while we may speculate about the motives of the Russian invasion, we also bring to consciousness the deepest of other dynamics that fuel the motives for war. This is the archetype. Carl Jung identifies archetypes as the psycho-neurological functions in the brain, of evolutionary origins, manifesting in human beings as universal patterns of perception, cognition, and behavior. The archetypes give shape to mating, parenting, family units and tribes, the creative expressions of civilizations, skills for coping with environmental challenges, and the propensity to go to war.
As General George S. Patton said, "Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. And God help me, I do love it so." Gen. Patton speak as a person possessed by an archetype.
Jung refers to archetypal possession in his remarkable essay "Wotan," written in 1936, when he tried to understand what had possessed the German nation leading it headstrong into war. Regarding the power of an archetype, he says this:
An archetype is like an old water course along which the water of life
has flowed for centuries digging a deep channel for itself. The longer
it has flowed in this channel the more likely it will return to its old bed.
The life of the individual as a member of society and particularly as part
of the State may be regulated like a canal, but the life of nations is a
great rushing river which is utterly beyond human control. ... Thus
the life of nations rolls on unchecked, without guidance, unconscious
of where it is going, like a rock crashing down the side of a hill, until
it is stopped by an obstacle stronger than itself. Political events move
from one impasse to the next like a torrent caught in gullies, creeks,
and marshes. (CW Vol. I, para. 395)
In what way, then, are we witnessing today yet another instance when the war in Ukraine may be understood as the archetypal possession of an aggressor nation, Russia, or at least its leadership? And, if so, what might we expect for an outcome that promises hope for the future of humankind?
In his two magnificent novels of WW II, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk concluded his epic story with a hopeful note. He said this:
... that war is an old habit of thought, an old political technique,
that must now pass as human sacrifice, and human slavery have passed.
I have faith that the human spirit will prove equal to the long heavy task
of ending war.
Perhaps. But not yet, as Russian's uncalled-for invasion of Ukraine demonstrates. We say "perhaps," but the heavy task of ending war to which Wouk refers must now go deep into the human tendency to be possessed by the archetype of war itself.