Psychoanalysis and War: The Superego and Projective Identification.

by Joanna Montgomery Byles

January 1, 2004


The problem of warfare which includes genocide, and its most recent manifestation, international terrorism, brings into focus the need to understand how the individual is placed in the social and the social in the individual. Psychoanalytic theories of group psychology, superego aggression, splitting and projective identification, may be useful in helping us to understand the psychic links involved in this kind of violence. It seems vital to me writing from the Middle East in September 2004 that we examine our understanding of what it is we understand about war, including genocide and terrorism. The knowledge now most worth having is an authentic method of internalizing what it is we understand about war and terrorism that will liberate us from the history of our collective traumatic past and the imperatives it has imposed upon us. As a transformative power to combat both group and individual violence, the inner psychic world of the individual has an enormously importan adaptive role to play here.


War tramples in blind fury on all that comes in its way, as though there were to be no future and no peace among men after it is over. It cuts all the common bonds between the contending peoples, and threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment that will make any renewal of those bonds impossible for a long time to come.

Freud to Einstein, "Why War?"

The problem of warfare which includes genocide, and its most recent manifestation, international terrorism, brings into focus the need to understand how the individual is placed in the social and the social in the individual. Psychoanalytic theories of superego aggression, splitting, projection, and projective identification may be useful in helping us to understand the psychic links involved. It seems vital to me writing in the Middle East in September 2002 that we examine our understanding of what it is we understand about war, including genocide and terrorism.

Some psychoanalysts argue that war is a necessary defence against psychotic anxiety (Fornari xx; Volkan), and Freud himself first advanced the idea that war provided an outlet for repressed impulses. ("Why War?"197). The problematic of these views is the individual's need to translate internal psychotic anxieties into real external dangers so as to control them. It suggests that culturally warfare and its most recent manifestation, international terrorism and the so-called ''war on terrorism," may be a necessary object for internal aggre ssion and not a pathology.

Indeed, Fornari suggests that "war could be seen as an attempt at therapy, carried out by a social institution which, precisely by institutionalizing war, increases to gigantic proportions what is initially an elementary defensive mechanism of the ego in the schizo-paranoid phase" (xvii-xviii). In other words, the history of war might represent the externalization and articulation of shared unconscious fantasies. This idea would suggest that the culture of war, genocide, and international terrorism provides objects of psychic need. If this is so, with what can we replace them? If cultural formations and historical events have their sources in our psychic functioningthat is to say, in our unconscious fears and desires, and culture itself provides a framework for expressing, articulating, and coming to terms with these fears and desires, then psychoanalysis may help to reveal why war seems to be an inevitable and ineradicable part of human history.


In "The Ego and the Id," Freud formulated a seemingly insoluble dilemma in the very essence of the human psyche; the eternal conflict between the dual instincts of eros, the civilizing life instinct, and the indomitable death instinct (thanatos). He also identified some aspects of the death instinct with superego aggression, suggesting that the superego was the agent of the death instinct in its cruel and aggressive need for punishment and that its operative feeling was frequently a punitive hatred, while other aspects of the superego were protective. As we know, Freud thought the source of the superego was the internalization of the castrating Oedipal father. In chapter seven of Civilization and its Discontents, he theorized that when de-fusion or separation of the dual instincts occurred, aspects of aggression frequently dominated and that it was the purpose of the ego to find objects for eros and/or aggression either in phanta sv or reality. The role phantasy plays in projective identification is something to which I shall return.

Other theorists, such as Melanie Klein, trace the beginning of the superego back to early (infant) oral phantasies of self-destruction, which is a direct manifestation of the death instinct. Klein transformed the oedipal drama by making the mother its central figure and thus playing a vital role in object-relations theory, about which I shall say more later in this essay. Although Klein's work relied on the dual instinct theory postulated by Freud, she re-defined the drives by emphasizing the way in which the destructive instincts attached themselves to the object, in particular the good-bad breast. Thus for Klein, the site of the superego is derived from oral Incorporation of the good/bad breast, contrary to Freud, for whom the site of the superego is the paternal law.

Although the formation of the superego is grounded on the renunciation ofloving and hostile Oedipal wishes, it is subsequently refined, by the contributions of social and cultural requirements (education, religion, morality). My argument in this paper is three-fold: (1) These social and cultural requirements in which the superego is grounded may be used by the superego of the state and/or its leader to mobilize aspects of the individual's aggression during war-time in a way that does not happen in peace-time. (2) Klein's theory of splitting and projective identification plays an important role in the concept of difference and otherness as enemy. (3) Bion's development of Klein's theory into what he called the "container" and the "contained" may offer some way out of the psychic dangers of projective identification by suggesting that we may be able to access our internal psychic world as a transformative power to combat violence both internal and external.

In an early attempt to define war neuroses, or how war mentally traumatizes the psyche, Freud wrote of the conflict "between the soldier's old peaceful ego and his new warlike one" becoming acute as soon as the peace-ego realizes what danger it runs in losing its own life to the rashness of its newly formed parasitic double" (SE 17 209). Accepting the violence that is within ourselves as well as in the other, the so-called enemy, is a difficult lesson to learn, and learning to displace our instinctual destructive aggression peacefully is enormously more difficult. To the extent the individual superego is connected to society, which assumes its functions particularly in wartime, the problem of war brings into focus the psychoanalytic problem of the partial defusion (separation) of eros and psychic aggression brought about by war through specifically social processes. These social processes involve the mechanisms by which aspects of the violent and aggressive social superego of the State mobilizes and appropriates some of the dynamic aspects of the individual's superego aggression: the need to hate, and to punish, for its own purposes, such as genocide or so-called "ethnic cleansing," and for territorial and economic reasons. Many of these actions are often masked as defending civilization, or an idealized State and/or its leader. This is also true of the "holy jihads" that are rapidly becoming an enormous threat to the world.

In his book Enemies and Allies, Vamik Volkan suggests that the individual may see the superego of the State as his/her own idealized superego. And indeed, this may in turn help to explain how during war-time the social superego is placed in the individual and how in turn the individual is positioned in the social. In Civilization and its Discontents, to which I have already referred, Freud wrote about the ways in which the regulations and demands of a civilized society harbor the risk of the death instinct (aggression) being released at any favorable opportunity, especially when combined with Eros i.e., under the pretext of idealism and patriotism. This is especially true when t here is a leader who elicits strong emotional attachments from a group or nation.

Of course, I am not arguing that there are not some important aspects of the social superego that are beneficial, for example the ethical and moral laws which shape society and protect its citizens; nevertheless, in wartime and its most recent manifestation, international terrorism, it is precisely these civilizing aspects of the social superego that are ignored or repressed. It seems to me that the failure of civilization historically to control the aggression, cruelty, and hatred that characterize war urgently requires a psychoanalytic explanation. Of course, I am speaking of psychic, not biological (survival of the fittest), aggression. In wartime the externalized superego of the stare sanctions killing and violence that is not allowed in peace-time (in fact, such violence against others during peacetime would be considered criminal) sanctions, in fact, the gratification ofwarring aggression, thus ensuring that acts of violence need not incur guilt. Why do we accept this? Psychoanalysis posits the idea that aggression is not behavioral but instinctual; not social but psychological. To quote Volkan, who follows Freud, "It is man's very nature itself." Obviously, it is vital that humanity find more mature, less primitive ways of dealing with our hatred and aggression than war, genocide, and international terrorism.

The most characteristic thing about this kind of violence and cruelty is its collective mentality: war requires group co-operation, organization, and approval. Some theorists argue that one of the primary cohesive elements binding individuals into institutionalized human association is defence against psychotic anxiety. In Group Psychology Freud writes that "in a group the individual is brought under conditions which allow him to throw off the repressions of his unconscious instinctual impulses. The apparently new characteristics he then displays are in fact the manifestation of this unconscious, in which all that is evil in the human mind is contained as a predisposition" (74). Later in the same essay, when speaking of the individual and the group mind, Freud quotes Le Bon : "Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings" (77).

War is a collective phenomenon that mobilizes our anxieties and allows our original sadistic fantasies of destructive omnipotence to be re-activated and projected onto "the enemy." Some critics have argued that we "need" enemies as external stabilizers of our sense of identity and inner control. It has also been argued that the militancy a particular group shows toward its enemies may partly mask the personal internal conflicts of each member of the group, and that they may therefore have an emotional investment in the maintenance of the enmity. In other words, they need the enemy and are unconsciously afraid to lose it. This fits in with the well known phenomenon of inventing an enemy when there is not one readily available. The individual suicide bomber, or suicide pilot, is just as much part of this group psychology each bomber, each terrorist, is acting for his/her group, or even more immediately his or her family, from whom he/she derives enormous psychic strength and support. Just as importantly, she/he is acting in the name of his/her leader. All of these identifications require strong emotional attachments. Freud writes, "The mutual tie between members of a group is in the nature of an identification, based upon an important emotional common quality. . . . This common quality lies in the nature of the tie to the leader" (Group 1078).

In Learning from Experience, Bion theorizes that a social groupfunctions to establish a fixed social order of things (the establishm ent), and that the individual has to be contained by the establishment of the group. Sometimes the rigidity of me system crushes the individual's creativity; alternatively, certain special individuals erupt in the group, which goes to pieces under their influence (Bion cites Jesus within the constraints of Israel). A final possibility is the mutual adaptation of one to the other, with a development of both the individual and the group.

The development of a sense of self, its integration, its separation, and its protection all begin, or course, in early childhood. Psychoanalyses like Klein, Winnicott, and Bion have explored these ideas in what is known as object relations theory. Volkan writes that the concepts of enemy and ally and the senses of ethnicity and nationality are largely bound up with the individual's sense of self, and that individuals within an ethnic or national group tend to see their group as a privileged "pseudo-species" (Erikson) and enemy groups as subhuman (262).

Of course enemies are threatening and do generate a reactive need for defenses; however, a basic psychoanalytic question might be to what extent the degree of defensiveness characteristic of war behavior represents personal, emotional needs of individuals for an enemy to hate, so that they can keep their conflicted selves together, and to what extent the State superego plays a role here.

Our capacity for splitting and projection plays an important part in how we see others and feel about others, and through the process of projective identification, how we make others feel about ourselves and themselves. Projective identification involves a deep split, displacing onto and into others the hateful, bad parts of ourselves, and frequently making them feehateful to themselves through their own introjection of our hatred. This hatred is often racial or religious, frequently both. Moreover, in the process of projective identification, parts of the self are put into the other, thus depleting the ego. (This process can be a vicious circle, and it is a profoundly disturbing and characteristic pathology, often involving envy and/or rivalry, both corrosive, poisonous forces.) These Kleinian ideas, developed by other theorists, such as Winnicott and Bion, are hugely relevant to the problem of war and genocide, and most recently, of terrorism. Klein argues that in the paranoid schizoid position there is a splitting of good and bad objects, with the good being introjected and the bad being externalized and projected out into someone or onto something else. As with the infant and child, so with the adult, mechanisms of splitting and protection play upon negative and feared connotations of the other, of the enemy, and of difference; projection prevents warring nations from exploring and thus understanding what it is that actually divides them; it prevents mutual response and recognition by promoting exclusivity.

As already mentioned, analysts such as Volkan and Erikson have written about the processes by which an enemy is dehumanized so as to provide the distance a group needs from its perceived enemy. First the group becomes preoccupied with the enemy according to the psychology of minor differences. Then mass regression occurs to permit the group to recover and reactivate more primitive methods. What they then use in this regressed state tends to contain aspects of childish (pre-oedipal) fury. The enemy is perceived more and more as a stereotype of bad and negative qualities. The use of denial allows a group to ignore the fact that its own externalizations and projections are involved in this process. The stereotyped enemy may be so despised as to be no longer human, and it will then be referred to in non-human terms. History teaches us that it was in this way that the Nazis perceived the Jews as vermin to be exterminated. As I write, Al Qaeda terrorist groups view all Americans as demons and infidels to be annihilated, and many Americans are comforted by demonizing all of bearded Islam. Many Israelis consider most Palestinians as dirt beneath their feet subhuman and most Palestinians think of most Israelis as despoilers of the land they are supposed to share.

In other words, the problem of the mentality of war and of terrorism mobilizes our anxieties in such a way so as to prevent critical reality testing. If we could learn the enormously difficult and painful task of re-introjection, of taking back our projections, our hatreds, anxieties, and fears of the other and of difference, long before they harm the other, there might be a transition, a link, from the state sanctioned violence of war back to individual violence. We might learn to subvert negative projective identification into a positive identification as a means of empathizing with the other and thus containing difference. The violence of the individual could then be contained and sublimated in peaceful ways, such as reconciling and balancing competing interests by asking what exactly these opposing interests are and exploring what the dynamics, conscious and unconscious, are for the hatred of deep war-like antagonisms. In other words, we would need to change our relationship with the other, giving up the dangerously irresponsible habit of splitting, projective identification, and exclusivity by recognizing difference not antagonistically but through an inclusive process that recognises the totalitv of human relationships in a peaceful world. We might substitute for the libidinal object-ties involved in projective identification the re-introjection of the object into the ego, and thus reach a common feeling of sharing, of being part of the other, of empathy, in short. As Freud pointed our, the ego is altered bv introjection, as suggested by his memorable formulation: " The shadow of the object has fallen on the ego."

In his book Second Thoughts, Bion theorizes that in the infant as in the adult, re-introjection can be dangerous if the dominance of projective identification confuses the distinction between s elf and the external object, since this awareness depends on the recognition of a distinction between subject and object. But Bion's theory of the pairing group, or the container and the contained, provides a way out of this predicament, suggesting that the outcome of such pairing is either detrimental to the contained, or to the container, or mutually developing to both. This idea is germane to my argument in this paper that the reciprocity of the container and the contained relationship, through both positive projective identification (empathy) and introjection or re-introjection, results in a positive allowance of difference in other words, a healthy acceptance of and adaptation to the other within the self and the self within the other.

It is here of course that language plays an important role in imagining the other, the other within the self, and the other as self, as well as the enormously influential visual images each group can have of the other. In the need to emphasize similarity in difference, both verbal and visual metaphor can play a meaningful role in creating a climate for peaceful understanding, and this is where literature, especially the social world of the drama and of film, but also the more private world of poetry, can be immensely significant. Of course not all literature is equally transparent.

In conclusion, war, in all its manifestations, is a phenomenon put into action by individuals who have been politicized as a group to give and receive violent death, to appropriate the enemy's land, homes, women, children, and goods, and perhaps to lose their own. As we have seen, in wartime the splitting of the self and other into friend and enemy enormously relieves the normal psychic tension caused by human ambivalence when love and hate find two separate objects of attention. Hence the .soldier's and terrorist's willingness to sacrifice her/his life for "a just cause," which may be a Nation, a Group, or a Leader with whom he has close emotional ties and identity. I n this way s/he does not feel guilty: the destructive impulses, mobilised by her/his own superego, together with that of the social superego, have projected the guilt s/he might feel at killing strangers onto the enemy. In other words, the charging of the enemy with guilt by which the superego of the State mobilizes the individual's superego seems to be of fundamental importance in escaping the sense of guilt which war provokes in those engaged in the killing; yet the mobilization of superego activities can still involve the individual's self-punitive mechanisms, even though most of his/her guilt has been projected onto the enemy in the name of his own civilization and culture. As we all know, this guilt can become a problem at the end of a war, leading to varying degrees of misery and mental illness. For some, the killing of an enemy and a stranger cannot be truly mourned, and there remains a blank space, an irretrievable act or event to be lived through over and over again. This dilemma is poignantly expressed in Wilfred Owen's World War One poem "Strange Meeting" the final lines of which read as follows:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now. ... (Owen 126)

The problem for us today is how to create the psychological climate of opinion, a mentality, that will reject war, genocide, and terrorism as viable solutions to internal and external situations of conflict; to recognize our projections for what they are dangerously irresponsible psychic acts based on superego hatred and violence. We must challenge the way in which the State superego can manipulate our responses in its own interests, even take away our subjectivities. We should acknowledge and learn to displace the vio lence in ourselves in socially harmless ways, getting rid of our fears and anxieties of the other and of difference by relating and identifying with the other and thus creating the serious desire to live together in a peaceful world. What seems to be needed is for the superego to regain its developmental role of mitigating omniscient protective identification by ensuring an intact, integrated object world, a world that will be able to contain unconscious fears, hatred, and anxieties without the need for splitting and projection. As Bion has pointed out, omnipotence replaces thinking and omniscience replaces learning. We must learn to link our internal and external worlds so as to act as a container of the other's fears and anxieties, and thus in turn to encourage the other to reciprocate as a container of our hatreds and fears.

If war represents cultural formations that in turn represent objectifications of the psyche via the super-ego of the individual and of the State, then perhaps we can reformulate these psychic social mechanisms of projection and superego aggression. Here, that old peace-time ego and the reparative component of the individual and State superego will have to play a large part. The greater the clash of cultural formations for example, Western Modernism and Islamic Fundamentalismthe more urgent the need. "The knowledge now most worth having" is an authentic way of internalizing what it is we understand about war and international terrorism that will liberate us from the history of our collective traumatic past and the imperatives it has imposed on us. The inner psychic world of the individual has an enormously important adaptive role to play here in developing mechanisms of protective identification not as a means of damaging and destroying the other, but as a means of empathy, of containing the other, and in turn being contained. These changes may be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, gradual ratherthan speedy. Peace and dare I say it contentment are no t just an absence of war, but a state of mind.

Furthermore, we should learn not to project too much into our group, and our nation, for this allows the group to tyrannize us, so that we follow like lost sheep. But speaking our minds takes courage because groups do not like open dissenters. These radical psychic changes may be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, gradual rather than speedy; however, my proposition that understanding the other so that we can reduce her/his motivation to kill requires urgent action. Peace is not just an absence of war, but a state of mind and, most importantly, a way of thinking.


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This paper originally appeared in JPCS: Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society, Volume 8, Number 2, Fall 2003, and is reproduced here with the permission of the Editor and of the copyright holder, Ohio State University.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Joanna Montgomery Byles "Psychoanalysis and War: The Superego and Projective Identification.". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2004, Published: January 1, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Joanna Montgomery Byles