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Extremist politics

The ecstasy of violence and war

‘War’, wrote the French knight Jean de Bueil in 1465, ‘is a joyous thing’.  War – and violence in general – is ‘one of humankind’s great natural highs’, in the words of sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich.  War absorbs our consciousness, heightens our senses, distorts times, bonds us to our fellow fighters, and can give us a sense of transcendent meaning and sacred value. War is carnival-esque – we put off our normal identities, put on face paint and war costumes, and use music, drumming, chanting, prayer and intoxicants to go into a battle trance. There ‘is a Midsummer Night’s Dream quality to the war experience’ writes former war journalist Chris Hedges, ‘as if no one can quite remember what happened’.

Violence and war are ecstatic experiences. The German military author Ernst Junger wrote: ‘Once again: the ecstasy. The condition of the holy man, of great poets and of great love is also granted to those of great courage. The enthusiasm of manliness bursts beyond itself to such an extent that the blood boils as it surges through the veins and glows as it foams through the heart . . . it is an intoxication beyond all intoxication, an unleashing that breaks all bonds. [In combat] the individual is like a raging storm, the tossing sea and the roaring thunder. He has melted into everything.’

One of the best accounts of the ecstasy of war is a 1984 Esquire magazine article by Vietnam veteran William Broyles Jr, called Why Men Love War. He writes:

Part of the love of war stems from its being an experience of great intensity; its lure is the fundamental human passion to witness, to see things, what the Bible calls the lust of the eye and the Marines in Vietnam called eye-fucking. War stops time, intensifies experience to the point of a terrible ecstasy. It is the dark opposite of that moment of passion caught in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d/ For ever panting, and forever young. ” War offers endless exotic experiences, enough ‘I couldn’t fucking believe it!’s to last a lifetime.

A lieutenant colonel I knew, a true intellectual, was put in charge of civil affairs, the work we did helping the Vietnamese grow rice and otherwise improve their lives. He was a sensitive man who kept a journal and seemed far better equipped for winning hearts and minds than for combat command. But he got one, and I remember flying out to visit his fire base the night after it had been attacked by an NVA sapper unit. Most of the combat troops I had been out on an operation, so this colonel mustered a motley crew of clerks and cooks and drove the sappers off, chasing them across tile rice paddies and killing dozens of these elite enemy troops by the light of flares. That morning, as they were surveying what they had done and loading the dead NVA…on mechanical mules like so much garbage, there was a look of beatific contentment on tile colonel’s face that I had not seen except in charismatic churches. It was the look of a person transported into ecstasy.

And I – what did I do, confronted with this beastly scene? I smiled back. ‘as filled with bliss as he was. That was another of the times I stood on the edge of my humanity, looked into the pit, and loved what I saw there. I had surrendered to an aesthetic that was divorced from that crucial quality of empathy that lets us feel the sufferings of others. And I saw a terrible beauty there. War is not simply the spirit of ugliness, although it is certainly that, the devil’s work. But to give the devil his due, it is also an affair of great and seductive beauty.

We can be more discriminating in our analysis than simply saying ‘violence is ecstatic’. The psychologist GE Partridge wrote after World War II of the various ‘ecstasies’ which war inspires. I’ve identified ten varieties.

1) Violence is a high

Violence itself is a high, and people need only the most tenuous justification to seek it. Bill Buford is an American literary journalist and former editor of Granta. He became interested in English football hooligans of 1980s, and embedded himself with a group of Manchester United hooligans for his book Among The Thugs. He recalls:

I had not expected the violence to be so pleasurable…the pure elemental pleasure was of an intensity that was unlike anything else I had experienced before…This is, if you like, the answer to the hundred-dollar question: why do young males riot every Saturday? They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much, or smoked dope, or took hallucinogenic drugs, or behaved badly or rebelliously. Violence is their anti-social kick, their mind-altering experience’.

Violence is an intense and addictive sensory pleasure. Usually our consciousness is scattered and diffuse, but in moments of ultra-violence, it is so absorbed that we forget our selves and are not even aware of pain. This pleasure is now somewhat shameful to admit, but it was unashamedly celebrated in medieval society. The 12th-century troubadour Bertran de Born sang a hymn to the ‘pleasant season’ of war: ‘I tell you that neither eating, drinking nor sleep has as much savour for me as when I hear the cry ‘Forwards!’ from both sides, and horses without riders shying and whinnying, and the cry ‘Help! Help!’, and to see the small and the great fall to the grass at the ditches and the dead pierced by the wood of the lances decked with banners.’

2) Violence is transgressive

In a society like ours, which has to some extent stigmatized violence, it has the extra pleasure of transgression, the illicit feeling of breaking social conventions. Buford writes of the moment, in a hooligan riot, when a line of transgressive violence is crossed, and the energy of the mob is suddenly heightened: ‘With that first violent exchange, some kind of threshold had been crossed, some notional boundary: on one side of that boundary had been a sense of limits, an ordinary understanding – even among this lot – of what you didn’t do; we were now someplace where there would be few limits.’ This is some of the pleasure, I’d suggest, of the extreme histrionic violence of Daesh – it is transgressive, shocking even to other Jihadi groups. It’s also a part of the attraction of Donald Trump’s coarse, offensive language – it gives people an illicit sense of conventions being violently transgressed.

3) War leads to experiences of ‘combat flow’

The violence of fighting and war isn’t just a sort of berserker rage, although it can be that. It can also bring moments of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihayli calls ‘flow’ – when a person’s consciousness is completely absorbed in what they’re doing and they feel a sense of mastery over a difficult challenge. We admire war because it can bring out these moments of heroism and millitary skill. Yuval Noah Harari of Hebrew University of Jerusalem has collected various accounts of combat flow, like the following from an American soldier fighting in Mogadishu in 1993:

it was like an epiphany. Close to death, he had never felt so completely alive….The only thing he could compare it to was the feeling he found sometimes when he surfed, when he was inside the tube of a big wave and everything around him was energy and motion and he was being carried along by some terrific force and all he could do was focus intently on holding his balance, riding it out. Surfers called it The Green Room. Combat was another door to that room. A state of complete mental and physical awareness.

Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo recalls his platoon getting into a fight with a Vietcong unit: ‘an eerie sense of calm came over me. My mind was working with a speed and clarity I would have found remarkable if I had had the time to reflect upon it. I knew what I was going to do. . . . The whole plan of attack flashed through my mind in a matter of seconds…’. He manages to lead his platoon to victory: ‘I felt a drunken elation. . . When the line wheeled and charged across the clearing, the enemy bullets whining past them, wheeled and charged almost with drill-field precision, an ache as profound as the ache of orgasm passed through me.’

4) Violence and war are a sexual turn-on

Related to Caputo’s last comment, many people come away from war zones admitting they found war a turn-on. This may be because it makes them feel sexually empowered, or it may be because being in close proximity to death is arousing – it heightens the physical senses and gives one a ‘live for the moment’ mentality. War also leads to the loosening of normal morality and the normalization of prostitution and rape, so that Daesh soldiers feel entitled to have multiple wives and sex slaves.

5) Violence and war bond you as a group

Violence and war give us a strong sense of togetherness to our fellow combatants. That might be a feeling of intense love for one’s ‘band of brothers’, or it might be the feeling of togetherness in a crowd, a mob, a rally, or an entire nation going to war.

Jean de Beuil writes in 1465: ‘We love each other so much in war. If we see that our cause is just and our kinsmen fight boldly, tears come to our eyes. A sweet joy rises in our hearts, in the feeling of our honest loyalty to each other, and seeing our friend so bravely exposing his body to danger in order to keep and fulfil the commandment of our Creator, we resolve to go forward and die or live with him and never leave him on account of love. This brings such delight that anyone who has not felt it cannot say how wonderful it is. Do you think that someone who feels this is afraid of death? Not in the least! He is so strengthened, so delighted, that he does not know where he is.’

James Jeffrey, a British lieutenant serving in the Iraq War, writes: ‘It all made for an intoxicating experience and was possibly, sad to say, the best thing I, and I imagine others, had ever done. Ever since it has been like something has gone out of my life forever. For it wasn’t just the unparalleled sensory spectrum, there was a communal satisfaction, tapping into a primordial core, which came from taking part. That blissful sense of community started with the soldiers, wonderfully skilled and maddeningly headstrong, insubordinate at times but ultimately doggedly looking out for each other.’

A scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film ‘Triumph of the Will’

There is a sense of the ecstatic transcendence of one’s little ego in the big group of the crowd, the army or the state, a ‘casting aside of our little selves to live under the august grace and the enhancing of the genuine life of the people of a State’, as the Japanese Ministry of Education put it in 1937. The German nationalist Heinriche von Treitschke wrote:  ‘The grandeur of war lies in the utter annihilation of puny man in the great conception of the State, and it brings out the full magnificence of the sacrifice of fellow country-men for one another’. In war, we feel less lonely. Chris Hedges writes that war ‘instantly reduces the headache and trivia of daily life. The communal march against an enemy creates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbours…wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation.’

6) Violence gives you a thrill of high status and domination

Genghis Khan declared: ‘The greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bewildered with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms.’

It is a thrill to dominate one’s enemies, to turn the fear of being preyed upon into the joy of being a predator, to humiliate one’s enemies, to humiliate and torture them. The troubadour Bertran de Born sings:  ‘By my troth, I laugh at what you say. I care not a fig for your threats. I shall shame every knight I have taken, cut off his nose or his ears.’ Medieval culture unashamedly celebrates torture. We read one account of a medieval knight: ‘He spends his time in plundering, destroying churches, falling upon pilgrims, oppressing widows and orphans. He takes particular pleasure in mutilating the innocent…And his wife is just as cruel. She helps him with his executions. It even gives her pleasure to torture the poor women.’

Violence gives us the thrill of revenge for past grievances and humiliations. One notes a deep sense of grievance and victimhood in aggressive nationalist movements in Nazi Germany or fascist Serbia, and a similar sense of grievance and resentment in Daesh propaganda: ‘a day will come  when the Muslim will walk everywhere as a master, having honour, being revered, with his head raised high, and his dignity preserved. Anyone who dares to offend him will be disciplined, and any hand that reaches out to harm him will be cut off.’

Violence and war also gives us the ancient pleasure of raiding another’s territory – Bill Buford writes of a moment when a group of Man United hooligans manage to resist the police in Turin and overturn their monopoly on violence: ‘The city is ours, Sammy said, and he repeated the possessive, each time with greater intensity. It’s ours, ours, ours.’ This is one of the thrills of rioting – the city becomes a Temporary Autonomous Zone, where the police no longer have a monopoly on violence. One of the 2011 rioters remembers:  ‘It was ours for a day. Salford was more like a party atmosphere. Everyone was stood around, drinking… smoking weed, having a laugh.’

7) War is a rite of initiation that proves your manhood

Barbara Ehrenreich writes: ‘Men make war in part because war makes them men’. Fred Blackmum recalls joining the Royal Navy at the start of World War II: ‘I was eager and I was looking forward to it. This is what you did…… You went in a boy and you came out a man.’ Many tribal cultures around the world have the idea that you’re not a ‘real man’ until you kill something or someone. The Fang tribe in central Africa, for example, after a successful ambush, come home shouting: ’We are real men, we are real men, we have been to town and shot a man.’  Christopher Isherwood recalls of the First World War: ‘War…meant The Test. The test of your courage, your maturity, of your sexual prowess. ‘Are you really a Man?’ Subconsciously, I believe, I longed to be subjected to this test.’

8) War gives you a sense of sacred meaning and catharsis through blood-letting

War alters our consciousness and takes us into what psychologist Lawrence LeShan calls a ‘mythic reality’ – a sort of uncritical mythopoetic trance in which our side is on a mission from God and the enemy is the demonic embodiment of evil. ‘War makes the world understandable’ writes Chris Hedges, ‘a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially critical thought.’  This Manichean division of the world into heroes and villains – what Daesh calls ‘the elimination of the grayzone’ –  is deeply satisfying to our subconscious. That’s why we love epic myths like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Frank Miller’s 300, where the baddies are obviously bad – they are demonic, ugly, orc-like.

War also gives us catharsis. Carl Jung suggested we all carry a ‘shadow self’ – a part of us that feels wounded, ashamed, anxious, guilty and afraid of being ostracized or persecuted. We all seek catharsis for this shadow self, these feelings of anxiety, guilt and loneliness. Violence and war offer a sort of dark catharsis – we project our anxiety, guilt and aggression onto someone else or another group, tribe or nation, and make them the embodiment of evil. Then we imagine that their sacrifice – their extermination – will cleanse us of our anxiety and guilt. They become the scapegoat. War, wrote Thomas Mann, ‘is a purging and a liberation’. As the anthropologist Rene Girard has suggested, we seek catharsis and wholeness through the bloody sacrifice of others, healing our own inner divisions through their blood.

Sacrificial killing, writes the classicist Walter Burkert, ‘is the basic experience of the sacred’, and human sacrifice has a central role in many indigenous cults, in occult practices, and still in some African magic. The desire to heal ourselves and placate the gods through blood-letting runs very deep in human consciousness.

9) Apocalyptic violence

A variant of this ‘sacred violence’ is apocalyptic violence – you believe you are involved in a final cosmic showdown between good and evil. The more enemies you kill, the more God forgives your sins. Apocalyptic violence is not unique to Abrahamic religions, but it’s certainly very strong in the Old Testament, New Testament and Quran. And it’s horribly apparent in the history of the Crusades. The Declaration of the First Crusade by Pope Urban II in Clermont in 1095 is a moment of mass ecstasy. The historian Norman Cohn writes:

As the Assembly listened it was swept by emotions of overwhelming power. Thousands cried with one voice ‘Deus le volt!’ – ‘It is God’s will!’ Crowding around the Pope and kneeling before him they begged leave to take part in the holy war. A cardinal fell on his knees and recited the Confiteor in the name of the whole multitude and as they echoed it after him many burst into tears and many were seized with convulsive trembling….

The knights and peasants of the Crusades were assured the more they ‘killed for Christ’, the more their sins would be expiated. They had visions of the heavenly city of Jerusalem as they marched through Europe, raping and pillaging as they went. When they finally arrived in Jerusalem, they killed every Muslim in Jerusalem, and every Jew they could find. ‘In and around the Temple of Solomon, the horses waded in blood up to their knees, nay up to the bridle. It was a just and wonderful judgement of God’.  Of course, the End Times didn’t arrive as expected, and Jesus didn’t come back to Earth. But that didn’t stop a steady succession of apocalyptic movements going on the rampage in the Middle Ages, with self-proclaimed prophets and Messiahs announcing that the End Times were nigh, an Age of Love was dawning, Jerusalem would be liberated, and the Jews exterminated. Daesh has much in common with these medieval movements, even down to bonkers predictions like the return of the giants Gog and Magog.

10) Utopian violence

Utopian violence is similar to apocalyptic violence, but slightly different. Utopians believe that contemporary society is hopelessly compromised and immoral. They feel strangers or exiles in it, adrift in a culture of ‘strangeness’ (as Daesh propaganda puts it). They hate the fact that this immoral ‘civilization’ makes us all wear masks, forcing us to lie, flatter and serve the boss. They long to smash this fallen civilization, and replace it with a perfect state, in which they can feel ‘expanded’ (as the Utopian Thomas More put it) into their genuine authentic selves. Rather than the present system of inequality and subjugation, in the perfect Utopia all would be equal, all joined in love and solidarity. Now it may be that some ‘deviants’ refuse to join this blissful unity. In that case, they should be purged, rubbed out. This purging is similar to the cleansing violence of apocalyptic movements, but it is not done to placate some bloodthirsty divinity, but rather to erase the blots of imperfect humanity as we create the perfect state. One meets this chilling Utopian violence in various philosophers, from Plato to Thomas More to Rousseau to Marx to ‘radical chic’ philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou.

The Myth of Religious Violence

We all know the story. Europe in the 17th century was torn apart by the Wars of Religion. Then, after several decades of extreme violence, people decided to put religious differences to one side, and to come together in the rational, secular, liberal, tolerant state. We then exported this model of rational civilisation to the rest of the world, which is slowly accepting it, despite being backward, irrational and prone to religious violence (that means you, Muslims).

This is the foundational myth of the modern secular state. And like all myths, it is not entirely true. Its falsehood – or limited truth – can blind us to our own irrational violence.

Ecstasy plays a key role in this myth. Ecstatic experiences were central to the Christian conception of human nature and human society. Ecstasy was the ladder which connected humans to the divine. But in the 17th and 18th century process of secularization, ecstasy was rebranded as ‘enthusiasm’, and deemed a mental illness and a threat to public order. Enthusiasm was the ‘anti-self of the Enlightenment’, the enemy of reason. Ecstasy has to be locked up or banished if the rational liberal secular order can exist.

The pathologisation of ecstasy began in the 16th-century Reformation. Martin Luther mocked the monastic practice of trying to reach ecstasy through contemplation – monks and nuns were lazy fools getting rich off the gullible masses. You can’t get to heaven through your own contemplative efforts, only grace can save you. It is dangerous to rely on personal revelation or visionary experience, you should only rely on Scripture. Luther lambasted Anabaptist peasants for using personal revelation as a justification for violent revolution, calling them ‘enthusiasts’.

Cranmer and Cromwell (pictured either side of Henry VIII) waged a war on ecstasy in the interest of state power

His critique of the Church was used by kings in their attempts to seize power and money for their fledgling states. Henry VIII, for example, embraced the Reformist cause to increase his own power in England. His advisors, Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, used a Lutheran critique of monasticism to close down almost all the monasteries and nunneries in England and seize their assets. This is what secularisation originally meant – the transfer of assets and power from the church to the state.

Cranmer and Cromwell waged a war on ecstasy. When a Catholic nun called Elizabeth Barton prophesized against Henry and Anne Boleyn, she was hanged for treason. Thomas Cromwell declared: ‘If credence should be given to every such lewd person as would affirm himself to have revelations from God, what readier way were there to subvert all common wealth and good order in the world?’ Cranmer took the traditional invocation of the Holy Spirit out of the Book of Common Prayer. The Holy Spirit was deemed a threat to public order. Religion was reduced to a series of propositions, set by the state, which people must publicly affirm…or else.

In the 17th century, both Catholic and Protestant thinkers warned against ‘enthusiasm’ or any claim to personal revelation. It was a threat to reason and public order. One sees the political usefulness of this critique particularly in Thomas Hobbes’ remarkable polemic, Leviathan, published in 1651. Like a 17th-century Richard Dawkins, Hobbes rails against people who let their imagination carry them away, so that they start imagining fairy tales of God or angels or fairies speaking to them and telling them what to do. Such enthusiasts may then persuade the ignorant mob, who then disturb the public order and threaten the state.

This polemic against religious ecstasy is grounded in Hobbes’ materialism. We are material automatons. There is no such thing as a ghost in the machine or a Holy Spirit ‘out there’, no way any spirit could enter our bodies. Imagination is merely ‘decaying sense’, not some sort of ladder to the divine as medieval contemplatives believed. Medieval scholastics thought human nature was double – matter and soul. But this is nonsense. We are just matter.

Hobbes’ materialism is tied to his politics. In medieval Christendom, humans’ double nature (body and soul) was reflected in the double authority of the Church and the State, the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of Earth. But Hobbes insists we mustn’t set up a ‘ghostly authority against the civil’. This is to set up a ‘kingdom of fairies’. There can be only one power, one authority, one kingdom – the state. The state is the true kingdom of heaven, and we owe it total allegiance. As for religion, that can be reduced to the basic proposition that Jesus is Christ. Who doesn’t accept that?

Hobbes is unusually outspoken in his denunciation of religious enthusiasm, but one finds a similar idea in Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Hume and Shaftesbury. Religious enthusiasm is a threat to public order. Religion should be confined to the private sphere, while the public sphere remains secular, rational and polite. Ecstasy is not all bad, as long as it stays a private individual experience. This is what the Romantic Sublime is essentially – a private, individual experience. But enthusiasm is very dangerous when it’s collective, and when it spills over into the public sphere. We don’t want to go back to the 17th century, to those terrible Wars of Religion. We owe our primary allegiance to the secular, rational state.

This story is still very active today. It defines how we think of Islamic terrorism. Some reference to the Wars of Religion often appears in defences of western secularism and attacks on Islamic irrationalism. The story goes something like this: ‘We went through a period of religious violence in the 17th century until we invented the rational secular state, and everything calmed down and got better. Religion leads to violence, it causes more wars than anything else. If only you Muslims could evolve out of your religious irrationalism and embrace western rationalism. We will defend secularism from your irrational attacks, and support secular regimes in the Middle East. We will bomb you into rationalism.’

There are several problems with this ‘myth of religious violence’, as the historian William T. Cavanaugh calls it. Firstly, as Cavanaugh explores, it’s not an accurate account of the Thirty Years War, which was only dubbed the ‘Wars of Religion’ in the Enlightenment. Those wars often pitted Catholics against Catholics and Protestant against Protestants, in an ever-shifting series of battles which have more to do with the breakdown of the Hapsburg empire and the emergence of autonomous states than religious enthusiasm. As Peter Wilson concluded in his recent history, the emergence of the secular state wasn’t the antidote to the Thirty Years War – it was the cause of it.

Secondly, ecstasy and enthusiasm didn’t go away in the rational secular state. It took new forms, such as the capitalist ecstasy of the South Sea Bubble. Its most obvious new form was nationalism – the ecstatic worship of the state and state power. You can see this ‘migration of the Holy’ to the secular state in the French Revolution, in the cult of Napoleon, in the totalitarian worship of Hitler and Stalin, and – in a less extreme but no less powerful way – in American civil religion and the cult of the Star-Spangled Banner. Secularism didn’t really privatise religion, it created a new religion of the state.

Nationalist enthusiasm can be just as brutal, irrational and aggressive as medieval ecstatic movements. Nationalism caused far more wars and loss of life in the 19th and 20th centuries than monotheism. We think of secularism as tolerant and peaceful, but it often means state absolutism of a very brutal kind. That’s certainly what it meant in the Middle East, with the Hobbesian regimes of Ataturk, Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran, or Hafez al-Assad. Today, Western societies are in danger of reacting to Islamic terrorism by embracing a particularly nasty nationalism, as peddled by Putin, Trump and Le Pen. Who, faced with such Leviathans, would not yearn for God?

Secularism is often tied to an aggressive materialism which many people – including me – find suffocating, soulless and unreal. If you want to win the battle of ideas with Islamic extremism, you cannot simply preach secularism, nationalism and materialism. That will not do the job. People will always yearn for a transcendence beyond the human, particularly the young, the poor and the oppressed. We need to create and protect spaces for transcendence in secular liberal cultures, so that young people don’t feel they have to go to violent extremes to find it.