The Gulf War as Mental Disorder

By DeMause, Lloyd | The Nation, March 11, 1991 | Go to article overview

The Gulf War as Mental Disorder


DeMause, Lloyd, The Nation


Although people have become familiar with the notion that the homicidal and suicidal acts of individuals might stem from underlying mental disorders, it is less common to consider the possibility that the homicidal and suicidal acts of entire nations - wars - might also stem from temporary mental disorders. Nevertheless, there is historical evidence for the thesis that the current gulf war is a shared emotional disorder, with diagnostic symptoms, psychodynamics and childhood origins very similar to the disorders that occur in individuals. An understanding of this disorder is particularly crucial in appreciating the emotions connected with any peace overtures.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, visual portrayals of Saddam Hussein in the American news media showed him as a Terrifying Parent, a child abuser intent on hurting the children in his care. An analysis of the emotional content of political cartoons, cover art, headlines and presidential speeches reveals that the Terrifying Parent image was unusually widespread. Saddam was depicted in cartoons as an evil-looking pregnant mother with a nuclear bomb in his womb, as a baby killer and as a child molester. Indeed, most of the outrage about the invasion focused on reports of Iraqi troops executing children before the eyes of their parents and murdering infants in their incubators [see Alexander Cockburn, "Beat of the Devil," February 4].

Psychohistorians consider such widespread, recurrent images in the media to be "national dreams," which, like an individual's dreams, reveal a great deal about the unconscious emotional life of a nation. Although it might be objected that there was - as in personal dreams - a reality component to the images, since children were in fact being killed by the Iraqi troops, what made the images revealing of the inner life of America was, first, the degree to which child abuse seemed to provide the symbolic focus for the crisis and, second, the fact that the images of the Terrifying Parent and the Hurt Child had been appearing in the American media for more than a year before the invasion.

Most of the Hurt Child images that appeared prior to the gulf crisis were either tied to news stories of an imagined crime wave against children or involved the gratuitous use in cartoons and magazine covers of images of tortured children. For example, the cover of Money magazine highlighted a story about college admissions by depicting a youth in agony, pierced by pennants (a takeoff of the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian), with a headline reading "The Sacrifice of the Children." The Terrifying Parent appeared in a flood of cartoons showing biting mouths that looked like angry fathers, or were connected with recurring images of "dangerous women" celebrities who look like overpowering mothers, such as Leona Helmsley as Greedy Bitch, Ivana Trump as Castrating Wife, Madonna as Vampire Whore and Roseanne Barr as Insulting Badmouth.

These Terrifying Parent and Hurt Child themes emerged at a time of widely shared feelings of personal depression, guilt and sinfulness. Early in 1990, the media began to report this phenomenon. "People are incredibly depressed," announced The New York Times. "In the past month, there has been a distinct odor of collapse and doom around [New York]," said the New York Post. "There is something catastrophic coming on," warned The Washington Post. The Consumer Confidence Index headed down, suicide hotline calls soared and apocalyptic predictions proliferated, such as the widely held belief that gigantic earthquakes were imminent in the Midwest. The Washington Post concluded that after eight years of optimism, "America is in . . . an ugly spasm of guilt, dread and nostalgia. Once more, America is depressed." A flurry of cartoons exhibited suicidal themes, such as people going off cliffs. One particularly revealing cartoon, published a few days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, drew upon news stories about a doctor who had invented a "suicide machine" to help terminally ill people end their lives. …

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