THE GESTALTS OF WAR: An Inquiry into Its Origins and Meanings as a Social Institution by Sue Mansfield

THE GESTALTS OF WAR: An Inquiry into Its Origins and Meanings as a Social Institution

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'Military historian Mansfield (Claremont College) broke out of the narrow confines of her field, she says, when she was teaching a course on women's history--which led her to anthropology and later gestalt psychology. But only those who believe in psychological explanations for everything are likely to be impressed by her attempt to put it all together. First, she notes that war seems not to have been a feature of hunting and gathering societies, but emerged only in the Neolithic period of stable agriculture. Her explanation, on the personal level, is that the natural drives that could be freely expressed in the loose life-style of the hunters and gatherers had to be suppressed by the agriculturalists. This led not only to pent-up drives directed at nature-whose servant Neolithic man became even as he learned to master it--but also to hatred of the parents for being the main agents of this suppression. As Mansfield observes, this doesn't explain anything on a social level, whether or not it explains anything on a personal level. What it does--to her satisfaction, at least--is make it possible to understand why the individual desires war. On a social level, making war requires myth and ritual. The mythic element can take many forms, including a sublimated attempt by society to conquer chaos; the rituals generally involve purification and accommodation with death. The mythic and ritualistic aspects of war help account for the fact that war--systematized social aggression--may sometimes entail very little killing; war between some Neolithic tribes is broken off when only one person is killed. In post-Neolithic times, the mythology of war has centered on different themes, including honor and glory, the realization of progress (the French Revolution and subsequent wars), or the renewal and rebirth of society (World War I). All of this is understood by Mansfield as neurotic behavior based on fear and the inability to deal with loss--coupled with the institutional apparatus of civilization: technology, firstly; and the separation between the emotive life of the family and the rational life of the public world (mirrored by the similar, functional separation of the sexes). Her only solution is to tentatively call for universal conscription so that the introduction of women into the' military might repair our bifurcated psyches. It's a tidy package: the domination/repression of nature--human and nonhuman-results in war as a social institution. Which is to say that in explaining everything, Mansfield has explained nothing.

Pub Date: Feb. 19th, 1982
Publisher: Dial