Roger Griffin (Oxford Brookes University)
Abstract: Having highlighted the role of cognitive dissonance in shaping both the way war is experienced on both sides of a conflict and the dominant narratives of its unfolding, Roger Griffin proposes that the psychological process of minimizing its psychological pain in the context of a major war involves a large-scale degree of mythicization and redaction of historical events in their reciprocal collective experiences. This involves the subliminal and (in the case of state elites) the partially deliberate repression of inconvenient truths and the generation of corroborative myths and fantasies (reinforced by propaganda) supporting what both parties see as the “good cause” and “just war”. As a result, the archives of the collective memory are raided not just by journalists and politicians but also by “experts” for elements of “useful past” (“an invention or at least a retrospective reconstruction to serve the needs of the present”) to support their conflicting narratives of events, so that truth does indeed become, as the cliché insists, “the first casualty of war”.
Griffin then suggests some of the ways this general thesis applies to Putin’s extreme dependence on mythomania to justify and rationalize his continued conduct of his barbaric war on Ukraine, and how it also casts light on the way the war is interpreted by some journalists and commentators sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause. On this basis he argues that the same powerful mechanisms of cognitive dissonance, selective memory and redacted facts operating subliminally must be consciously acknowledged and counteracted by the minority of self-styled “experts” who emotionally support the “just cause” of self-defence but who remain determined to construct an account of unfolding events purged of “fake truths” and “alternative facts”. He argues that only in this way can the Ukraine war be understood more accurately (less mythically) in terms of repeated patterns in events observed in earlier wars and of the catastrophic misreading of realities by those directing it that has always blighted past conflicts. He also emphasizes the need to see this war, as all wars, as exhibiting not just familiar patterns but also unique and original permutations in human misjudgement, suffering and tragedy. Such a judicious combination of nomothetic (with an eye to general patterns) and idiographic (focused on the uniqueness of events) analyses would make possible a more scientifically demythicized grasp of what is happening in the war. The gain in rationality achieved through the minimalization of self-deception and mythopoeia arguably holds the key to the effective conduct of and foreign support for the war militarily now, and opens up at least the possibility of an eventual Ukrainian victory and its aftermath being managed by Ukraine working with the international community in a humane and pragmatic spirit purged of a triumphalism and vindictiveness towards “Russians”, so avoiding yet more tragedy for the populations on both sides of this senseless war.