Why war?

My source of sometimes solace, sometimes schadenfreude during graduate school was the Piled Higher and Deeper comic. At one point it also provided the reality check that there are some questions that despite years of study, or ultimately a Ph.D., we cannot answer. Although “why war?” was posed as the unanswerable question for political science, it is just as valid to pose to psychologists, and try as we might we really are in no better position to answer it. Theories and glimmers of insight abound, but in many ways the human mind is just as impenetrable today as it was a hundred years ago, in the buildup to the first world war.

But the unanswerable questions keep drawing us back, because it is so important that we learn the answer (if only because – if you followed that link to the comic – we don’t want to buy a new car). And for the next month I will be attempting to answer the unanswerable, or at least distill small fragments of potential answers. Another professor and 17 of our students will be doing the same, as part of a January Term course called the Psychology of World War.

For us, this will not just be an academic exercise; the seed of this study abroad course was the vision of discussing obedience on the grounds of a concentration camp, and I do not think all of the documentaries and memoirs I have studied in the past few months have truly prepared me for the reality of that moment. For you, the best I can offer is a little psychology, a little reflection, and perhaps a few pictures down the line; but even words alone can be powerful, if they are the rig words.

There will be more than just the why of war, in the day-to-day; there is so much more to be understood in the impact of war on soldiers, on children, even on the field of psychology. I am gearing up to teach about moral decision making, the power of propaganda, the stickiness and insidiousness of belief, and the marks trauma will leave on the brain. I am also preparing to learn, from my social psychologist co-teacher, about prejudice, and group formation on the battlefield. Every one of these questions, though, is in its own way trying to answer that one overarching puzzle – why war?

So come along for the ride. The practical impact on the blog is that the usual Monday/Thursday update schedule is going out the window; some posts are being written in advance, some will be written the evening of an experience; some might come in twos or threes after a few days off, depending on my Internet access in the hotels of Europe and my energy levels after shepherding so many young adults through foreign countries. I can guarantee no answers…but I do hope to offer some insight.

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