Mental Preparedness in Wartime


By ERIC P. MOSSE, M. D., Assistant Psychiatrist, New York State Psychiatric Institute and Hospital

Broadcast over Station WEVD, on January 2, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 255-256.

THE sudden reality of war has rocked the public of this country. We have been gradually accustomed to the idea, we saw it happen, we knew everything in advance and yet, this reality affects our emotions in a most unexpected way.

To put it bluntly, we are confronted with death. Bombs no longer rain death out of the moonlit sky merely in the papers, over the radio, on newsreels. This moon is no longer the sentimental symbol of a romanticized movie-love. It means an easier approach to our city for enemy planes, a more ominous danger to us. It is not the only symbol that has changed this way. We loved the penthouses, the highest floors of buildings and paid the highest rent for them. Now, we are running away from them and prefer the centrally located

floors. We loved our office in the exciting liveliness of downtown—or mid-town Manhattan and dreamed for the summer of our private Utopia on Long Island. Now, we think of a hidden place somewhere in the country. The symbol as well as their values have shifted.

The strange fact is that death, our death, the natural biological end of life, known to everybody, is seldom remembered in peacetime. We lived as if it would never happen. We repressed it, pushed it away from our conscious into the darkness of the unconscious.

This repression, as you might know, is one of the most important mechanisms of our psychic life. It occurs whenever something happens to us we don't want to notice. Something that is painful, hurts our pride, our self-esteem,

our concept of morality, our conscience. Then we simply "forget" it. Although it exists under the surface, we "don't know anything about it." Yet it might produce symptoms, of an emotional or mental disease.

This morbid forgetting, this mechanism of repression, is not the sad fate merely of the neurotic. As a matter of fact, it makes life possible, it is a kind of safety valve, installed so to say in the normal functioning of our soul, in order to enable us to go on. If we were constantly reminded of our death as an actual shock, life would be rendered impossible.

The strongest impulse besides hunger, sex, aggressiveness, is the drive for self-preservation. The soundness of our body is a necessary condition of our well-being. Is it threatened with damage or the expectation of it, we react with anxiety. A state of mind known to all of us consisting in a specific type of emotion which changes the functioning of our body, the rate of respiration, of the heartbeat, of the secretion of the glands. The capillaries, the little blood vessels contract, the face looks pale, the skin becomes cool, sweat may appear on the forehead. The day of the first air-raid alarm I had a chance to observe and compare this reaction in my normal friends to the behaviour of my patients. It showed that the so-called normals were emotionally more affected than the neurotics. The sicker the patient the less was his reaction. The firmness of the emotional defense is in reverse proportion to the morbid anxiety. This situation however might easily change in an actual break-through of the reality as experienced in bombing. We then probably would experience the results reported by the psychiatrists of the R. A. F. in London where the breakdowns were surprisingly few and occurred primarily in persons who had already a neurotic background. This teaches us to be as careful as possible with the selection of inductees. A typical incident was reported to me just now. A worker in an industrial enterprise had a row with his superior. He put down his tools, took off his workman clothes and walked out . . . to the next selective service commission, followed by six other men. What did this mean? His stop had nothing to do with any idealistic sacrifice of the individual's personal interest for the defense of the country. It was rather a gesture of defiance. But there was even more behind. To become a member and a part of the military machine means shifting personal responsibility to the authority of the (I almost said): of the leader. As a matter of fact, I do believe that the tremendous success of the Nazi military machine and the seducing, infectious power of the party is due mainly to the fact that the instinctive drives forbidden by society and moral law, have been sanctioned by the Fuhrer. Aggression, even murder, is not only allowed but it is glorified. My conscience does not bother me for the simple reason that I have no conscience. Control of the moral law is taken over by a superior officer, so that this Nazi soldier becomes a child with the religious belief in the righteousness of the Fuhrer-father whom he simply has to follow, undisturbed by his own thinking or moral objections. Thus we understand the cruelty, the sadism, of this national-socialism, on the one hand, as a typical behaviour-pattern of childhood, whereas, on the other hand, we might realize the dangerous vigor and efficient rashness of their destructive efforts. It is just this mental attitude and philosophy which we despise and which is contrary to our whole concept of democratic way of life. It is this "regression to childhood" which endangers the evolution and progress of human race, inducing us to go into this war. We are ready to sacrifice our actual happiness, even our life for this purpose. But let's be very sober, very clear: we are at a disadvantage from the begin-

ning. We are fighting for the primacy, for the predominance of organized intelligence over blind impulses. The power of these impulses is deadly. Look at the rapacious faces of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Himmler or any of the leading Nazi-"statesmen." Listen to the evident pathology of their hysterical, raging voices and speeches. You will easily grasp the suggestive fascination and the hypnotical reaction of their audiences. This is what makes fascism so dangerous: not the power of some mechanical weapon but fascism in ourselves. So far, war is a mathematical, numerical problem. Our experts in Washington know already the exact day when the weapon of the allies, the cannons, the tanks, the airplanes will equal the amount of the enemy. But this does not necessarily mean victory as yet. The question is: who handles these weapons? This is the great issue. And the other one is: after this war, what? That means: the fight begins after the fight. This fight is not finished with a treaty and the political capitulation of the enemy. It is the spirit of fascism that must be killed. We must establish the sovereignty of the "brain-surface", intelligent thinking, over the emotional and impulsive reactions, which are the relics of a time when we were still children. The beginning can be done and has to be done now, this very minute. The proclamations and advices for behaviour in case of air raids begin and end with the same sentence: "be calm." How? The threat to our life, sudden, unprepared, unexpected as it was, has to be taken now as something that belongs essentially to our life. We have to live constantly not only in the acute and dramatic situation of crashing bombs but at a time where people argue already that the whole business of alarm was only a build-up which has not to be taken seriously. The lesson, the emotional lesson of this first air-raid alarm is already forgotten. Somewhere, some thousand miles away, American soldiers and American sailors are fighting Japanese soldiers and Japanese sailors. They are drowning in the endless oceans or torn to pieces by the bombs and spluttering shells. Behind them are their mothers, brothers, husbands. Again our poor phantasy is fed only by the thin stream of newspaper and radio reports, while the lively experience of something tangible happening to us is fading away. Again the old repression sets in, again we live forever, again our death is no more part of our life. If we continue to do this, if we are not unceasingly awake to the reality, the next blow will hit us unprepared and knock us down. Our body might be saved from destruction but we ourselves, our mind, our being will suffer a dangerous blast. At this time, there is no more blessing in repression. Now, any repression bears the same unfortunate result as it does in any neurosis: confusion, morbid bloc, paralysis of action, sterile depression. We got to face the intrinsic change of our situation.

It is easy to grasp that the feeling of insecurity of the individual increases at a moment where the sedative routine of our jobs might be interrupted, the family split up. Those who never overcame the fears of their childhood, for whom their work and ambitions are but hectic devices of an over-compensating agony, might either be driven to the pseudo-security of the father-psychiatrist and the psychoanalytic couch or they remember that they are adults. They will give up the isolation of their neurotic retreat and join the groups, the community, the nation. Before this background of death they will alter their habits, revise their beliefs, reexamine the narrowness of their philosophy. They may learn to give, instead of keeping. To give money, love, even themselves. This war might educate them, not to kill but to make alive, to help, to feed. Because they have learned to be adults.