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Vamık D. Volkan, M.D., DLFAPA, FACPsa.

 
 
  
 
 
  
 
 
LARGE-GROUP DYNAMICS AND WORLD CONFLICT:
THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF VAMIK VOLKAN
 
 
 
 
 
Howard B. Levine
 
 
 
 
 
BLOOD LINES: FROM ETHNIC PRIDE TO ETHNIC TERRORISM by Vamık D.Volkan. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997, 280 pp.
And BLIND TRUST: LARGE GROUPS AND THEIR LEADERS IN TIMES OF CRISIS AND TERROR by Vamık D. Volkan.
Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing, 2004, 367 pp.
(Dr. Levine's review appeared in The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 54: 273-280, 2006.)   
 
 
 
 
Psychoanalysis occupies a problematic position in regard to international diplomacy and world conflict. It once was assumed that familiarity with the unconscious and the destructive tendencies inherent in human nature might offer analysts a unique and privileged positionfrom which to understand and attempt to contribute to the resolution of national and international crises. In the aftermath of  World War I, for example, Freud (1932) was asked to comment on whether human nature made war inevitable.
 

For the most part, however, assumptions about the relevance and applicability of psychoanalysis to diplomacy and world affairs have not been borne out by experience. Despite the pioneering work on small-group dynamics by Freud, Bion, and others, the explanatory power of analytic theories and the clinical data on which analytic expertise is based have proven more relevant to understanding individual and dyadic behavior and emotional development than to understanding experience and behavior in large social groups. Attempts to apply psychoanalytic insights to politics, large groups, and the interactions between these groups and their leaders have met with little success. As a result, the ethnic, religious, and cultural conflicts that have become such pervasive facts of political life in the twenty-first century have generally proven to be beyond the expertise and experience of most psychoanalysts.
 

In contrast to most psychoanalysts, however, Vamık Volkan has had extensive first-hand experience working with diplomats, administrators, statesmen, and mental health professionals in the study and attempted resolution of major conflicts in many of the major trouble spots of the world.1
 
His books, Blood Lines and Blind Trust, thoughtful, compelling, and extremely well written, are the fruit of his ideasand observations across a professional lifetime. They forge a vital link between psychology and political science, as they argue persuasively for including a psychological, particularly an unconscious psychological, dimension into any understanding of ethnic, national,and international conflict. Taken together, they provide readers the beginnings of a sophisticated, psychoanalytically informed theory of large-group dynamics, the concepts needed to understand the relationship and interplay between individual and large-group identity, and numerous vivid and compelling illustrations drawn from contemporary world events.
 

Considering Volkan’s professional roots as a clinical psychoanalyst, it is not surprising that his experience leads him to conclude that long-standing national and ethnic conflicts "cannot be understood by focusing only on real-world factors, such as economic, military, legal, and political circumstances. Real-world issues are highly ‘psychologized’—contaminated with shared perceptions, thoughts, fantasies, and emotions (both conscious and unconscious) pertaining to past historical glories and traumas: losses, humiliations, mourning difficulties, feelings of entitlement to revenge, and resistance to accepting changed realities" (Blood Lines (hereafter BL), p.117). It is the task of these two books to demonstrate and examine this assertion in detail.
 

Volkan has participated in the study and attempted resolution of national and international conflicts and crises under the auspices of the United Nations, the Carter Center, the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, which he founded and led, and the FBI. The trouble spots he has dealt with include Israel, Egypt, and Palestine; Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece; Bosnia, Serbia, and the former Yugoslavia; Rwanda; Armenia and Azerbaijan; South Osettia and the Republic of Georgia; Latvia, Estonia, and Russia; Albania; Kurdistan; and Waco, Texas.
 
Volkan argues persuasively that without some application of the principles of psychoanalysis, diplomats and political scientists cannot understand the full range of conscious and unconscious meanings—and the passions associated with these meanings—that individuals assign to cultural identity and ethnic attachment. The urgency to arrive at this understanding follows from the fact that it is precisely these passions and meanings that underlie religious fundamentalism, terrorism, suicide bombings, ethnic and religious conflict, ethnic violence, and ethnic cleansing, each of which he examines in detail.
 

Ultimately, Volkan provides readers a psychoanalytic theory of large-group dynamics based on an understanding and study of the emotional bonds of large social groups, the dynamics and interaction of large groups and their leaders, and the psychology and vicissitudes of large-group identity and its relation to individual identity. Of particular interest are his descriptions of how identity at the personal and group levels is maintained, protected, and repaired, the effects of regression on large groups under threat, and how political leaders may manipulate this regression and the rituals of large-group cohesion so as to produce "an atmosphere ripe for unspeakable, seemingly inhumane acts of violence" (Blind Trust (hereafter BT), p.14).
 

Volkan’s goal, one I believe has been admirably achieved, is to provide statesmen and politicians, as well as psychoanalysts and other mental health practitioners, the conceptual tools with which to think about some of the most pressing issues of our times. These include the need to understand "why bloody wars between neighbors not only persist, but proliferate" (BL, p.20) and "how certain universal elements of human nature converge to create an atmosphere that both gives rise to violent aggressive acts, such as the September 11 attacks or war, and allows the smothering of individual rights and freedom..."  (BT, p.11).
 

Volkan believes that in the course of development core individual identity at the preoedipal level and large-group identity become inextricably intertwined. Threats or damage to the one may have important consequences for the other. The link between the two is often out of awareness, unless one or the other is threatened or until an event occurs in which belonging to a large group evokes pleasure, anger, or pain.
 

Using the analogy of the large group as a tent supported by and organized around its leaders as the center pole, he shows how individuals may cling to their large-group identity as a kind of reparative “patch” for a damaged or traumatized self. The dynamic interaction between individual and large-group identity often proves central to understanding regression and violence in the psychology of large-group leadership and in large-group conflicts such as racism and ethnic and religious wars, including the terrorism (e.g., the recruitment and development of suicide bombers) that often attends them.
 

Large-group identities rely on and are reinforced by the continued existence of ethnic markers and shared reservoirs of ethnic identity (e.g., the Finnish sauna, the Scottish tartan, or the Palestinian neck scarf ), "chosen traumas" (e.g., the fourteenth-century Serbian defeat by the Turks at Kosovo), "chosen glories" (e.g., the Macabees’ liberation of the Second Temple or the Battle of Britain), and the continued presence of enemies and “not-me” others, whose existence helps delineate and affirm group boundaries and who can function as “suitable reservoirs of externalization” for unwanted and unacceptable disavowed fantasies and impulses that rightly belong to our own large groups and ourselves. As Volkan describes them, our “large-group identities are the end result of an historical continuity, geographical reality, a myth of common beginning, and other shared events: they evolve naturally. They are neither bad nor good, but a normal phenomenon” (BL, p.22). In any given circumstance, the use to which these ethnic markers and rituals are put will be determined by the degree and kind of regression that occurs in the large group. "As long as the rituals that serve to separate groups are not rigidified by large-group regression, they function positively to protect and enhance large-group identity and to keep expressions of each group’s aggression under control. When the tension between the competitive groups increases, however, each group’s existing rituals of self-definition grow less flexible, and new rituals develop: rituals in which we can detect signs of magical thinking and blurred reality. The enemy... (then may be) increasingly perceived as a conglomeration of every undesirable quality; in such negative stereotyping, the enemy is often thought of as a lower class of human, and, at worst, as actually less than human" (BT, p.107).
 

Large-group regressions may be benign or malignant, depending on the particular social, political, and historical context in which the regression occurs and the response of group members and leaders to the regression. "When large groups are threatened by conflict, members of the group cling ever more stubbornly to ... (experiences of ethnicity, nationality, religion, and other large-group affiliations) in an effort to maintain and regulate their sense of self and their sense of belonging to a large group. At such times, large-group processes become dominant and large-group identity issues and rituals are more susceptible to political propaganda and manipulation" (BT, p.262).
 

Under conditions of actual or threatened large-group regression, it is the nature of group leadership that often proves decisive to the outcome. At such times, "basic trust of the group members may become shaken, even perverted by the manipulation of political leaders and replaced by a blind trust, in which leaders’ views and directions are followed at all costs and contrary to more reasonable considerations” (BT, pp.13-14). It is then that group members “will tolerate extreme shared sadism and/or masochism in defense of the group’s identity" (BT, p.133).
 

At its most pernicious, group leadership, often in the service of supporting the leader’s political ambitions and conscious and unconscious psychological needs, can encourage a process of demonization and dehumanization of the group’s enemies. This may "set the stage for terrorism, war-like conditions, and wars..." (BT, pp.107-108).
 

Alternatively, it may lead to a readiness among group members to destroy themselves "(whether in a suicide bomber’s attack or a group’s mass suicide) ...as an act of assertion... (that) emphatically separates the identity of the group willing to sacrifice themselves from that of the ‘others’ perceived as threatening them" (BT, p.133).
 

Volkan provides his readers many examples of ethnic and nationalistic conflict and the psychological complexity of large-group leadership. Styles of leadership range from the reparative to the destructive and may be in tune with realistic considerations or designed to shore up the internal needs of the large group and/or its leaders. He discusses in detail the educational, constructive leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk during the formation of the modern Turkish Republic and the malignant, destructive leadership of Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic in Serbia and Kosovo. In addition, he explores the leadership styles and decisions of such prominent world figures as Hitler, Stalin, Nixon, Osama bin Laden, Enver Hoxha, and Abdullah Ocalan of the Kurdish PPK, and offers a plausible psychological analysis of the roots, reflected in their personal and familial histories, of some of these leaders’ key leadership decisions.
 
What will perhaps be of most interest and urgency to readers is Volkan’s understanding and analysis of the place of large-group psychology in the creation of terrorists and suicide bombers. In his view, in order to become or endorse a suicide bomber, a person’s individual identity must be suppressed, dominated, or replaced with a largegroup identity. The conditions most favorable for this transformation exist when individuals have been traumatized and humiliated at the personal or cultural levels and their large-group identities are based on powerful feelings of injury and victimization and are closely tied to revenge as the necessary and highly valued salve to the large group’s injured self-esteem.
 

Volkan cautions us, however, that "suicide bombers are not psychotic: in their cases, the created identity fits well with the external reality and is approved by outsiders. Thus, future suicide bombers feel normal, and often experience an enhanced sense of self-esteem. They become, in a sense, spokespeople for the traumatized community and assume that they, at least temporarily, can reverse the shared sense of victimization and helplessness by expressing the community’s rage" (BT, p.159).
 

Terrorists and suicide bombers are often selected from among those who have been subjected to actual events that traumatize, deprive, and humiliate these youngsters and their families, communities, and social groups. They include "youths who have been hurt by ethnic conflict: those who have been beaten up or have lost a father or brother in demonstrations; those who have not successfully completed their adolescent transformation and are alienated without much hope for the future in existing political and economic conditions" (BL, p.165). It is "feelings of helplessness and dehumanization [that] help to create cracks in individual identities..." (BT, p.161). The greater the degree of stress and trauma on a given individual or community, the "more easily "normal" people can be pushed to become candidates for terrorism" (BT, p.162).
 

Once selected, future terrorists—often adolescent males—are then cut off from their more usual family and community connections, prohibited outlets that may be sexually stimulating, and kept in an environment whose secrecy reinforces the feeling that they are powerful and special. Indoctrination is most effective when damaged individual identities consisting of personal and group feelings of helplessness, shame, and humiliation can be replaced by "religious elements of the large-group identity, ...(because) internalising the divine makes a person feel omnipotent and supports their selfesteem" (BT, p.160).
 

Once the large-group identity, whether ethnic or religious, subsumes or subjugates personal identity, "the ordinary ‘rules and regulations’ of individual psychology no longer apply to ...(individuals’) patterns of thought and action. Killing one’s self (one’s personal identity) and others (enemies) does not matter; what matters is that the act of terrorism brings self-esteem and attention to the group; the psychological priority is the repair and/or enhancement of the large-group identity (through a sadistic or masochistic act), which actually enhances the suicide bomber’s modified personal identity (and self-esteem)" (BT, p.160).
 

These same phenomena may also be observed in the recruitment and retention of members of cults and other strict ideological communities and in their families, many of whom "are typically seeking to patch up wounded personal (or family) identities. By replacing their existing identities with the ‘second skin’ of the cult identity, they imagine, they will escape anxieties associated with their individual (or familial) identities..." (BT, p.122).
 

Volkan has observed analogous forces in the psychology of leaders of cults or terrorist movements and cells: “the leader [often] seeks to parent others in an attempt to replace or repair the bad parenting of his or her childhood; the followers seek a new parent-figure in the leader in order to resolve childhood traumas. Sadly, followers most often end up re-experiencing relationships with ‘bad’ parenting when the leader’s internal world poisons his or her "parenting" (BT, p.122).
 

Having given an extensive account of the genesis and dynamics of ethnic conflict and terrorism, Volkan leaves readers with a small but significant reason for hope. As in the individual situation, the remedy for past and ongoing injury lies partly in forgiveness and partly in the acceptance and mourning of what has happened. Both are necessary precursors for taking concrete steps toward establishing a more constructive relationship with the external world.
 

It is striking to read Volkan’s descriptions of how avowed enemies—Israelis and Palestinians, Estonians and Russians—relate to each other once they begin to meet together in small-group settings. Each brings a polarized, suspicious, fantastical view of the other and, through a process that often starts with a demand for recognition by one’s adversaries of the legitimacy of one’s large-group traumas, injuries, and slights, goes on to recognize the humanity of the other.
 

The latter permits group mourning to occur and may eventuate in the beginnings of a common ground of mutual respect and recognition on which real and potentially fruitful negotiations may begin. In 1977, the prime minister of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, journeyed to the Israeli Knesset and delivered an historic speech, in which he said that beyond political, military, and economic considerations, there were psychological barriers of suspicion, fear, rejection, and deception that divided Arabs and Israelis and that these were responsible for 70 percent of the problems that existed between them. This speech, which was an important starting point of Volkan’s career as a psychopolitical observer and participant in world affairs, contains a lesson that remains of vital importance for psychoanalysis and for the world. Sadat’s observation challenged Volkan—and should challenge us—to wonder, “Are there ways to apply psychoanalytically informed insights to political, legal, economic, and social (forces and) changes in a country shaping a new (or evolving) identity?... How can institutions be built so that they absorb the psychological insights and serve as antidote to regressions in the large group and in the interaction of leaders and followers?” (BL, p.206).
 

Clearly, a significant gap exists between the letter and the application of the rule of law worldwide. In these books, Volkan argues persuasively that “the psychoanalytic study of the psychology of large groups can do much to illuminate this large, shadowy area. Better understanding and application of these ideas may help unveil those irrational and stubborn factors that lead to violence so that they can be dealt with more effectively, so that we can bring our worst enemies—our shared identity conflicts and anxieties—from darkness into light” (BL, p.227).
 

It is our good fortune—and Vamık Volkan’s enormous contribution to psychoanalysis and political science—that he has begun to help us address this task.
 
 
 
 

REFERENCES:
 
1- FREUD, S. (1932.) Why War? Standard Edition, 22:194–215.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Copyright © Vamık D. Volkan and Özler Aykan 2007.
 
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Last modified on: May 28, 2012