"Superpower Syndrome"
by Robert Jay Lifton, M.D. (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003)


"This has been a war of choice, one which our leaders have felt motivated to wage. While we claimed to be defenders of the United Nations . . . we by no means fought a defensive war against someone else's aggression. Nor was it a (in a newly favored American phrase) a "preemptive war," one fought in response to an attack an enemy has initiated or is in the process of initiating. Rather, it was a preventive war embarked upon because our leaders decided that, sometime in the future, Iraq could be dangerous to the United States. The "danger" that was "prevented," I will argue, was the impediment posed by Iraq and the power structure of the Middle East to American domination of that region and of the world itself; in other words, to a dream — an extreme, even apocalyptic one — cherished by our present leaders." p. x
"The doctrine of preventive war is at any time odious: it provides a rationale for anyone's murderous military ventures. But such a doctrine becomes especially grotesque in the nuclear age. . . ." p. x-xi

"We have to ask what is happening to our leaders and to us as a people when we reach the point of justifying a preventive war and taking pride in the fact that less than 200 Americans and British were killed in a battle while thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of Iraqis died, or when we wallow in triumphalism -- as though this had been a true contest between military equals and a glorious victory, rather than a slaughter as the world's most powerful military machine simply overwhelmed a relatively small and weak nation. No less disturbing, that triumphalism has been accompanied by a widespread labeling of opponents of the war, or even those insufficiently enthusiastic about it as "unpatriotic," "un-American," "traitors," or even if they were in foreign countries "anti-American" and even "enemies" of America." p. xi

The invasion of Iraq followed upon the fanatical Islamist violence of September 11, 2001, and an American response that took the form of an amorphous ‘war on terror.’ That ‘war’ is a manifestation of what I call ‘superpower syndrome,’ a medical metaphor meant to suggest aberrant behavior that is not just random but part of a more general psychological and politial constellation. That constellation – the syndrome – developed in the aftermath of World War II but has recently taken extreme, world-endangering form.” pp. xi-xii

“This book is an exploration, both psychological and historical, of how we reached our present predicament and how we might begin to extricate ourselves from it. It is my version of a patriotic, an expression of deep concern for my country. Beneath its belligerence, I believe that country is now enmeshed in a landscape of fear. Yet we do possess a democratic tradition that allows for critical self-examination and constructive change in our national life.” p. xii

Chapter 1 – The Apocalyptic Face-Off

"The apocalyptic imagination has spawned a new kind of violence at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We can, in fact, speak of a worldwide epidemic of violence aimed at massive destruction in the service of various visions of purification and renewal. p. 1

"September 11 was a triumphant moment for Islamic fanatics – and a profoundly humiliating one for the leaders of the American superpower, who early on decided that their response would be “war” and a specifically American war a that. . . . Instead [of a multilateral approach] this [Bush, Jr.] administration chose to respond unilaterally with the rhetorical of war, making it clear that we alone would decide what levels of military force to apply and who to apply it to, accepting no restraints in the process."

"In that and in other ways we have responded apocalyptically to an apocalyptic challenge. We have embarked on a series of wars – first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, with the suggestions of additional targeted countries in the offing – because we have viewed the amorphous terrorist enemy as evil and dangerous. But our own amorphously extreme response feeds a larger dynamic of apocalyptic violence, even as it constructs a twenty-first-century version of American empire." p. 10

"That prospective empire is confusing to the world, to Americans, and perhaps even to those who espouse it. It does not follow the prior imperial models of keeping an extensive bureaucracy in place in subject countries and thereby ruling territories extending over much of the earth. Instead, we press toward a kind of control from a distance: mobile forays of military subjugation with subsequent governmental arrangements unclear. Crucial to this kind of fluid world control is our dominating war machine, backed by no less dominant nuclear stockpiles. Such an arrangement can lend itself to efforts at the remote control of history. Any such project, however, becomes enmeshed in fantasy, in dreams of imposing an omnipotent will on others, and in the urge to control history itself. Driven by superpower syndrome, such visions of domination and control can prove catastrophic when, as they must, they come up against the irredeemable stubbornness of reality."

"While this book tells a grim psychological tale, the telling is an expression of hope. The outcome of the tale is not fixed. Diagnosing our ailment can be a step toward its amelioration or possibly even its cure." 10-11

The theme of the destruction of a corrupt world by a stern deity in order to clear the way for a new spiritual beginning has been so pervasive as to be a common denominator of the world’s major religions. Long predating Christianity and Judaism, it can, in fact, be traced to the Iranian prophet Zoroaster in the fifteenth century B.C. Yet, however ancient it may be, for believers the apocalyptic is experienced as overwhelmingly immediate in its power, and the present is seen as offering ‘a decisive opportunity for the transformation of the world...’ In that way, a 3,500-year-old vision of destruction and re-creation becomes a fiercely rewarding contemporary expectation of a soon-to-be or a distant but revelatory future.”

But whatever the the psychological satisfaction obtained, the apocalyptic cannot rest easy. He feels always under pressure to impose his world view – antagonistic to much of contemporary rationality – on others, in part to stifle his own doubts and affirm the virtue of his convictions. He is a restless missionary who can become a righteous killer.” p. 20

Vietnam — Destroying to Save

"The apocalyptic aura of the American war in Vietnam was expressed in the classic statement of a soldier, "We had to destroy [the village] to save it." One could well extend that image to say that much of Vietnam was devastated so that it could be "saved" from Communism. From that standpoint, Vietnam was part of a global mission of purification, meant to combat the defilement and spread of Communist evil." p. 46

"A mission of that kind readily created what I came to call an "attrocity producing situation" — a setting in which ordinary soldiers, men no better or worse than you or me, could readily commit attrocities; shooting prisoners, randomly killing civilians, mutilating corpses. That, of course, can happen in any war, but the Vietnam environment, psychologically and structurally, was particularly conducive to atrocity: counterinsurgency warfare in unfamiliar physical and cultural terrain; an enemy with support from people (whether in common cause or out of or out of fear) who could strike and kill but was hard to directly engage; fighting in which civilians were often impossible to tell apart from military enemies; the "body count" of enemy dead as virtually the only measure of success; "free-fire zones" in which one was permitted to fire virtually at random; and encouragement from officers to avenge the deaths of buddies and to deal with feelings of angry mourning by killing anyone or anything in sight. Contributing to this socialization to attrocity was a mixture of military frustration and radical disbelief in the assigned mission. One former grunt described such feelings to me this way: "What am I doing here? We don't take any land. We don't give it back. We just mutilate bodies. What the fuck are we doing here?" p. 47

". . . Men and women could experience what I came to think of as "animating guilt" and use it as a means of rejecting the overall American mission in Vietnam and their own part in it. They could express painful forms of self-condemnation without remaining fixed in a static, mea culpa stance. Rather, they were capable of leaving both the attrocity-producing situation and the overall apocalyptic mission by transforming those guilt feelings into a sense of responsibility in opposing the war and revealing its grotesque details to the American people — all the while insisting that our leaders and our society acknowledge responsibility for what was being done in our name thousands of miles away." pp. 47-48

Vietnam and the Superpower Psyche

"Vietnam has special importance for the superpower syndrome as it was the first significant defeat of a superpower in our times. (The earlier Korean War had been a superpower standoff.) Only a little more than a decade later, the lesser superpower, the USSR, was similarly defeated in Afghanistan and soon after suffered a complete imperial collapse and ceased to exist. The Vietnam war demonstrated that a relatively small and technologically limited country could, on its own terrain, win a victory over a superpower -- unless that superpower were willing to use weapons of mass destruction and annihilate the smaller country completely. It was evidence, clear enough to those willing to see, that while either superpower was then capable of destroying the world, neither could control the world." p. 49

But that hardly meant such aspirations were at an end. President Nixon had spoken bitterly of America as 'a pitiful helpless giant' because of its reluctance to take aggressive military stances in the world that might lead to other Vietnams, a reluctance that came to be known as the "Vietnam Syndrome." In the eyes of superpower advocates, that syndrome stood for a form of weakness that had to be overcome. The most ringing words of President George Bush, Sr., in his immediate response to victory in the first Gulf War in 1991, invoked not heroic warriors (as in Winston Churchill's classic "Never have so many owed so much to so few") but a cure: "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" pp. 49-50

"For many American planners, even that victory proved insufficient for kicking the syndrome. As an antidote to memories of Vietnam-era "weakness," they constructed military policies of "preemptive" (or preventative) strikes and world hegemony, first resisted by the mainstream but enthusiastically embraced by the second Bush administration. These post-Vietnam policies eventually brought about the invasion of Iraq in April 2003. Rather than accept the truth of superpower limitation that lay beneath the "Vietnam syndrome," such global planners embraced an illusory claim of superpower omnipotence." p. 50

Thought Reform — Engineering the Soul

". . . a strikinng aspect of the last century's excesses of particular importance for modern apocalyptic movements has been the assault on the mind. . . . the systematic application of coercive psychological methods of controlling the mind, although certainly echoing earlier historical impulses has been a crucial twentieth-century phenomenon p. 50-51

. . .

Chapter 7 A Superpower's "war on terrorism"

". . . These attacks were carried out against the world's only superpower, in broad daylight, in front of tlevision cameras, by a handful of barely armed terrorists who belonged to a small organization without even a claim to nationhood." p. 107

Superpower Humiliation

"A superpower dominates and rules. Above all, it is never to be humiliated. In important ways, then, the "war on terrorism" represents an impulse to undo violently precisely the humiliation of that day. . . . "

“The war on terrorism, then, took amorphous impulses toward combating terror and used them as a pretext for realizing a prior mission aimed at American global hegemony.” p. 114

Omnipotence and Vulnerability

"Ironically, superpower syndrome projects the problem of American vulnerability onto the world stage. A superpower is perceived as possessing more than natural power. (In this sense it comes closer to resembling the comic-strip hero Superman than the Nietzschean Superman.) For a nation, itsleaders, or even its ordinary citizens to enter into the superpower syndrome is to lay claim to omnipotence, to power that is unlimited, which is ultimately power over death." pp. 128-129

At the heart of the superpower syndrome then is the need to eliminate a vulnerability that, as the antithesis of omnipotence, contains the basic contradiction of the syndrome. For vulnerability can never be eliminated, either by a nation or an individual. In seeking its elimination, the superpower finds itself on a psychological treadmill. The idea of vulnerability is intolerable, the fact of it irrefutable. One solution is to maintain the illusion of invulnerability. But the superpower then runs the danger of taking increasingly draconian actions to sustain that illusion. For to do otherwise would be to surrender the cherished status of superpower.” p. 129

“To be sure, the manipulative American presentation of “evidence” … were largely a pretext for an invasion the Bush administration had long been determined to carry out. But the need to preserve the illusion of invulnerability also played its part, contributing to a self-proclaimed entitlement to head off imagined future dangers …” 133

“The superpower, trapped in its syndrome, finds itself with little recourse but the endless use of force.” 135

“… More than any other nation, the superpower is psychologically bedeviled by vulnerbility.” 135

“… psychic numbing .. allows one to function cognitively without responding emotionally to a scene so extreme that it might otherwise be hard to stay sane. Psychic numbing can be highly adaptive to survivors of death encounters; it can also enable perpetrators to do their dirty work.” 142

The overall task of the survivor is to find meaning in his or her ordeal. We are meaning-hungry creatures, and what has been devastatingly chaotic must be given form. Only by finding meaning in the death encounter can one find meaning in the rest of one’s life.
No war or disaster, however extreme, provides meaning in itself. That meaning must be constructed by survivors or others who have been affected.” 144

“… The Pentagon could not defend the Pentagon.” 150

“The administration’s manipulation of fear, always with the promise of ultimate protection, can work for a certain period of time, but the fear will not go away.” 165

“Undoubtedly many Americans were drawn to this image of their superpower president as a “top-gun” military hero; others were appalled by what they saw as a disturbing form of hollow triumphalism that reflected a superpower’s increasing militarization.” 169

“Most Americans have adapted to the threat of 9/11 in the manner they did to nuclear fear: that is, by resorting to a double life. They go about their routines, their jobs, and family involvements in their usual ways, while in another part of the self they are aware that, in a moment and without warning, they and everything and everyone around them could be annihilated. This limited, everyday dissociation permits us all to carry on reasonably effectively in our lives. But it cannot fully overcome lingering anxiety, which may be painfully activated by events or images, nearby or far away, associated in people’s minds with terrorism. The depth of this fear and the ease with which it may reassert itself leaves Americans open to significant emotional manipulation by leaders all too ready to enlist them in an apocalyptic superpower mission that they might otherwise call into question, even strongly oppose. Such primal experiences of fear prepare people to resonate to the persistent drumbeat of the administration’s “war on terrorism.”” 171

Chapter 12 Fluid World Control

"The invasion of Iraq was a continuation of the American military apocalyptic of destroying what is deemed necessary for the reshaping of a designated part of the world. The extremity of the project and the utopian dreams of global domination that lay beneath it were hidden behind administration assertions about the need for disarmament, regime change, and democratization. Inevitably, the war-fighting, which was destructve phase, was much more efficient than what columnist William P. Pfaff called the "planned (or as it seems, largely unplanned) pacification and reconstruction" of Iraq that followed." p. 173

. . .

"The National Security Strategy is in fact a statement of American susceptibility to the lure of the infinite ‐ to a vision of achieving total sway over human endeavors. It represents a kind of omega point of superpower omnipotence and megalomania." p. 177

The Haunted Superpower

"The world's only superpower is haunted by a fear of weakness. From psychiatric experience with individual, we know that underneath expressions of megalomania and claims of omniscience there tend to by profound feelings of Powerlessness and emptiness. . . . Fear of being out of control can lead to the most aggressive efforts at total control of everyone else." p.178

"The world's only superpower has become a target not just because it is so dominant but because its recent policies and attitudes, emerging from superpower syndrome, have antagonized just about everyone. Its urealizable omnipotence has caused its leaders to embark on an aggressive quest for absolute security via domination, which is another form of entrapment in infinity." p.179

"The temptation of our leaders is to tap into primal American nuclear fear in order to affirm their own aggressive fear-driven policies. . . . In that way nuclear fear becomes a key lever for the militarization of society." p. 184

. . .

Chapter 13 Stepping out of the Syndrome

"As a start, we do not have to collude in partitioning the world into two contending apocalyptic forces. We are capable instead of reclaiming our moral compass, of finding further balance in our national behavior. So intensely have we embraced superpower syndrome that emerging from it is not an easy task. Yet in doing so we would relieve ourselves of a burden of our own creation — the psychic burden of insistent illusion. For there is no greater weight than that one takes on when pursuing total power."

"... The corruption begins not with the acquisition of power but with the quest for and claim to absolute power. Ever susceptible to the seductive promise that twenty-first century technology can achieve world control, the superpower can best resist that temptation by recognizing the corruption connected with that illusion." p. 190