Supporting defence and security, or militarism?

A letter in response to the call for a new British Psychological Society Section for Psychology in Defence and Security.

I write in response to a letter, by Fiona Butcher and others, and ‘5 minutes with Karen Carr’, both in the December issue, arguing the case for a new Section of the Society on Psychology in Defence and Security. Karen acknowledges that some will perceive there to be political and ethical issues here. She is right.

For one thing, it is not clear what constitutes defence and security psychology and where the boundary lies between the use of psychology and its abuse (see Peter Watson’s 1980 book War on the mind: The military uses and abuses of psychology). Is it confined to the health of military personnel and their treatment? Does it include the selection of service personnel? Or does it extend to the engagement of psychologists in weapons research, improving the efficient use of armaments and military performance under stress, understanding the enemy, and use of interrogation techniques? The scandal of the American Psychological Association failing to speak out about the involvement of psychologists in torture of detainees should be a warning to us.

Furthermore, some of the arguments put forward in support of a new Section suggest that it would be a vehicle for support of the military and militarism. There is reference in the letter to the UK having the fourth largest defence budget in the world and maintaining its status as one of only five recognised nuclear powers, without any comment as to whether this is something we should be proud of or ashamed of. The letter is accompanied by a picture bearing the Union Jack, suggesting that at least someone has assumed the Section would be stronger on nationalism than internationalism. Karen refers to how much ‘our infrastructures and organisations, our personal safety, our economic stability…in other words, our way of life’ depends on defence and security. That sounds much like government propaganda. Instead of the government-approved ‘Defence and Security’, shouldn’t the proposed Section more straightforwardly be termed Military Psychology?

One of the themes of the 2015 BPS Annual Conference was ‘War and Psychology’. I was unable to attend, but in subsequent summaries in The Psychologist, nowhere could I find even a hint of British psychology taking as its starting point the idea that war and militarism are themselves problems, things to be understood and prevented. I see an urgent need for what I call (in a forthcoming article in Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology) Psychology against Militarism (PAM).

PAM would provide us with a full account of the psychological and other costs of war, both to combatants and civilians, and of how those costs bear differentially upon different social and socio-economic groups. It would help us understand how militarism and violent solutions to conflict are justified and promoted; including the militarisation of childhood, of educational establishments, of games, of masculinity, of history, and of economic life, and support for armaments and the arms trade. It would also study anti-war and anti-militarist protest.

If there is to be a Section on military psychology, with the attendant danger of the Society being seen as supportive of militarism, then a strong Psychology against Militarism will be needed to provide balance and healthy debate.

Jim Orford FBPS
Emeritus Professor of Clinical and Community Psychology

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Jim Orford's dismantling of this stealthy dodge is masterful.