Book Review: Just War. Psychology and Terrorism

Collins, S., 2007. Book Review: Just War. Psychology and Terrorism. Reformulation, Summer, pp.18-19.


I first thought that I might ‘enjoy’ the book when reading the ‘un-acknowledgements’, in which the Editor clarifies that he does not wish to thank the US President, British Prime Minister nor those members of the US Republican and British Labour Parties, ‘who have, in their own ways done so much to make this book possible.’ I knew then that this was no ‘ordinary’ piece of writing.

In this edited collection of 12 chapters Ron Roberts has brought together clinicians and researchers all of whose style of writing is anything but dry or turgid. Instead, with each chapter I read I was forced to sit up, to question what I had held as ‘the truth’, feel ashamed of my ignorance, and, more worryingly question the role of psychology in the most heinous aspects of Iraq. From the moment I picked up the book, to read it was both compelling and horrific.

As a Clinical Psychologist and CAT Practitioner, I would prefer to hold onto the naïve view that the ‘tools’ of psychological thinking will always be used to promote well-being. However, in his chapter, David Harper sets the tone by underlining the role that Psychology and Psychologists have inevitably played in helping regimes to find effective methods of torture. I found myself incredulous, shocked and disgusted to read that some of the most famous social psychology experiments, which had been the bread and butter of my 1980’s university undergraduate course, had been used by or funded by the CIA. Harper details the history of funded research into sensory deprivation, a very common method of torture at Abu Ghraib prison and builds a picture of psychologists being complicit in atrocities through their work being used to implement methods of torture. A colleague of mine was tortured in 1992 in Malawi, following the ‘seditious’ critical letter written by the Catholic bishops in which they laid bare the corruption under President Banda. It was sickening to read about the same torture methods
as those inflicted on my colleague and made me wonder what part psychology had played in his maltreatment.

In a further suggestion of complicity in the war, Roberts questions the role of professional bodies in the UK, in particular the British Psychological Society (BPS) who failed to release any official statement about the war in Iraq. Again, he proposes in his analysis a view of the BPS, which is not only unflattering but shaming. It makes challenging reading and is uncomfortable. Subsequent chapters continue to provoke by revealing the different ways in which Bosnian and British children construe the war; by suggesting that we are all guilty of believing the media portrayal of the conflict. In so doing, we are lead to believe that we have ignored the immense suffering of the Iraqi
people, of buying the idea that the war was to protect the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein and of seeing ‘us’ as their rescuers rather than their persecutors.

For CAT-lovers, the chapter by Steve Potter and Julie Lloyd is fascinating, not least for the creative way in which the concept of reciprocal roles is used to deconstruct the Camp David speeches of both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. This is CAT at its most flexible, using the relational aspects of the CAT model to analyse the dialogic sequences in the speeches of the two politicians.

For example, the authors describe six reciprocal roles in their analysis of Blair’s eve of Iraq speech, which are transcribed to show the restricted range of procedural sequences which both feed them and flow from them. This analysis helps the naïve reader to elucidate the ‘shadow side’ or possible truth, by highlighting what is omitted. For example, at the crux of the argument for the war are the reciprocal roles of ‘patiently
reasoning’ to ‘cooperate or treachery’; versus ‘threaten/use real force’ to ‘fearfully submitting or standing up’. The contention is that these roles depend on a belief that ‘we’ are reasonable and democratic whilst ‘they’ are beyond reason. The authors go on to show how the speech illustrates a fundamental belief that somehow, in our hands, the use of weapons will be reasonable because ‘we’, unlike ‘them’ are trustworthy and democratic. The power of this analysis is in the use of the model to contest that the politicians have somehow ignored the possibility that our use of force could make us the brutal aggressors.

Surely then, in Potter and Lloyd’s chapter there is a description of the ways in which the public can be ‘brainwashed’ by being shown only part of the full story, and one which preserves the goodness of those in power. Unlike the other chapters, in this one we see psychological tools as uncovering possible harm rather than being used to promote and promulgate harm. Perhaps the purpose of this book is to provoke us into action or at least make us more mindful of our own role in this atrocious war. It forces us to go into those areas where we are
uncomfortable to go. It reminds us that when we read the ’round robin’ email saying that 95% of the world’s resources are used by 5% of the world’s population, we are reading about ourselves. When we notice that the media is only talking about the losses amongst our own soldiers, who are the real victims and can we continue to be silent and in so doing be complicit? In CAT terms, what procedures are we enacting and whose reciprocal roles are we living by? Will we, as Ron Roberts suggests, be mindfully stepping towards a totalitarian state?

I would urge you to go out and get a copy of this book and, if you are a Psychology lecturer, to insist that it is part of every Undergraduate syllabus.

Sharon Collins
CAT Practitioner, Clinical Psychologist.
‘Just War. Psychology and Terrorism,’ edited by Ron Roberts,
PCCS books, Ross On Wye, 2007. ISBN 978 1 898 05992 9

Full Reference

Collins, S., 2007. Book Review: Just War. Psychology and Terrorism. Reformulation, Summer, pp.18-19.

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