On the Eros of War and the Thanatos of Peace - Remembering the Battles of the Soča (1915–1917)

Avtor: Bogdan Lešnik

A Slavic word for war, vojna, derives from Indo-European boj, which in Slavic languages still means fight or struggle. The verb, bíti, resonates in the English word beat (‘beat him up’ would be the semantic equivalent of bijte ga). This connection between distant languages suggests, not so surprisingly, that what we have here is an ancient preoccupation. On the opposite side, ancient Slavic mir meant peace as well as world (as it still does in Russian). In present Slovenian, mir only stands for peace, though we can trace the other meaning in the compound vsemirje, ‘all peace’, standing for the universe. ‘Peace’ broadly covers tranquillity; freedom of anxiety, disturbance or agitation; motionlessness; even death (rest in peace); and above all, a state without conflict.

The classical example of war in which Eros seems to have played a crucial part is the Trojan War. It all began (for the events preceding the Iliad see Grimal, 1951) when goddess Eris (‘strife’, Discordia in Latin) got herself banned from the beauty contest that came to be known as Paris’ judgment. In revenge, she introduced the ‘apple of discord’ that the Trojan prince was to throw to the most beautiful of the now seriously competing remaining three goddesses. Each offered him a bribe, and he chose Aphrodite’s: the most beautiful woman in the world, Spartan king Menelaus’ wife Helen. Aphrodite’s son Eros then shot Helen in the heart and she fell for Paris, as he had been promised. To the men in the story, Helen was by all accounts desirable, but much more in the sense of a precious possession, a trophy to win and keep, than as a love object. The true motive here is appropriation (and re-appropriation). Love was only used with Helen so that she would make the ‘right choice’, as contrived by the goddess. The operating force, initiated by Eris, was envy. Eros was no more than an instrument to reach the objective.

Incidentaly, according to the online etymological dictionary of Croatian language, the Greek word eris takes part in the etymological chain (starting with Sanskrit rti) that produced another Slavic word for war – rat.

War promises change, ultimately in power relations and ownership. It may be planned in a small interest group to some specific end, but it needs some justification to muster any wider mobilisation. A fantasy must emerge that war is the suitable scenario to achieve an object (‘worth fighting for’). The First World War officially began when Austrian Emperor declared war on Serbia, because it had failed to fulfil the Austrian ultimatum. It was about the honour and reputation of the Empire against the small remote kingdom that had been implicated in the assassination of the Empire’s Crown Prince and wife. Saving face was a populist pretext that evoked people’s passions in support of the act that sealed the fate of the Empire. Once again, instrumental Eros, and just as for Troy, the entailing events inevitably led to destruction.

There is no symmetry between peace and war. War erupts and peace is eo ipso broken – automatically, without possibility of dispute or objection. It does not work conversely. We cannot say that peace ends war. War must first end for peace to settle. The peace treaty that usually ends war is still an act of war, dictated by the victor who thus shapes the subsequent order. War is pure constraint, but peace is not to be simply equated with liberty. War appears to have a direction and objectives and a strict chain of command; in contrast, peace may look disorderly and entropic. Even the battles of everyday life have casualties such as homicide and suicide, not to mention ruined lives. Peace can be frustrating, an affect that fades as insignificant under the pressures of war. A strange but arguable parallel can be found with not few creative people who cannot produce unless they wreak havoc, which tends to harm them in the long run.

Most countries are permanently preparing for war. They have conscripted or professional armies, updated weaponry, intelligence services, they are members of this or that military alliance, etc., all following Vegetius’ (1993) succinct words: ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ Political realism always anticipates war, which is thus always already with us, making peace a rather conditional state. Until the twentieth century, when there was a war in one region, people in others may have simultaneously lived in peace. The two world wars removed such boundaries. The following Cold War, a competition in nuclear armament, threatened the whole planet with destruction. Cold War may have ended, but the threat did not. Today, there is a staggering number of armed conflicts worldwide, topped by four intense wars (Wikipedia, 2017), with massive consequences for both local populations and the rest of the world. This development is concurrent with augmented communication facilities, so we have to admit, in passing, that ‘better communication’ as such does not make the world more peaceful. It makes two things easier: organisation and propaganda.

Peace has great value immediately after war (the contrast was immortalized by Tolstoy), a value that diminishes in time. The end of war is an opportunity to repair what was destroyed or damaged. We know that Foulkes conceived group analysis as part of reparative efforts during the Second World War, and that Bion used extensively his experiences from the first one. Our potential for reconstruction seems much higher following a disaster than without it. There is a parallel in how we often seek psychotherapy after a major calamity (personal, professional) and not while our condition was stable, albeit disturbed. Our ‘peace’ before the calamity was but a state of tolerable disorder.

Not being a clear-cut state itself – there are war-like situations without war being explicitly declared, as well as declarations of war in non-military contexts (as in ‘war on poverty’) – the actual war is merely the peak of relations and practices that comprise violence, fighting, appropriation, disownment, or another attribute of war. In ‘wars for positions’, typical for institutions and organisations, everybody can be (or become) the enemy. Even purely metaphorical expressions (‘pen is mightier than sword’, ‘deadly gossip’, ‘killing looks’, etc.) imply potentially grievous consequences. Freud, when discussing aggression, only sporadically refers to war – and when he does, as in his letter to Einstein (Freud, 1933), he speaks against simplifying the issue. Wartime is indeed an opportunity for a variety of morally despicable, yet (some by this very virtue) pleasurable acts; on the other hand, it is not without glorious or happy moments – not in spite of the circumstances but precisely on their background, which underscores magnanimity and heroism – on the top of which would certainly be the supreme satisfaction of victory.

For Freud, this would exemplify his theory of ‘fusion’ of the aggressive or destructive drive, (partial) sexual drives, and ego or self-preservation drives (Freud, 1920). They are the unmistakeable components of our actions, inseparable in performance but distinguishable in traces. We can trace aggressive or destructive impulses already in the assumption that violence is ‘necessary’ at some point. There is no limit to which sexual impulses can be acted out in war, starting with the sadistic ones that are able to obtain gratification from any form or representation of violence, and proceeding from there to subtler forms. Most prominently, however, war is guided by the anticipated gain. Evidently, sexual and destructive impulses are already fused not only with one another but also with the impulses of ‘ego drives’. Through this fusion, to attack somebody may become self-satisfying; satisfaction is achieved with aggression itself, just as it is achieved with sexual acts. Violence itself may become ‘the anticipated gain’. It is a type of narcissistic satisfaction, because the aggressive act aims to satisfy the ego, even when it appears to be performed in the blindest fury (Freud, 1930).

The concept of drive has been found at the same time too abstract and too reductive. However, this does not extend to its derivative, ‘instinctual impulse’ as Strachey translated it, because he considered German Triebregung untranslatable with Trieb rendered as ‘drive’ (Strachey, 1955). This was an important reason he mistranslated Trieb as ‘instinct’ throughout Freud’s oeuvre, rather than use etymologically as well as denotatively more appropriate translation ‘drive’ (another argument he had was that the Dictionary did not include Freud’s meaning under ‘drive’ – it does now), and mirrors the importance of the derivative for Freud. In short, the ‘substance’ of a drive is our impulse (with its affective ‘momentum’) to act as we do.

Ego drives underlie our trained, socialised conduct that complies with the reality principle. This line of Freud’s thinking can be linked to another, if rather distant observation. The concept of ego drives corresponds remarkably well to Foucault’s ‘care of the self’ (Foucault’s book of 1986 is amply supplemented by his earlier texts on the topic collected in Foucault, 1988). Under this heading, Foucault discusses the ‘technologies’ we use in everyday life to do things – our activities to ‘preserve’ and possibly improve ourselves (writing a diary, for example). They imply a body of knowledge – or assumptions passing as knowledge – about ‘what is the right thing to do’ (in the given circumstances, under the given conditions etc.), ranging from the use of food (or cutlery, for that matter) to surviving honourably (or not surviving, but still honourably) in hostile surroundings. What has this to do with drives? These ‘technologies’ belong wholly to the field of customs and habits (what sociology, after Carl Schmitt, calls ‘nomos’); we adopt them, modify them through experience and pass them on as if guided by some heteronomous mechanism of reproduction. ‘Cultivated drive’ – an oxymoron, really, we better replace it with ‘synchronised through interaction’ – is as good a name for it as ‘indoctrination’.

An important function of the care of the self in the Greco-Roman tradition is to safeguard the status of the ‘free subject’. It is a convoluted topic with one certainty: for the subject to be free in a meaningful sense of the word, the status must be recognised by others. On the other hand, it is precisely through care of the self that freedom becomes an issue for any subject, even (and more significantly) for the enslaved or incapacitated one. Its central question, ‘have I done the right thing’, opposes two sets of criteria that seem in constant negotiation: what is right for myself (in the self-serving sense), and what is right for the other, namely, for the gaze of the other upon me doing it. This duality seems always at play. The gaze of the other not only intervenes at every step (there is no magnanimity or heroism without it) but is the condition for the sense of the self to emerge, to resume Winnicott (1971). Every act, action or activity (that is, whatever we would call by any of these names) represents certain social relations and is liable to moral and aesthetic judgment. If it did not take this into account, care of the self would not deserve its name. The extension of the care to the social formations that constitute what Freud called ego ideal (and may promote a ‘higher purpose’, a ‘historic mission’, etc.) effectively includes them into the self. Foucault’s concept evokes an elementary experience that traverses diverse fields and models.

The most conspicuous form of self-care, vaguely related to that function, is defence, in both politics and psychology. The ‘right to defence’ supports the permanent preparations for war mentioned above. The concept is known to have served as pretence for aggression. There is no room for pretence in analysis: the psychic defence may lead to all sorts of offensive actions, and though their aim is arguably care of the self, the actual effect may be the exact opposite. Failure of the care to secure its objective is a common experience. Either way, a conflict is implied. The social conflict (such as class struggle) originates in social contradictions, whereas the psychic conflict originates in contradictions between the subject’s own impulses (or aims or positions or object relations). To draw a parallel is not to say that one explains the other; however, it substantiates the view that for the subject, there is no ‘state without conflict’, as there is no subjectivity without contradictions.

Group analysis was born in the efforts to alleviate the consequences of war, not to prevent war; this parallels the relation of psychoanalysis to the psychic conflict. Ideally, we learn to live with conflicts. Had the analytic group in which conflicts escalated beyond repair been misconducted? Possibly, though we have no means of prevention other than reflection and analysis, and they will (rather obviously) not always do. On the other hand, the outcome will depend on whether the group’s impulses of self-preservation prevail over its trends of fragmentation. This implies some kind of ‘group self’. I am not referring so much to Pines’ elaboration (1996) as to the plain observation that not only does care of the self, speaking from the member's point of view, at least to some extent incorporate the group (i.e. the relations it reproduces, its matrix in Foulkesian terms) but that groups, too, exert care of themselves, which has an often-overlooked sinister side. Groups are prone to ‘solidification’ under a threat, be it internal or external, imaginary or real. In defence, they may start identifying and marginalising its ‘unsavoury’, ‘group-dystonic’ members. As a consequence, the assumption of ‘fight or flight’ (Bion, 1961) may lead to extreme conformism, scapegoating and exclusion – all for the sake of group preservation. If analysis cannot bring this up in an amendable way, the dissolution of the group may in certain circumstances be preferred to its preservation at the cost of sacrificing some of its members. 

What goes on in the group – say, a nation – that starts a war with another group? There is a compelling argument that the general public is more reluctant to go to war and its enthusiasm, when it exists at all, is not so great as we might assume from propaganda, and that more often than not it is incompetent or corrupt or downright insane leadership to blame (Walsh, 1971). Observations and experiences in groups can inform us further. Firstly, it does not seem everybody’s approval is necessary, or even that of a majority. We know it only takes one or two keen members to set a group’s course. Secondly, approval may be greater than manifested. There may be tacit consent and support, based in ‘fringe benefits’ of material and psychological nature. Thirdly, we may not want to get involved, or we may not care; by exempting ourselves, we allow the process to continue on the lines drawn by the ‘keen’ members. In terms of the group at issue, we will stand by while a handful of hotheads with an agenda pressure our nation to war – stand by, that is, until we are pulled in.

The Soča front with its six main battles is a clear evidence that wars cannot stop as easily as they may have started, even when they prove utterly futile. The adversaries, grouped into Central Powers (the aggressor) and Allies (of the attackee), were permanently locked in their positions on the mountains surrounding the river. In the three years of the battlefield’s duration, 1.2 million people died without either side making a significant advance, except in the last battle when the Central Powers managed to push back the Allies, only to suffer enormously from the success and eventually lose the war anyway. It could very well be the setting for Rowan Atkinson’s tragi-comical TV series ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ (1989), ridiculing the absurdities of the carnage that has become known as the ‘Great War’. One feature of the situation was that the soldiers on both sides felt little animosity for each other. In the preserved letters sent from the trenches, expressions of aggressivity or hostility are remarkably underrepresented. The prevailing tone is elegiac. They might have reserved their anger for their own generals – it would not have been conveyed in censored correspondence – but they seem to have had none for their counterparts across the front, though it would have been condoned. As if they felt they were on the same side, which they truly were – on the side of cannon fodder. What kept them apart was that they had been drafted into opposing groups.

The sympathy indicated above was conditional and fleeting, based upon the shared experience of hopelessness and pointlessness of the task. When the situation changed, so did attitudes. We can see a reflection of that in the diary of a soldier named Giuseppe Garzoni (2008). He was a ‘bersagliere’ (marksman), member of the special light infantry group that wore emblematic feathers on their hats and helmets and spearheaded the Italian army (then on the side of defence, the Allies). He was soon captured and spent the last three years of the war as a prisoner of war. His entries from that time are quite impartial, if somewhat bewildered descriptions of, and thoughts about, people around him. This is consistent with his earlier position. To quote a researcher’s comment (Cimprič, 2015): ‘At the beginning of the war he had no prejudice against Austrians. He never expressed any political opinion. When he received his draft order, he merely went pale.’ The war does not seem to have affected this disposition. The change took place after the war, in peace. At home he wrote something like a poem, full of rage and hostility against Austrians (his language is semi-literate throughout, but here it becomes markedly dissociated). This could not have been anticipated from his earlier entries and likely signifies a psychotic breakdown. He rants about ‘uncivilised dogs’ who want to subdue ‘magnificent Italy’, concluding one passage with: ‘Damned ugly race!’ The word ‘race’ appears once more in a similar context.

Prejudice is essentially a psychotic formation, considering its delusional foundation. What Freud (1911) said about psychotic formations – they rebuild the subjective world that has fallen apart – evidently contains an aspect of the care of the self. Garzoni’s initial cautious non-commitment may have concealed earlier wounds; the very fact that he chose to keep a diary (linguistic deficiencies notwithstanding) reveals the impulse of self-care. He seems to have been at relative ease in the harshly structured prisoner camp. The last stage may have been induced by the break-up of the structure. The paradox that what turned out to be the losing side has held him, a member of the winning side, captive and dependant, would have undermined his place in the order of the world. His sudden violent prejudice against his former captors seems to have undone and reversed this difficult relation. As if he finally allowed himself to be traumatised and mitigated his trauma by adopting an ideology conducive to war. His peace was thus nothing but a reflection, and effectively the amplification, of war – war as such, for which ‘the enemy’ is a contingent object. It took mere 21 years until the next world war, when Italy was on the same side as Austria (then part of Germany).

To us, Garzoni’s diary discloses a subjective response to the specific circumstances. There was the overarching conflict, pressing one to take a side. He was the type to stand by, refrain from membership, as it were, or affiliation, but he could not evade being drafted. As a POW, he seems to have avoided close contacts with fellow prisoners, who were mostly from distant Allied countries and no less strangers to him than the guards. Camp regime allowed him to pass with minimal personal interaction (he had his diary instead). A quiet, apparently self-marginalised member of the group, he maintained that position for as long as he was a member – for the rest of the war – and broke down only later, in peace. Then he finally took a side, that of a radical nationalistic narrative, a welcoming umbrella for wounded and vengeful minds. It was ready-made for him to take up, as nationalistic and racist narratives had flourished in Europe since the beginning of the nineteenth century (Mosse, 1997). This ‘healing option’ appears repeatedly in various ideological formats, sustained and fine-tuned by its political use.

We have seen that soldiers do not necessarily harbour aggressive impulses against ‘the enemy’. Moreover, they may feel remorse after killing people, and later suffer from PTSD. The architects of war are better off. Many never have to indulge in violence directly, even when they commit mass murder. Heinrich Himmler, co-perpetrator of arguably the worst crime in recent history, is said to have been primarily an efficient bureaucrat; reportedly, he fainted on the one and only occasion he watched people being shot (Plant, 1988). The confessions of Rudolf Hoess (2000), the last commandant of Auschwitz, infamously portray the father of a ‘normal family’ complaining about his hard job, namely, hard to do well. To carry out genocide in industrial society requires technical knowledge, skills and professionalism. In a word, it is work. Doing it well, in a social setting that rewards it, is to take care of oneself.

Our work may vary in every respect, but it is safe to say that our exertion is proportionate to our self-investment and not so much related to the nature of the work. Realising what we are doing is potentially destructive and self-destructive will not affect our action as a matter of course. Therapists are quite familiar with this contradiction in the care of the self. We are inclined to disavow the realisation – provided we have one in the first place. At the time of peace in particular, when old relations look defeated or surpassed and new ones are just developing, we have poor insight into concurrent processes and where they may lead. We can never be certain we are not, in effect, working for war.



Our colleague Ivan Urlić has read into this paper – true, an earlier and very different version – the contrast between ‘the excitement of war’ and ‘the boredom of peace’. This nicely summarises certain other observations (see, for example, Kustermans and Ringmar's paper ‘Modernity, Boredom, and War’), whereas my point would rather be that in many ways, war is already at the heart of our peace. He may have been right, however, about my treatment of peace being ‘subjective’ – and not only of peace, as this whole paper is nothing but a footnote to the discussion of subjectivity and its (re)production.


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This paper is based on the author's presentation at the 10th International Autumn Workshop of group analytic psychotherapy titled 'Peace and War' in Kobarid, 2015, published in Vlasta Meden Klavora & Roman Korenjak (Eds.) (2015), Mir in vojna, Ljubljana: SDSA & Fondacija Pot miru, pp. 17-24.