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Vol 56 No. 14 | Nov. 2004
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Larry George
A Balancing Act Called War

By Richard Manly

While it may be true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, there's still the chance it may kill you. When applied to the world stage, this balancing act between cure and kill can become what political science's Larry George calls a “pharmakotic war.”

George, a member of the university since 1989, is interested in why the United States has a history of getting involved in wars and how successive governments convince the public to fight. One explanation he offers is the “pharmakotic war.” “Pharmakotic” is an ancient Greek word that means a poison or a medicine, a fabricated magic ritual that appears to solve problems but doesn't, the use of spectacle to cure social problems.

War as medicine can be a dangerous thing. “The nature of war is unpredictable,” said George. “There are contradictory effects. It can be medicinal for the body politic but on the other hand, it can be poisonous and deranges the political system. It tends to undermine democracy.”

George currently has three articles in publication about the medicinal war and is working on his new book, 9/11 to Iraq: The Pharmakotic War. George did his undergraduate work at UC Irvine before earning his doctorate from Princeton in 1987.

“The pharmakotic war is more complicated today than it ever was in ancient Greece,” he explained. “Violence can trigger either the jubilation of victory or the despair of defeat. Victory gives Americans the idea they are standing up against evil. It is the John Wayne idea of coming into a corrupt town and cleaning it up. Wayne protected the innocent from the bad buys. At some level, the war is meant to appeal to a sense of righteous vengeance. It is the symbolism of the policeman. He is forced, reluctantly, to use violence to clean up a morally disordered system.”

George's interest in the pharmakotic war dates back to 1996 when he moved to Spain for eight months on a Fulbright Scholarship to study the Spanish-American War of 1898.

“At the time, the McKinley administration in general and Theodore Roosevelt in particular created the idea of a manly American moral obligation to stand up for good and right in the Western hemisphere,” he said. “By fighting evil, the U.S. government could reconstitute itself through sacred violence as a source of good.”

While George reflects on a long-standing anti-military strain in American political thought, he still finds himself asking why Americans are so ready to be led to war? One reason might be the clash between a materialist, consumer-oriented society and a deep religious tradition.

“Our population is the most religiously observant among the industrially developed countries in the West; in fact, the level of our religiosity approaches that of Iran and is greater than such countries as Britain or Sweden,” he said. “If you're counting, more Americans believe in God and practice a religion than in Israel, proportionately. This religious conviction creates an underlying energy source that can be tapped into periodically by political leaders.”

There is a seesaw effect to the pharmakotic war that worries George. “It is traditional in America to rally around the flag. Presidents have used this tradition and are very aware of it. But this kind of war is a poison, too,” he added. “It has a dangerous and disruptive effect on a political system, as all wars do. Sometimes, presidents become aware of this through the back door when they discover they are not in control of the process as they hoped to be. Sometimes, the results are not healing but a backlash representing a loss of support and the implication of eventual defeat.”  

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