How Does the Mind Respond to War?

· May 1, 2017

Can you imagine living through a war? Waking up every day knowing it could be your last?  Unfortunately, there are many people who don’t have to imagine. These people live every day immersed in a conflict that seems to have no end.

We use the word “intractable” to describe prolonged conflicts or wars that seem to have no solution. The lasting nature of the war wears on the people who live through it directly, whether it’s from a neutral position or on one of the opposing sides.

People who must live through war for a long time end up developing coping mechanisms that allow them to reduce the effects of war on their lives. The problem is that these mechanisms also make it difficult to achieve peace.

shadows of people walking

“Man will not be wise until he resolves all kinds of conflicts with weapons of the mind, not physical ones.”

-Werner Braun-

What is an intractable conflict?

For a conflict to be intractable, it should present the following characteristics:


  • Be violent in nature. The violence could be physical, structural, or symbolic.
  • Last for an extended period of time.
  • Be central and total. The livelihood of the people affected is a source of constant preoccupation, and their needs are only met when the conflict allows.
  • Take away security from the people immersed in the conflict.
  • Be perceived as zero-sum. The opposing parties don’t meet the requirements of their opponents.

“To avoid conflict, don’t let your tongue move faster than your thoughts.”

-Juan Carlos Flores Legorreta-

Are you aware of any conflicts with these characteristics? Of course you are. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq right now fit this definition perfectly, although they’re not the only ones.

The evolution of the mind during war

People affected by intractable conflicts go through a change in psyche. The negative experiences that they have to face cause their socio-psychological mental structure to change. This structure is composed of three interconnected elements:

  • Collective memory: this involves beliefs regarding the history of the conflict. These beliefs describe the beginning, the progression, and the most important events that have occurred during its course. It’s a selective memory that only includes the events that benefit its cause. Different subtypes of collective memory include popular memory, official memory, autobiographical memory, historical memory, and cultural memory. This type of memory is rebroadcast through the news.
  • The ethos of the conflict: this involves the shared beliefs about the characteristics of the society and the meaning of social identity. It’s an organized view of the world that allows the members of society to understand the context of the conflict in which they live, which guides their behaviors. The main beliefs are justification of the group’s goals, positive images, victimization, delegitimization of the opponent, patriotism, and unity.
  • Collective emotional orientation: this is the tendency to express particular emotions. The most commonly expressed emotions are fear, anger, and hate, although there’s also humiliation, pride, and hope.
arms reaching for girl

War from the couch

This structure provides a clear, holistic, meaningful explanation of why the conflict began, why it is maintained, and why it won’t be resolved. However, we, the ones watching the conflict from the security of our homes, don’t have the same socio-psychological structure.

“Your position in a conflict… It’s often not limited to the decision that you make, but its consequences.”

-Luis Gabriel Carrillo Navas-

Our opinions about the conflict are going to be different than those of the people who live in it, since the consequences for us are different than they are for them. It’s important to understand this structure when you judge the opinions of people who live every day immersed in conflict, and it’s important to understand that the resolution won’t be easy if these structures don’t change.

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