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A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life

Deception and Self-Deception in War and Life

During World War I, the British General Sir Douglas Haig presided over the greatest slaughter of that country's armed forces in history. Virtually every family had a member who was killed or wounded and the grief nearly led to revolution. There were over a million dead, a half-million missing, and two million wounded. This caused, in the words of Winston Churchill, the "tremendous collapse of established structures."

Why Haig had been appointed and kept in his position as commander-in-chief of the British armies in France was clear: he had been close to both the previous king, Edward VII, and his successor, George V.

As in all organizations, the head chose his own aides. Haig's unlucky choice as Chief of Intelligence was General John Charteris, one who behaved as those who are promotion oriented tend to do: keeping the bad news from their boss.

Charteris' repeated overly optimistic reports and predictions of the imminent collapse of the German armies, while welcomed by Haig, caused him to order repeated futile assaults which were costly in lives but gained little ground. Whether knowledge of the accurate situation would have changed Haig's military plans is unknown for he was an obstinate commander.

This deception temporarily increased Haig's peace of mind but at enormous cost to his nation by war's end. Or, as Pyrrhus stated after he defeated the Romans at Heraclea, "One more such victory and I am lost."

Yet, self-deception is universal and not always unwise for the mind naturally tries to conceal knowledge which it feels cannot be tolerated. The truth is not always welcome, as generations of physicians have practiced and many long married couples follow.

So though self-deception is sometimes useful, accurate self-knowledge--learning one's strengths and weaknesses--is essential to changing one's life--and saves lives during wartime too.

Copyright (c) 2011,2015 by Stanley Goldstein. All rights reserved.
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