Member Login








In Person

Art & Literature


Philosophy & Religion

Peace & Conflict

Shamanism & Rebirth

Politics of Diagnosis

Therapeutic Communities

·SLS Annual·

Submit a Paper

·About the SLS·

Site Staff


Patrons & Sponsors

Join the Society

Contact us

· Resources ·

Search the Site

Notes and Notation

A Timeline

Further Links

About this site

In the News

SLS Newsletter


Associate site

The International R.D. Laing Institute


Colloquia Topics Index [link]Peace & Conflict Index [link]

Indifference or Hidden Agenda?
The Response of British Psychology to the Iraq War

Ron Roberts and Anthony Esgate

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.

Noam Chomsky (1967)


In many ways, the task of this article - to detail the official response of the British psychological community to the Iraq war - poses no difficulty, for the simple reason that there has scarcely been a response. Our purpose however, is to look beyond the silence and examine the wider context within which it is situated. In so doing, we consider what British institutional psychology does consider worthy of its attention, whilst taking a look at the voices that have been raised in other professional quarters about the conduct and consequences of the war. We begin with a brief summary of what is so far known about the war initiated by US and UK forces in March 2003.

Ahmed (2003) provides compelling evidence, that far from being a humanitarian effort by the US/UK coalition to liberate Iraqi citizens from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the war was, and is, an orchestrated assault upon the integrity and independence of a sovereign state that posed no threat to the West. As such it has been widely recognised as illegal, with critics of the joint action including Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations (BBC, 2004a). The bombing of Iraq, which began with the ‘shock and awe’ attack on Baghdad (Guardian, 2003) was preceded by a relentless 12 year campaign that has decimated the living standards and morale of ordinary people. In this, the Anglo-American Forces not only waged a low-level nuclear war using depleted uranium weaponry, but through the continued sanctions forced through the United Nations by the Transatlantic alliance, they have deprived people of adequate food and clean water. The UN’s Iraq child mortality survey estimated up to 1.7 million people perished as a result of these actions (Ahmed, 2003 p.112). This figure is not disputed by any of the major aid agencies or NGO’s working in the region. The British charities Save the Children Fund and CAFOD have added their voices to the many raised throughout the world at the joint US/UK action. Sadly the British Psychological Society (BPS) cannot be numbered amongst these.

As well as the slaughter of civilians, and execution of injured Iraqi combatants (incidents described in the UK press as ‘alleged shootings’ despite extensive witnesses and video evidence; BBC, 2004b), the war has seen journalists targeted, prisoners of war abused and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) bombed. Pierre Krähenbűhl, Director of Operations of the ICRC in an unusual statement from the organisation felt it necessary to remark on the “utter contempt for the most basic tenet of humanity: the obligation to protect human life and dignity” which has been exhibited during the war and reminded the ‘multinational force’ that complying with international humanitarian law was “an obligation and not an option”. (Krähenbűhl, 2004).

The 2003 war was sold to the British public on the pretext of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which were deployable within 45 minutes. Thus, only the “white knights” of the US/UK coalition could save the international community from the threats to world peace and international security posed by a third world country, whose industrial and military infrastructure had all but collapsed. It is now recognised that Iraq possessed no WMD capability, having been effectively stripped of these during the first Anglo-American Gulf War in 1991, and through the concerted efforts of years of inspections by UN officials (Curtis, 2003; Ahmed, 2003).

Though the full consequences of these actions have yet to be understood - the calculus has begun, and Tony Blair’s belief that history will judge him kindly does not seem to be well founded - unless that is, the only historians to remain in the future will be American neo-conservatives. A recent study published in the leading UK medical journal The Lancet (Roberts et al. 2004) estimated that over 100,000 people may have died as a direct result of the war - a figure which specifically excludes casualties in the city of Fallujah — which, if included, could double the estimate. Though shocking, these figures should come as no surprise. Immediately prior to the outbreak of war, global health organisation MEDACT produced estimates of around 200,000 deaths in the longer term as a result of war, with UN projections suggesting up to 500,000 civilian injuries (Fyans, Stankovich and Paterson, 2003). By November 2003, MEDACT estimates for fatalities were put at 50,000 (Clark, 2003). British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has disputed The Lancet figures (Grice, 2004), although he provided no detailed scientific critique of the methodology other than a comment on the sample size. To help the impartial reader evaluate the merits of the competing claims of the Foreign Secretary and The Lancet team it may be useful to recall the words of Mark Higson, former desk officer of the British Foreign Office, who told the Scott Inquiry into arms sales to Iraq, that the Foreign Office “is a culture of lying” (cited in Pilger 2003, p.x).

So where does this lead us? — It would appear that the UK Government is prosecuting an illegal war, killing and maiming large numbers of civilians (through the use of cluster bombs) while the public is systematically deceived by ‘spin’ and propaganda about its motives, conduct, and consequences. Through the analysis of declassified documents, Curtis (2003) has undertaken a systematic examination of British Foreign Policy in recent times. Charting the activities of British diplomats and armed service personnel in Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Guiana, Indonesia, East Timor, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia (to name but a few), the picture that emerges is one that implicates the UK Government in the endorsement of systematic brutality and human rights abuses carried out by repressive governments throughout the world. The position is now so serious that Jordan’s Prince Hassan has warned of the prospect of a Third World War brewing in the Middle East as a consequence of the current US and UK actions (BBC News, 2004c). So we might ask, what relevance does all this have to British psychologists?

Psychological Issues

There can be no doubt about one thing - the world changed after 9/11– and the change has been psychological as well as political. The world is now awash with new meanings centred on themes that include fear of terrorist action, civil chaos, xenophobia, repressive and totalitarian government and loss of civil liberties. Shortly after the inception of the war in March 2003, one of our students expressed fears that Iraqi fighter planes would be heading to London. Given that a plausible interpretation of the events of the past two years, holds that the global emergency we face was in fact engineered by US neo-conservatives, to permit a more aggressive foreign policy, increased surveillance of the public and a US takeover of Central Asia’s oil and gas (Ahmed, 2002), one might characterise state actions in the US and UK as a war of terror rather than one against it. The meanings generated by the global events need to be understood, challenged and demystified.

A further psychological issue raised by the actions of the US/UK invasion of Iraq is how the players in the theatre of war understand their own actions. Iraqi combatants may be certain they are fighting an aggressive invader whose intention is to seize control of their country’s natural resources. Western forces, however, are more likely to believe that they are fighting to liberate Iraq - or at least to hope that they are. It is probable that contrary to the picture painted by UK media, it is the insurgents who have a more thorough grasp of the situation they face, whilst American and British forces remain alienated from the reality that the new military humanism is a pretext for a fight to make Iraq safe for foreign investors (Chomsky, 1999a, Ahmed, 2003). Alienated from this reality, the troops are accordingly estranged from the political, economic and strategic intentions that drive their own behaviour. So here in the West, the functional explanations required to comprehend the conduct of the war are fundamentally different to those that constitute the ‘view from the ground’. At present the general public are not well placed to distinguish between these, although there is undoubtedly widespread scepticism about the motives for the war. The propaganda to which people are subject has as its implied aim, the manipulation of the population – in particular to present the intentions of the western forces as benign and humanitarian (for this purpose giving air time to the beliefs of service personnel is of particular importance), and to reduce information about death and suffering. These intentions extend beyond the confines of the UK population in order to influence international opinion about the motives underpinning the UK actions and increase support for it. Under New Labour this is now called ‘information support’ at home and ‘public diplomacy’ abroad (Curtis, 2002, p.25), yet more evidence - were it needed, of the Orwellian language games at large. That psychologists have been employed in some capacity to design and orchestrate these psychological operations for the government is more than likely.

Last but not least - there is the question of the immense physical and psychological damage being caused to the people of Iraq and to all the combatants involved. Little if any media attention has been devoted to this - and it is with respect to the enormous trauma caused, that perhaps the silence of the BPS is most damning; for the impact of war on mental health is well known (Herman, 2001, O’Brien, 1998). So let us now examine and compare the response of the organ of the British Psychological Society to those produced within the UK medical community.

Comparison of Responses from the British Psychological and Medical Communities

A survey of The Psychologist from March 2003 (the month when the war started) to the present (November 2004) is revealing. In the 23 months covered by this period, the President’s column contains no reference to the war. Two of the main articles appearing during this period are of potential relevance. Bull (2004) discusses the nature of public communication with politicians, though again no mention is made of the war, nor British Foreign Policy, nor the propaganda used to justify it - this despite the title of the piece implying our politicians are economical with truth. By failing to confront the depth and breadth of deception used to pacify the public about the actions of the West, the piece conforms to the same placid, middle class standard of sanitising reality adopted by much of the British media.

The other article of potential relevance (Silke, 2004) considers the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York. Incredibly, no mention is made here of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Silke does acknowledge that the response of the behavioural science community to the events of 11th September, 2001 has, in the UK at least, been muted, but his discussion of ‘terrorism’ is all about our responses to them - the terrorists or religious extremists out there and how they affect us. There was, of course, no consideration of, what some may call the state terrorism practised by the US and UK for decades, nor any demonstration of awareness, that the actions of the US and the UK go a long way toward explaining the existence of these terrorists in the first place - for example the funding and training of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and the Afghan resistance by the CIA and MI6 (Curtis, 2003). One could also add to the roll call of responsibility, the role of the US in preventing any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Chomsky, 1999b) and how this has fuelled the sense of injustice and powerlessness throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Any dispassionate reading of the evidence reveals that it is we who are the terrorists par excellence and that it is we who taught them how to do it. Curtis makes the point that until the West (read the US and UK) began large scale arming, training and funding of the Afghan resistance, terrorism, as we understand it, was largely confined to genuine resistance movements and with it was to be confined to distinct geographic regions of the world, rather than the dispersed global pattern we now have. In a thoughtful letter responding to Silke’s article, which perhaps marks the only serious comment in The Psychologist over the past 23 months, Phil Banyard (2004) remarked;

“If there is to be an impact on psychology, then hopefully it will encourage us to describe and understand why groups of people decide to wreak havoc on civilian populations for political ends, and to help develop forums for dissent that are peaceful and constructive. I hope the impact is not, as menacingly suggested by Silke, to focus research on ‘attitudes to extremism among ethnic communities’ and so risk increasing xenophobia and demonising generally peaceful groups.” (p.624)

When the war has been mentioned in The Psychologist, it has been in the context of a handful of minor (less than one page) and somewhat frivolous pieces on the back page ‘Media Watch’. The following extract (May, 2003) sets the tone;

“War is something of a topical issue right now. And our press office has understandably been taking a flood of media requests for psychological comment. But I was surprised to learn that until the first shots had been fired, the psychological angle had not been a priority - a mere trickle of enquiries. I scoured the papers too, and found nothing. There were articles on many aspects of the crisis - even the usefulness of protest songs got a mention!” (Bailes, 2003, p.280)

The writer then proceeds to discuss a study of football referees. So it seems the major interest in the war for the BPS is whether psychologists are appearing in the media! Two months later, again relegated to the back page, we find the potentially more seriously titled ‘Blame and responsibility in Abu Ghraib’ (McDermott, 2004). After a promising start this short entry again descends into the usual preoccupation with psychologists in the media.

“It is entirely appropriate that psychologists should be finding their voices within the media to comment upon and enhance the analysis of these dehumanising and degrading forms of behaviour.” (McDermott, 2004, p.424).

Finally, in another minor section entitled “Time to make love not war” which appeared in the month after the war began (Joinson, 2003) the US forces’ employment of psychological operations in the war is deemed worthy of a couple of sentences, before moving on to the more serious business of Celine Dion and pop songs.

What then seems to be of a more pressing concern to the BPS? Just consider some of the regular features. Each month readers receive regular news of members, which on occasion means being treated to photographs of psychologists on motorcycles, receiving awards at Buckingham Palace and news of their promotion to more prestigious posts. We can also read the prurient details of miscreant psychologists, who are named and shamed for their sins while regular adverts for the BPS credit card solicit our wealth., There are invitations for members to sign up for media training, and should we not forget it, there is the ‘Psychology in the Media’ section. Ongoing issues addressed include the statutory regulation of psychologists — (the Society has been liaising with government on this for some time) and under the heading of ‘Whose the greatest?’ members were invited in January 2003 to “vote for your top psychologists”. The result was announced as the war in Iraq was in full swing. This catalogue of trivial pursuits amounts to a kind of ‘Hello’ magazine for behavioural scientists - displaying an obsession with frivolity, gossip, celebrity and the quest for power in professional psychology. Meanwhile huge numbers of people were being slaughtered as a necessary price to pay to maintain our way of life. It is difficult to believe that this absence of critical comment is completely unrelated to the society’s political aims since it is currently lobbying the UK Government for favours. These include the policy to legally restrict the use of the title ‘psychologist’ to BPS members (such a move would have financial advantages for the BPS and would increase its power base) and the policy to secure a role for Health Psychologists as Public Health professionals.

Further illumination may be gained by drawing comparisons between responses to the war in The Psychologist and the two leading medical journals in the UK - The British Medical Journal (BMJ) and The Lancet. Over the same period in which we surveyed The Psychologist, the BMJ published 22 different news items on aspects of the war. These address a broad range of topics covering political issues, the organisational of health care and the types of health problems which the Iraqi people are experiencing. These specifically include; civilian deaths from land mines and munitions (Dyer, 2003a), the withdrawal of aid agencies from the country (Tayal, 2003), the lack of UN humanitarian aid (Hargreaves, 2003), the funding of health care and mental health services (Dyer, 2003b), increases in perinatal mortality (Dobson, 2003), and infectious diseases (Dyer, 2004), dangerous levels of radiation in the country (Moszynski, 2003), chronic malnourishment in Iraqi children (Moszynski, 2004), and the experiences of medical personnel in the war (Kirkup, 2004). Even if we consider the more frequent publication of the BMJ, considerably more attention and column inches have been devoted to the consequences of the Iraq war in the BMJ than in The Psychologist.

Turning now to The Lancet. A search revealed 115 relevant articles and news items between March 2003 and November 2004. In addition to the survey detailing mortality stemming from the war (Roberts et al. 2004), and the accompanying editorial comment (Horton, 2004), numerous articles have examined the political and humanitarian aspects of the war as well as the consequences of pre-war sanctions. I select just a few examples from this literature. Writing three weeks before war broke out, Benjamin et al. (2003) warned of the likelihood of a humanitarian disaster and went on to say;

“A military campaign that does not address the needs of the civilian population of Iraq, and that is likely to result in disproportionate levels of morbidity and mortality of non-combatants, is of dubious legality and questionable morality.” (p.874)

Attempting to draw lessons in the aftermath of war, Burkle Jnr and Noji (2004) argue that in future, the armed forces should be prevented from dominating humanitarian assistance. One of the more frequent themes in the journal is the subject of torture. Rubenstein (2003) for example discusses its extensive use in warfare — noting that physicians may be involuntarily caught up in this. He makes the telling observation in our troubled times that:

“One of the perverse effects of the war on terrorism has been the revival of the idea that torture can be legitimate in so-called exceptional cases.” (p.1556).

He goes on to make a poignant point to the effect that the medical community must speak out more forcefully against torture. In contrast, the British Psychological Society has remained silent on this matter.


What conclusions can be drawn from the picture presented? Given the lack of coverage of the war and its effects on ordinary people in The Psychologist it would appear that the war is not a priority for the professional psychology, which stands in contrast to the efforts of some individual psychologists in the UK. For example, John Sloboda at Keele University has been instrumental in setting up the Iraq Body Count website, which seeks to establish an independent database of media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq resulting from the military action of the US/UK forces in the war and subsequent occupation (see Sloboda (2003) has also drawn attention to the absence of engagement of British psychology with the substantive issues raised by the Iraq war and the salient psychological issues associated with it. But leaving aside the indeterminable question of the general level of interest that UK psychologists have toward events in Iraq, it is clear that space in the journal reserved for presidential analysis or news commentary, i.e. that which originates with the editors and journalists responsible for copy, contains barely a mention of the war. Instead, the emphasis on trivia, gossip and professional power has been an increasing feature of the publication in recent years, which has been a source of dismay to many colleagues. We believe this content is not unconnected with the general direction in which British psychology has been moving. The introduction of market forces and absurd measurements of quality in UK higher education have received no official response from a profession that purports to possess expertise in scientific measurement. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that British psychology as represented by the contents of The Psychologist has deliberately adapted a stance in which controversial political issues of the day, no matter how relevant to psychologists, are studiously avoided. We therefore ask in whose interests is this agenda being pursued? And what type of Psychology will emerge from it if it continues? At present there is a real danger that in the future, British institutional psychology will be concerned only with those apolitical issues that satisfy the curiosity of the middle class citizens of the world who have yet to confront the military reality of Anglo-American capitalism.


Ahmed, N. F. (2002) The war on freedom. How and why America was attacked. California. Tree of Life.

Ahmed, N. F. (2003) Behind the war on terror. Western secret strategy and the struggle for Iraq. East Sussex. Clairview.

Bailes, G. (2003) Media. The Psychologist, 16(5), 280.

Banyard, P. (2004) Terrorism asking the right questions. Letters. The Psychologist, 17(11), 624

BBC News (2004a) Interview with Kofi Annan.

BBC News (2004b) Red Cross hits out at Iraq abuses.

BBC News (2004c) Iraq out of control says Jordan.

Benjamin, R,. Clements, C., McCally, M., Pellett, P.L., Van Rooyen, M.J. and Waldman, R.J. (2003) The humanitarian cost of a war in Iraq. The Lancet, 361, 874.

Bull, R. (2003) Slippery politicians. The Psychologist, 16(11), 592-595.

Burkle, Jnr, F. and Noji, E.K. (2004) Health and Politics in the 2003 war with Iraq: lessons learned. The Lancet, 364, 1371-1375.

Chomsky, N. (1967) The responsibility of intellectuals. New York Review of Books, 8(3).Supplement.

Chomsky, N. (1999a) The new military humanism. Lessons from Kosovo. London. Pluto Press.

Chomsky, N. (1999b) Fateful triangle. The United States, Israel and the Palestinians. London. Pluto Press.

Clark, J. (2003) Medact report highlights aftermath of Iraq conflict. British Medical Journal, 327, 1128.

Curtis, M. (2003) Web of deceit. Britain’s real role in the world. London. Random House.

Dobson, P. (2003) Perinatal mortality in Iraq more than tripled since sanctions

British Medical Journal, 326, 520.

Dyer, O. (2003a) Hundreds die in northern Iraq from land mines and unexploded munitions. British Medical Journal, 326, 166.

Dyer,O. (2003b) British Iraqi doctors set up charity to support Iraq’s mental health services. British Medical Journal, 327, 832.

Dyer, O. (2004) Infectious Diseases in Iraq as public health service deteriorates. British Medical Journal, 329, 940.

Fyans, T., Stankovich, M. and Paterson, M. (2003) Iraq: the human cost. Amnesty, 118, 16-19.

Grice, A. (2004) Chirac speaks out on differences over Iraq ahead of Blair meeting. The Independent. 18th November, p.2

Guardian (2003) Awe from the air. The aim is to show resistance is futile. 23rd March. The Guardian.

Hargreaves, S. (2003) Questions remain over lack of UN role in humanitarian aid in Iraq. British Medical Journal, 326, 729.

Herman, J., (2001) Trauma and recovery. From domestic violence to political terror. London Pandora.

Horton, R. (2004) The war in Iraq: civilian casualties, political responsibilities. The Lancet, 364, 1831.

Joinson,A. (2003) Time to make love not war, The Psychologist, 16(4), 224.

Kirkup, B. (2004) Battle Hospital: Medics at War. British Medical Journal, 328, 530.

Krähenbűhl, P. (2004) Iraq: ICRC calls for greater respect for basic tenets of humanity. ICRC news 04/138. 19th November

McDermott, M.R. (2004) Blame and responsibility in Abu Ghraib. The Psychologist, 17(7), 424.

Moszynski, P. (2003) Deadly radiation ignored in Iraq. British Medical Journal, 327, 11.

Moszynski, P. (2004) A quarter of young children in Iraq are chronically malnourished. British Medical Journal, 329, 819.

O’Brien, L.S. (1998) Traumatic events and mental health. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Pilger, J. (2003) Foreword to Curtis, M. (2003) Web of deceit. Britain’s real role in the world. London. Random House.

Roberts, L., Rafta, R., Garfield, R., Khudhairi, J. and Burnham, G. (2004) Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Cluster sample survey. Published online October 29, 2004.

Rubenstein, L.S. (2003) The medical community’s response to torture. The Lancet, 361, 1556.

Silke, A. (2004) Terrorism, 9/11 and psychology. The Psychologist, 17(9), 518-521.

Sloboda, J. A. (2003) The war, what war? Psychology in Denial. DECP Debate, 107, 5-11.

Tayal, U. (2003) Public health at risk as aid agencies pull out of Iraq. British Medical Journal, 327, 522.

"Indifference or Hidden Agenda?
The Response of British Psychology to the Iraq War
by Ron Roberts and Anthony Esgate
Department of Psychology,
Kingston University,
Penrhyn Road, Kingston, Surrey KT1 2EE

Subsequently published as
"British Psychology's Response to the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq"
In R. Roberts, (Ed.) Just War: Psychology and Terrorism.
Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books. (2007)

How to cite a webpage

Comments and suggestions on the content and/or any problems with the display of this page would be appreciated by the admin. Thanks.

Locations of visitors to this page