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How Does Losing a War Make People Feel?

Our feelings of shame and anger are likely to fade quickly

Key points

  • There is surprisingly little research on how we feel after we lose a war, though the feelings we experience as losers are likely to fade quickly.
  • The concept of adaptive peace-building suggests that we should never have expected a different outcome in Afghanistan.
  • Emotions like shame and anger are to be expected.
  • This loss, and the emotions it evokes, could serve as a reminder to avoid future wars where a similar outcome can be expected.

There is surprisingly little research on how people experience losing when long-running wars finally come to an end. After 20 years, U.S. and allied forces pulled out of Afghanistan, and in a matter of days (not months), the Taliban was back and the effects of nation-building appear to have collapsed like a house of cards.

The sheer speed and scale of the military loss and collapse of institutions will likely upset military personnel who fought there the most, and may also be heartbreaking for the families of those who died fighting what they thought was a just war following 9/11. But what about the rest of us—the bystanders who watched a war unfold on the news, many of whom perhaps mistakenly believed it was going well? How should we feel?

The Emotional Aftermath of a Lost War

I’ll admit that my first emotion was shame, followed a close second by anger. Where once it felt like the war had been necessary, now it feels like we made a bad decision to be there, and that our actions were just another form of colonization under the guise of democratization, women’s rights, and global peace. There will be some who soul-search and try to learn from this wasted effort—though what little research that does exist suggests that as “losers,” our emotions will be more muted, and our memories will fade more quickly than the memories we hold of the wars we have won.

To lose requires us to suppress emotions. Losing weakens our sense of group identification. Just as fans of a winning football team will feel more connected to others wearing the same jerseys, fans of the losing team will tend to show less group identification, and their memories will be a little less vivid over time of their team’s big game failure.

It is even hard to turn to studies of countries that have lost more conventional wars, like Germany, or to studies of people who lose wars and then continue to live next to their victors, like in Bosnia and Herzegovina. None of that scholarly work quite captures the collective malaise I sense in my own life as my friends and neighbors watch all our good intentions evaporate. In front of our eyes, and in just minutes, women are dawning burqas (many against their will), and religious zealotry is pushing aside democratic institutions. Forgive me if I want to turn the channel and look elsewhere for hints of self-worth. The news reminds me of my own foolish belief in a western ideology that appears to have had little place in Afghanistan.

But then, why should it have found a toe-hold? Did we really expect a different outcome? Scholars of peace-building like Cedric de Coning talk about social stability after conflict as “adaptive.” There is no one best way to create a functional society—only people’s adaptations to what is familiar. In Afghanistan, one has to wonder if the seeds of democratic reform and a professional military with a strong sense of nationalism were ever sufficiently rooted to counter tribalism and religious fundamentalism.

Rather than focusing on “our” loss, would a more respectful and empathetic position be to now simply acknowledge that the government that the Afghan people will have may be the government they actually want, or at least is the one they are comfortable with. Is that me protecting myself from the sting of troubling emotions like shame and anger? Is acceptance the counterweight to having known soldiers who invested themselves so fully in a struggle that now seems for naught?

There will be a range of feelings that we have, for the Afghan people who did want social change, for the soldiers who risked their lives trying to stabilize an unstable world, and for the idea of democratic reform and human rights that remains shiny like a vintage automobile even if it does feel, at least today, a bit tarnished and clunky. Memories of this war will fade. That is certain. I just hope that our loss helps to remind us to cherish our own sometimes fragile democracies and maybe, just maybe, avoid the next war that we’re certain to lose.

References

Talarico, Jennifer M, and Moore, Kira M. "Memories of 'The Rivalry': Differences in How Fans of the Winning and Losing Teams Remember the Same Game." Applied Cognitive Psychology 26.5 (2012): 746-56. Web.

de Coning, C. (2018). Adaptive peacebuilding. International Affair, 94, 301–317. https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iix251

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