The Irrational Desire To Prove/Confirm Our Superiority Over Other People Francisco Goya, “The Disasters of War”, Plate 32, “Why?”

Looking at Goya’s prints we see that his goal is not only to depict unnecessary destructive and violent acts on the part of the militaries during the war, but to characterize their internal world. He wants to understand the psychological matrix of those who murder and torture, overkill and debase corpses and cannot resist the pleasure of feeling superior over those who are helpless through physically over-abusing them. In plate 32 of Goya’s series we’re shocked by noticing facial expression of the soldier on the left – his almost intimate smile while his comrades are trying to tear apart the body of their captured victim. This obscene, not-understandable smile, contrasting to the whole scene, is, it seems, Goya’s basic metonymy of the internal world of torturers and murderers as an inner side of their acting out their cruelty and arrogance.

The soldier’s quiet and relaxed smile symbolizes the very human soul of war, the “gentle” moment of atrocities. Goya associates this tranquil smile with purely rhetorical, non-functional gesture of the soldier’s left leg, as if, pushing the person who is in a process of being brutally killed, in the same direction in which other soldiers are pulling and ripping off his flesh. But we don’t feel any strain in his leg – his buddies obviously don’t need help. This pushing without muscle-strain of the leg – this purely psychological gesture returns us to the meaning of the soldier’s on the left – smile. This smile is that of a confident awareness of one’s superiority without any necessity to prove it – the proof is already happened, it is right in front of the soldiers of the victorious side. Following Goya we can call this smile that of proven and therefore relaxed superiority over the enemy.

This confident and relaxed smile of proven superiority is different from the accentuated, exclamatory, self-asserting smiles of our American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners, which we all saw on the American TV screens. This difference is between the awareness of our “superiority” over the helpless enemies on the one hand, and the impatient assertion of “our” superiority over “our enemies“, the demonstration of our self-assertion in front of the world, on the other. American soldiers in Iraq not only are openly enjoying their superiority but loudly proclaiming it before the whole world.

But back to Napoleonic army of liberators of Spain. This silent narcissistic smile incarnating the satisfying awareness of “our” superiority over those who dared to resist “our” overwhelming power is the essence of the psychology of war making – giving yourself to the joy of victory wars are fought for. It is the expression of the psychological paradise provided to humans by a successful war-making. A similar silent/shy smile we see on the face of the soldier in the next etching by Goya from the same series.

Francisco Goya, “The Disasters of War” Francisco Goya, “The Disasters of War”

This soldier (on the left) sadistically pulling the dying man’s leg is enjoying that his buddy is in the process of cutting the sexual organs of the tortured or already died prisoner. The morbid attention to the sexual organs of the tortured we already observed in the photos of our American soldiers in Iraq. Sexual humiliation of a helpless person belonging to the opposite camp is, it seems, a widespread pleasure of the members of the victorious side. Does the castration or mutilation of the sexual organs of the defeated ones provide the feeling of the most radical victory over them who are then perceived as a kind of females, and this in the collective mind of the machismo means a radical proof that the enemy males are inferior beings? For misogynous macho males (trained to fight/kill/win) to sexually debilitate the enemies is to sharpen pleasure of the feeling of “our” superiority. Sadistic sexual excitement in the torturers can explain their proclivity to denude and sexually violate the male prisoners as the need to transform them into females to feel the victory over them as double triumph – not only military but also sexual. The joy of victory multiplies if enemies are not only defeated as soldiers but losing their manhood. For macho-soldiers victory is not just goal justifying the means – victory justifies everything.

Francisco Goya, Etching 3 from “The Disasters of War” (1810 – 1820) Francisco Goya, Etching 3 from “The Disasters of War” (1810 – 1820)

Here we again meet a similar smile of a relaxed narcissistic satisfaction in the soldier who after taking part in hanging his enemies having fun pretending that he is waiting for the hanged corpse to say something or that he actually hears from the corpse but cannot be sure what it is exactly (he holds his left ear, as if helping himself to hear better). Pay attention to the fact that the hanged man’s pants are pulled down. We will not be surprised about the possible goal of this denuding of male prisoners, after what we understood about the sexual aspect of torture as an expression of militantly machoistic psychology. The bravado posture of the resting soldier is sexually ambiguous. It can be that this soldier’s (who, it seems, is guarding the hanged corpses) pleasure is to ensure his sexual vitality with his right hand, as if he is making a point to the corpse – “Do you see? Your sex is as dead as you are, but I can enjoy the full spectrum of my sexual potency!” The genius of Goya is not allowing him as an artist to be timid in showing the truth of the unforgivable monstrosity of war demanding from human beings ideological normalization of behavior which is beyond normality.

Francisco Goya, Drawing 5 from his Antiwar Series Francisco Goya, Drawing 5 from his Antiwar Series

After killing the woman’s husband or lover, the soldier on the right is ready to have fun by cutting the corpse’s sex. The horrified woman intervenes and caught the soldier’s hand with the caber. Here, the second soldier (with his back to the viewers) is trying to prevent the woman’s desperate attempt to save her beloved’s body from final disgrace. The soldier, whose deed the woman is trying to interrupt, is the carrier of the innocent smile of a righteous torturer (which we are analyzing here in Goya’s various etchings). He wants to assert his right of a victorious conqueror to do with defeated whatever he likes.