The Psychology of Atrocity
War crimes and the path forward in Ukraine
Will Smith (maybe you’ve heard of him?) once got into trouble for saying something I think is true: "Even Hitler didn't wake up going, 'let me do the most evil thing I can do today.' I think he woke up in the morning and, using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was 'good.' "
This quote came to mind last weekend after I saw the gruesome evidence of war crimes in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns that had been vacated by Russian troops. The crimes themselves are depressing enough—but they get only more depressing when you consider that they were probably committed by, or ordered by, people who considered them justifiable.
Sure, there are nihilistic psychopaths in the world, and war gives them a chance to inflict suffering even they may consider pointless. But I think Will Smith is right: Most horrible things—in war as in peace—are done by people who consider their conduct morally defensible. War criminals have their reasons.
And they can usually articulate them. They’ll tell you their victims were enemy collaborators, or likely enemy collaborators (and that you can’t take chances during war); or they’ll say it’s fair to visit retribution on people for things done not by them but by their comrades or countrymen; or they’ll say… something—something that makes sense to them even if it doesn’t make sense to you or me.
And there’s always the justification of last resort: just following orders. Paul Meadlo, an American soldier who admitted shooting dozens of Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre of 1968, said, “We all were under orders. We all thought we were doing the right thing. At the time it didn’t bother me.”
Meadlo’s superior officer, Lt. William Calley, who was convicted in a military court of murdering 22 civilians, testified, “I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the orders that I was given, and I do not feel wrong in doing so, sir.”
Of course, virtually no one—excepting true psychopaths—would commit mass murder just because their boss said to, and both Meadlo and Calley were capable of explaining what put them in such a compliant state of mind. Meadlo said that killing all those Vietnamese “did take a load off my conscience for the buddies we’d lost. It was just revenge.”
Neither Calley nor Meadlo had seemed like the kind who would join in a massacre. Calley was “moral” and “compassionate” and a “good kid,” a “wonderful boy who would do anything for you,” said acquaintances interviewed by Time magazine. Meadlo’s mother said, “I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer.”
I have no idea how good a boy Meadlo was. But I do think it’s possible for good boys to grow up to commit war crimes. I think the psychological tendencies that, in wartime, can reach such intensity as to turn someone into a monster are tendencies found in all of us. They’re part of human nature.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean war crimes are normal. Most soldiers—even most soldiers thrown into intense, harrowing situations—don’t commit them. Also obviously (I hope), saying war crimes have roots in human nature doesn’t mean the crimes are “natural” in some exculpatory sense; war crimes, like crimes in general, should be punished, regardless of whether they have some grounding in psychological tendencies that we all share.
But I do think they have such a grounding. And I think it’s important to recognize this, for three reasons.
First, I think it’s healthy for us all to be aware of tendencies we have that can be corrupting—even if for most of us the corruption never reaches the level of atrocity.
Second, I think it’s important to understand how readily a wartime environment can carry the corruption to that level—why, in other words, atrocities aren’t as rare a feature of war as we might like to think, why for every large scale atrocity that’s uncovered, there are many small scale ones we never hear about. In the coming weeks or months, as Ukrainian and western leaders discuss what kinds of peace deals are and aren’t acceptable, they should keep in mind that more war will mean more war crimes—not just on the Russian side but, in all likelihood, on the Ukrainian side. As wars progress, the psychology that leads to war crimes can intensify, and that’s happening right now, on both sides.
Third, I think it’s important to understand that the corrupting influence of war goes beyond the war zone. The wartime zeitgeist that now surrounds us, and influences even those of us an ocean away from Ukraine, activates some of the same insidious patterns of thought and emotion that, when activated in soldiers, can have horrifying consequences. You can see signs of this, big and little, on media and social media, as we process the news from Ukraine. And some of these signs are ominous.
Let’s start with what may be the closest thing there is to an essential pre-requisite for a war crime: placing some people in a special category—the category of people whose suffering we’re indifferent to or even derive pleasure from. This tendency is so commonly expressed in wartime that we don’t even notice it. For example:
Here is a tweet showing a burning Russian fuel truck that presumably got detonated by some Ukrainian weapon and presumably has an immolated Russian in the driver’s seat. The tweeter—who has 425,000 followers and seems to be a prominent analyst of Ukrainian military affairs—says lightheartedly that the vehicle appears to have had a “small accident.”
The tweet’s ‘replies’ column is then filled by people joining in the levity:
“A minor accident that the fuel truck just bumped into a rocket…”
“Hope he had insurance.”
All of this in reference to a hapless Russian truck driver who had nothing to do with the decision to invade and who, as we’ve learned from interviews with numerous Russian soldiers, may not have even realized he was part of an invasion until he crossed the Ukrainian border.
I’m in no position to condemn this kind of callousness. Taking sides in a war brings it out in a person, and I’ve seen it in myself recently as I watched drone footage of Russian tanks being destroyed. I’m just emphasizing that the most basic pre-requisite for committing an atrocity—assigning people to a category that removes them from moral concern—is something we’ve all done. It’s part of human nature, evoked reliably by certain circumstances.
Of course, it’s one thing to look at a video of a burning truck and conveniently avoid thinking clearly about the person inside it. It’s another thing to tie somebody up and shoot them. That—actually committing a war crime—requires an especially cold indifference to, even a delight in, human suffering.
Getting to that point often involves something familiar to us all: the deeply human intuition that retribution is morally justified—or, in its less exalted form, the raw thirst for vengeance. Not infrequently, soldiers who commit atrocities—like Paul Meadlo—have seen friends of theirs killed by the enemy and want payback.
Often this retributive urge, by itself, won’t be enough to drive such soldiers to vengeance—because often the people who actually killed the friends aren’t available to be punished. So a second mental tendency is needed—the tendency to assign some measure of blame to friends or comrades or countrymen of the killer; a whole group must be held accountable for the behavior of some of its members.
This is what made it possible for Meadlo to kill women and old men and children. All of them were living in a village that was said to be a Viet Cong village, and it was Viet Cong who had killed his buddies.
There were American soldiers at My Lai who disobeyed orders and refused to join Calley and Meadlo in mass murder. This is an encouraging reminder that war doesn’t automatically turn people into monsters. Different people behave differently under the stress of combat, in part because the psychological tendencies that lead to war crimes—the thirst for vengeance, for example—are more pronounced in some people than in others.
My point is just that what seems to happen with some people who do commit war crimes is that normal human tendencies, for whatever reason, get amplified, to devastating effect. We’ve all gleefully envisioned the misfortune of enemies or rivals. And we’ve all engaged in pernicious social overgeneralization, viewing whole groups dimly because of the behavior of some of their members.
Right now you can see this tendency to overgeneralize getting ramped up as the psychology of war takes hold—and as reports of atrocities by one side raise the temperature on the other side.
Consider an opinion expressed by Olga Takariuk, a Ukrainian-born journalist who has 370,000 Twitter followers, has been the subject of a full-length interview in Slate, and is a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, which gets US government funding. After the recent evidence of atrocities surfaced, she tweeted: “The world needs to think what to do not just with Putin, but with Russian society. Lies, hate, feeling of imperial superiority, cynicism, total disregard for laws, rules and human life are widespread. No values-based system, only aimed at destruction, is a danger to everyone.”
Attributing all those things to “Russian society” is a pretty big generalization! And what does she mean when she says the world needs to figure out what “to do” with all these Russians? I think people who characterized her tweet as suggesting genocide were going too far, but I also think she was exhibiting a part of human psychology that, in certain circumstances, can lead to very bad things. Like war crimes. And her tweet got 30,000 likes.
Even President Zelensky, who usually chooses his words carefully, seemed to indict Russians pretty broadly after he saw photos of dead Ukrainian civilians: "I want every mother of every Russian soldier to see the bodies of the killed people in Bucha, in Irpin, in Hostomel… Russian mothers! Even if you raised looters, how did they also become butchers? You couldn’t be unaware of what’s inside your children. You couldn’t overlook that they are deprived of everything human. No soul. No heart.”
Suggesting that all Russian soldiers have “no soul” and lack “everything human” would seem to qualify as a form of mass dehumanization. And dehumanization is said to lead to war crimes. Indeed, Zelensky’s own foreign minister has said dehumanization led to atrocities in Russian-occupied towns.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, Putin’s raging about “Nazis” in Ukraine doesn’t exactly encourage the humane treatment of Ukrainians by his soldiers. One Russian academic has described how the mindset fostered by such rhetoric can play out in Russian soldiers who occupy Ukrainian towns: “Obviously, Nazis will resist; and those resisting are Nazis. Your primary task is to separate the Nazis from poor Ukrainians and make the city clean from Nazism.”
I can see why Zelensky reacted fiercely to news of the atrocities. And I doubt he’ll keep his rhetoric at quite such an incendiary level. But any sparks he does throw out will fall on dry tinder. There’s evidence that some Ukrainian soldiers were committing atrocities against Russian soldiers even before he was calling Russian soldiers soulless butchers. After the emergence of videotape that seems to show Ukrainian soldiers systematically shooting captive Russian POWs in the legs, the Intercept unearthed evidence suggesting that three of the POWs had died on the scene and their bodies had been immolated.
A more recently surfaced—and, beware, graphic—video seems to show Russian POWs, some with their hands bound, who have just been executed by Ukrainian soldiers who are in a celebratory mood. A longer and even grizzlier version of the video begins with what appears to be a Ukrainian soldier executing a severely wounded Russian POW—or, the context suggests, finishing an initially incomplete execution.
Already, some Russians are reacting to this apparent atrocity with the kind of overgeneralizing that probably contributed to it. “Most of the AFU [Ukrainian] soldiers are scum,” declared a Russian on Telegram in reaction to the video, even though it showed the behavior of only a few Ukrainian soldiers.
No doubt many Russian soldiers have seen these videos of Russian POWs being maimed or killed—and some of them may find themselves in charge of Ukrainian POWs down the road. This is how the psychology of atrocity feeds on itself as war drags on. Each side focuses on evidence that the other side deserves punishment, and the more punishment there is, the more evidence there is. And it may well be that a world with smartphone cameras and social media is a world where this spiral accelerates faster than ever. We’ll see.
Incendiary overgeneralizations in reaction to Russian and Ukrainian atrocities aren’t confined to Ukrainians and Russians. Anne Applebaum, one of the most prominent and influential American commentators on the war, reacted to evidence of Russian war crimes in Bucha by tweeting: “Verified photographs of the brutal mass murder of Ukrainian civilians are a reminder that the Russian army is not just seeking to conquer Ukraine, it is seeking to eliminate Ukrainians.”
So apparently the whole Russian army has been, in a sense, implicated in these crimes? And the goal of the whole army is nothing less than to “eliminate” Ukrainians?
As Fred Kaplan recently noted in Slate, it’s not yet clear what exactly happened in Bucha and other such towns except that there were atrocities. We don’t yet know, he writes, whether the atrocities “are part of some genocidal policy in the Kremlin—or simply the sort of crime that sometimes happens in a brutal war when soldiers, many of them conscripts, lack competent leaders, find themselves surrounded on all sides, are forced to beat a retreat, and lash out at anyone and everyone who might be considered the enemy.”
Notwithstanding this uncertainty, Applebaum is sure about the takehome lesson. She says the war must continue—without so much as a ceasefire—until the Russian invaders are expelled: “Everyone who now calls for Zelensky to make ‘territorial concessions' in exchange for a cease fire should remember what this will actually mean: tens or hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians will die.”
Applebaum’s premise seems to be that even amid peace, Russians will be bent on exterminating Ukrainians wherever they can find them. Yet so far the evidence from Ukraine, like the evidence from many other wars, suggests the opposite: War crimes tend to happen where the war is most intense. It’s probably no coincidence that the pictures from Bucha showed not only the bodies of Ukrainian civilians in the streets but rows of burned out Russian tanks; or that the mass grave in Bucha turned out to include a row for Russian soldiers.
Those tanks were destroyed in an ambush. Whether the people who died in them were friends of the soldiers who later committed the atrocities isn’t known, but that would fit the motivational pattern at My Lai.
In any event, the fact of the ambush presumably put occupying Russian soldiers in roughly the frame of mind as many American soldiers in Vietnam, including Calley and Meadlo: acutely, even pathologically, concerned about collaborators. You never knew which innocent-looking Vietnamese was helping the Viet Cong. And you never know which Ukrainian is emailing information about Russian troop positions to the Ukrainian military.
Here is a journalist’s account of killings in the Ukrainian town of Trostyanets, based on interviews with its residents after the withdrawal of Russian troops: “The occupiers… made a practice of apprehending men at random, looking through their phones for photos of tanks and Russian positions and forcing them to undress in the search for tattoos that could indicate that they were part of the Ukrainian military. They would then shoot anyone they thought might be an enemy.”
This is one of the main reasons to expect more war crimes as this war proceeds: Though they can be a form of indiscriminate retribution, they can also be a form of calculated self-preservation—with the “calculation” erring on the side of self-preservation; ambiguous evidence of collaboration, even the mere intuitive suspicion of it, may be deemed enough to warrant execution.
And the more threatened soldiers feel—the more recent and lethal the last attack they experienced, the more casualties they’ve seen up close—the looser their standards of evidence will presumably be. At some point these standards become so loose that it’s hard to distinguish the two kinds of motivations for war crimes—indiscriminate retribution on the one hand and a not-very-discerning hunt for collaborators on the other. There may have been some collaborators among the hundreds of residents of My Lai when Calley and his crew entered the village, but there weren’t any when they left.
If you ask what it is that most often turns a “good boy” into a war criminal—how standard features of human nature like the retributive impulse and overgeneralization and the instinct for self-preservation come together to create atrocity—I suspect this is the answer: a level of fear that isn’t felt in the course of everyday life, a persistent and not unwarranted fear that you could die any day now. I like to think I’d handle such fear with grace and integrity, but, fortunately, I’ve never gotten the chance to find out.
We don’t know whether there have been atrocities by Ukrainian soldiers who find themselves in towns that include Russia sympathizers and are subject to Russian attacks. I don’t even know how many such places there are. But if, as the center of this conflict moves East, a lot of Ukrainian troops do find themselves in such a situation, is it realistic to expect that none of them will resort to summary executions?
To hear Applebaum depict a relentless Ukrainian offensive as some kind of cure for atrocity, you’d think that this is indeed her expectation. But some American commentators have different expectations—and are admirably, if shockingly, candid about them. Gideon Rose, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations—and former editor of the council’s venerable journal, Foreign Affairs—recently said that America should help Ukrainian troops achieve such goals as “knocking off collaborators.” When Russian troops do that, we call it a war crime.
War is horrible. The part where civilians die and are maimed is horrible, and the part where soldiers die and are maimed is horrible. It’s horrible when these things happen in violation of the laws and norms of war, and it’s horrible when they happen in compliance with the laws and norms of war.
That’s why some of us wanted to see a serious diplomatic effort to avoid this war. We’ll never know whether war could have been thus prevented, because those who didn’t want to see serious negotiations—including Applebaum—prevailed. And now that this war has brought the kind of horror war predictably brings, Applebaum’s prescription is more war—indeed, much more war.
There is a good side of human nature, and evidence of it emerged after the Russian withdrawal. One journalist wrote about a young Ukrainian who was caught with seemingly damning information on his smartphone but was spared. He insisted that “he learned the coordinates of a Russian position in the city completely by accident through a Telegram group.” And he “escaped death because his mother came and begged for his life on her knees. And because a soldier from the Caucasus felt sorry for her.”
The good side of human nature can be seen even in war criminals; callousness can melt into remorse. Shortly after Meadlo killed all those Vietnamese, he lost his foot to a land mine. The toll taken by land mines—a toll Meadlo and Calley had seen in their comrades—was one of the stated justifications for the My Lai massacre. But now Meadlo, rather than take this latest example as more justification for what he had done, decided it was God’s punishment for what he had done.
It’s great that people can show mercy even amid war, and it’s great that war criminals can repent even as the fighting rages on. But, on balance, the good side of human nature is much more likely to show itself during peace than during war.
Photo of Bucha by Heidi Levine in the Washington Post.