In World War II, good American boys who wouldn’t have kicked a cat flew bombers that set cities filled with innocent German children on fire. German boys, who were raised to be kind and decent, participated in the atrocities of the Holocaust. How is it that normally decent people who are raised to be kind and respectful of others can commit acts of horrible violence during wars? How do they put aside their normal reluctance to hurt others and make the decision to shoot or bomb not only enemy combatants but civilians including women and children?
Some years ago, the psychologist Albert Bandura listed eight mental tricks people play to disengage their consciences so they can perform the acts of violence they would normally abhor.
- Moral Justification: one is persuaded, for example, that killing the enemy serves a higher moral purpose such as protecting one’s country or serving God’s plan, etc.
- Euphemistic Labeling: people mask the true nature of behavior they know is unethical, such as labeling “enhanced interrogation” for torture, “servicing the target” for shooting the enemy, and “disinformation” for lying.
- Advantageous Comparison: as in “What I am doing is not as bad as what they are doing.”
- Displacement of Responsibility: Uncritically following orders, as in the Nazi concentration camp workers or SS execution squads.
- Diffusion of Responsibility: when a whole group decides on the unethical action or when the action is divided into many subparts, for example, the building of nuclear weapons. (“All I do is assemble this little electronic part.” Or, “I’m just driving a truck bring supplies—I don’t shoot anybody.”)
- Disregard or Distortion of Consequences: for example, when harm is inflicted at a distance (as in officers in Montana who guide drones that make “bug splats” in Afghanistan) or dropping bombs from a plane on “targets” even though women and children and old men are being killed below.
- Dehumanization: labeling the victims of one’s violence as non- or subhuman, as in calling Vietnamese people “slants” and “gooks” during that war, or Germans “Huns” in WWI, or Arabs “towel heads” and “sand niggers” in the First Gulf War.
- Attribution of Blame: or blaming the victim who is seen as deserving the mistreatment or seen as having brought it on themselves. For example, “These German civilians we are killing below should not have voted for Hitler; therefore they are to blame for our bombings.
Generally speaking, in the run-up to a war and during it, most or all of these powerful psychological techniques are employed by governments and their militaries on both sides.
Such propaganda is often based on lies made up by governments, as in the myth propagated in World War I by the British propaganda office that German lancers had speared babies, thus arousing rage against the Germans.
And I would add one other explanation—not a trick, but an existential situation. Once a war has started and soldiers are caught up in it, it becomes a self-perpetuating “me or them” situation. If I don’t kill them, they will kill me and vice-versa. And if I refuse out of conscience to shoot at the “enemy,” my own military command will carry out a summary court martial and could execute me.
To avoid the "me or them" situation, we have to learn critical thinking so we can see through the propaganda and lies that tell us harming others is tolerable under the conditions of war. Violence is not something that should ever be tolerated. The fact that we have to trick ourselves into making violence acceptable clarifies just how truly unacceptable it really is.
Kent Shifferd, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of From War To Peace: a Guide To the Next Hundred Years and former Executive Director of the Wisconsin Institute For Peace and Conflict Studies.