The recent, horrific stories of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine are deeply disturbing. See, for example, ‘This Is True Barbarity’: Life and Death Under Russian Occupation in the New York Times; and Has Russia committed war crimes in Ukraine? Here’s what we know. by Claire Parker in the Washington Post.
Of course, U.S. soldiers commit war crimes. We like to forget Fort Pillow, Andersonville, Wounded Knee, My Lai, Abu Ghraib. The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902, was a regular carnival of atrocities, which may be why no one talks about it much today. It’s also true that others have done terrible things — the Rape of Nanking; the Rape of Berlin. And, of course, war isn’t a necessary element of atrocities; the Holocaust is sometimes lumped with war crimes, but it wasn’t part of Germany’s war effort.
One of the reasons I so hate it when politicians so easily push for wars that aren’t really necessary is that there will always be some troops who will commit atrocities. These same individuals might have lived their whole lives without doing any physical harm to anyone. But in the chaos of war, when all the social structures of civilization are gone, and troops endure relentless stress and are witness to barbarities, some of them will sink to commiting barbarities themselves. This seems to always happen.
Of course, when nations are engaged in total warfare it can be hard to sort what actions are legitimate acts of war and which are crimes. The bombing of Dresden in World War II was never officially designated a war crime, for example; nor were the two atomic bomb drops in Japan. Acts of violence against civilians by an occupying army or against surrendered prisoners of war usually qualify. Most of the time which war crimes are prosecuted depends on who wins the war.
Regarding the Russians in Ukraine, Josh Marshall wrote,
These as yet very incomplete reports suggest a combination of two overlapping and reinforcing factors: one, a policy of organized terror aimed at a denationalization of Ukraine (some hint of the ideology here) and then second, poor discipline and the downstream effects of Russian military failure. In this latter case, as Russian troops failed in military terms they increasingly shifted to attacks on civilians.
In a book about the pysychology of war crimes, the authors suggest two common factors. One, the soldiers commiting the crimes are often demoralized and frustrated and looking for scapegoats. Two, leaders suffering from “malignant narcissism” may exploit the tribalism of the troops to “dehumanize” the enemy — including civilians and children.
Dutton, Boyanowsky and Bond quote a famous psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) who referred to sadism as “the conversion of impotence into the experience of omnipotence”. Fromm contended that sadism produces an emotional high, because absolute control over another, exemplified by inflicting pain or humiliation, provides a unique sense of power. Total dominion over another creates an illusion of transcending the limitations of human existence. It becomes particularly addictive for anyone whose reality is ‘deprived of productivity and joy’.
And then some people are just “freaking evil.” That’s how Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL pardoned of war crimes by Trump, was described by his fellow Iraq War veterans. When the people who fought alongside you report your conduct to military authorities, you must be pretty twisted. So there’s always that.