THERE IS WITHIN MOST MEN an intense resistance to killing their fellow man,” wrote psychologist Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman in his groundbreaking 1995 book, On Killing. Humans, in short, are reluctant to knock one another off. Paradoxically, men and women at war must at some point—perhaps with a little help from their commanders—dehumanize their foes in order to kill when they need to kill. But once soldiers are trained to see the enemy as evil and unnatural, how easy is it for them to go from justified killing to wanton murder?
With this issue we kick off the series “When Soldiers Slaughter” to explore the history of military atrocities. Although murders during the Holocaust and the genocides in Armenia, Rwanda, and Bosnia were often carried out by the military, deranged civilian leaders were usually the driving force. In this series we’re more interested in instances where soldiers in the field seem to snap psychologically and kill, rape, and torture without the assent of their commanders. What spurs them to such unspeakable violence? And why does it keep happening?
For Americans, the touchstone for such atrocities has long been the 1968 My Lai massacre. Executive editor Drew Lindsay has pulled together an oral history of that tragedy (“Something Dark and Bloody”) that’s a searing portrayal of young soldiers losing their moral compass in a tough war. Writer Andrew Pedry’s timeline of select atrocities over the ages (“Murder on the Battlefield”) is a potent reminder that My Lai has its roots in the dawn of battle. Future installments will examine more of these tragedies and search for answers.
I have hope for the future, however. Psychologist Steven Pinker recently posited that violence worldwide is at an all-time low. And anecdotal evidence suggests modern soldiers are far less likely to commit war crimes than at any time in history. They are better trained than warriors of the past and are held more accountable. I’d like to see a comprehensive study conducted on atrocities, because I’m certain it would conclude that the number and extent of war crimes committed in recent years, particularly by Americans and measured, say, per combat hour, has plunged precipitously. Any takers?
Finally, a tip of the hat to longtime contributor Noah Andre Trudeau, whose article “Hard War on the Southern Plains” (Summer 2011) won a Distinguished Writing Award from the Army Historical Foundation—Bravo, Andy!