Both Victimizers and Victims

Recently I was invited to attend the "My Lai Memorial Traveling Exhibit" sponsored by the New York City Chapter of Veterans For Peace during its three day showing at the Quaker Meeting House in Manhattan. Developed by "Mac" MacDevitt and the Chicago Chapter of Veterans For Peace, the purpose of the exhibit is, in my opinion, first to acknowledge and educate visitors about both the murders of over 500 villagers in the Hamlet of My Lai by U.S. forces in March of 1968, and of the subsequent cover-up by military officials. Perhaps just as importantly, in keeping with the mission of Veterans For Peace, the exhibit provides

" . . . participants with a powerful anti-war experience. The experience invites participants to make a renewed commitment to peace and social justice and provides opportunities to support initiatives working to reduce violence and militarism both at home and abroad."

Since on the second day of the exhibit I was to make a presentation on military service, war, and atrocity and then participate in a panel discussion with other veterans and war resisters, I thought it wise to spend my first evening as an observer or, as much of the exhibit is interactive, as a "participant." After "engaging" the informative panels, videos, sculptures, and collages, I decided to step back and spend the remainder of the evening observing and conversing with other exhibit participants hoping to get a sense of how they were processing the information and the inevitable emotional and moral overload.

I think it accurate to say that most were understandably outraged and righteously appalled by such barbarism. But, whether real or imagined, I did get the impression that those, such as myself, who had personally experienced war, while certainly saddened, were not surprised that such heinous acts had occurred. Also, the war veterans seemed less judgmental of those who committed the atrocities. These observations so fascinated me that, virtually at the last minute, I decided to abandon the comments I had prepared for my presentation and to focus instead upon explaining what I thought to be the reasons for the variations in response. The following is what I offered the audience for their consideration.

War and Atrocity

After viewing the human carnage wrought by American servicemen at My Lai, certainly an emotional and moral response is understandable. What is underappreciated, however, by those who had not experienced war is the correlation between, and the inevitability of, atrocity in war. Noted psychiatrist and author, Robert Jay Lifton,[1] explains why even normal American young men and women when subjected to the conditions of war, what he describes as "atrocity-producing situations," become capable of such heinous acts. He writes, war is

. . . so structured, psychologically and militarily, that ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than you or I, can commit atrocities. A major factor in all of these events was the emotional state of US soldiers as they struggled with angry grief over buddies killed by invisible adversaries, with a desperate need to identify an "enemy."

To describe the barbarity of the soldiers at My Lai as an anomaly attributable to a few aberrant individuals or to a breakdown in proper military discipline, what military theorists describe as a "healthy command climate," betrays a poor understanding of the nature, reality, and psychology of war, and an acceptance of the mythology of just war and nobility of the warrior. The subsequent urge to dutifully judge and appropriately condemn, however reluctantly, those "depraved" individuals who dare tarnish the reputation of this great nation by violating the laws of God and man, constitutes a self-serving moralism and provides a welcome opportunity for all, no matter their political or ideological perspective, to reassert, perhaps feign is better, their commitment to the rule of law and to the dictates of their individual and/or collective consciences.

Perhaps it is a bit naive to expect average Americans to understand the consequences of military training and the inevitability of atrocity in a war environment. In truth, most learn about war by watching a Hollywood production, a documentary, or by reading a memoir, novel or historical account. In many if not most cases, the goal of the filmmaker or the author is to portray war as interesting and exciting so as to encourage the greatest number of people to see their movie, buy their book, or more diabolically, to excite patriotic fervor and support for a particular conflict and/or to encourage enlistment into the military.

One would expect the historian/documentarian to be more diligent in attending to details when reporting events and campaigns during the course of a war. However, as was demonstrated by the highly anticipated "definitive" documentary about the Vietnam War written by historian Geoffrey C. Ward and directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, even highly respected historians and documentarians, so as not to discourage financial backers and potential viewers, are often careful to sanitize, even to mythologize, US involvement, make war attractive, or at least palatable, and to portray the behavior of our warriors as noble and heroic and that of the "enemy" as evil and inhumane.

In truth, warriors exist in a world totally incomprehensible to those who have never had the misfortune of experiencing the horrors of the battlefield. To "know" war, you must experience it, live it, feel it in your gut – the anxiety, fear, frustration, boredom, hopelessness, despair, anger, rage, etc. While the non-warrior participants I observed and spoke with at the exhibit can never truly KNOW war, what was hoped they will take away from the experience, reinforced and clarified by the insights and analyses of the panelists, is at least the UNDERSTANDING, probably counterintuitive to many, that all war is atrocity and all warriors, including those who prosecuted the horrific acts at My Lai, are both victimizers and victims.

A Reluctance to Kill

In his landmark study of the behavior of US soldiers during World War II, army historian General S.L.A. Marshall reported that only fifteen to twenty percent of men in battle – even those facing immediate peril – fired their weapons at the enemy.[2] Ardant du Picq reported that during the Napoleonic wars, many soldiers “fired almost into the air, without aiming . . . “[3]Richard Gabriel points out that although the “primitive and warlike” New Guinean tribesmen are excellent marksmen with their bows during hunting, when going to war, warriors remove the feathers from their arrows rendering their weapons relatively ineffective keeping casualties low.[4] Similarly, among many Native American tribes, it brought the warrior more respect and esteem merely to touch the enemy – count coups – rather than to kill him. Paddy Griffith’s study of the Civil War Battlefield notes that a regiment of soldiers, usually numbering between two hundred and one thousand men, most of whom were better than adequate marksman, though leveling an incredible volume of fire at an exposed enemy at close distances (twenty to thirty yards), killed or injured only one or two men per minute.[5] This incredibly low “kill ratio” was not an isolated phenomenon peculiar to the civil war or to a particular level of weapon technology. A study conducted by the British Operational Analysis Establishment in 1986 analyzed more than one hundred nineteenth and twentieth-century battles and concluded that the killing potential of the forces engaged was much greater than the recorded casualty rate achieved. They explained this phenomenon as indicating an “unwillingness (by the participants) to take part (in the combat) as the main factor.”[6]

Ample evidence exists, therefore, to support the contention that soldiers on the battlefield have, throughout the history of warfare, avoided killing their counterparts if possible. Marshall concludes from his study that,

“It is therefore reasonable to believe that the average and healthy individual – the man who can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat – still has such an inner and usually unrealized resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.”[7]

Psychologist and former Army Ranger Dave Grossman is more specific. He maintains that there exists in humankind a natural – innate – reluctance toward killing members of one’s own species. He writes,

“. . . there is within most men an intense resistance to killing their fellow man. A resistance so strong that, in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it.”[8]

I will interpret the empirical evidence as indicating, at least, that normally functioning men and women have, for whatever the reason, adopted, internalized, and acted upon a standard of behavior, a moral code, that proscribes killing other human beings – what I have referred to elsewhere as the Kantian principle of respect for persons. If, as some have argued, humankind is biologically predisposed to respond, using violence, to certain external stimuli – the fight or flight response – such a predisposition has been effectively offset by the societal mores and ethical values instilled in us (and we have internalized) during childhood.

Creating Killers

Nations, whose aim it is to further their economic and political goals through violence, have recognized that this foundational aspect of a human being’s moral identity, i.e., the principle of respect for persons, is problematic jeopardizing its ability to wage war effectively. Consequently, nations have, in response to Marshall’s findings following the Second World War, modified warrior preparation to shift its focus from acquainting recruits with tactics and weaponry to techniques of value manipulation, moral desensitization, and psychological conditioning, aimed at destroying or overriding their moral aversion to killing.

The goals of this modified basic military training are fivefold. First, through rigid discipline, ridicule, dehumanization, and intense physical, psychological, emotional, and moral manipulation, pressure, and abuse, recruits, usually late adolescents/young adults experiencing a crucial stage of personality development, are reduced to a state of extreme helplessness and vulnerability effecting what I term “moral identity disassociation and conversion.”[9] That is, the destruction of their non-martial moral identity and its appropriate beliefs, values, loyalties, and attributes of character – kindness, mercy, compassion, consideration, benevolence, forgiveness, charity, sympathy, etc. – in favor of the beliefs, values, loyalties, and attributes of character appropriate to their new identity as warriors – loyalty to comrades, courage, patriotism, obedience, brutality, cruelty, hatred, viciousness, ferocity, inhumanity, ruthlessness, etc.

Second, few kill or are willing to die for ideology, issues of justice, god or country. What ultimately motivate soldiers to kill and to die in battle is personal honor, self-respect, and loyalty and accountability to comrades. Consequently, basic military training seeks the destruction of the recruits’ concept of themselves as individuals and fosters, instead, a group identity and esprit de corps – a unit cohesion or “brotherhood/sisterhood among warriors." This phenomenon, sociologically termed “grouping” or “crowding,” allows for the development of a sense of anonymity, a diffusion of responsibility and group absolution thereby lessening or even eliminating (at least temporarily) a sense of personal responsibility for their actions. It is, therefore, the recruits’ vision of themselves as part of a select group of warriors with a proud, noble, and chivalrous tradition – a dynamic captured by the term “warrior mythology” – that effectively enables them to ignore the ethical limits they would normally place upon the use of violence.

Third, while official policy maintains that unquestioning obedience is not the goal of warrior preparation (soldiers are morally and legally responsible for differentiating lawful from unlawful orders and are bound to obey the former and disobey and report the latter), most sincere and pragmatic military leaders would agree that an immediate response to orders on the battlefield is nonnegotiable. For all intents and purposes, then, basic military training conditions recruits to respond to orders immediately, automatically, and without question. The old soldier’s adage, “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die,” certainly captures the reality of military discipline.

Fourth, to be successful in battle, recruits must develop “an immediate killing response.” Basic military training, therefore, programs recruits, utilizing a number of clearly Pavlovian stimulus-response exercises to react automatically and to kill, without hesitation, those perceived as the enemy.

Fifth, despite participation in sophisticated tactical exercises that simulate the sights, sounds, and smells of combat, war is inevitably overwhelming and killing another human being an awesome act normally antithetical to ordinary conceptions of morality. The immediate moral impact of such actions may be ameliorated somewhat through a technique termed “distancing.” Consequently, an important goal of basic military training is to create "distance” between the warrior and those they must kill by accentuating and fabricating the “enemy’s” cultural, racial, ethnic, and moral differences. That is, to instill, in the recruits, an abstract perception of the enemy as evil, demonic, subhuman, nonhuman, and socially inferior. J. Glenn Gray, a philosopher and veteran of World War Two writes,

“The typical image of the enemy is conditioned by the need to hate him without limits . . . Most soldiers are able to kill and be killed more easily in warfare if they possess an image of the enemy sufficiently evil to inspire hatred and repugnance.”[10]

It is clear, therefore, that since the end of the Second World War, nations have entered a new era of warrior preparation. These sophisticated indoctrination techniques, characterized by profound psychological and value manipulation and conditioning, have proven quite successful indeed. Further studies have shown that the percentage of soldiers in battle who fired their weapons at the enemy increased to 55 percent during the Korean War and with further "refinements," to 95 percent during the American war in Vietnam. While I am unaware of any current war studies, there is no reason to believe that today’s warriors are any less lethal.

The Battlefield

Everyday living in a war zone is a netherworld of horror and insanity during which participants are dehumanized and desensitized to death and destruction. To those struggling to survive the next ambush, improvised explosive device, or suicide bomber, respect for life loses all meaning, and atrocity becomes a matter of perspective. War’s negative effects are pervasive, cumulative, and judgments of right and wrong – morality – quickly become irrelevant and brutality and atrocity a primal response to an overwhelming threat of annihilation.

Life amid the violence, death, horror, trauma, anxiety and fatigue of war erodes our moral being, undoes character, and reduces decent men and women to savages capable of incredible cruelty that would never have been possible before being victimized and sacrificed to war. Consequently, as noted above, atrocity in such an environment is not an isolated aberrant occurrence prosecuted by a few deviant individuals. Rather, it is commonplace, intrinsic to the nature and reality of war, the inevitable consequence of enduring prolonged life-threatening and morally untenable conditions, "atrocity-producing situations," subsequent to being conditioned to kill.

The Unenlightened and Unaffected

Unfamiliar with the sophistication and effectiveness of the programming regimen to which our young people are subjected to enable them to kill and with the impact of the battlefield environment upon the warrior, the uninitiated and unaffected – most civilians and many non-warrior members of the military – have accepted, whether implicitly or explicitly, the militarist’s mythology of the "good war" and the "noble warrior." Further, and this is crucial, they have yet to realize an important truth that all war is barbarism in which cruelty and brutality – atrocity – is the norm rather than the exception.

During World War II, for example, often cited and celebrated as the "good war," over 50 million civilians were murdered by both Axis and Allied nations. The American servicemen at My Lai and in the now infamous WikiLeaks video "collateral murder" who so nonchalantly "engaged the target" – slaughtering some 12 human beings – are no different from the pilots and bombardiers from the "greatest generation" who, with equal nonchalance, incinerated millions of civilians during the terror bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, etc.


Following the panel discussion, as I once again perused the exhibit, an audience member approached me and tearfully expressed her impressions of my presentation. "I hate, with every fiber of my being, everything that you said." I responded that such a reaction was understandable and reasonable, and that I hoped her strong emotional response and feelings of outrage and disgust would motivate further antiwar activism and be tempered with the understanding that those who perpetrated such heinous acts were not killers by nature. Rather they were both victimizers and victims created to do our bidding, first as late adolescents/young adults conscripted or lured into the military from a sense of duty or with promises of employment, a college education, or US citizenship. Then, as recruits, subjected to sophisticated indoctrination and conditioning techniques aimed at destroying/overriding their humanity, their moral aversion to killing, and instilling in them "appropriate" warrior behavior subsequently reinforced by the violence and horrors of the battlefield environment. Is it any wonder, then, that normal young men, and now women (remember the infamous Abu Ghraib photos of Lynndie England’s abuse of prisoners), became capable of such heinous acts of slaughter and torture as those documented by this exhibit, or in the WikiLeaks video, or the Abu Ghraib photos, or the terror bombing of German and Japanese cities?

While supporters and opponents of war continue to debate the necessity, complexity, and applicability of "Just War Theory," the Geneva Convention, and military Rules of Engagement from the safe and sane environs of judicial chambers, offices, classrooms, and cocktail parties, warriors desperately struggle for their and their comrades’ survival, in a brutal and insane environment bent upon their destruction. So, should they fail to display the attributes of the mythological noble warrior, meet your expectations of morally appropriate behavior on the battlefield, or participate, rationally and coherently to your satisfaction, in the philosophical debate regarding war and morality, please be tolerant and understanding, as more fundamental and basic concerns drive their actions and occupy their minds.

Be clear, I am not in any way justifying or excusing the actions of murderers, rapists, or torturers. But neither do I seek scapegoats in order to absolve myself of culpability and responsibility as a citizen of a democracy in whose name these atrocities are committed. We must see through the mythology, the lies and deceptions, and understand that the warriors’ culpability must be mitigated. We must realize that all war is a crime, that culpability is not theirs alone, and that we must all share responsibility and blame for the inevitable atrocities of war. Know, that there is blood on all our hands.

  1. Lifton, Robert J., Home From the War, Vietnam Veterans: Neither Victims nor Executioners, Simon and Schuster, New York (1973).
  2. Marshall, S .L. A., Men Against Fire, (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith Publishing, 1978).
  3. Ardant du Picq, Battle Studies, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Telegraph Press, 1946).
  4. Gabriel, Richard A., No More Heroes: Madness and Psychiatry in War, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987).
  5. Griffith, Paddy, Battle Tactics of the Civil War, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).
  6. Study quoted in Dave Grossman, On Killing, New York: Little, Brown, and Co. 1995), p. 16.
  7. Marshall, S.L.A., Men Against Fire, p. 78-79.
  8. Dave Grossman, On Killing, p. 4.
  9. See my Beyond PTSD: The Moral Casualties of War Gnosis Press, New York, 2017.
  10. J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors, Reflections on Men in Battle, (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), pp. 132-133.