All is fair in love and war, but fighting a war isn’t as glamorous and desirable as fighting for love.
In May, five soldiers from a 2nd Infantry Division brigade of troops stationed in Afghanistan admitted to murdering three Afghan civilians. Some of the soldiers even took pictures of themselves next to the corpses and others kept body parts as souvenirs.
David Kilroy, associate professor of history, said that he believes that in any war the U.S. has fought, there are some incidents in which soldiers behaved contrary to both martial and civilian law.
“There are examples from World War II,” he said. “There are examples from the Korean War. There’re examples from the U.S. occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century, so this is not really that unusual.”
Kilroy said that a lot of these incidents seem to happen when soldiers are occupying territories where civilian populations are often hostile to their presence and feel very vulnerable.
“I think in a lot of these incidents occur against the backdrop of guerilla war where the enemy disappears in the civilian population and soldiers can’t distinguish between combat and noncombat,” he said.
Kilroy said that soldiers suffer from significant stress because their lives are constantly in danger.
“They don’t feel like they’re ever able to take on the enemy in a formal battlefield, and sometimes, therefore, they might act out in a way that takes out their anger and frustrations on a civilian population,” Kilroy said.
Rondrea McKinnis, senior business administration, has three army veterans in her family: her father, her uncle and her grandfather. She said she was disgusted at the soldiers’ behaviors.
“That was not the whole point of this war,” she said. “That’s how you spend your time — making a mockery of things? You sit there and disgrace our country’s name by killing people for fun? You’re just as bad as you say they were because their children were walking around with guns.”
According to Jason E. Piccone, Ph.D., assistant professor of social psychology, dehumanization is the key factor in incidents like these.
“I think a lot of these men have these ideals of serving for this country and fighting for their ideals,” he said. “I think there’s a beauty in that and then they get on the ground and they see the reality of it: That they don’t know who their enemy is, that they’re disenfranchised with their mission. I think they’re faced with a reality that pushes them away from themselves, which also helps push them toward dehumanization.”
Piccone also said that soldiers aren’t the only people in danger of dehumanization.
“We all think that we would never do some of these terrible things, but so many studies have shown that an average person off the streets will do the same atrocious things that these people would do given the circumstance,” he said.
Kilroy agreed. He said that many of the soldiers currently in active combat are still teenagers or in their early 20s. Being trained to kill at such a young age, along with fighting in rotations and the pressure to perform well in combat present serious psychological problems, he said. However, he said, soldiers who act wrongly, as in the case of these soldiers, are usually held accountable.
“In defense of the U.S. position, I think you can make a fairly strong argument that the United States does bring these soldiers to account. Maybe only after the fact, but there is some accounting. These incidents are not always hushed up,” he said.