Ordinary Men and Abhorrent Behavior

Ordinary Men and Abhorrent Behavior

by Christopher S. Knott

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Although the world has seen many horrible events which defy explanation and simply boggle the mind, none has equaled the unparalleled cruelty of World War II's Eastern front and Pacific theater. The intensity and sheer brutality inflicted, not only on soldiers, but civilians, has horrified the world. Who should be blamed for the Holocaust is still an open question. Was it only Hitler's plan? The SS officers who gave the orders? Their subordinates who obeyed them and did the actual killing? Why were Japan's forces so cruel and bereft of humanity in Nanking? How did the Marines in Peleliu spiral into barbarity? These are questions that may never be answered to satisfaction but, more important questions bubble to the surface, reaching beyond blame; how does a soldier reconcile the sadistic killing of unarmed civilians and what did it take for the U.S. marines to become inculcated to the environmental hardships and battlefield horrors they faced?

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Christopher S. Knott is an Air Force retiree that is now attending Graduate School at the University of Pennsylvania. His current research is in Global Studies and Conflict.

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I think we should be careful with the assumption that soldiers who commit atrocities must have had something wrong with them to begin with. It doesn't seem like the ability to kill people but still maintain moral behavior is a natural state. It's a dichotomy that requires work to maintain, not necessarily on the individual level but on the societal level--the society, specifically the military society, has to continually reinforce a standard of behavior which includes killing but excludes dishonorable behavior. If that reinforcement stops, people draw their own moral conclusions--"I can kill people, is there really that big a difference between killing enemy soldiers and enemy civilians? So what if I want to take an ear for a trophy; I'm already murdering people, it's not like they need their ears when I'm done."

May I recommend Tiger Force by Mitch Weiss and Mike Sallah which details the high level of combat stress placed on a recon platoon in vietnam, who feel they are essentially being sent on a suicide mission. A couple of platoon members are best friends and also happen to be psychopathic. When one of them is killed, the other goes on a terrible rampage against civilians,dragging in the rest of the platoon (by his charisma) over several months. The redeeming thing about the episode is the determination of a small number of Americans to bring them to justice, which makes it a great (if disturbing) read. It seemed combat stress plus two highly disturbed individuals led to the crimes. Also, The Black Hearts which details the Yusifiyah murders in Iraq. Likewise in that episode, combat stress (and the feeling of inevitable death) seems like an accomplice to the crimes, and the criminals are highly disturbed individuals in the first place- who may well have been felons in civilian life. Both very disturbing, brilliant books.

Many captives from among them I burned with fire, and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their hands and fingers, from others I cut off their nose, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes.

I made one pillar of the living, and another of heads, and I bound their heads to posts around about their city. Their young men and maidens I burned in the fire...

I formed a pillar of the living and of heads over and against the city gate, and 700 men I impaled on stakes over and against the city gate.

Ashurnasirpal
King of Assyria