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Are war crimes caused by bad apples or bad barrels?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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When soldiers commit atrocities, we must ask why. The question is being raised once again by reports that a handful of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan carried out premeditated killings—murders—of Afghan civilians. The soldiers allegedly took photographs of themselves posing with corpses and body parts, including fingers and heads.

The alleged ringleader is Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. In an interrogation video leaked to CNN, Specialist Adam Winfield, a member of Gibbs’s platoon, said that Gibbs "likes to kill things. He is pretty much evil incarnate. I mean, I have never met a man who can go from one minute joking around, then mindless killings."

Military officials invariably blame these sorts of atrocities on "bad apples." That was the phrase that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used to describe American guards accused of abusive behavior at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.

Some evidence supports the bad-apples theory of atrocities. In a previous post, I cited a report by two psychiatrists that after 60 days of continuous combat, 98 percent of World War II infantrymen suffered from psychiatric illness, with some succumbing to a near-catatonic "vegetative phase." But 2 percent of the soldiers, far from being traumatized by intense, prolonged combat, enjoyed it. The psychiatrists diagnosed these soldiers with "aggressive psychopathic personalities."

Dave Grossman, a former professor of psychology at West Point and Army lieutenant colonel, acknowledged in his 1995 book On Killing (Little, Brown, 1995) that a small number of men—whom he called "the two percent who like it"—can "kill without regret or remorse." According to Grossman, these men may be excellent soldiers when competently trained and supervised, but they are also more likely than other men to use excessive force and commit atrocities.

The description above of someone joking one minute and killing the next sounds like textbook psychopathy. In "Inside the Mind of  a Psychopath," in the September/October issue of Scientific American MIND, the neuroscientists Kent Kiehl and Joshua Buckholtz stated that psychopaths "are guilty of the most erratic and irresponsible, sometimes destructive and violent behavior," for which they "feel no compunction or regrets." Psychopaths, who comprise as much as 35 percent of U.S. prisoners, seem incorrigible; they may behave worse after treatments such as group psychotherapy, Kiehl and Buckholtz said, because "insights into others’ vulnerabilities become opportunities to hone their manipulation skills."

Today, some psychiatrists prefer the terms "sociopathy" or "antisocial personality disorder" to psychopathy. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, antisocial personality disorder is characterized by extreme aggression, lack of empathy for others, lack of remorse for one’s actions—and, not surprisingly, a propensity for violent crime. The manual estimates that 3 percent of all males have the disorder, which is suggestively close to the "two percent who like it." The disorder is much less common among women.

A British study of school-age twins published in 2005 [pdf] suggests that psychopathy has a strong genetic component. Teacher surveys revealed psychopathic tendencies (including antisocial behavior and "callous-unemotional traits") in 234 children—all less than 10 years old—out of a total of 3,687 pairs of twins, or roughly 3 percent. If one identical twin was psychopathic, the other was much more likely to be so; the concordance between fraternal twins was smaller.

In Final Solutions (Cornell, 2005), the political scientist Benjamin Valentino asserted that small percentages of men caused much of the slaughter of the 20th century. "The impetus for mass killing usually originates from a relatively small group of powerful leaders and is often carried out without the active support of broader society," Valentino stated. This pattern was true of mass killings in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, the Balkans, Guatemala and elsewhere.

Similarly, the biologist Barbara Oakley argued in Evil Genes (Prometheus, 2007) that Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong and other notorious tyrants displayed symptoms of psychopathy. Oakley concluded that they were "born to be bad." But in her 1963 essay on the Nuremberg trials, Hannah Arendt noted that psychiatric evaluations of Nazi mass murderers such as Adolf Eichmann suggested that they were "neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal." Arendt attributed Eichmann’s crimes to "circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel that he is doing wrong." Arendt was rejecting the bad-apple theory and blaming "circumstances" for the Holocaust.

This conclusion was corroborated by famous experiments carried out in the 1960s by the psychologist Stanley Milgram. The son of Jewish immigrants, Milgram devised his experiments in part as a reaction to the Nuremberg trials, which left him wondering about the motivation of Eichmann and other Nazis. In Milgram’s experiments—the details of which are still chilling—subjects were told that they were participating in a test of another person’s learning ability. The "learners" were actually actors in cahoots with Milgram.

The subject read pairs of words to the learner—who was in an adjoining room and could be heard but not seen by the subject—and then tested his ability to remember the pairings. Each time the learner failed to remember a pairing, the scientist, who was in the same room as the subject, ordered him to give the learner a stronger electric shock. As the shocks increased, the learner reacted with audible distress, crying out in pain, banging on the wall or even claiming that he was about to have a heart attack. After a certain point, the learner would fall silent.

Of course, the learner was pretending to be shocked. If the subject hesitated to deliver stronger shocks, the scientist insisted that the subject continue, adding that he would not be held responsible for anything that happened to the learner. Only if the subject resisted four successive commands from the scientist was the experiment stopped. Otherwise the experiment continued until the subject had administered a "shock" of 450 volts to the learner.

Before the experiment, Milgram asked several dozen psychiatrists to predict the results; the average guess was that only 1 percent of the subjects, those with sadistic tendencies, would deliver the strongest shock. But in Milgram’s initial experiment 26 out of 40 subjects, or almost two-thirds, administered what they believed to be the strongest, life-threatening shock. Only one subject refused to continue the experiment before reaching the 300-volt level. Versions of Milgram’s experiment have been repeated in the U.S. and elsewhere with similar results.

In 1974 Milgram spelled out the implications of his research: "The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority."

In 1971 the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, Milgram’s former classmate at a New York City high school, carried out the so-called Stanford Prison Experiment, which has become almost as renowned as Milgram’s work. Zimbardo created a mock prison in which Stanford students played the roles of either prisoners or guards. The "guards" quickly became so abusive—and the "prisoners" so distressed—that Zimbardo had to discontinue the experiment. Some of the guards’ abusive acts—which included forcing prisoners to strip and to engage in simulated homosexual intercourse—were strikingly similar to acts perpetrated more than three decades later by American soldiers against Iraqis held in the Abu Ghraib prison.

This research suggests that human aggression and cruelty stem less from the "disposition" of individuals than from their environment, or "situation," Zimbardo argued in The Lucifer Effect (Random House, 2008). Studies of modern suicide bombers, torturers and war criminals, Zimbardo wrote, have revealed that many are, in Arendt’s words, "terrifyingly normal." People behave badly not because they are bad apples but because they are in "bad barrels," situations that encourage brutality. War is the ultimate bad barrel. "In all wars, at all times, in every country, wars transform ordinary, even good men into killers," Zimbardo stated.

In War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred (Penguin, 2007), the British historian Niall Ferguson described how combatants in World Wars I and II became consumed with hatred for their opponents. As a result, even Americans and British soldiers, the putative good guys, engaged in escalating atrocities, including bombing civilians, torturing and killing prisoners and mutilating the dead. This emotion-fueled descent into brutality is an inevitable consequence of the bad barrel of war.

If genocide, war crimes and other atrocities were all perpetrated by a few bad apples born with bad genes, we could perhaps identify them through genetic testing and sequester them from the rest of us good, decent, peaceful folk. If only things were that easy.

Photograph of 1968 massacre in My Lai, Vietnam, courtesy of Wiki Commons

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  1. 1. Mims 11:59 am 10/4/2010

    Also relevant: the 2001 documentary Japanese Devils.

    http://edition.cnn.com/2002/WORLD/asiapcf/east/04/07/japan.devils/index.html

    The film is basically about how conditioning soldiers to believe that their opponents are sub-human encourages them to commit atrocities against their enemies. Some of the accounts (from former soldiers themselves) are truly gruesome.

    In the same vein, but involving U.S. soldiers in Vietnam: Winter Soldier

    http://www.wintersoldierfilm.com/

    Link to this
  2. 2. candide 12:20 pm 10/4/2010

    How about the OBVIOUS: war crimes are caused by …. WAR.

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  3. 3. Chrisstephen 2:29 pm 10/4/2010

    Having reported from numerous wars, I think the conclusion is spot on. For some soldiers, killing seems to be a pleasure. The vast majority try to balance following orders with staying alive. In an environment where their job is to kill the enemy and killing is normal, the line between legitimate and illegitimate killing is blurred. The onus is on the supervising commanders to keep all this in check.

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  4. 4. WRQ9 3:36 pm 10/4/2010

    I cannot agree with the findings of tests like the Milgram test mentioned because, in my experience, it has been under a perceived threat that people behave this way. Most people will pretend to behave in an acceptable manner no matter how wrong it feels to do so. It is in the presentation of circumstance that bias is introduced.
    I do not either believe in the 2%-3% figure involving war criminals, as I believe in the prevalence of cover up in these circumstances, and the pragmatism of not being found out in general. The 2%to3% represent to me, a percentage so driven that once they are allowed to commit a murder for example, they are unable to put the genie back in the bottle. The line must be drawn where no possible repercussions are perceived, as when no witness is available or such circumstance to provide a true reflection.
    Many people are secretly glad to be in a unit with a man like Gibbs because they are allowed to stop pretending and not risk the same level of stigma as the Gibbses. In my informal study of "sociopathy", it seems like about a third of people have a palpable emotional response, a third have a response and suppress it, and fully a third have no response at all. These numbers I don’t feel vary as much in males to females as is indicated, but again cultural necessity skews the findings.
    Although I agree that genetics is a strong predictor of this tendency, other factors can play a significant role in determining the degree of evidence of such leanings. Drug abuse childhood abuses and combinations of other extreme circumstances can inspire differences in scale, either way.
    I reach these finding by regarding the context and value in circumstance in life to be a constant within the species, and the perception of equality to be assumed. Cheaters oppress, and the willingness to oppress often reflects sociopathic tendencies. In fact, the intended suppression of any faction or individual for any cause save the actual greater good of society, reflects such tendencies.
    It is the impossibility of proof, given the complexity of human the psyche which leads us time and time again to the same pitfalls. If these people were so alone in culture, they could hardly be considered socially driven in any way. Influence is a form of violence to some, and the relative subtlety doesn’t change the paradigm.

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  5. 5. JamesDavis 3:42 pm 10/4/2010

    People like Sergeant Calvin Gibbs are needed in wars because it is people like them that brings the war to an end. The more cruel the killings, the faster the war ends or the faster the people give up. You have this in every war because there is a Sergeant Gibbs in every war and Sergeant Gibbs is born with this trait and it comes to light in war. If there is no war, people like Sgt. Gibbs would more than likely become a serial killer or an incredible hunter. In war or not in war, these people have to kill the same way a painter has to paint…they are needed.

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  6. 6. TTLG 4:41 pm 10/4/2010

    I am somewhat skeptical of studies like Milgram’s which rely on the subjects being fooled by actors. My experience is that most people are much better at detecting this sort of deceit than most actors are are fooling people. For example, just look at how much bad acting there is in Hollywood movies, which have access to the largest pool of actors in the world. If these guys cannot get believable actors, how can psych experimenters? I would not be surprised if a significant amount of people’s behavior in these experiments is due to their not entirely believing (either consciously or not) that the situation they are in is real, due to the behavior of the supposed victim or the person giving them orders.

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  7. 7. gesimsek 6:20 pm 10/4/2010

    It is an excellent article. Stanford experiment reminds me fraternity entrance tests. Unfortunately, as long as human beings are raised to prove themselves by inflicting damage upon themselves and others, this vicious circle will continue.

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  8. 8. imipak 8:20 pm 10/4/2010

    JamesDavis’ view that wars end quickly with extreme cruelty is the precise opposite of the view held by Sun Tzu who admonished against excess. It is also contrary to the view of Miyamoto Musashi, who stated that one should never repeat a method, lest it becomes predictable and a weakness.

    Since "Art of War" and "Book of Five Rings" are recognized as excellent guides on how to win but no blogger has yet to achieve such repute, I’ll side with expert opinion and say Sergeant Gibbs is not the way to win but is actually the way to lose.

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  9. 9. tombaxter 9:18 pm 10/4/2010

    I’d like to think I would not have pull the trigger like a handful didn’t at My Lai. But even if I didn’t shoot, I know I would have never reported it as I didn’t report other war crimes I saw. We weren’t dealing with people. We were dealing with g**ks and "What is the value of one mere g**k?" It’s the same as a Hajji, etc. I hope I will commit suicide before I become a Kapo.

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  10. 10. HoboTraveler.com 1:39 am 10/5/2010

    I have traveled perpetually for 12 years, and visited 88 countries. It is normal for me to live with people who speak a different language than me, this is a more instinctual way of living.

    I also observe many tourist and travelers outside the social norms of home.

    Yes, for sure 2-3 percent of people feel no guilt.

    However, the assumption I feel is wrong, is that we somehow imbue humans with introspection. I do not feel that 50 percent of Humans take the feelings of others into consideration. I believe what we often see as empathy is only a self-serving desire to get reward from the group.

    People generally are cows, with an alpha male instructing them what to do, this idea of morality of the individual is truly just fear of social norms being enforced and mass confusion causing mental problems. Overwhelming confusion, incongruence of beliefs to me is mental illness.

    People generally do not want to hurt people, but if there is a group desire, or a easy to recognize benefit, with no danger, they will do so without thought.

    Andy Graham of HoboTraveler.com in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa 2010

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  11. 11. Alexis in HK 2:44 am 10/5/2010

    War crimes are committed by BOTH bad apples and bad barrels. Milgram et al merely proved that under the right set of circumstances, even those of us who lack "aggressive psychopathic personalities" are capable of depravity.

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  12. 12. AndrewinPoznan 9:38 am 10/9/2010

    The implications of the demarcation between Bad Apple Believers and Bad Barrel Believers is sufficiently powerful and terrifying that it has begun showing up in disciplines other than psychology, penology, etc.

    Two historians — Daniel Goldhagen from Harvard and Christopher Browning from Chapel Hill — studied the same group of men committing the same atrocities, using the same sources for their research. Goldhagen trumped the usual Bad Apple Theorists by suggesting that Nazi Germany was an entire nation of Bad Apples: in other words he supported the still widely held view that ‘Germans are nasty people from the get go’ taken as far as it could be. (I know a military historian who simply refuses to believe anything else.)

    Goldhagen’s book, Willing Executioners, became an international best-seller, but was not terribly well received among academic historians, many of whom felt it showed both bias and some sloppiness in methodology. Browning, on the other hand, was among the first historians of the Holocaust and the Nazi Era to adopt the Bad Barrel Theory. He endorsed the view — following Milgram, Zimbardo, and others — that practically anyone can be turned into a "Nazi" if placed in a conducive environment and subjected to the right sorts of training or manipulation. This is the Bad Barrel Theory applied to events in which, most us would like to think that we would never participate no matter what. In other words, we nearly all imagine ourselves capable of heroic ethical clarity and will power, even though there is a considerable amount of powerful evidence suggesting that heroes are very very very few and far between. Contrasting with Goldhagen, Browning called his subjects "Ordinary Men," and saw them as just that — men of ordinary education, social background, religious training, political sophistication, loyalty and determination, who were nevertheless, with relative ease, taken down a path in which they almost all became mass murderers without even questioning what was going on or why.

    There is no need for either theory to operate to the exclusion of the other. Nor is it necessary to say that Bad Apples are first needed to create a bad barrel. More likely, the phenomena are both simultaneous and symbiotic. Bad Apples and Bad Barrels both exist all the time. The real terrifying trouble comes when they exist in the same place at the same time, and no one notices until the madness is already well along.

    Link to this
  13. 13. AndrewinPoznan 9:40 am 10/9/2010

    The implications of the demarcation between Bad Apple Believers and Bad Barrel Believers is sufficiently powerful and terrifying that it has begun showing up in disciplines other than psychology, penology, etc.

    Two historians — Daniel Goldhagen from Harvard and Christopher Browning from Chapel Hill — studied the same group of men committing the same atrocities, using the same sources for their research. Goldhagen trumped the usual Bad Apple Theorists by suggesting that Nazi Germany was an entire nation of Bad Apples: in other words he supported the still widely held view that ‘Germans are nasty people from the get go’ taken as far as it could be. (I know a military historian who simply refuses to believe anything else.)

    Goldhagen’s book, Willing Executioners, became an international best-seller, but was not terribly well received among academic historians, many of whom felt it showed both bias and some sloppiness in methodology. Browning, on the other hand, was among the first historians of the Holocaust and the Nazi Era to adopt the Bad Barrel Theory. He endorsed the view — following Milgram, Zimbardo, and others — that practically anyone can be turned into a "Nazi" if placed in a conducive environment and subjected to the right sorts of training or manipulation. This is the Bad Barrel Theory applied to events in which, most us would like to think that we would never participate no matter what. In other words, we nearly all imagine ourselves capable of heroic ethical clarity and will power, even though there is a considerable amount of powerful evidence suggesting that heroes are very very very few and far between. Contrasting with Goldhagen, Browning called his subjects "Ordinary Men," and saw them as just that — men of ordinary education, social background, religious training, political sophistication, loyalty and determination, who were nevertheless, with relative ease, taken down a path in which they almost all became mass murderers without even questioning what was going on or why.

    There is no need for either theory to operate to the exclusion of the other. Nor is it necessary to say that Bad Apples are first needed to create a bad barrel. More likely, the phenomena are both simultaneous and symbiotic. Bad Apples and Bad Barrels both exist all the time. The real terrifying trouble comes when they exist in the same place at the same time, and no one notices until the madness is already well along.

    Link to this
  14. 14. AndrewinPoznan 10:20 am 10/9/2010

    Apologies for the double-posting. I hope SA spots these things and removes the duplicates.

    Link to this
  15. 15. AndrewinPoznan 10:36 am 10/9/2010

    But there is another thing after all….

    Hannah Arendt’s brilliantly concise book, based on a series of articles she did for The New Yorker, to which John Horgan refers, is NOT about the Nuremberg Trials, which were held in 1945-46 and resulted in the still controversial concept of "crimes against humanity" — controversial because one has to wonder if six million murders is truly a different crime from murder, or just murder six million times. Arendt’s book, known as The Banality of Evil, was, instead, about the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in the early 60s. In it, much of Arendt’s critical gaze was directed not at Eichmann, an obvious but not very interesting monster (supporting both the Bad Apple and the Bad Barrel views), but at the flaws surrounding Israel’s "justice" for the man. One should not overlook that Arendt was herself a German Jew, who had studied with, and been a lover of, Martin Heidegger (one of the very few 5-star minds of the time to support the Nazis), but who had also escape the Holocaust and who came to see the disease of totalitarianism, and its dehumanizing consequences, as clearly as anyone.

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