Good People Doing Bad Things
In World War II, good American boys who wouldn’t have kicked a cat flew bombers that set on fire cities where good German children lived. German boys who were raised to be kind and decent participated in the Holocaust. How is it that normally decent people who were raised to be kind and respectful of others can commit acts of horrible violence during wars? How do they put aside their normal reluctance to hurt others and shoot or bomb not only enemy combatants but civilians including women and children? Some years ago the psychologist Albert Bandura listed mental eight tricks we play in disengaging our consciences so we can perform acts of violence we would normally abhor.
- Moral Justification: one is persuaded, for example, that killing the enemy serves a higher moral purpose such as protecting one’s country or serving God’s plan, etc.
- Euphemistic labeling: to mask the true nature of behavior one knows is unethical, such actions, for example as “enhanced interrogation” for torture, “serving the target” for shooting the enemy, and “misinformation” for lying.
- Advantageous Comparison, as in “What I am doing is not as bad as what they are doing.”
- Displacement of Responsibility: Uncritically following orders, as in the Nazi concentration camp workers or SS execution squads.
- Diffusion of Responsibility: when a whole group decides on the unethical action or when the action is divided into many subparts, for example, the building of nuclear weapons. (“All I do is assemble this little electronic part.” Or, “I’m just driving a truck bring supplies—I don’t shoot anybody.”)
- Disregard or Distortion Of Consequences: for example, when harm is inflicted at a distance (as in officers in Montana who guide drones that make “bugsplats” in Afghanistan) or dropping bombs from a plane on “targets” even though women and children and old men are being killed below.
- Dehumanization: labeling the victims of one’s violence as non- or subhuman, as in calling Vietnamese people “slants” and “gooks” during that war, or Germans “Huns” in WWI, or Arabs “towel heads” and “Sand Niggers in the First Gulf War.
- Attribution Of Blame: or blaming the victim who is seen as deserving the mistreatment or seen as having brought it on themselves. For example, “These German civilians were are killing below should not have voted for Hitler; therefore they are to blame for our bombings.
Generally speaking, in the run-up to a war and during it, most or all of these powerful psychological techniques are employed by governments and their militaries on both sides.
Such propaganda is often based on lies made up by governments as in the myth Propagated in World War I by the British propaganda office that German lancers had speared babies, thus arousing rage against the Germans. And I would add one other explanation—not a trick, but an existential situation. Once a war has started and soldiers are caught up in it, it becomes a self-perpetuating “me or them” situation. If I don’t kill them, they will kill me and vice-versa. And if I refuse out of conscience to shoot at the “enemy,” my own military command will carry out a summary court martial and could execute me. This is why we have to learn critical thinking, so we can see through these lies, and why we must prevent wars before they start.
Kent Shifferd is an historian, the author From War To Peace: A Guide To The Next Hundred Years (McFarland Publishing Co., 2011), lead author for A Global Security System: An Alternative To War (World Beyond War, 2015) and an advisor to the War Prevention Initiative.