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What Makes Normal People Commit War Crimes?

Delivery matters: Authorities give orders in a way that minimizes psychological impact for the soldiers who carry out these crimes.
Defendants in the Nuremberg Trials. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Defendants in the Nuremberg Trials. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this year, an 88-year-old man was charged in Germany for crimes committed in 1944 Nazi-occupied France. Prosecutors say “the suspect shot 25 men as part of a firing squad, and then helped as troops blockaded and then set fire to a church, in which dozens of women and children were burned alive,” according to the Associated Press. He was only 19 at the time.

On this side of history, during a relatively peaceful era in a stable nation, it’s nearly impossible to comprehend the atrocities of war. But the fact of the matter is that people often give orders to commit these types of crimes, and other human beings frequently obey. What does that say about human nature?

"Most of the time, soldiers who commit atrocities are not sadists or 'bad apples'.... These soldiers are 'normal people' but they have been trained to obey orders with no discussion."

Sophie Richardot, a social psychologist at Université de Picardie, France, sought to answer this question. She first became interested in the subject in relation to Milgram’s famed obedience experiment. Milgram showed the disturbing extent to which normal people are willing to inflict pain on people in the name of obeying authority. Richardot says that Milgram’s orders were not coercive, but they were explicit.

From what she knew about the Holocaust and other mass war crimes, however, the orders were more coded and ambiguous. So she set about categorizing the orders given to commit war crimes and looking for patterns.

Her research paper, titled “'You Know What to Do With Them': The Formulation of Orders and Engagement in War Crimes,” was published in the March/April 2014 issue of Aggression and Violent Behavior. She examined historical accounts of three modern conflicts: the German invasion of the USSR during World War II, the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, and the most recent American conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Richardot found five distinct formulations of orders, each which provides, to some extent, a psychological cushion for subordinates to justify their actions. Regimes that are legally in power, like the United States military, tend to use ambiguous or partial orders, so authorities can avoid legal problems. Illegal regimes, on the other hand, rely on orders with code words, giving subordinates the illusion of choice, and fragmenting the orders to dispel individual blame.

In an email, Richardot explains that her research shows how authorities use psychological tactics, knowingly or unknowingly, to convince subordinates to do terrible things.

Most of the time, soldiers who commit atrocities are not sadists or ‘bad apples’.... These soldiers are ‘normal people’ but they have been trained to obey orders with no discussion.... I do not excuse those who perpetuated atrocities. I just mean that, when these people are charged, one has to remember all the strategies authorities use to push them to violence. At the bottom of the military hierarchy, people do not always have all the resources to refuse immoral orders, especially when everything is done to make them think these are legal.

Those at the top of the hierarchy can make no such excuses, Richardot writes, and should be held accountable even if they did not personally carry out the crimes.