Psychology of War Criminals (TalkTV with Petrie Hosken)

Uploaded 4/29/2024, approx. 10 minute read

War mentality. It's a really interesting topic and it's something that has really stuck with me since I was a war reporter. Are all ethics off the table? And this is what I always say to people when they go, "Oh yeah war there's all these horrible things happening." I go, "War is horrible right? It's disgusting." Human beings at their most base, their most violent, their most free from law and order. And this is what happens, right? I spent two years in Bosnia watching society break down because there was no society. There were no police. There was no law and order. So ordinary people were becoming criminal. Some of the worst warlords in Bosnia who had the great misfortune of meeting had been doctors, GPs, solicitors. They'd been what I would call normal, upstanding members of society. And yet as soon as the war happened they became monsters. So why is that? It has puzzled me since the early 90s.

So we're talking about that now with Sam Vaknin who's Professor of Clinical Psychology and Geopoly, he's also a geopolitical analyst. Good to talk to you.

Sam, it's an absolutely fascinating realm of psychology because like I was saying I saw people who had been nurses and not nice you would imagine people becoming some of the most violent despotic war criminals that I've ever come across.

Yes indeed, war tends to transform people. I'm glad to be here and glad to meet you and thank you for having me.

But first let's dispense of a minority, of a certain minority in war and these are the sadistic narcissistic psychopaths. They tend to gravitate to war zones and they tend to regard war as raw, as pure, as exhilarating and exulting, as an apotheosis of kind that become god-like. In its cathartic there's a process of catharsis involved. These are people like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that the best four years of his life were the years of the First World War where he served as a courier running among the trenches and nearly getting decimated time and again and yet he said this was the best period of his life.

But these luckily for humanity this is a small minority. All the others are normal people, healthy people, functional people who are being transmogrified by war and I understand my mandate in this interview is to explain why and how.

There's someone who doubles in psychology. By the way I've experienced war, I'm in Israel. I served in two wars. I've experienced war in Sierra Leone. I've experienced wars elsewhere. So I have a first-hand experience with war and I have been transformed by war. So I know that this is a real process. I think there are two reasons for these transformations or transmutations in human beings who are exposed to the abnormal condition of war.

War is abnormal. The first one is a set of reactions to bonding and intimacy. Now this sounds totally counterintuitive but when you are in war you tend to be intimate with your enemy. You witness your enemy's way of life, their families, their habitats, their villages and cities, their culture and society. You become intimate with the enemy. There is even a modicum of bonding. It's normal when people are exposed to each other and this is perceived as life-threatening because you are not supposed to bond with the enemy. You're not supposed to be intimate with the enemy. So we activate psychological defenses. We objectify the enemy. We begin to consider the enemy the equivalent of an inanimate object and we dehumanize the enemy. And we dehumanize the enemy using three defense mechanisms.

Psychological defense mechanisms. The first one is known as splitting. We are all good. The enemy is all bad. Black and white thinking.

The second defense mechanism is known as reaction formation. We attribute to the enemy those things in us, those traits and qualities and thoughts and emotions that we reject in ourselves. And this is known as reaction formation.

And then there's attribution error. Attribution error is when we say we are the good guys because we choose to be the good guys. They are the bad guys because that's who they are. This is their essence.

Now all these psychological defense mechanisms in confluence by the way serve to dehumanize and objectify the enemy so as to prevent and for storm intimacy and bonding.

Because intimacy and bonding is bad for the business of war of course.

The second group of defenses or group of psychological processes has to do with paranoid ideation with the secretary delusions or in short has to do with fear.

War is terrifying. War is disorienting. War is frightening. People have this image of war as a kind of war game. Like everyone knows where they're going. Everyone knows what they're doing. Everything is pre-planned and pre-meditated. And it's just a question of execution. That's not war. No. War is chaos. War is a mess. There's no way you can find yourself in war. It's extremely disorienting, terrifying. You're dislocated. It's exactly like being trapped in a nightmare.

So there's a lot of paranoia, a lot of fear, a lot of terror. And there are defenses against it.

And the defenses are self-empowerment. You empower yourself and you reassert control by abusing people, by torturing people, by killing people unnecessarily, by traumatizing them. Because then you are in control of your patch. Like you can't control anything else.

Yeah. You can't control the enemy. You can't control your own battalion or unit. But you can control the poor wretch you're torturing and killing. It's a form of reassertion of control. And you justify this by saying it's unnecessary self-defense. Or I'm doing this for the greater good. I'm a saviour. I'm a rescuer. Or I'm just preempting an attack. It's preemptive and it reduces anxiety. Or I'm just obtaining closure and resolution. Or I'm being morally righteous. I'm the good guy on the side of good.

And this, the enemy is evil and it's a morality place. But even if you know what you're doing, it's not good.

So we paint ourselves as the virtuous one. And we may find ourselves, as you say, torturing or killing.

How do we not recognize that that is bad? Even if we know that's bad, right? You don't walk up to somebody in the street and start punching them in the face. Because you know that that's the wrong thing to do. Although, you know, you might be tempted on occasion. But you know it's the wrong thing to do.

So those boundaries get broken down then.

Yes, and that's because there is no ethical consensus as to what is bad and what is good.

For example, there's no ethical consensus regarding what constitutes a just war. And what are acceptable civilian casualties. International conventions, international law, international courts, they accepted the reality of total war and the blaring of the lines between combatants and civilians.

Even in international law, there is an acceptable level of collateral damage. There's an acceptable level of civilian casualties. And even in international law, you are allowed to attack a hospital or a school if it is used by combatants.

So the lines are blurred. There's no clear unambiguous, unequivocal guidance.

And when you find yourself in a disorienting, abnormal situation, you tend to react abnormally to the situation by behaving abnormally, breaking norms and rules.

And this process is known as anomie. It was first described by Emil Dukheim in the 19th century.

Anomie means the breaking down of normative behavior. You no longer realize that what you're doing is wrong. You self-justify. You say, I'm actually on the side of good against evil. It's medieval, even moralitically. I'm on the side of God. Even the Wehrmacht, the German army, which collaborated very closely with the SS, even they had the slogan was, "God is with us." So it was kind of carved on the daggers that used to kill Jews.

That's what I was going to say, because there is that mentality is contagious, right? It's groupthink. So if you have a... also I've always been fascinated with the way the crowds work and how they tend to swarm like they've got one brain. But it's the same, isn't it, with the psychology of war is that you get this infection, if you like, as to, well, he or she thinks this is okay. So it must be okay. Therefore, I'm not going to say it's wrong.

Indeed, a very pertinent point.

The hive mind. Yeah. The hive mind, it's a colony. In war, we become like ants or like bees. We are mindless. We... all the normative inhibitions, all the do's and don'ts, everything we've been socialized to not do or to do, everything we've been educated on, conditioned, everything goes away, vanishes, because a kind of super mind takes over like a colony or a hive.

That's one thing. And second thing, you're right, there is contagion. People derive justification and develop disinhibition. In other words, they behave in ways they wouldn't otherwise have behaved by observing other people. This is known as social learning theory. Modeling. We model our behavior, on the behavior of others, and then it's simply an opinion poll. It's statistics. Yeah.

If you're a member of a unit, 90% of which are abusing, torturing and killing people, you would tend to torture, abuse and kill people, just in order to be long, to conform. Because if you are an outcast in war, you're a dead soldier.

Yeah. You need your unit to have your back. The other thing that I just wanted to say, because... and this won't sound strange to you, but when I was out in Bosnia and Somalia and places like that, you talked earlier about the bonding, and there was a certain bonding within the soldiers that I was working with. I was embedded before embedded was really invented. I don't think I've ever had quite so much fun. And people don't get that. They're actually going out every day into dangerous situations with a group of guys that we've become bonded. We laughed a lot. We, you know, came back at the end of the day having not died, so you felt the adrenaline rush. It was exhilarating.

And a lot of people are going to think that I'm mad for saying that. But it's not something that people talk about. It's exhilarating.

Actually, that's how I opened my statement. I said that many people find it exhilarating, a cathartic experience, kind of cathartic.

And yes, the bonding is existential. You bond with these people, not necessarily because you have a lot in common, but you bond with these people because they have your back. They guarantee your survival. They share your values, apparently. They're the good guys, so you want to belong to the good guys and so on.

There's a lot... there are many incentives, psychological incentives to conform. Conformity is a major power in war. And not only in war, by the way, in abnormal situations, for example, in financial prices. Conformity, herd mentality. We saw this during the COVID prices. These people lose their minds. They lose their personal autonomy, independent thinking, critical thinking, and so on, so forth.

When they're exposed to exigencies of abnormality of situations and circumstances.

Just before I let you go, Sam, a lot of people will be listening to this and going, "Yeah, I don't care what happened to me. I would never become one of those people." And it's always a question that I've asked, having been out in places where there was that sort of danger, and seeing people eking out their private criminality, if you like, nothing to do with the war, is would I become the people that I'm judging? And I tend to think I probably would.

I think that's a bit of a pessimistic view. I think if you have strong, inbuilt, moral restraints, inhibitions, and a good sense of what is right and what is wrong, I think you would be able to resist peer pressure, circumstances of war, which are, you know, demanding or challenging. And you would be able to see the human side of the enemy without bonding or developing intimacy, which are inappropriate in war. They're life threatening. I think you would still be able to do this.

Listen, I think we are a bit, I'm not criticizing you or me, but I think we do tend to overemphasize the war crimes aspect of war, because it's good news, you know, it's good reporting, it's good media, it's good everything. But war is ugly. This is what I always say. It isn't good guys on one side, bad guys on the other. It's ugly, as you said, it's chaotic, you know, the whole, oh, collateral damage, civilians are being killed. What do you think happens in a war? I get very annoyed that people see this clean version or believe it's clean.

Exactly what I'm trying to say. It's shades of grey. And I think the vast majority of people who participate in war as soldiers do not commit war crimes. I mean, I don't think that's a fact. I don't believe that. That's simply the fact.

Yeah. They don't commit war crimes. And let it be clear, every soldier in every war has the potential, the capacity and the opportunity to commit war crimes. So not committing war crimes is a choice. It's an individual choice in the face of overwhelming pressures to commit war crimes.

And I think that's an optimistic statement about this, about Menka. I think that's brilliant. I think that's a good place to end it as well.

Sam, it's been fascinating to talk to you. I hope I get the chance to do that again.

Sam Vaknin, who is a professor of clinical psychology and a geopolitical analyst.

Right. Stay where you are. We're going to be talking about being child molesters.

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