Why soldiers rape and kill in war: psychologists on crime
Rape, torture and the killing of civilians are things that happen every day during the war in Ukraine. Why do the military commit crimes and how do psychologists explain it?
War is always brutal and bloody. The idea that modern weapons can be used with surgical precision to wage a war in which hardly any civilians are killed and only military targets are destroyed is absurd. At least, history knows of no such war. But does it always have to be as inhumane as it is now in Ukraine? Do soldiers have to deliberately shoot civilians, kill children and rape women?
Professor Thomas Elbert studies post-traumatic stress disorder for victims of military conflicts
“I have not encountered a single military campaign, whatever the highest moral values it pursues, where atrocities do not occur,” says Thomas Elbert, professor emeritus of clinical psychology and behavioural neuroscience at the University of Konstanz. Elbert’s main area of work: traumatic stress and its consequences, especially as a result of organised violence. He has conducted field research in conflict zones: Afghanistan, Somalia, Uganda. Why people commit heinous crimes in war is best explained by three concrete examples, which have become widely known thanks to the Internet.
“In the perception of the military, they are not shooting at people”
One of them is a video from a drone. It shows a group of Russian tanks on a deserted street in the Ukrainian town of Bucha. A civilian – an unidentified man on a bicycle – rides through an intersection at a great distance from the armoured vehicles. They shoot at him several times: until the man falls dead. Why does this happen? Clinical psychologist Thomas Elbert offers two possible explanations for this criminal behaviour. Firstly, the military might have felt threatened. After all, it could happen that the man suddenly pulls out an anti-tank weapon and fires.
Secondly, “it was fun for them to shoot another person”, says Thomas Elbert condemningly. In their own perception, the military is not shooting at humans, but at non-humans, as the propaganda machine insinuates. Besides, for the fighters – and there are always several military personnel in the tank – it is, according to the scholar, partly fun: to aim and hit accurately. “Did you see how I shot? Great!” they say, perceiving what is happening more like shooting at a target than at a person. The feeling that killing is fun is well known to anyone who has ever played a computer shooter. Elbert encountered it in Rwanda while studying genocide there. One American told him that such shooting was comparable to a heroin shot.
Rape as a weapon of war?
Reports of rape are not isolated either. The story of how the Russian military shot a husband in the stomach and raped his wife near Kiev was confirmed by several investigations. The murdered husband was then buried by his wife in her own garden. It is often said that rape is used as a weapon of war. But this is only in ten per cent of cases, explains Thomas Elbert, who studies war crimes. Rarely do generals give orders to rape women to force the enemy to surrender.
“Rape is a winner’s right, so to speak,” explains the essence of the criminal behaviour seen in soldiers in war, Professor Elbert of Clinical Psychology. The scientist has interviewed soldiers on various continents on the subject. Most said that commanders tolerated such behaviour but did not order it. The military said, “We would have preferred to have sex for love, but that was not the case. So we took what was possible.” According to the scholar, rape in war is far less often the result of orders or brutality, but more often of animal instinct and lust.
Other experts consider rape to be sexualised violence rather than a form of sex. For example, Medica Mondiale, a women’s rights and aid organisation, has been helping war-traumatised women since the early 1990s. The organisation was founded by gynaecologist Monica Hauser after mass rapes during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hauser argues that existing gender discrimination is exacerbated during war. In wars, men are more likely to demonstrate their ownership of the supposedly weaker sex. And rape is “a symbol of humiliation for an enemy who cannot protect his women,” the expert stresses.
Another example of a crime during the war in Ukraine blamed on Russian soldiers: a mother and her daughter were raped at the same time and forced to watch the violence being perpetrated on the other. It is a form of torture, Thomas Elbert is convinced. “The enemy is tortured in the most sophisticated ways, it is incredibly monstrous what people can come up with. There are no limits,” laments the scientist. According to him, for criminals, torturing others is a pleasure. In this way they can vent their hatred, anger and rage – to the misfortune of their victims.
Looting in war – predatory violence
An example of Russian soldiers stealing in Ukraine was the CCTV video, which clearly shows the Russian military packing up stolen goods and sending parcels to their families. Against the background of the above-mentioned acts, it is a minor crime, but it also shows that morality, law, justice and rules seem to no longer apply in this war.
Clinical psychology professor Thomas Elbert calls such violence predatory. A captured washing machine or iPhone would be seen as motivation and a reward. Although usually punished for such things, this does not work in the war in Ukraine. “In any case, the Russians’ idea was to take over Donbass with its mineral resources and heavy industry. They might as well take the washing machine,” says Elbert. He cites the hunting instinct as another incentive for plundering. Not even necessarily for the sake of the prey, but for the hunt itself.
How do you prevent war crimes?
Another problem is that committing war crimes was “tolerated in the army back in Soviet times,” says Janine Uhlmannsiek, a German human rights activist from Amnesty International. Killing and torturing civilians is illegal everywhere, she said, but “Russia has its own laws of war”.
In the end, the question remains whether there is a way to prevent atrocities. “It’s horrible and you can’t stand it. But this is war. It would be better not to go to war at all. But how can we limit war? We can limit it with information,” sums up psychologist Thomas Elbert. And here, too, we cannot do without the help of journalists. The only problem is how to reach the target group.