Monday, September 19, 2011

Some thoughts on evil in war

Evil is in the eye of the beholder and if we do not see it we create it in our mind, in order to justify why we took action. These are two lessons that one can learn from Roy F. Baumeister’s book Evil. Inside human violence and cruelty. Of course, the second part of this thesis is not true under all circumstances and Baumeister does not say that. Moreover, there are some kinds of behaviour that objectively can be qualified as evil, even when the perpetrator may have a different view. Intentionally murdering innocent people like passersby; the Holocaust... But here I do not want to discuss that. What I do want to discuss is that it often happens that what is evil is constructed in the mind. This can be seen in war, for instance. Wars are fought for many reasons, but it is often difficult to make these reasons clear to the people who have to fight them, whether your reasons are good or whether they aren’t (and whether your reasons are really good is often a point of discussion). But you need the support of your people for you need soldiers. Then there is a simple solution: Depict the enemy as evil. If your enemy is seen as pure evil, you do not need further justification for your war. Success is guaranteed. Undecided loyalties are won over to your advantage.
“Perhaps the most famous example of this in the twentieth century”, as Baumeister calls it, was the British propaganda for getting soldiers in the First World War. And the same approach appeared to be effective in Australia and the USA, for instance. The Germans were depicted as cruel Huns and the allied forces got their troops. That most atrocities ascribed to the “Huns” were extreme exaggerations or simply false seems then an irrelevant footnote for post-war historians, as long as those who became soldiers believed in it. In view of this, it is striking that this image of the Germans as devils almost disappeared, as soon as the soldiers were there, at the front. This is at least the impression, when one reads autobiographic novels and soldiers’ diaries about the First World War. The Germans are often called “Huns”, it is true, but the picture one gets from the novels and diaries (and I have read dozens of them) is not that the French, British, Americans and so on shoot at the Germans because they are evil but because they are the enemy and because, once you are there, you have to defend yourself and kill those on the other side in order to survive. Only German soldiers operating machine-guns and snipers are seen as evil, because they kill so many people and because of the way they do (forgetting that there are also machine-gun operators and snipers on the allied side). Enemy soldiers that flee are not shot down because they are evil but because they can become a future danger, because they are the enemy, and because it is your task to do so (again a case that shows that the situation influences to a large extent what you do). Snow, the soldier in my last blog who killed his first opponent, did it only because he was there to do that, and he got remorse. Reflecting on the incident, Lynch, who describes the situation and who stood next to Snow, calls him even the murderer and the German soldier the victim. Later in the book (and not only in this book) German soldiers killed on the battle field are often called “poor guys”. “Is that civilization?”, one of Lynch’s comrades sighs when seeing all the victims of both sides. Was such a remark to be expected if the enemy was really seen as evil?
All this shows, I think, that evil in a complex situation has different levels of construction. What is considered or presented as evil on one level (in my example: the level of the government) may be reversed on another level (here: the level of the soldiers). Evildoer and victim change positions, so it seems sometimes. “C’est la guerre” (That’s war), Lynch concludes. But is that a sufficient justification?

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