Staunton, April 15 – People of good will around the world have been horrified by the events in the Ukrainian town of Bucha not just because of the Ukrainian victims but also because of the fact that Russian forces were apparently enthusiastic victimizers, something that raises questions about the sources of such violence and the likelihood it will be repeated.
Novyye izvestiya has published the reflections of Thomas Elbert, a German neuropsychologist and specialist on the use of force by combatants in military situations (newizv.ru/article/general/15-04-2022/vypit-krov-svoego-vraga-neyropsiholog-ob-yasnil-prichiny-voennoy-zhestokosti; German original at luzernerzeitung.ch/international/ukraine-krieg-das-grauen-von-butscha-wieso-jeder-von-uns-zum-taeter-werden-kann-und-was-die-bilder-so-gefaehrlich-macht-ld.2274640).
His observations drawn from his experience with fighting in the Congo, Rwanda and Afghanistan explain much that is going on with Russian forces in Ukraine:
“The desire to hunt, including the thrill of hunting people, is part of our nature,” the German scholar says, “as much as we would like not to hear about it. … It's the positive excitement that a lot of the fighters I've talked to get in a fight and they want to experience it over and over again. This creates a murderous spiral of violence.”
In some cases, the experience of such violence can even be sexually stimulating and that makes it especially hard to root out. It is also important to find out whether individuals and groups were subject to violence in their childhoods as that makes such displays of viciousness especially likely.
Moreover, Elbert says, those who engage in such violence often do so not just out of personal motives but from social pressures. Not only do those who engage in massacres often acquire higher social standing, those who do not are often treated with disdain. To avoid that outcome, many who may not want to take part do anyway.
The German researcher says that people “turn off empathy by dehumanizing the enemy, reducing him to the status of a parasite.” To engage in torture and killing on this scale, people must “not only overcome moral prohibitions,” he or she must not display any empathy with the victims.
Elbert concludes that the basic assumption that the world is steadily improving is shaken by such events. Instead, what we see, he suggests, is a world in which “no matter how culturally developed a society may be, it is capable of monstrous deeds.” And these in turn metastasize as “violence begets more violence.”