Cracking Under the Pressure of War

Mark Kopta, however, does not believe the Haditha actions rise to the level of blatant criminality.

"If you make the assumption that these are well-meaning young men defending their country," said Kopta, chairman of the department of psychology at the University of Evansville in Indiana, "then you have to assume they are not sociopaths and that this is not in and of itself criminal behavior."

Furthermore, he states, unlike a typical crime, it is not likely that these killings were premeditated or that the soldiers were acting in predatory ways.

Emotional Hijacking

Instead, Kopta believes there is a biological explanation for soldiers' behavior that relates to being in a war zone: emotional hijacking.

In other words, the soldiers in Iraq experience a constant state of heightened stress as well as the continuous emotional trauma of being exposed to death and the threat of death.

"That primes a person to do foolish things," he said. "The emotional part of our brain hijacks the more rational part that usually keeps us from doing stupid things."

According to Kopta, this is compounded by many things: a pervasive sense of vulnerability, sleep deprivation, hostile environmental conditions, and long separation from the world outside the theater of war.

Added to this volatile mix is the fact that the war in Iraq has been especially beset with acts of terrorism on journalists and other civilians.

For many soldiers, they are witnessing unbelievable acts of inhumanity, followed by the crushing, constant sense that something bad is always on the verge of occurring.

Newhouse said uncertainty was a major stressor. "Waiting for a battle is often worse than actually being in the battle," he said.

There can also be a group dynamic that fosters such abhorrent behavior.

"There can be a mob mentality in some groups," he said. "Groups sometimes behave in ways that its individual members could never predict."

What to Do?

How do you prevent such atrocities? Commanders have called for more ethics training for all soldiers in Iraq.

Ambler of the University of North Carolina believes this "makes wonderful sense. We can all learn from history. People can only improve with further education and learning from one's mistakes."

Newhouse, however, believes that while "it won't hurt, I am not exactly sure how it will help."

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