Are Violent Acts Human Nature?

My Lai, Abu Ghraib and now Haditha. Reading the news from Iraq this past week, one has to wonder whether we have just witnessed another infamous event that will live on in history long after the punishment is doled out. How is it possible that people could do these things? Why do soldiers sometimes kill innocent people?

During Vietnam, psychologists wondered if any human was capable of just snapping and behaving in criminal ways while fighting a war. "The conclusion used to be that if you take an ordinary guy, put him under certain social situations, he could act with sadistic behaviors," says Dr. Randall D. Marshall, director of Trauma Studies and Services at New York State Psychiatric Institute, and associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University.

Now, though, psychologists and psychiatrists believe that not all people act sadistically in those situations. "Some are more vulnerable to persuasion, and others have more aggressive behavior," he says. He also acknowledges an indisputable notion: "Some people certainly do get gratification from doing violence. Some people who enter war will have sociopathic tendencies."

Some psychologists believe certain people enter war with a psyche preprogrammed to hurt, damage and kill. According to Marshall, military training can induce a soldier to process violence differently in his or her mind. "Much of a soldier's training is mental. They're trained to take a disciplined, organized and intentional course of action, one that should be different than random violence," he said.

Breaking Point

No matter how solid the mental training is, at day's end, a soldier is still human and, Marshall says, all people have a breaking point. That's the moment when people snap, when they do things that might have seemed unimaginable. According to Marshall, people who snap in a war situation react in three ways: Some become aggressive, some put themselves in another place, and others experience an extreme flood of anxiety that drives them to commit barbaric acts.

Soldiers committing inhumane acts is nothing new. According to Marshall, troops have always done things on the battlefield that would be intolerable at home. "Fewer mechanisms are in place to suppress our knowledge of this behavior. But this behavior goes way back in our history," he says.

Marshall says the model goes back to Sigmund Freud: "We are animals, and we will fight to survive. Our civilization tries to cultivate civilized instincts and suppress more violent instincts."

Rules of the Game Have Changed

Some types of warfare contribute more toward violent acts by soldiers, particularly when soldiers are fighting against forces in which the line between soldiers and civilians is blurred.

Caroline Elkins, associate history professor at Harvard University and author of "Imperial Reckoning," says America's current form of warfare is similar to the counterinsurgency struggles Britain fought in the years after World War II in Palestine, Cyprus, Kenya and Malaya. The British succeeded for a time at running police states and keeping hostile populations under control, but Elkins says that model can work only for a time, because it doesn't bring about the peace the public is promised.

"Repression leaves behind a legacy of incredible violence," she said.

Under the rules of the game we're playing, Elkins says, U.S. troops in Iraq are not likely to win the "hearts and minds" of the population.

"What we saw with Abu Ghraib and what we see happening to the civilian population are following a model of repression," Elkins says. "It's a model that's very different from what we saw in World War I or World War II. The rules of the game have changed."

Elkins believes the rhetoric we receive differs greatly from the reality: "We're setting up a police state structure that enables people to commit terrible things." Elkins says the game we're playing now with our soldiers employs an age-old strategy: "The ends justify the means."