Cracking Under the Pressure of War

As if the prisoner abuse allegations at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison were not horrific enough, there are now reports of U.S. soldiers killing innocent Iraqi civilians in the towns of Haditha, Ishaqi and now Hamdania.

The Marine Corps announced today that seven Marines and a Navy corpsman have been charged with murder in the death in April of an Iraqi civilian in Hamdania.

What is it about war that sometimes pushes soldiers to behave in such abhorrent ways? ABC News spoke to experts when it was revealed several weeks ago that U.S. Marines had been implicated in the deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in November.

While mental health experts disagree on the answer to that question, they agree that war is not a normal human experience. For soldiers and civilians in war-torn nations, the constant stress and violence is an assault on a person's emotions. That isn't an excuse for atrocious behavior, but it does, in some way, make it more likely to occur, experts say.

"War is a huge stressor," said Denisse Ambler, a child psychiatrist at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and a former Army psychiatrist who served in Afghanistan. "War rarely improves someone's mental health," she said.

Part of the problem is unavoidable -- it's a soldier's job to be prepared to kill, and witness and experience violence.

"Am I horrified by what happened? Yes. Am I surprised? I don't think so," said Melinda Koenig, clinical director of the adult outpatient unit at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City and a former civilian psychologist for the Navy, in response to the killings in Haditha. "Think about what we train soldiers to do. In many ways it's inhumane. We train them to go to war and to kill. We tell them that it is OK, but in normal society they know it's not OK."

Atrocities committed during wartime are easy to link to post-traumatic stress disorder, but the condition generally occurs after the stressor -- as a result of it -- not during it.

"PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] doesn't explain misconduct -- or war crimes. One needs to be cautious medicalizing misconduct," said Paul Newhouse, a professor of psychiatry at University of Vermont Medical School and a former Army psychiatrist in the first Gulf War. "People do extreme things in extreme situations. Sometimes they are heroic, but sometimes the things they do are bad."

Cold-Blooded Killers?

If it's not PTSD, then are these soldiers simply cold-blooded killers?

Michael Grodin, a psychiatrist and human rights expert at Boston University, called the soldiers' actions in Haditha "murder."

He said the United States had been involved in this type of behavior before, specifically, in the March 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

In that case, a battalion of U.S. soldiers executed up to 500 innocent civilians in My Lai village while searching for Viet Cong. Many of those killed were old men, women, children, and even babies. There were reports some had been tortured and raped before being gunned down.

Because of past experiences with wartime atrocities, we should be able to predict similar patterns and even prevent them to some extent, Grodin said. He believes the training, discipline, and chain of command are all in place in the military to help prevent war crimes. Because of the prolonged isolation from the outside world that soldiers in Iraq experience, Grodin noted, it's not always possible.

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."