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Ordered to Kill, Part 1 of 3: What type of person commits an atrocity?

Ordered to Kill, Part 1 of 3: What type of person commits an atrocity?

On March 16, 1968, American helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. was flying over the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai when he noticed a ditch filled with bodies. He then watched in horror as a U.S. Army Captain shot an unarmed Vietnamese woman at close range. Thompson immediately landed his helicopter and confronted the Americans, “…these are human beings, unarmed civilians.” Thompson was told to mind his own business. He did not.

While radioing news of the massacre, he saw a group of U.S. soldiers pursuing 10 Vietnamese civilians – children among them. Thompson landed his helicopter between the soldiers and civilians, thereby protecting them by putting himself in the line of fire. He then ordered two U.S. gunships to evacuate the civilians and a member of Thompson’s crew extracted a wounded boy from a ditch of about 100 bodies. After securing their evacuation and dropping the boy at a hospital, Thompson returned to headquarters. As a result of his report, superior officers ordered the U.S. soldiers to stop – bringing an end to the torture, gang-rape and murder of approximately 350-500 unarmed civilians.


In July 1942, Heinz Buchmann – a Nazi Party member and businessman who had been drafted into the German army – was told that his battalion had been ordered to shoot 1,800 Jewish civilians near Jozefow, Poland. Buchmann adamantly refused, declaring that he “would in no case participate in such an action, in which defenseless women and children are shot.” Surprisingly, his request was granted. And after numerous subsequent requests, he was eventually reassigned to a non-killing position. Over the course of the war, however, his battalion shot 38,000 Jews and deported another 45,200 to Treblinka.

(Note: I do not want to suggest that Buchmann’s behavior was heroic in the same way as Thompson’s. Buchmann remained in the Nazi Party and his subsequent actions continued to support the Nazi war effort. I am merely drawing attention to his refusal to directly participate in the massacre.)

What separates Thompson and Buchmann from those who follow orders to kill? Conversely, what type of person commits a massacre? What would you do in their situation?

A similar pattern unfolds in many massacres: one small group refuse to participate, another small group enthusiastically lead the killings, while the majority of people reluctantly go along with the killers. For instance, Christopher Browning’s excellent book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland analyzed one battalion of German soldiers who were ordered to participate in mass killings on the Eastern Front during WWII. Of this battalion, Browning found that a small group of sadists enthusiastically led the massacres, 10-20% of soldiers refused to participate, while the vast majority followed orders to kill but did not seek opportunities to murder. The pattern is repeated in other Nazi massacres. One study by David Kitterman identified over 100 cases of Nazi soldiers who refused orders to kill.

How can we make sense of this? What separates the moral from immoral?

The most common explanations do not work.

First, the most common excuse that soldiers give for committing mass murder is the so-called “Nuremburg Defense” – they were merely following orders and they would have been court-marshaled or shot if they had refused to participate. However, this explanation does not stand up to scrutiny. To begin, it cannot explain the massacres like My Lai where no such threat was given. Moreover, Browning and others have shown that even among Nazi killing squads, soldiers were given the opportunity to opt out of the killings without repercussions. Yet 80-90% proceeded to kill. Indeed, a study by Herbert Jaeger could not find one single recorded instance of a Nazi being killed for refusing to participate in a mass killing.

Second, the argument that individuals who commit mass killings during war are all murderous psychopaths does not seem true. To the contrary, most killers appear disturbingly normal. They reveal, in Hannah’s Arendt’s famous phrase, “the banality of evil.” Even among the Nazis, Browning shows that the majority of soldiers found that act of shooting civilians to be repugnant. This even held true for several Nazi leaders. For instance, many sources recount that Buchmann’s Commanding Officer, Major Wilhelm Trapp, became hysterical prior to the Jozefow massacre. One soldier recounted, “Major Trapp ran around excitedly and then suddenly stopped dead in front of me, stared, and ask if I agreed with this. I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘No, Herr Major!’ He then began to run around again and wept like a child.”

A third argument comes from my high school History teacher. He argued that the Nazis, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China were able to kill millions of people because they atheists. His argument was extreme, but I suspect that many people would agree that the people who commit mass killings do not accept traditional moral and religious values.

This argument is flat out wrong. To begin, the Nazis were not atheists. During the war, 96% of Germans identified themselves as Protestant or Catholic. Indeed, Hitler declared in 1933, “We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement.” To the extent that atheism influenced the treatment of Jews during WWII, two separate studies of “heroic altruism” during the Holocaust, found that the more secular people were, the more likely they were to rescue and help persecuted Jews. In fact, as the Americans at My Lai and countless religious soldiers in countless other massacres show, religion seldom stops immoral behavior – and sometimes motivates it. In support of this argument, a 2005 cross-national study found that “only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical ‘cultures of lie’ that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theist, secular democracies such as Japan, France and Scandinavia have been the most successful in these regards.” Analogously, a review of U.S. prisons found that “atheists, being a moderate proportion of the USA population (about 8-16%) are disproportionately less in the prison populations (0.21%).”

So if the Nuremburg Defense doesn’t work and mass killers are not psychotic or irreligious, what explains their actions? I’m curious to hear what you think and I’ll address this question in Part 2.

About Lindsey O'Rourke

Lindsey is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago and a Predoc at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies.

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