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Ordered to Kill, Part 2 of 3: Why do they do it?

Ordered to Kill, Part 2 of 3: Why do they do it?

In my previous post, I asked what type of person commits a mass killing during wartime. I noted that a similar pattern occurred in many massacres: a minority of sadistic soldiers enthusiastically led the killing, another minority refused, while most reluctantly participated. I also argued that the most common explanations do not hold up to scrutiny – few soldiers can claim that were just following orders, most were not murderous psychopaths, and they did not lack traditional moral values.

So why do they do it?

The answer that comes from the statements of soldiers who have committed massacres and studies on the topic is not terribly surprising on its own – most soldiers participate in mass killings because they feel intense peer pressure to do so. Few wanted to kill, but most felt that it would be “cowardly” and unfair to leave all the “dirty work” to their comrades.

Consider the statement of one SS-Scharfuehrer when asked why he did not ask his commanding officer to be released from killing duty:

“I was afraid that Leideritz and others would think I was a coward. I was worried that I would be affected adversely in some way in the future if I allowed myself to be seen as being too weak. I did not want Leideritz or other people to get the impression that I was not as hard as an SS-Mann ought to have been… I carried out orders not because I was afraid I would be punished by death if I didn’t. I knew of no case and still know of no case today where one of us was sentenced to death because he did not want to take part in the execution of Jews… I did not want to be seen in a bad light.”

What is more surprising is how closely the willingness of these soldiers to follow orders mirrors the behavior of civilian volunteers in studies of social pressure. In the three most famous studies on the topic, volunteer subjects demonstrated a disturbing tendency to follow orders and respond to peer pressure to absurd lengths. This suggests that the latent potential to participate in a mass killing is far more common than one would expect.

The most famous example comes from Stanley Milgram’s famous 1961 study on obedience. Milgram asked ordinary American adults to participate in a “learning exercise.” Volunteer subjects were asked to play the “teacher” and deliver a series of escalating electric shocks to another volunteer  “student” whenever the student made a mistake during a word game. Unbeknownst to the teacher, the “student” was actually an actor pretending to be shocked.

Despite the “student” screaming in agony and begging to stop the experiment because of a heart condition, 65% of teachers continued the experiment to the end – delivering shocks labeled “extremely intense shock, ” “danger: severe shock” and finally a 450-volt shock, simply labeled “XXX”, three times in succession. If you find this hard to believe, the experiment has been replicated with similar results many times. And if you’ve never seen it before, watch the video below. It’s uncomfortable and creepy.

The stakes were much lower in Solomon Asch’s conformity study where volunteers were simply asked to join groups evaluating the length different lines. The catch, however, was that only one member of the group was actually a volunteer. The rest were actors who gave blatantly wrong answers. Yet, out of 123 volunteers, 33 went along with the group’s incorrect answers most of the time, 61 went along on occasion, while 29 never codid. Thus, in all, 75% of the volunteers went along with the group at least once by giving an incorrect answer. This compares to an error rate of less than 1% for the control group, where there was no group pressure to conform.

In another famous study known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” Psychologist Philip Zimbardo recruited volunteers of ordinary American men to participate in an experiment on prison life. Half of the group was assigned to the role of “guard” while the other half were “prisoners.” The two groups were to live together for two weeks in a fake prison in the basement of a Stanford University building. However, conditions deteriorated in the “prison” so quickly that the experiment had to cancelled after only 6 days. The guards quickly took advantage of their newfound power to abuse and debase the prisoners – taking away their mattresses, undressing them, denying them access to sanitary bathrooms, and encouraging them to abuse fellow inmates. Interestingly, the volunteer “guards” fell into roughly the same three groups as the soldiers who commit massacres: 3 out of 11 exhibited legitimately cruel and sadistic tendencies, the majority of guards were “tough but fair,” while two refused to harm prisoners.

While these studies show that the latent darker side of human nature, I find the process by which soldiers rationalize their killings to be even more fascinating. For instance, this is how one German soldier justified his participation in the murder of Jewish civilians in Poland:

“I made the effort, and it was possible for me, to shoot only children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbor then sot the mother and I shot the child that belonged to her, because I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers.”


I won’t go much into it here, but if you’re interested in that topic, I’d recommend these books by Christopher Browning, Richard Rhodes, G.M. Gilbert and Ernst Klee and William Dressen.

If this post has made you depressed about humanity, Part 3 of this series should cheer you up. It will look at the soldiers who refuse to commit massacres to see what is unique about them.

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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