Know Thy Enemy: Better Understanding Foes Can Prevent Debilitating Hatred
Is hatred an inescapable byproduct of war? Must soldiers hate their enemy to prevail? These are important questions for the military profession, because hatred is harmful to those who hold it. Soldiers consumed by hatred are unhealthy in their core and less effective in many wartime situations. Hatred is a persistent toxin that damages combat veterans’ souls and families long after a deployment has ended. Thus, it would be a major moral and social victory if the Army figured out how to accomplish its wartime mission while simultaneously protecting its soldiers from succumbing to hate.
Many combatants develop a deep hatred for their enemy. Soldiers at war learn quickly that enemy personnel are trying their best to kill them and their friends—and sometimes succeeding. When a unit suffers casualties, fear and anger increase exponentially among its soldiers, who experience a primal compulsion to mete out payback for their fallen comrades. The Star Wars character Yoda accurately described the experiences of many combat soldiers when he stated, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Noncombat experiences of anger, however, demonstrate that anger does not necessarily lead to hate. After all, people can become intensely angry at family and friends yet continue to love them. Anger leads to hate—as it does so often in war—when it is combined with dehumanization.
War, which is characterized by impersonal violence and large-scale suffering, is inherently dehumanizing. That dehumanization propagates and intensifies among soldiers at war because there is a strong human tendency to respond to feeling dehumanized by dehumanizing others.
For soldiers to endure war without becoming hateful toward enemy combatants, then, something must intervene to block the downward spiral of dehumanization. That intervention is moral leadership.
It is not naïve to believe wars could be fought without hate. After all, there were periods in history when wars were accompanied by widespread rape, pillage, execution of prisoners and enslavement of the vanquished. Over the centuries, the prevalence of those unnecessary evils of war was greatly reduced by the increased exercise of moral leadership. So it’s not unrealistic to believe that intentional leadership could also decouple hatred and war.
Leaders can impede the development of hatred in their formations by requiring their soldiers to use language that acknowledges the humanity of their enemy. Soldiers in war have a long, inglorious tradition of employing euphemisms to describe whom they are fighting and what they are doing to them. For example, over the past century, American soldiers have fought enemies referred to as “heinies,” “nips,” “krauts,” “chinks,” “gooks,” “ragheads,” “sammies” and “hajjis.” Moreover, when soldiers talk about killing enemy soldiers, they tend to avoid the word “kill,” choosing instead to use phrases like “dropped them,” “took care of them,” “took them out” and “eliminated them.”
The use of euphemisms by soldiers is understandable and likely enhances their combat effectiveness, given current approaches to training. Humans generally harbor strong moral inhibitions against killing other humans, so soldiers experience less moral dissonance when they utilize euphemisms. But words cannot obscure reality indefinitely. At some point, soldiers recognize the humanity of their enemy counterparts and face the fact they hated a fellow human being. That can cause them to suffer moral injury.
Rather than permit the use of language that delays moral reckoning, leaders should help their soldiers deal honestly with the moral reality of war. With support from intelligence staffs, leaders should discuss with their soldiers the demographics and motivations of the enemy fighters, who in many cases share much in common with their own soldiers. They tend to be young, driven to prove their courage and willing to die for a cause they believe in.
Leaders should explain to soldiers the enemy’s rationalizations of its cause and why our country has determined it to be objectively unjust and worth waging war to defeat. Leaders should describe the enemy combatants as fellow human beings who—due to misinformation, coercion or whatever other reasons—are fighting for an unjust cause that must be defeated in order to protect the lives and fundamental rights of the innocent people they threaten.
I know of leaders in Iraq who adopted this approach. They required their soldiers to watch and discuss the movie Red Dawn, a story about American insurgents fighting against a Soviet occupation, to help them see the war from the perspective of the insurgents they were facing.
Soldiers who understand the moral superiority of their own cause while also comprehending the misguided yet genuine motives of their enemy would likely find it easier to kill confidently yet respectfully, to defend the innocent without hating the aggressors and to appreciate the necessity of fighting and the tragedy of war.
Success Without Hate
Some might believe hate is an unfortunate but necessary component to successful warfighting. According to this perspective, dealing with the vestiges of hate is simply another of the many sacrifices that combat veterans and their families must endure. However, the inspiring example of many decorated combat veterans who respected their enemy and resisted hatred make a strong case that hate is not a necessary component of successful soldiering.
Soldiers can effectively perform their wartime duties without relying on dehumanizing their enemy. Consider this: You are a military police officer on post. You know and genuinely like a friendly, mentally disabled teenage boy who lives in a housing area. One day, you respond to a report of a man carrying a gun outdoors. As you approach the scene, you realize that the man with the gun is the disabled teen, and he is approaching a group of children in a fenced-in park. As you exit your vehicle—separated from the boy by 10 yards and a chain-link fence—he begins firing on the children. Should you immediately shoot the boy? Yes. Will it feel good? No, because you recognize the tragedy of the situation. You know that he is not entirely morally responsible for the harm he is doing. You don’t blame the boy. You blame whoever left the gun unsecured, whoever permitted him to play first-person-shooter video games, etc., but you also recognize that it is your moral duty to protect the innocent people who will be killed if you don’t act.
Likewise, soldiers should be taught that they inflict lethal violence on enemy combatants in war not because they hate the enemy—and not because the enemy soldiers are evil—but because they love those they are sworn to protect and defend. It is appropriate for combat veterans to feel sadness for the enemy they killed. It is also appropriate and good for them to feel an enormous sense of pride and satisfaction for the civilians and fellow soldiers they protected.
The military profession should reject any practices that dehumanize our enemy. Dehumanization opens a pathway to hate that ultimately harms the haters more than the hated. Instead, leaders should work to humanize the battlefield, recognizing that wars are fought on both sides by people who almost always think they are doing what’s right. By respecting their enemy, Army leaders would demonstrate increased respect for the intelligence and moral autonomy of their soldiers, as well as increased concern for their soldiers’ psychological well-being.
This article has proposed connections between dehumanizing enemy personnel, becoming hateful and suffering moral injury. As far as I’m aware, this is uncharted territory, but I have observed enough evidence of the connections to become convinced that the topic merits discussion within the profession of arms. I encourage soldiers—past and present—to discuss their experiences and ideas around this important topic. This may be an opportunity to improve the moral character of war and the long-term welfare of soldiers and their families.