Staff Perspective: Ukraine, War, and the Sideline Judge

Staff Perspective: Ukraine, War, and the Sideline Judge

It is easy for us to hear what is happening in Ukraine and make judgements, condemning Russian soldiers for their actions. I think a natural response to many of the things we are hearing is horror and repulsion. But war causes mental and emotional shifts that can lead people to commit unthinkable acts. In that moment, these acts make sense to them and seem acceptable when another time they would be just as horrified as everyone else. As we work with warfighters and try to make sense of what we are seeing in the media, we need to keep this truth in mind.

Ukraine, War, and the Sideline Judge

War isn’t Hell…. it’s worse. Hell only tortures the individual. War goes further by leading fighters to places where they create hell for others. I’m not just talking about the standard acts of warfare either. I’m talking about the emotional and mental anguish that war inflicts on fighters that can result in them crossing a moral line where they commit atrocities that leave the rest of us dumbfounded.

You don’t have to work with the military to know what I’m talking about. We all have seen images of civilians and children killed in unthinkable ways, heard stories of rape, and have watched as mass graves are uncovered. As I’ve watched what is happening in Ukraine, my own experiences working with soldiers both during and after combat have come to the surface. More than horrified, I’m deeply saddened about these atrocities. How do we start to make sense of what we are seeing on the news? My heart breaks not only for the Ukrainians, but also for the Russian soldiers. Does that sound bizarre to you? Then let me explain.

No soldier in the history of warfare has truly fought solely for political causes. The reason they fight and die is because of the person to their left and right. I heard this from a military mentor of mine back when I first entered the Army. After seeing combat and its aftermath, I don’t believe there is a truer statement. Politics is just what gets soldiers deployed to a specific place. The reason they aim their weapons to kill and be killed is because of the strong family-like bonds they have with the other soldiers in the fight. They will do whatever it takes for each other, as well as loved ones back home.

In combat, the line between who is and who is not the “enemy” becomes blurred depending on the combat circumstances, as well as how much agonizing stress a soldier experiences. From what I’ve observed, there is a point during a combat deployment that everyone seems to shift toward more apathy and even “hating” the civilians along with the opposing fighters. I admit I even experienced this. It wasn’t that you hated the individual civilian national standing in front of you. For that person, there could be a lot of empathy and desire to help. But a general suspicion and dislike occurs where you wonder just how innocent the civilians are, who is helping who, etc. I’d argue this suspicion is necessary when fighting a war in that it keeps soldiers alert to possible danger. But that suspicion and apathy can continue to grow into problematic proportions.

Another necessary transition during extended combat is the onset of emotional numbing. Consider having to constantly live in danger, with people trained and trying to kill you and your friends. Emotionally this can become overwhelming, not to mention the added toil of watching friends die. To cope, the mind turns emotional intensity down. There is still high emotion occurring, but it becomes less overwhelming.

Anger is different. Instead of numbing down, its intensely increases in combat. I once had a soldier tell me that anger is the only authorized military emotion. While I agreed, I expanded by reminding her that a lot of unauthorized things occur in the military, so anger wasn’t the only thing going on. But her point was that anger is encouraged in this environment. It is an emotion that can motivate even the most calm and passive person to become very aggressive and passionate. There is also adrenaline involved with anger which can be very beneficial in a fight. But there is a limited sweet spot where anger is helpful to a warfighter. Too much anger and the person becomes dangerous to everyone around them.

Let’s pull these ideas together to make sense about how one human during a time of war can become so cruel toward another.

  1. Warfighters are conditioned to think about fellow warriors above themselves. They have extremely close bonds that lead them to fight to keep others alive.
  2. Friends and comrades will be killed in war, no matter how hard one tries.
  3. Anger is not only natural but to some level encouraged.
  4. Emotional numbing decreases empathy and feelings of caring for those outside of your group.
  5. If you are the invading force, or force that is not on home turf, there is suspicion that civilians are assisting those trying to kill you.

How does this recipe lead to war atrocities? Uncapped anger, fear, adrenaline, and the pain of losing close friends can set up circumstances where the option to rape someone (or commit other cruel acts) in order to “punish” them or their family members who may be enemy warfighters becomes acceptable, at least in the mind of the soldier at that given moment. From this perspective, it makes sense how good people can do unthinkable things.

Let me be clear – just because something is understandable does not mean it is acceptable.

If we work with warfighters, it is important to understand how they got to the place where they committed such acts. These aren’t evil people. For the most part, they were simply people like you and me who found themselves in circumstances that bring out the absolute worst in humanity.

I started out saying my heart breaks for the Russian soldiers. These are soldiers just like the ones I stand next to every day. Essentially, they are no different. They have the same dreams, families, and values. But Russian soldiers have a knowledge disadvantage. Their government feeds them a steady diet of disinformation. I’m sure most of them believe strongly that they are fighting to save their own families and country from the evil intentions of outsiders. And even if they suspect otherwise, they likely believe their lives and the lives of fellow fighters, friends, and family are in jeopardy if they don’t continue to fight. And the longer they fight, the more likely they are to get to the mental/emotional place where moral lines are crossed. Truth has a way of eventually coming out. Someday they will learn that this war is not as just as they presently believe it is. And, just like our warfighters, once the war-driven anger and anguish subside and emotions aren’t as numb, they will have to come to terms with choices they made.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Debra Nofziger, Psy.D., is a Military Behavioral Health Psychologist and certified Cognitive Processing Therapy Trainer with the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. Located in San Antonio, TX, she develops, maintains, and conducts virtual and in-person training related to military deployments, culture, posttraumatic stress, and other psychological and medical conditions Service members and veterans experience.