The tricky thing about discussing wartime atrocities is that war itself is atrocious. Bloody death is part of the deal already, but some of that violence is particularly offensive to us. So it goes with Russia's war in Ukraine.
The discovery of a mass grave and apparent civilian executions in Bucha, Ukraine has set off a new debate — actually, a fairly old one — about why such outrages occur. Is the Russian Army uniquely evil or undisciplined? Or were the war crimes the point, deliberately inflicted to sow terror among the Ukrainian survivors?
Or maybe the answer is all of the above?
At Foreign Policy, the historian Bret Devereaux points out the Russians have a history of violence against civilian populations in Syria and Ukraine. Russia, he says, "had built an atrocity-prone military that it then unleashed on Ukraine."
"As can now be seen in places like Bucha," Devereaux writes, "the callousness of Russian leadership toward civilian deaths has created the same kind of permission structure, leading to escalating brutality against civilians by Russian soldiers even in areas under Russian control."
But "permission structures" are embedded even in armies proudly devoted to protecting civilians from harm. America is less than a year removed from a drone strike that massacred an innocent Afghan family, an atrocity that officials decided was "not unreasonable." That's a permission structure. And the essence of military training involves teaching young men and women to ignore deeply held moral precepts against killing other human beings. That's a permission structure, too, even if it's one that most countries deem a necessity for national defense.
In the best cases, such violence is supposed to be done under rigorous rules about which targets are permissible and which (civilians, generally) are not. Once the fighting starts, though, the lines can get fuzzy. A 2007 survey of U.S. Marines and Army troops in Iraq found that only a minority of both groups — 38 and 47 percent, respectively — thought civilians should be treated "with dignity and respect." It's unsurprising, then, when rigor goes out the window and innocent people are killed.
It's not just a war zone problem. The journalist Spencer Ackerman has documented how 20 years of war after 9/11 weakened American democracy. And the writer Robert Wright makes the case that even having a rooting interest in a war can harden our hearts against the violence and death involved. Once somebody is designated an "enemy," our usual standards of right and wrong begin to bend.
"The most basic prerequisite for committing an atrocity—assigning people to a category that removes them from moral concern—is something we've all done," Wright commented.
We should all be outraged by the atrocities in Bucha. But our righteous anger should be tempered with humility. Just about every armchair military expert is familiar with the aphorism that "war is the continuation of policy with other means." The means are violent and bloody, always. What we call "atrocities" and "war crimes" are just more of the horrifying same.