Why We Kill…

Every day the headlines are plagues with stories of violence—murder, abuse, assault, rebellion, armed conflict, war. Such violence has becomes so deeply entrenched in our society that it takes a truly extraordinary act to so much as stir the general populations attention. It has become almost matter of fact: human commit violent acts against each other. The question is why do we kill our own kind?

It’s the age-old question: are human beings inherently good or evil? Are we the product of the society in which we live or are we predisposed to certain actions based on our genetic coding? Nature vs. Nurture.


Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War, argues that while humans are perfectly capable of killing another specifies (the majority of human beings are meat eaters), when it comes the killing their own kind, the act of killing can be deeply traumatizing to the individual. While his book has been criticized for being flawed in many aspects, this particular argument does provide support for the nurture side of the debate; that humans are not genetically programed to kill one another and, in fact, are resistant to such an action. If this is true, if humans are not inherently violent, where does such violent action originate? How does so much violent conflict exist in a world where humans are resist to the very act of killing?

In attempting to reconcile this dichotomy there are three important factors that taken into consideration: the disjuncture between the civilian actors in the military and the soldiers, the military’s culture of obedience, and evolution of weaponry throughout military history

Civilian-Military Relations: Those at the top of military command are not members of the military. In the United States, the President is the head of the military, the Commander in Chief; however, he, himself, is a civilian. While some Presidents have had military experience, serving in various ranks and units in their country’s military, others have no such experience. Of those Presidents who do have experience, some have never seen combat or been to the front lines. Without having such and experience, there remains a disjuncture between the President who is giving the ultimate order to launch an attack or invade a country and the soldiers who carry out this order. This top down structure allows a the Commander in Chief to see military engagement as an abstract notion while simultaneously disengaging them from the personal nature of the act of killing via the their physical and/or command distance for the act.

Military’s Culture of ObedienceWhen one thinks of the military, the first image that comes to mind is its ridged structure: soldiers marching uniformly at their superior’s command. The relationship between a solider and his/her superiors is not simply one of respect; it is one of legal obligation. Failure to comply with the orders of a superior can result in military reprimand and/or criminal indictment. The military places a high degree of value on the obedience of its members. This is not only for the creation of a highly functioning military unit, but also for the psychological refuge of the soldiers. When a soldier kills another human being, they can take refuge in the fact that they were following orders and not acting on their own accord. Thus, the culture of obedience actually provides a mechanism to mitigate to psychological impact that results from killing another.

Military Weaponry: In the medieval times knights fought face to face with soldiers in extremely close proximity to one another. Put plainly, they could look in the eyes to the opposing solider before they killed them. Then came the development of the arrow that allowed the soldiers to be further away from their victims; then cannons, armed boats/planes, missiles, bombs, and now drones. With each new development in military weaponry, the physical distance between the soldier and his or her victims is increase. Today, a drone operator can sit at base in the United States and press a button that launches a strike in Pakistan some 7,500 miles (12,300 km) away.  While some studies have shown that the psychological impact on drone operators is greater than aircraft pilots because drone operators have a very clear view of their victim, this does not negate the fact the tactics themselves have developed in such a why as to place the greatest degree of distance between the soldiers and the victim.

If, then, we are to take a human’s aversion to killing as valid, is must follow that the existence/continuation of armed conflict is the result of the adaptation of the military to address this psychological phenomena. But, this then leaves us with an obvious question: If we are willing to go to so much effort to override a human’s aversion to killing, wouldn’t our time be better spent changing our tactics? Rather than working against this natural aversion, should we not attempt to work with it and seek non-violent conflict resolution mechanisms? The biggest problem here is that violence begets violence. In order to have a world system of non-violent warfare (oxymoronic by nature) each state would need to buy into the system and summarily eliminate all violence means of combat. Unfortunately this does not seem feasible in today’s world, but it might be something to aspire towards.

Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law in post-conflict countries. You can email her at jah340@georgetown.edu or follow her on twitter @joleneh340


Unpacking the Syrian Conflict: What’s Next?

Syria made the headlines again today. In more than two year of fighting, the Syrian civil war has resulted in over 90,000 deaths, displaced over 4 million people, and has caused more than $80 billion in damage. Yet, there is still no end in sight. As described in the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and the New America Foundation’s June 2013 Report, Dissecting an Evolving Conflict: The Syrian Uprising and the Future of the Country, the conflict in Syria has reached a stalemate, a condition if not resolved soon could spiral Syria into becoming a failed state.

Syria was the fifth Arab spring country, following in the footsteps of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. What began as a peaceful call for political reformation in March 2011 quickly took up the slogan of the Arab Spring revolution – “the people want to overthrow the regime” – and was consequently met with stark regime crackdown. The regime’s use of violence transformed the nature of the conflict from one of rebellion, seeking political reform, to one of revolution, seeking the overthrow of the Assad regime. As the protests gained momentum, the Syrian governments stepped in with increasing force, perpetuating further protests. Each time this cycle occurred, the conflict escalated a little bit further.

The militarization of the rebellion came in response to Assad’s implementation of the security solution—a plan that involved breaking up protests but quickly escalated to include the use of military might to disband the unarmed protesters. Syrian soldiers, who are now being asked to fire on unarmed civilians, began to defect from the Syrian army. The defected Syrian military officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July 2011 to combat the unchecked Syrian army in its campaign of human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

After the 18 July 2013 bombing of Syrian regime’s National Headquarters and the killing of four high ranking Syrian personnel, the opposition gained momentum and provided the catalyst of numerous opposition victories. Despite immediate successes, the progress of the rebels has since been slowed and has been met with immense opposition. With Assad’s government backed by Russia and Iran, the question in the last six months has been whether the West would intervene and support the rebels. For President Obama, the Syria’s use of chemical weapons was the ‘red line’ the eventually prompted the US to support the Syrian rebels.

An end to this conflict is in the interest of regional stability. The conflict has already spilled over into neighboring countries, putting tremendous stress on the region. Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey have all experience shelling and/or fighting as a direct consequence of the Syrian conflict.  Moreover, the conflict has forced the creations of regional alliances, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar supporting the Syrian rebels, while Iran continues to support the Assad regime.

The stability of the region is now tied to the stability of Syria, a country locked in civil war stalemate. If the support of the US is able to tip the scales in favor of the rebels, this alone will not be sufficient to bring stability and security to the region. Over time the rebel movement has become fragmented and the success of the rebels would not bring stability alone. This is all to say that the road to regional stability in Syria may be longer than is immediate apparent. The end to civil war will not equate to stability. There are many difficult steps in between.