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Being Cruel Can Help You, But Let’s Find a Way to Fight It Anyway

• October 24, 2013 • 5:30 PM

Refugee camp in Zaire, 1994. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The lust to kill is somewhat normal, and cruelty can have some benefits. But the researchers who are exploring those sad discoveries are also working to bust up the vicious circle that offers these insights.

The idea that violence can beget violence in a genuinely vicious circle isn’t hard to accept. Whether tit-for-tat, Hatfield and McCoy, eye-for-eye retribution, or the desire to re-do the results of World War I that resulted in World War II, or the apparently never-ending civil wars centered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, yesterday’s brutality planted the seeds for tomorrow’s.

In the two new pieces of research to come out of what might be called the “cruelty lab” at Germany’s University of Konstanz, a team that included aggression-study veterans Roland Weierstall and Thomas Elbert surveyed soldiers who fought in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s apparently never-ending civil war. The conflict, dubbed “The World’s Worst War” by The New York Times and “Africa’s world war” by many others, is reckoned by body- and atrocity-counts to be the bloodiest war since World War II.

After Weierstall and his colleagues analyzed the responses of their 95 subjects (five of them women), the researchers determined that the earlier the soldiers joined a military unit—whether voluntarily or by abduction—the more likely they were to develop an appetite for destruction. This appetite, however, did not seem to be related to how long the fighters were in combat nor how much military training they had—only when they were indoctrinated in the life of a soldier.

If this echoes the stories that circulated last year about “Kony2012,” the Lord’s Resistance Army, and violence-infected child soldiers, it is of a piece. It also echoes in the voice of Chris Hedges, a journalist who wrote the book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning: “The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”

While it’s long been known that many combatants have a hard time returning to civilian life and that some drift back into violent callings, the “appetitive aggression” that these academics describe is more akin to outright cruelty. “The appetitive form of aggression is rewarding in itself,” they have written, and so not necessarily prompted by “mating, status, or access to resources.” The appetitive form is contrasted in this view with “reactive aggression,” the idea that for some reason we gotta be violent, not that we wanna be violent.

This is familiar terrain for Weierstall and Elbert, who developed a 15-question Appetitive Aggression Scale to assess this attraction to violence. They have deployed the AAS in a growing variety of settings, including among World War II vets. The researchers have determined that “even if it’s frowned upon to talk about the lust to kill, it is a common phenomenon among soldiers and a biological predisposition of men, and not a consequence of psychopathological processes.” (Their latest research appears in the journals International Journal of Behavioral Development and Conflict and Health.)

But is common the same as normal? Acknowledging that under any rubric it still might be unwelcome, they write:

Contrary to common beliefs, this subtype of aggression is not limited to a deviant minority often and misleadingly characterized as ‘‘psychopaths’’ or ‘‘sadists,’’ but rather applies to a large portion of those who were actively involved in fighting.

It may even have a benefit, at least to the beserker. In the World War II study and in others looking at Ugandan child soldiers and  perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, appetitive aggression seemed to serve as a sort of vaccine against post-traumatic stress disorder, making their psyches more resilient. While that initially flies in the face of other research that specifically linked killing in combat with higher rates of PTSD, Weierstall and company suggest that this directed cruelty is really just an alternative coping mechanism, shifting awfulness into a human’s “hunt network” instead of a “fear network.” The cure in this case may indeed be worse than the disease.

Perhaps that prophylactic shift helps describe the sometimes-delayed desire for retribution by victims of “the Germans” at the end of World War II, a cycle of violence recounted in historian Keith Lowe’s recent book about the years after V-E Day, Savage Continent.

It took several years, but Europe quieted down (major exceptions like the Balkans notwithstanding) to the point where “European” is sometimes a code word for “wimpy” in the United States. That same sort of transition, perhaps not to the wimpy extreme, drives much of Weierstall and company’s investigation:

Moral-free scientific examination of appetitive aggression and the acceptance of the findings in public seem pre-requisites for the development of adequate treatment and rehabilitation programs for successful reintegration of former perpetrators, combatants or civil offenders alike, into society.

Given the epidemic of child-soldiering around the globe, and seemingly intractable conflicts in places like Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Afghanistan, there’s no shortage of places that could use an inoculation of hope.

Lowe has noted that both those who committed atrocities during wartime and those burning with revenge afterward could share certain traits: “the revulsion at the taking of human life subsided and was replaced with a perverse delight, even a euphoria, at their own breaking of moral codes. With some of these people killing became an addiction, and they carried out their atrocities in ever more perverse ways.” Learning to break that cycle would be a signal achievement both for today and tomorrow.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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