Can it be satisfying to harm others? Roughly half of the combatants and former fighters we interviewed say it is. And yes, defeating the opponents is more fun when you see them bleed.
Soldiers, mercenary fighters, rebels, ex-combatants from various war scenarios report that they not only fought other combatants or attacked civilians to achieve specific aims, but also did so for the taste of “manhunt,” a “pleasure” which includes injuring and killing, be it enemies or civilians. More than a third of the interviewees revealed motivations for combat involving the sensation of a physical craving or need to go out and fight (Elbert et al., 2013):
Sometimes you harm others without any reason or order. For example, you see people on a hill and you like to shoot at them.
... Fighting is all there is in the life of a man. Whenever I hear guns go off, I want nothing more than to fight. This thirst lies deep within me…
For a man fighting is everything. If I hear the sounds of bullets I wish I would be fighting. This thirst to fight is in me. It is like the thirst of a person who likes Coca Cola. The thirst will not be satisfied until the person drinks a Coke.
I miss being a soldier. I miss the power! Sometimes I killed people just for the fun of it. Others did as well. The sight of blood can really get you going. So much so that it is impossible to stop killing.
Sometimes when you kill a person you feel the need to eat flesh. You cut off a part of the person, maybe the arm and take it home.
In a war scenario like the Eastern Congo, with its death toll now surging upward of 20 million, cannibalism is not extraordinary; many have witnessed it and around 10 percent of the hundreds of fighters we interviewed in the Kivu provinces reported having eaten human flesh regularly. In a country where monkeys are normal prey for a hunter, perhaps it maybe less strange to eat a hand. Nevertheless, the allegory of hunter and prey persists as the universal feature of violence scenarios: getting the prey is the lesser part of the game, the pleasure is in the hunt itself (Elbert, et al., 2010).
Let’s listen to a soldier of World War II:
First, it was absolutely terrible: shit, an order is an order. Then I cared less. It became a need to throw bombs. What a prickly sensation that is, a fine feeling! It is as beautiful as shooting someone. (from Neitzel & Welzer, translated by the author).
Statements such as this were confirmed by the veterans, we interviewed sixty years after their deployment (Weierstall et al., 2012; Nandi et al. 2014) and suggest aggressive violent behavior may be driven by emotions with either positive or negative valence, or – most frequently – both. The motivations for aggressive behavior are not limited to countering the fear of threat and danger or to expecting external rewards such as prey or improved social status. There are intrinsic factors as well. Hunt is the heart of the hero.
The case has been made by others, such as in Jean Hatzfeld’s report about the genocide against the Tutsi:
“The more we killed, the more we got the taste to go on. If you can enjoy the craving without punishment, it will get hold of you. You could read it in ours from the killing’s extruding eyes ... It was an unforeseen public entertainment…”
“Not only had we become criminals, we had become a ferocious species in a barbarous world. This truth is not believable to someone who has not lived it in his muscles. Our daily life was unnatural and bloody, and that suited us…”
The qualitative statements (Elbert et al., 2013) are confirmed by the quantitative data from hundreds of perpetrators we have interviewed in the Rwandan prisons of Butare and Kigali (Weierstall et al., 2011; Schaal et al., 2012), suggesting that the “appetitive aggressive” form of violence can be elicited in large fractions of any population. This evidence of the pervasiveness of appetitive aggression flies in the face of our attempts at appropriating the behavior to only a few “holy warriors” by labeling them abnormal, e.g. psychopathic – a comforting, but inaccurate strategy.
The statements seem unfathomable and threatening to us, living in relatively stable, peaceful societies. Would we have to dismiss our basic assumptions that the world is essentially good and getting better? How can we fathom a new understanding of “humanity” in which a potential for a genuinely violent and aggressive nature is as integral as our desire for connectedness and harmony with others. Albert Einstein, concluded that “man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction. In normal times this passion exists in a latent state, it emerges only in unusual circumstances, but it is an comparatively easy task to call it into play and raise it to the power of a collective psychosis.” (cf. Nathan, O., & Nordan, H. (1963), Einstein on peace).
If we are to help societies rebuild after periods of conflict, if we want to prevent armed groups from reorganizing and fueling conflicts, if we want to resurrect “failed states” like Somalia, Afghanistan or Haiti, we have to study the fighters, the perpetrators. We have to understand what keeps them going, why they are so brutal, why they re-join armed groups after demobilization, why do reintegration programs fail so miserably…
What we have known since time immemorial is that violence begets violence. Especially during childhood, exposure to violence greatly predicts later criminal and aggressive behavior. This produces devastating effects for the current conflicts, the “new wars” in which 80 percent of the fighting forces are “child soldiers”, frequently recruited before puberty, when socialization is still at its most vulnerable, in its plastic phase.
But even later, the data show that the greater the number of violent events a fighter had committed or witnessed, the higher the rating on an instrument that assesses appetitive aggression (Weierstall & Elbert, 2011). Many studies show that the greater the cumulative exposure to life-threatening combat events, the greater the likelihood to develop PTSD and depression (e.g. Neuner et al., 2004).
Again, effects are most devastating when combined with high levels childhood adversity (as demonstrated e.g. explained by Claudia Catani in the November 2011 issue of Traumatic StressPoints). We observe this “building block” effect of trauma in all our studies with former combatants and active soldiers. But we also find that those scoring high in appetitive aggression seem less vulnerable: more resilient are those who love the battle (Hecker et al., 2013, Weierstall et al., 2012).
About the Author
Thomas Elbert, PhD, professor of clinical psychology and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Konstanz, Germany, has worked with survivors of organized violence, refugees, ex-combatants and former child-soldiers in crisis regions of East-Africa, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Columbia. He has investigated how adverse conditions and traumatic stress affects brain, mind, behavior and ultimately mental health via memory misrepresentations and systemic reorganization. His numerous publications range from the self-regulation of brain and mind to epigenetic analyses of psychopathology.
Catani, C. (2011). War at home - consequences of war trauma on family life. Traumatic Stress Points, 25 (6), 5-7.
Elbert, T., Schauer, M., Hinkel, H., Riedke, H., Maedl, M., Winkler, N., Hermenau, K., Lancaster, P., Hecker, T. (2013). Sexual and gender-based violence in the Kivu provinces of the DRC. Washington DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank. www.logica-wb.net
Elbert, T., Weierstall, R., Schauer, M. (2010). Fascination Violence – on mind and brain of man hunters. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 260, 100-105.
Hatzfeld, J. (2005). Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak. New York, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
Hecker, T., Hermenau, K., Mädl, A., Hinkel, H., Schauer, M., Elbert, T. (2013). Does Perpetrating Violence Damage Mental Health? Differences between nonabducted and abducted combatants in DR Congo. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 26, 1–7.
Hecker, T., Hermenau, K., Mädl, A., Hinkel, H., Schauer, M., Elbert, T. (2013). Aggression inoculates against PTSD symptom severity insights from armed groups in the eastern DR Congo European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 4: 20070
Nandi, C., Weierstall, R., Huth, S., Knecht, J., Elbert, T. (2014). Kriegstraumata und PTBS bei deutschen Kriegsüberlebenden. Der Nervenarzt, 85, 356-362.
Neuner, F., Schauer, M., Karunakara U., Klaschik, C., Robert, C., Elbert, T. (2004). Psychological trauma and evidence for enhanced vulnerability for PTSD through previous trauma in West Nile refugees. BMC Psychiatry, 4(1), 34.
Schaal, S., Weierstall, R., Dusingizemungu, J.P., Elbert, T. (2012). Mental health 15 years after the killings in Rwanda: Imprisoned perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi versus a community sample of survivors. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25, 446-453.
Weierstall, R., Schaal, S., Schalinski, I., Dusingizemungu, J.P., Elbert, T. (2011). The thrill of being violent as an antidote to posttraumatic stress disorder in Rwandese genocide perpetrators. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 2, 6345.
Weierstall, R., Elbert, T. (2011). The Appetitive Aggression Scale. European Journal of Psychotraumatology. 2, 8430.
Weierstall, R., Huth, S., Knecht, J., Nandi, C., Elbert, T. (2012). Appetitive Aggression as a Resilience Factor against Trauma Disorders: Appetitive Aggression and PTSD in German World War II Veterans. PLoS ONE 7(12): e50891.