Recently, I’ve been curious if there’s any relationship between someone committing war crimes and previously viewing them.

For example, the War in Afghanistan is considered asymmetrical warfare, where the enemy has no rule book in regards to international law, and the soldier has the international law as well as their own set of rules of engagements (RoE) to follow. As time goes on, many of their comrades are wounded or killed from seemingly preventable things if they didn’t have to follow a set of rules of engagement while the enemy were ignoring them (using children in wars, indiscriminate weapons, hiding in civilian crowds).

Considering this then, is there a link between longer exposure to ‘dirty’ war fighting (not following international law) and the ability to carry out said rules of engagements without emotional compromise.

It seems logical that as you witness warcrimes committed against yourself or the people around you, that the chances of you breaking your own RoE to have a (relatively) fair playing field against the enemy starts to increase. Particularly for soldiers in sustained combat.

I don’t really have any research on this from what I’ve tried to find. I’m a mechanical engineer by trade so probably way out of my depth, so if there are good places to look for this kind of material, I’d be happy to have it sent to me. Any thoughts on this would be appreciated too!

  • $\begingroup$ Related: psychology.stackexchange.com/q/17867/7604 and psychology.stackexchange.com/q/24236/7604 $\endgroup$ May 15, 2021 at 8:32
  • $\begingroup$ Re-reading your question, the 4th paragraph's considered response is down to opinion. Some may remain resolute in their following of the international RoE and some may sway from it as a result of war trauma. Nobody can really tell how an individual will react in a given situation as everyone is different. You may find statistical data which indicates that a majority might follow one particular direction but will it really define how an individual will react? $\endgroup$ May 15, 2021 at 9:54
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers I agree with that. I was just curious if there was any statistical data to agree or disagree with that statement. $\endgroup$ May 15, 2021 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ that's fair. Let's see if anyone finds any $\endgroup$ May 15, 2021 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to psych.SE. I think there may be some social psychology research on cheating and dishonesty being more likely if you perceive others around you to be doing it. Dan Ariely is well known for this work. Is that the sort of thing you are looking for? I'm not sure if there are any studies involving actual war, but that is ethically difficult to experiment with. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    May 17, 2021 at 17:01

1 Answer 1


It may have to do more with the group norms and what they deem as acceptable behavior, this might be what drives actions that go against established rules.

There was a very limited study from a few years ago that looked at how members of a paramilitary group in Columbia evaluated situations morally, the findings illuminate some cognitions in the group, that might provide some insight into breaking RoE.

In the study, Baez et al. (2017), show that what might be driving cruel behaviors in this group is that their moral reasoning is skewed, where their cognition seems to gravitate towards an "ends justify the means" approach. The paramilitary members stood out from a comparison of criminals, in that the paramilitary members viewed accidental harm as more heinous than intentional harm. The intentional harm being quite cruel, with their actions meant to cleanse the streets of vulnerable people (drug addicts, homosexuals, prostitutes, and the homeless). The group's cognition seemingly dictated by their own moral norms which they then adapt to.

A note on the study is only one particular paramilitary group was investigated, so the generalizability of the results is uncertain, the findings may only apply to this particular group.

Reference: Baez, S., Herrera, E., García, A. M., Manes, F., Young, L., & Ibáñez, A. (2017). Outcome-oriented moral evaluation in terrorists. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(6), 0118. doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0118

  • $\begingroup$ Reading the abstract for the article you cited, it states that the research was on paramilitary terrorists. I'm not sure you can apply the same to regular militaries which generally follow the international Rules of Engagement. I believe these are the kind of militia/paramilitary groups the OP is talking about where "the enemy has no rule book in regards to international law" $\endgroup$ May 21, 2021 at 4:18

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