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In war, there are no atrocities - just tragic events

By Brian Holden - posted Friday, 17 April 2009

It is now an established scientific fact that every one of us is capable of torturing another human to death. Through incremental conditioning, the network of electrical conduits in your brain can be reorganised to create a completely amoral personality. The degree of conditioning that is required will depend on your existing morality threshold as established by both your genetic inheritance and your life experiences.

Those autocratic regimes which create torturers simply exploit the natural reflex in all of us to justify our behaviour. The potential torturer has to choose between saving himself or sacrificing a stranger. Once the bargain with the devil has been struck, each step towards absolute evil becomes easier than the last.

The self-survival incentive may not even be required. Devotion to one’s interpretation of duty may be enough. Research once reported by the Readers Digest revealed that those courageous Gentiles who hid Jews during World War ll were invariably those individuals who were never fully enmeshed in society but tended to stand outside looking in. The most willing supporters of a dictatorship once it is established are those who previously were slavishly respectful of rules and hierarchical structure.


In the 2008 movie The Reader, the accused is asked by the judge why, 20 years earlier, she did not unlock the door of a burning building within which there were prisoners. Her reply was that she was an SS guard and it was her responsibility to keep the prisoners always confined. Then she asked the judge what he would have done. The judge looked startled. The audience was then left with the question - was his reaction due to the horror of her amorality or the fact that he truly did not know the answer? The important message of the movie was that before her arrest the accused had been an ordinary hard working person.

Never has there been a more stark example of fear resetting the morality level of millions than was Joseph Stalin’s USSR. The state was “god” to whom everything had to be sacrificed (including the head of state’s own wife). It was a society in which a policeman or even a neighbour could identify you as an enemy of the state by just looking into your eyes.

All Stalin needed to create this hell on Earth was to gradually get enough supporters into a frame of mind in which they justified to themselves their failure to oppose the wishes of a fanatic. At another time and place they would not have behaved that way.

Ordinary men brutalised when placed in brutal circumstances

A soldier’s environment redefines for him the value of human life. From the sound of the first explosion, his adrenalin level jumps to another level and stays there. The sight of a mangled mate may enrage a young man who only months before was a gentle bookworm. He will remain aggressive until he moves into a peaceful environment where his life and the lives of those around him are once more of value.

How can a soldier who loves his mother and sisters rape a terrified woman? Why, in an environment of filth and misery and where he himself may be dead before the end of the day, is he able to become sexually aroused? It is due to him being actually crazy at the time.

It is only in recent years that old veterans of World War ll have ceased to describe on public radio the Japanese soldier as being an animal. Some well-intentioned people are obsessed about bringing the “truth” to the children of Japan. They have no idea how this perspective will affect those children.


We know that the Japanese soldier was more cruel a captor than our own soldiers. In the Japanese culture, a soldier who surrenders is an unworthy human being who has disgraced his family. Should Japan apologise for that centuries’ old tradition?

The more resentful of his situation a soldier of any nation feels, the less empathy he has for the enemy. The Japanese soldier was often hungry and sick. As the war progressed, he became aware that he was on the losing side. Propaganda coming down to him ensured that the Japanese in the ranks believed that a victorious enemy would take revenge against the Japanese population - including the soldier’s own family.

The Japanese government has every moral right to protect the nation’s children from a perspective which implies that there is something especially evil in the Japanese character. The only lesson which should be taught to all children in every country is that a military-backed dictatorship creates an environment in which normally good people can become bad people.

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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