The Dangerous Idea of a Well-Behaved War

There is dominant propaganda that seems to suggest war can be conducted in a clean and orderly way and that civilian deaths are always exceptional, writes Antonio De Lauri.

April 7, 2021: An honor guard in Ukraine during a visit by a NATO military committee. (NATO)

By Antonio De Lauri
Common Dreams

The war in Ukraine resuscitated a certain dangerous fascination for war. Notions such as patriotism, democratic values, “the right side of history,” or a new fight for freedom are mobilized as imperatives for everyone to take a side in this war. It is not surprising then that a large number of so-called foreign fighters are willing to go to Ukraine to join one side or the other.

I met a few of them recently at the Poland-Ukraine border, where I was conducting interviews with a Norwegian film crew of soldiers and foreign fighters who were either entering or exiting the war zone.

Some of them actually never got to fight or be “recruited” as they lack military experience or proper motivation. It’s a mixed group of people, some of whom have spent years in the military, while others only did military service. Some have family at home waiting for them; others, no home to go back to. Some have strong ideological motivations; others are just willing to shoot at something or someone. There is also a big group of former soldiers who transitioned towards humanitarian work.

As we were crossing the border to get into Ukraine, a former U.S. soldier told me: “The reason why many retired or former soldiers moved to humanitarian work might easily be the need for excitement.” Once you leave the military, the closest activity that can take you to the “fun zone,” as another one said, referring to the war zone in Ukraine, is humanitarian work — or, in fact, a series of other businesses mushrooming in the proximity of war, including contractors and criminal activities.

“We are adrenaline junkies,” the former U.S. soldier said, although he now only wants to help civilians, something he sees as “a part of my process of healing.” What many of the foreign fighters have in common is the need to find a purpose in life. But what does this say of our societies if, to search for a meaningful life, thousands are willing to go to war?


There is dominant propaganda that seems to suggest war can be conducted according to a set of acceptable, standardized and abstract rules. It puts forth an idea of a well-behaved war where only military targets are destroyed, force is not used in excess, and right and wrong are clearly defined. This rhetoric is used by governments and mass media propaganda (with the military industry celebrating) to make war more acceptable, even attractive, for the masses.

Whatever deviates from this idea of a proper and noble war is considered an exception. U.S. soldiers torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib: an exception. German soldiers playing with a human skull in Afghanistan: an exception.

The U.S. soldier who went on a house-to-house rampage in an Afghan village, killing 16 civilians including several children with no reason: an exception. War crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan: an exception. Iraqi prisoners tortured by British troops: an exception.

Small protest in Melbourne on Nov. 27, 2020, calling for justice for the war crimes committed by Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment in Afghanistan. (Matt Hrkac, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Similar stories are emerging in the current war in Ukraine too, even though mostly still unconfirmed.

With the information war obfuscating the distinction between reality and fantasy, we don’t know if and when we will be able to verify videos such as one showing a Ukrainian soldier talking on the phone with the mom of a killed Russian soldier and making fun of her, or Ukrainian soldiers shooting prisoners to make them permanently injured, or news about Russian soldiers sexually assaulting women.

What War Is

All exceptions? No. This is exactly what war is. Governments make big efforts to explain that these kinds of episodes don’t belong in war. They even pretend to be surprised when civilians are killed, even though systematically targeting civilians is a feature of all contemporary wars; for example, over 387,000 civilians were killed in the US post-9/11 wars alone, with more likely to die from those wars’ reverberating impacts.

The idea of a clean and efficient war is a lie. War is a chaotic universe of military strategies intertwined with inhumanity, violations, uncertainty, doubts, and deceit. In all combat zones emotions such as fear, shame, joy, excitement, surprise, anger, cruelty and compassion co-exist.

We also know that whatever the real reasons for war, identifying the enemy is a crucial element of every call for conflict. In order to be able to kill —systematically — it is not enough to make fighters disregard the enemy, to despise him or her; it is also necessary to make them see in the foe an obstacle to a better future.

For this reason, war consistently requires the transformation of a person’s identity from the status of an individual to a member of a defined, and hated enemy group.

If the only objective of war is the mere physical elimination of the enemy, then how do we explain why the torture and destruction of bodies both dead and alive is practiced with such ferocity on so many battlefields? Although in abstract terms such violence appears unimaginable, it becomes possible to visualize when the murdered or tortured are aligned with dehumanizing representations portraying them as usurpers, cowards, filthy, paltry, unfaithful, vile, disobedient — representations that travel fast in mainstream and social media.

War violence is a dramatic attempt to transform, redefine and establish social boundaries; to affirm one’s own existence and deny that of the other. Therefore, the violence produced by war is not mere empirical fact, but also a form of social communication.

It follows that war cannot be simply described as the by-product of political decisions from above; it is also determined by participation and initiatives from below. This can take the form of extreme brutal violence or torture, but also as resistance to the logic of war.

It is the case of the military personnel who object to being part of a specific war or mission: examples range from conscientious objection during wartime, to explicit positioning such as the case of the Fort Hood Three who refused to go to Vietnam considering that war “illegal, immoral, and unjust,” and the refusal of the Russian National Guard to go to Ukraine.

“War is so unjust and ugly that all who wage it must try to stifle the voice of conscience within themselves,” wrote Leo Tolstoy. But it’s like holding your breath underwater — you can’t do it for long, even if you are trained to.

Antonio De Lauri is a Research Professor at the Chr. Michelsen Institute, the director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies, and a contributor to the Costs of War Project of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. 

This article is from  Common Dreams.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.


11 comments for “The Dangerous Idea of a Well-Behaved War

  1. Janet R Wormser
    April 14, 2022 at 07:51

    It seems like “war” and the notion of it has been sanitized. There used to be peace movements. No such thing now. We lie in a permanent war economy and we’re all good with it. It’s the same with environmental issues: what happned to the word “conserve”. We are heedless, maleable creatures in ways we don’t have a clue about.

  2. John Linnemeier
    April 12, 2022 at 18:10

    As someone who saw war firsthand in Vietnam, was involved in combat and was shot in the chest and shoulder, I wish to disagree with the idea that war cannot be made less barbaric. It was my experience that most men, after going through basic training will fight to defend their comrades and a bit more. In combat, you shoot to kill… virtually everyone does. Without strict guidelines from above, more people than you might expect will do atrocious things in groups, if everyone else is doing it, and if rules of engagement are not strictly enforced with severe penalties for non-compliance. There are a small number of people…. perhaps 5% who simply get into killing and seek out opportunities to do it. I won’t go into details. They’re sickening.
    In Vietnam there was precious little guidance from above concerning civilized behavior and as a result, many needless atrocities occurred. My son, who saw considerable combat in Afghanistan was part of a more professional army. Rules of engagement were far more strictly enforced… “winning hearts and minds” wasn’t just a joke, and atrocities were fewer. War will never be entirely civilized but guidance from higher level officers, and severe penalties for misbehavior can make an immense difference in individual behavior.

  3. April 11, 2022 at 13:32

    The best short article describing how all of us, wittingly or unwittingly, can become a part of the “addiction to action” that drives the inhumanity that war is, and not just inhumane “exceptions” that the “enemy” does, and we don’t. I wish more political leaders and media figures understood this, but it seems “war fever” has a life of it’s own. Chris Hedges, in his book “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning”, his own personal account as a war reporter, gives many examples, even of himself, whose desire to be a reporter was trying to follow a moral code, explains how we all can get caught up in this “fever”. So much more the tragedy, when, looking back on the reports about Iraq, the twenty years of devastation could have been avoided through negotiation, and so too, now, reports only found in independent websites like Consortium reveal how a negotiated peace could have been possible.

  4. vinnieoh
    April 11, 2022 at 11:37

    No, war can not be made to be “civilized” or “gentlemanly.” War is the summation of all evils, and as such, should be avoided at all costs. During the early months of GW Bush’s Iraq war my (elder) sister, a very gentle and loving person remarked to me her disappointment that some were not following the “rules of war” as articulated by Geneva convention(s) etc. I probably mortified her with my reply, which went something like this:

    “If I were a leader, a military commander preparing for a battle I would try to assemble the most vicious, cruel, and rapacious murderers I could find and then attempt to launch an attack so violent and abusive that the enemy would lose the will to fight and try to flee the fight. That is the quickest way to end a war.”

    Separating civilian non-combatants from soldiers has been almost always impossible, and often it has been purposely ignored. Witness Sherman’s southern campaign during our civil war; Sheridan was doing much the same thing at the same time in the Shanandoah Valley in Virginia.

    No-one can make war civilized, “rules-based,” or gentlemanly. War represents failure on multiple levels. The only thing good in war, is its ending. I see no progress in humanity with regard to war, the propensity for violence, the adoption of military might to enforce a dominant will. Sadly recognizing this, imagine that we had NOT developed nuclear weapons, but our other modern armaments were as they actually exist today. How many more millions do you suppose would have been horribly murdered since 1945 if humanity were unconstrained by the possibility of global annihilation?

  5. Gene Storm
    April 11, 2022 at 11:08

    Waging war is the human species greatest failing. The blood from the atrocities of the battlefield is not only on the hands of the combatants, but also on those who profit from the production of the weapons of war. Those who promote conflict over diplomacy and negotiations, usually far from the killing fields, are equally as guilty. There are no winners in war, and truth is often the first victim of this ultimate human folly.

  6. Aaron
    April 10, 2022 at 22:16

    This is the first I heard about the unhinged American rampage killing the 16 innocent Afghans, really horrible. Indeed, war seems to unleash the most violent, extreme impulses of rage that are latent in the human psyche. And that’s why it’s so particularly sadistic and evil that “leaders” and media “pundits” like a Jake Tapper or Wolf Blitzer, who have zero desire to fight in a war, are so eager to send others’ sons and daughters to the hellish slaughter of war. They seem to get off on some kind of adrenaline rush from watching others suffer in the most horrible way imaginable. The war pigs are the most depraved individuals in our society I think. And just once is never enough for them, they want to see it happen over and over and over again, but only if it represents zero risk to themselves.

  7. Kalen
    April 10, 2022 at 20:08

    I appreciate that author Brings up attention to inherent brutality of war and debunks computer game reality of most young “volunteers” with one foot in their graves brainwashed or addicted to killing.

    However examples of cruelty he listed are not what inherent brutality of war is all about. These are examples of pure unadulterated war crimes and the worse kind as it is psychological torture of civilians, families of captured soldiers, and POWs both protected by Geneva Conventions. It is not fog of war situation but deliberate fundamental moral deprivation and barbarism not unexpectedly coming from Ukraine that proudly in media declares itself a civilized society. In fact it is not new as it is a barbaric tactic applied by SS forcing families to watch their mothers or fathers or children brutal death during WWII and recently applied by ISIS theorists. In fact today SouthFront published Ukrainian propaganda clip with he same purpose of moral terror of innocent.

  8. Ian Stevenson
    April 10, 2022 at 16:58

    sorry didn’t attach We are now getting first hand accounts

  9. Sam F
    April 10, 2022 at 15:56

    The reason that “thousands are willing to go to war” “to search for meaningful life” is that our unregulated market economy has completely demoralized US society, and the myths and demands of religion no longer persuade.
    Only the experience of common effort to improve life for everyone can rebuild the moral community.
    That awaits political restructuring to eliminate money control of all branches of federal government and mass media.
    As long as political corruption permits only policies seeking bribes to political parties, we shall have exploitative wars.
    So long as our economy elevates its most immoral as primitive tyrant demagogues, we shall have exploitative wars.

  10. April 10, 2022 at 15:39

    War is fought for many things. War can be waged by Russia to defend itself against aggressors and those who wish to destroy them. In this case against NATO, EU and the boss USA and other subordinates.

    This self – called “International community” has waged war against the Third world since WW2. Prior to that it was against yourselves for greed, dominance and subjugation. This is by far the biggest reason for wars, and it all starts Political. The army merely follows the orders.

    In every society, they’re are murderers, rapists, serial killers, sadists, insane, psychopaths, ignorant, poor, misguided, programed etc… The White west has always had much more of these kind, including Canada where I live.

    The few tortures that manage to leak out to the west is 100’s times more, but who cares? The secret prisons all over the world, the bio-labs and so many other evil things will never be allowed to seen in the west. The NGO’s, “humanitarian charities”, Media are all funded by the same people that promote wars.

    We 500 million, might just manage to kill and starve 2 billion more, but I doubt whether we will exist anymore. We constantly bully and threaten Russia and China, but they are ready for us with thousands and thousands of missiles, and people don’t even see the truth. Well Truth was abolished a long time ago.

    • Amf
      April 12, 2022 at 09:44

      I agree with you. This article seeks to put war defending your homeland on equal footing with US wars of aggression. Not all wars are unjust. And peace without justice is not peace at all. Americans have never had to fight to defend their country from invasion. So its easy to pontificate on the “unjustness” of war. Russia still remembers Operation Barbarossa and the Russian blood spilled by Hitler. They will never allow that to happen again.
      There is no equivalence between Russia’s war in Ukraine and the imperialist wars of the United States. None. The lives lost in this war in Ukraine are on NATO and the United States. And anyone who is interested in the truth knows it.

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