Our avarice and aggression have made us top dog in a very dog-eat-dog world.
It would be odd if we were not larcenous and murderous by nature – literally so. Our ancestors evolved as hunters as well as gatherers and had to fight for survival. Our behaviours, like our bodies, have been shaped by the pressures of natural selection and, like most other creatures, humans have deep-seated criminal and genocidal tendencies. Although we sometimes venerate the serenity of nature we all know that living things are essentially competitive. Even that enchanting robin redbreast on the lawn, the emblem of English garden tranquillity, is lethal, and not just to worms: robins fight ferociously, often blinding or killing each other. (See the witty and entertaining A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion, by Simon Barnes, Short Books, 2005.)
… in comparatively recent times the Bushmen of South Africa were hunted to extinction.
The Bushmen were regarded as primitive and ‘were hunted down for sport by Boer and Hottentot alike’. For a riveting history of the period and of the subsequent Zulu wars see Donald R. Morris’s The Washing of the Spears, Jonathan Cape, 1965, 1989 (revised), Random House (Pimlico), London, 1994, IBSN 0-7126-6150-0. The Bushmen were probably extinct in the Cape by the 1870s though, according to National Geographic, the last licence to hunt Bushmen was issued in Namibia by the South African government in 1936. [www.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0102/feature6/]
Along with our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, we are the only animals where gangs of males extend their territory by deliberately exterminating neighbouring males.
Chimpanzees and bonobos share so many of our genes that it is hardly surprising to see behavioural as well as physiological similarities. In 1973 two scientists, Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, won the Nobel Prize for discovering that social or individual behaviour owed as much as any other feature of an animal to its evolutionary survival value. For a very readable account of what we can learn from our ape cousins see Our Inner Ape: the best and worst of human nature by the primatologist Frans de Waal (Granta, London, 2005). The book starts with the line ‘One can take the ape out of the jungle, but one cannot take the jungle out of the ape.’ The quote in the main text above, with supporting evidence, comes from p. 137. Striking behavioural parallels between humans and other primates were first popularised by Desmond Morris in The Naked Ape (Jonathan Cape, London, 1967), but perhaps the best book on this subject remains Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer prize-winning The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (Radius, Random Century, 1991). More recently vicious gang attacks by chimps have been repeatedly observed at the Gombe National Park in Uganda, each time leading to expansion of the victors’ territory and access to food. (John C. Mitani, David P. Watts and Sylvia J. Amsler, ‘Lethal intergroup aggression leads to territorial expansion in wild chimpanzees’, Current Biology, Vol. 20, Issue 12, pp. 507–8, June 2010.) Evolutionary theory is of growing interest to crime scientists. See Jason Roach and Ken Pease, Evolution and Crime, Willan, 2013.
Over the millennia our violence has been curbed – so much so that, in proportion to the global population, the twentieth century was perhaps the least bloody in human history.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity, Allen Lane, 2011. This masterful and meticulously researched book demonstrates how humanity has increasingly curbed its violent inclinations. Pinker makes his case with such care for detail that even those disinclined to agree have been mostly silenced.
Given our nature, crime is not remarkable at all.
This conclusion should scarcely be surprising to anyone with a passing knowledge of evolution.1 Competition for food or sex or anything is intrinsically amoral. What Richard Dawkins dubs the ‘selfish gene’2 involves more than survival of the ruthless. Kindness and cooperation also have Darwinian value, which is what another science writer, Matt Ridley, calls ‘the origin of virtue’.3
1 In fact Darwin’s Origins of the Species never mentioned ‘survival of the fittest’; the term was coined by one of his disciples, Herbert Spencer.
2 The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, OUP, 1976, ISBN-0-1928-6092-5
3 Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue, Penguin, 1997, ISBN: 0140244042.
While the expression ‘selfish gene’ is a useful shorthand it can be terribly misleading. It does not imply that our body’s cells have a desire to replicate; merely that in carrying DNA they have the capacity to do so. And, self-evidently, genes that replicate survive better than those that don’t. Nor does it deny the role of environment which can, loosely-speaking, switch genes on and off. It certainly does not mean that our genes predispose you or me to selfishness; on the contrary selfless actions can promote collaboration among which improves the chances of survival and of replication.
… teamwork needs empathy and trust – an expectation that if I take a risk you will share it, or that favours given today will be returned tomorrow.
A mathematical biologist has proposed that cooperation is as fundamental to evolution as mutation and natural selection: Martin Nowak, ‘Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation’, Science, 314, 1560, 2006.
It would be a relief if we could blame the Holocaust on something exclusively German or maybe Austrian; or at any rate some evil that was peculiar to the fascist recruits in central Europe. It is inconvenient that so many people behaved so badly in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, and to some extent almost everywhere that Hitler’s armies conquered.
Denmark is a notable exception. After a German tip-off most of the Jews were spirited away.
Nobody knows how many people died under Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, maybe 20 million
The Japanese were even worse. So many ordinary soldiers were involved in barbarous acts that it beggars belief: torturing prisoners, using them for bayonet practice and abducting tens of thousands of girls and women as sex slaves.1 In one incident, the Rape of Nanking, over a quarter of a million civilians were shot, tortured to death or buried alive and thousands of women were raped and mutilated.2
1 Sexual violence was a recurring theme as the Japanese Imperial Army advanced through Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and China, with the military formally and systematically abducted tens of thousands of girls as sex slaves. These so-called ‘comfort women’ experienced beatings, torture (officers were often the most sadistic) and such frequent rapes that many were badly injured. Most became infected with sexually transmitted disease, and untold thousands died in captivity or were abandoned far from home when the Japanese retreated. Soldiers who visited these barrack brothels could not have been in any doubt about what was going on. (See George Hicks, The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. ISBN 0-393-03807-6.The book contains graphic testimony from survivors.) Outside the barracks, too, rape was a common feature, and attacking or kidnapping women in hostile territory was common and known as ‘purging’. In 1993 the Japanese government admitted to official involvement in the recruitment of comfort women, but some people in Japan seem indifferent and many still reject the evidence that it happened or claim that it was justifiable.
2 In December 1937 Japanese troops overran Chiang Kai-shek’s capital with orders to kill all captives. Several Japanese journalists embedded with the soldiers recorded their horror at the bloodthirsty brutality that followed, but everyone went along with it. The post-war International Military Tribunal estimated 260,000 non-combatants were murdered in a two-month spree. See Niall Ferguson, The War of the World, Penguin Books, London, 2007, pp. 475–80.
In his epic masterpiece Berlin: The Downfall 1945, the historian Antony Beevor describes how advancing Soviet troops raped almost every available female in eastern Germany.
Berlin: The Downfall 1945, Anthony Beevor, Penguin-Viking, 2003 ISBN 0-1402-8696-9
With only a few officers and political commissars attempting to restrain them, they raped liberated civilians in central Europe and even Soviet women who had been captured and imprisoned by the Germans.
Report dated 29 March 1945 to Malenkov from the Central Committee of Komsomol, N. Michailov RGASPI 17/125/314 (supplied to the author by Antony Beevor). Similar mass rapes are commonplace in and after conflicts. It was much the same when the Army of Africa had advanced on Madrid in 1936 and it happened again in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda in the 1990s.
History is written by the victors, who conceal and then forget their own misdeeds, but we know that the Allies in the West also frequently behaved as badly as their Nazi or Japanese foes.
There has been a numbers game about how widespread Allied sexual crimes against Germans were, ranging from estimates of 11,000 upwards, with one book, When the Soldiers Came by Miriam Gebhardt, guessing that British troops committed as many as 30,000 rapes and Americans 190,000. While most commentators dismiss these figures as wildly implausible, rape was undoubtedly ‘a mass phenomenon at the end of World War II’ (Der Spiegel, 28 February 2015) and, as Gebhardt points out, there is ‘no culture of memory, no public recognition, much less an apology’ from the Allied perpetrators. In another book, Bastards: The Children of Occupation in Germany after 1945, two other historians, Silke Satjukow and Rainer Gries, estimate 400,000 German women had children with Allied soldiers, many of whom were abandoned by their fathers.
The brilliant American writer William Wharton confessed, but only in a memoir published after his death, that he and the platoon he commanded after the Normandy invasions were responsible for appalling crimes and that American GIs in general were often ‘worse than the Russians’. He vividly describes the brutalising of civilians and the looting of French property, and how German prisoners of war were tortured and shot in the legs before being executed and buried in shallow graves. Some of his compatriots saw themselves as avenging angels, but the callousness privately haunted him in later life: ‘When dug up, the buried guilts of youth smell of dirty rags and old blood.’
William Wharton, Shrapnel, The Friday Project, Harper Collins, London, 2012. A state of denial persists about human rights abuses by Allied troops. We vilify and often dehumanise the enemy while refusing to believe complaints against ‘our boys’ or, if the evidence is overwhelming, we excuse them on grounds of provocation. The widespread use of torture and terror tactics by British forces in colonial conflicts like Kenya was vehemently denied for decades, as was culpabilty for Bloody Sunday and other violent indiscipline by troops in Northern Ireland. Government records released in 2013 revealed that British officials engaged in ‘wholesale’ destruction of incriminating files to cover up abuses by troops and security agents in Kenya, Malaya and Jamaica, and the same year the UK paid £20 million to over 5,000 Kenyans who had been tortured or abused by British soldiers and colonial police. Yet whenever embedded journalists, or later mobile phones and body-mounted cameras, have exposed misconduct (such as the murder of an Afghan prisoner by Royal Marines in 2011) each incident has been proclaimed an aberation with blame limited to individuals. Thus murder and maltreatment are compounded by blindness and hypocrisy with little thought that conflict entails systemic risks for which senior officers and ultimately politicians should be held accountable.
Among other notable confessions in later life was that of Paul Aussaresses, the first senior French officer to admit torturing and killing prisoners-of-war during France’s bitter colonial retreat from Algeria, where large-scale abuses, disapperances amd illegal executions were almost common practice. [See Appendix 2: Terrorism]
Very few Allies at the time became indignant at British and American bombing of cities, and most cheered the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Even if attacking civilians could be justified in the heat of total war, the victorious powers showed how ethically calloused they had become when after the war was over they recruited some of the worst of the fascist murderers, including leaders of Japan’s Unit 731, who had vivisected 10,000 people to agonising death in experiments even more cruel than those of their German equivalent, Joseph Mengele. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, granted immunity to Unit 731 in exchange for information on biological warfare. The Americans kept the deal secret, even from the British. The Japanese government has apologised in general for war crimes but still refuses to acknowledge specific atrocities.
Eichmann disputed nothing and freely admitted his role in mass deportations to the gas chambers. But, he said from his bulletproof glass dock, ‘I never did anything, great or small, without obtaining in advance express instructions from Adolf Hitler or any of my superiors.’ He was following orders as anyone else would have done.
The defence plea of following orders has been used through history and sometimes been successful at least in mitigation. It became known as the Nuremberg defence after other Nazi leaders were blocked from using the excuse at post-war military tribunals held in Nuremberg in 1945–6.
What’s more, over a 25-year period he found a zero correlation between the level of obedience and the year of the experiment.
Thomas Blass, The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1999, Vol. 25, pp. 955–78. Thomas Blass is another social psychologist fascinated by obedience (he is also, incidentally, a Holocaust survivor, and Milgram’s biographer – see: The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, 2004, NY: Basic Books, ISBN 0738203998).
Although Milgram’s iconic experiment has been replicated many times his original results might not have been quite so clear-cut as he reported. Six decades later an Australian psychologist reviewed the original audio tapes and concluded that some of his recruits took a lot of prompting before they acquiesced. ‘When you listen to the recordings you can hear people bargaining. They’re concerned, they’re worried, they’re distressed.’ If the strength of these objections is taken into account then it could be argued the compliance rate would fall from 65% to slightly below 50% (see Gina Perry, Behind the shock machine, New Press, 2012). Nevertheless, even if Perry is right and Milgram manipulated his results, the fact remains that obedience is far from aberrant: indisputably many if not most ordinary people can be persuaded to be cruel.
The Dutch writer Abram de Swaan has been fascinated by why some take to this cruelty with reluctance while others become enthusiastic. He disputes Milgram’s inference that Hitler’s SS and Gestapo fanatics were ‘ordinary’ men and women. Yet even he acknowledges that when the circumstances are right (or rather horribly wrong) very large numbers do get recruited into violence, and many more turn a blind eye to it. (Abram de Swaan, The Killing Compartments: The Mentality of Mass Murder, Yale University Press, 2015.)
Even Zimbardo was stunned at how rapidly and seamlessly these apparently decent and moral volunteers had descended into violent bullies. He had demonstrated the extraordinary power of circumstance to foment evil. He describes it as the Lucifer Effect, after God’s favourite angel who turned into the Devil.
www.lucifereffect.org. See also Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Random House, 2007
Senior officers tried to block an inquiry which they feared would undermine front-line morale and eventually a civilian prosecutor had to be brought in to bring small fry to book.
In the aftermath of embarrassing acquittals of British soldiers charged with atrocities in Basra, a senior barrister, Bruce Houlder QC, was placed in charge of military prosecutions to overhaul what had been an internal military legal system.
As a postscript, and an example of our inherent hypocrisy about violence, when a Royal Marine, Alex Blackman, was jailed for murdering an Afghan prisoner, his wife received hundreds of letters of support from wellwishers who thought ‘our boys’ should be exonerated, although presumably those who cared so for Sgt Blackman’s wellbeing would have been outraged if the crime had been reversed and the Taleban had murdered him. (Source: Marine A: Criminal or Casualty of War, BBC1, 2 April 2014.)
Obviously some claims against troops are unfair or even bogus (one notorious legal case against British troops in Iraq cost taxpayers £23m before documents emerged to show the complaints had been manufactured by so-called ‘Mahdi Army’ paramilitaries), and military apologists apologists brandish such examples as reason to dismiss all allegations; but more usually unfolding history teaches that each side covers up its own misdeeds.
It later transpired that British commanders had covered up hundreds of allegations of abuse involving deaths and serious injuries.1 Senior officers and even medical staff2 had become as ensnared in the brutality as junior ranks, leaving the British public baffled and angry that Iraqis showed so little appreciation for the sacrifices of British troops.
1A redcap (Royal Military Police investigator) told BBC Radio 5 that senior officers blocked investigations and penalised investigators who failed to toe the party line. There was, he said, ‘a catalogue of blunders, mistakes, ineptitude and the course of investigations being bent to serve the real or perceived interests of the chain of command of the Army’. Lord Goldsmith, who was Attorney General at the time (Britain’s most senior law officer), acknowledged that this did ‘chime in’ with concerns he had. Unsurprisingly, the Ministry of Defence scoffed all such suggestions and said personnel had performed to ‘the highest standards under extraordinarily testing circumstances’, with bad behaviour limited to ‘a few individuals’. (The Times, 12 October 2009, p. 9.)
2 The medical profession take abuse more seriously than the Army or Ministry of Defence. In 2012 Derek Keilloh, a military doctor, was struck off by the General Medical Council for covering up the murder of one prisoner and failing to protect other detainees.