Back to Magazine


What makes people behave the way they do in war?

by Jean-Jacques Frésard and Daniel Muñoz-Rojas
The dissemination of international humanitarian law (IHL) has long been a priority for the ICRC, and many National Societies are also active in its promotion. But is it really possible to influence those who, directly or indirectly, are actors in war? Are there ways to change their perceptions and behaviour? A recent ICRC study attempted to find some answers.

This woman has identified the photo of her son killed in Grozny, Chechnya, Russia Federation.
©Thierry Gassmann / ICRC

In 2001 the ICRC decided to delve deeper into the whole issue of behaviour of combatants in wartime to better understand what makes them tick. That knowledge would help it to develop more effective communication strategies with the ultimate goal of obtaining better respect for IHL by weapons-bearers and others who wage war.

Tackling this subject was no small undertaking. The study sought answers to a range of questions: Are human beings in war by definition bound to commit atrocities? Is lack of awareness of IHL the cause of violations? In sum, what is it that decides whether a fighter violates — or respects — IHL?

The study consisted of four parts: a thorough analysis of the data gathered in the context of the People on War study;(1) interviews with several hundred fighters (or former fighters) from both regular and irregular forces in four countries — Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; a questionnaire submitted to delegates; and lastly, an analytical review of the some of the literature on the origins of behaviour in war.

Moral disengagement

When analysing the fighters' responses, a significant mismatch emerges between their knowledge of humanitarian norms and their limited inclination to respect them in the event of hostilities. Awareness of the existence of a norm, it seemed, was not sufficient to ensure a favourable attitude(2) towards it. By the same token, a favourable attitude did not in any way imply that the behaviour of a fighter in a real-life situation would conform to IHL.

This gulf between awareness of and application of norms is the result of a series of mechanisms which lead to moral disengagement of the fighter and the commission of violations of IHL. As a general rule, the moral disengagement of a fighter is the product of his or her membership of a group and within a hierarchy, where submission to authority and conformism play an essential role. To this reality can be added the justification of violent behaviour.

One of the reasons often cited to justify failure to respect IHL is that those who commit reprehensible acts often perceive themselves not as torturers, but as victims. They feel themselves to be victims, they are told they are victims, and that gives them the right to kill or commit atrocities. This status of being a victim and the real or imagined threat of becoming one again justifies the resort to any means to obtain justice. Another reasoning often used is that a people, ethnic group or country which is fighting for its survival cannot afford the luxury of humanitarian considerations and rules that may weaken it. For such people, the end justifies the means. Beyond straightforward revenge, in which passion often comes into play, the argument of reciprocity is universally invoked. The vocabulary used is a constant ally, the use of euphemisms to refer to war crimes commonplace in time of armed conflict: one speaks of "police operations", the "clean-up of a region", "surgical strikes", etc. Modern methods of warfare, whereby you can kill by remote-control, facilitate such justifications, especially when the media are not present to show the realities of a conflict. Last but not least, there is the justification with respect to the victims.

Insidiously, the enemy is demonized and portrayed as vermin. Ergo, the vermin must be exterminated. Sometimes the enemy is even compared to a disease that must be eradicated. When politicians, journalists, scientists and intellectuals dehumanize the enemy in this way, not only will armed personnel have less trouble taking arms against him or her, but they can even rationalize the worst kind of behaviour and convince themselves that it is a necessity. To the physical distance is added psychological distance. One denies the other's humanity by giving him or her despicable characteristics or behaviour: "We are superior, they are inferior." One can even blame the victims themselves.


©Jeff Danziger / People on War / ICRC

Orders and sanctions

In short, fighter's behaviour is mainly determined by three parameters: their membership of a group, which leads them to adopt the behaviour that conforms with the group's expectations; their integration into a hierarchical structure, in which they must obey authority blindly; and the process of moral disengagement, favoured by a war situation, which permits the recourse to violence against the person defined as the enemy. It follows naturally that the training of armed personnel, strict orders and effective sanctions are the best ways of obtaining better respect for IHL.

For fighters to respect IHL, the rules must be translated into tangible mechanisms, and practical measures must be taken to ensure their respect. In other words, IHL must be an integral part of military doctrine, and its rules incorporated in all orders from top to bottom of the hierarchy, including in non-state armed groups, as far as is possible.

If an order is not respected, it must be punished. Sanctions are crucial and can be either disciplinary or penal. It is essential that the authorities responsible take steps even for offences less serious than war crimes, thereby enforcing discipline among the troops at the same time as avoiding a downward spiral in which violations can become more serious yet more acceptable in the eyes of those who commit them.

The priority lies, therefore, in influencing those who wield power over the armed forces, starting with the instigators of war, who prepare the ground politically, ideologically and morally for the dehumanization of the enemy.

The strength of the law

Moral disengagement can make it possible to suspend one's feelings of guilt in the face of inhuman acts and allow a certain elasticity with respect to values, but these mechanisms do not make such behaviour lawful. For the ICRC, it is a question of convincing the authorities, notably the military but also the leaders of the more or less structured and hierarchical groups, to respect these norms.

The essence of preventing violations of IHL lies in a better understanding of the psychosocial factors described above. Violations of IHL are not a result of a problem with the law but of the arguments put forward to justify attacking those defined as the "enemy". Whether or not fighter's behaviour conforms to humanitarian rules depends on the political will of the leaders and thus requires an approach which integrates humanitarian law into the orders, discipline and training of armed groups.

The priority lies, therefore, in influencing those who wield power over the armed forces...


Jean-Jacques Frésard and Daniel Muñoz-Rojas
Jean-Jacques Frésard is an ICRC delegate.
Daniel Muñoz-Rojas is a researcher at the ICRC.

(1) To mark the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, in 1999 the
ICRC initiated a vast study in 12 regions affected by war and five other countries. The study sought the views of some 20,000 civilians and combatants on which rules should be respected in times of armed conflict and why they were often violated. The results were published by the ICRC and can be found on its web site

(2) An attitude may be defined as the disposition of an individual towards someone or something. This disposition is rooted in stimuli from three sources: cognitive (knowledge that I accumulate), affective (sentiments that I feel) and behavioural (intentions and acts that I propose).

Top | Contact Us | Credits | Previous issue | Webmaster | 2004 | Copyright