Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Is There a Barbarism Switch?

Greg Laden asks a very interesting question on his blog: Is there a rape switch? Here’s what he means by that:

“The switch” is a term I first heard from Victoria Brandon, who wrote a term paper for me on this in 1993. The basic idea of a switch would be supported if more or less randomly (though age biased, likely) selected men, put into a certain situation, tended to commit rape on a much larger scale … or more exactly, a much larger percentage of the men rape under those circumstances … than would ever be predicted based on anything anyone knows about these men before or after the circumstances prevail.

In other words, when all the young men stay home, they are mostly not going to rape anyone. In contrast, when the same exact men go off to war, an alarming percentage of them rape. Switch off, switch on.

And he discusses the evidence for such a phenomenon:

The evidence for what is often known as “wartime rape” (which Victoria would simply refer to as the conditions under which the switch is on) is both hard to adduce and overwhelmingly strong. There are a lot of reasons why it is difficult to enumerate rape in wartime. However, people have been thinking and writing about this for a long time, and even collecting some data, and those who are in the business of psychology, sociology, criminology, and behavioral biology who study such things as rape and homicide have largely come to the understanding that rape in wartime is often quite common, that American soldiers in Vietnam represent a middling case (which means it is shocking and disturbing) while Bosnia/Serbia represents a truly over the top example.

It’s very difficult to get precise numbers on this during wartime (or even during peacetime, given the difficulties with underreporting), but I think Greg is right that there is more than ample evidence to conclude that rape is significantly more common during wartime, though the degree of increase is not a constant one.

But I want to broaden this out a bit. It isn’t just rape that goes up during wartime, it’s a whole range of vile behaviors. Men at war will do all kinds of things that they would not do in their daily life outside of war, indeed that they would find horrifying in a “normal” context. But this raises all sorts of interesting questions.

What exactly is the trigger for this? What does this tell us about human nature? Could such behavior have an evolutionary aspect, aiding in survival in our more brutal history?

And what happens when a person who is otherwise a decent and normal person in their everyday life goes off to war and commits a horrible act? Are they forever changed by it? Haunted by it? Or once the switch is off and the context changes, do they return to their normal, non-barbaric behavior patterns? I’m sure the answer varies from person to person. But why?

These are all very interesting questions, and I’m sure I’ve missed many others as well. I’ll be very interested in hearing what my thoughtful readers have to say about this.