Russia’s Atrocities in Ukraine: What Does This Tell Us About Human Nature?

This week Embry and I watched the PBS Frontline program on war crimes committed by Russia against the Ukrainian people. The show focused on actions committed around Kyiv in the spring of this year. The documentary uncovered almost 1,000 war crimes against unarmed civilians, which it pointed out were only a small portion of the more than 20,000 war crimes alleged by Ukrainian authorities at the time– and that was over six months ago! The number of war crimes now is closer to 40,000 according to Ukraine. No action has of yet been taken by the United Nations or the International Criminal Court.

The PBS documentary showed evidence of targeted bombing of schools, hospitals, kindergartens, and countless apartment houses. Entire residential neighborhoods have been totally destroyed. Surveillance cameras picked up images of civilians being lined up, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs and then shot in the head. Dead bodies were scattered in streets or thrown into pits. Ukrainian survivors interviewed talked about their young children being killed, women being raped, and horrors almost beyond belief. The program showed soldiers receiving medals, pinned on their uniforms by commanding officers who praised them for “killing Nazis.”

In the last several months the situation has worsened as Russia has targeted the infrastructure across the country leaving huge numbers of Ukrainian civilians without electricity or heat. No end to this madness is in sight.

Why is this happening? What is it about our human nature that permits this to go on? This time the villain is Putin. The same sort of senseless killing happened under Stalin. It happened in China under Mao, in Germany under Hitler, in Japan during World War II and by American soldiers in Vietnam (My Lai) and Iraq (Abu Ghraib), albeit on a smaller scale, and in Syria and Yemen. The list is very long. It happened in the South during the period of Jim Crow with mobs of white people cheering as a black body hung from a tree.

I cannot help asking why. The people doing the killing captured on the surveillance cameras appeared to be mainly young soldiers, many of whom had probably been drafted and did not want to be in Ukraine in the first place. Back in Russia they were not murderers or criminally insane. Most were probably just ordinary people, following orders, very afraid, and doing “what they had to do.” Our son, Andrew, spent almost six years in Russia during the Gorbachev years helping privatize the economy, and loved the Russian people. We have visited Russia twice for several weeks each visit and were welcomed by Andrew’s friends and others with opened arms. There is nothing wrong with the Russian people. The same could be said about the German people, who following World War II, are living in one of the more progressive countries in Europe and have tried to own up to their horrific war crimes. In 1962—only 14 years after World War II– I spent a summer working in Japan with Japanese and other American college students on an “experimental” dairy farm in the mountains and at the end of the summer spent a week at my Japanese best friend’s family’s apartment in Tokyo. His father had been a general in the Japanese Army. They could not have been nicer people. Yet the atrocities committed by the Japanese in Manchuria and other places were horrendous.

You get the picture: All is fair in love and war.

But what does this tell us about human nature? What is wrong with us homo sapiens? Why do these horrific actions happen?

If I were able to consult with my imaginary, wise guru who used to live in the apartment house Embry and I live in, I think he would say something like this:

Joe, what you have got to understand is that there is capacity for both good and evil in all of us. Every human being, no exceptions. Now I know that you will argue that this does not apply to Jesus who you Christians believe was God incarnate. And while I am not a Christian myself, I will grant you that there is something profound about this. What stands out to me is the essence of Jesus being about love and a profound spirituality that goes beyond human understanding and provides a pathway for us humans to try to keep our dark side at bay. A clue as it were as to how to become our better selves.

But the fact is we humans are not God. We are capable of doing very bad things, and the atrocities in Ukraine are just the most recent exhibit. There will be more.

I have thought about this a good bit. We humans are basically herd animals. I have concluded that this characteristic  is built into our survival instincts and has to do first and foremost with how we evolved as a species and moved up the food chain from being a delicious lunch for some wild beast to our roasting that animal over the coals. Our place in the evolutionary chain was not secured until we learned how to make weapons and, even more important, came together as clans and a little later as tribes. By definition, clans and tribes need a leader. No tribe can exist without one. A country is really nothing more than a very large tribe (of course, also consisting of smaller tribes), but the leader makes an enormous difference in what we humans do and how we behave. A leader that has gone to the dark side and allowed the evil part of his nature to dominate is a very serious threat to others who by instinct follow that person. Not everyone, of course, but enough that serious damage can be done. This explains why some of those young Russian soldiers who shot unarmed civilians in the head–and did not even want to be fighting in this hideous war–did what they did.

So blame Putin. He is the quintessential war criminal, as was Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Mao, and many other terrible leaders who have encouraged horrific acts. This is where the flawed human nature part comes in. The cause of failure is our tendency to follow the leader regardless how bad that leader is. Of course, at the same time you have got to admire Zelensky and the courage of the Ukrainian  Army and the Ukraine people. They have stood up to Evil, fought back with vengeance and taken the fight to Putin. They are paying a huge price for this and in my book are heroes, but who knows when or how this will all end? It is all very sad.

I would thank the guru for his wise insight and admit that I continue to remain perplexed that we humans are the way we are. I would tell him that if we can’t as a species learn to do better in keeping our darker selves at bay—and stand up against the evil leaders as the Ukrainians are doing– that it is only a matter of time that our flawed nature will catch up with us. I would remind the guru that we humans are continuing to destroy our fragile environment at an alarming rate and that a lot of countries now have enough nuclear weapons to ruin your day and transform the Planet Earth to our idea of what hell must look like.

I would also say to the guru that there is hope. For Christians, Christmas is a time  to give thanks for a guiding light that for over two millennia has provided hope and a pathway for calming the evil spirits within us and connecting us to a mystery beyond our limited ability to fully understand or explain. But as to the specifics of how Putin’s war on Ukraine ultimately ends, I have to admit am just as lost for an answer as he is and just as sad.






5 thoughts on “Russia’s Atrocities in Ukraine: What Does This Tell Us About Human Nature?

  1. Joe,
    Interesting post about a very complex problem.

    Undoubtedly some of the Russian perps did so because they knew that if they didn’t carry out the order, they themselves would be shot. Self preservation, perhaps the strongest of all motivators. Then there is the climactic scene in Sophie’s Choice, which is my own nomination for the depth of depravity to which humans can descend as well as the impossible choices humans may be forced to make. I can understand the latter. The former? That’s where I hit the wall of understanding and fall back on Original Sin and the discomfiting knowledge that it lurks somewhere in all of us.


    1. You are exactly right about Original Sin, Dr. Killebrew. I recall one of our revered English professors at Davidson, Profesor Lloyd commenting that original sin was simply that “people are no damn good.”

      1. Yes, and that comment was made after Prof. Lloyd returned from an around-the-world trip, and in response to a question about what he had I learned on that excursion. He was the best mentor I ever had.

        J. K.

  2. Thank you, Joe. Good article! We have to remember that there is a lot of good being done daily all over the world, most of it anonymous and hidden from view. You and Embry are good examples. Each of us should try to contribute more and destroy or waste less, constantly use our lives to serve our better nature as human beings.

    1. I agree, Dickson, that there is a lot of good out there. The good/evil dichotomy is part of most religions–especially the early ones.

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