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Can soldiers be trained to not become war criminals?

Can soldiers be trained to not become war criminals?

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Even in the most psychologically taxing environment on earth, ethics training works.

Halfway through a 15 month, high-intensity combat deployment in Iraq,  soldiers were shown videos of ethically dicey situations they might encounter with civilians. The question researchers wanted to answer was: can soldiers who are already suffering enormous amounts of stress -- literally fearing for their lives -- be trained to stop and think long enough to prevent unethical behavior?

The answer, happily, is yes. In a study published in the Lancet, researchers concluded that a combination of videos and leader-led discussion groups led to "significantly lower rates of unethical conduct of soldiers and greater willingness to report and address misconduct than in those before training."

From the paper:

For example, reports of unnecessary damage or destruction of private property decreased from 13·6% before training to 5·0% after training, and willingness to report a unit member for mistreatment of a non-combatant increased from 36·0% to 58·9%. Nearly all participants reported that training made it clear how to respond towards non-combatants.

You wouldn't think "sensitivity training" or its equivalent would work in the highest stress environment on the planet, but apparently it does. One caveat: soldier's ethical or unethical behavior was self-reported, so it's possible that soldiers who had the training were simply reporting less of it because they had been made aware that it was wrong. But isn't that exactly the mechanism by which ethics training works?

Photo: Jayel Aheram

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Christopher Mims

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure