The Russian Military Has Descended Into Inhumanity

The brutal war crimes being documented in Ukraine are a warning Americans should heed.

A  street strewn with destroyed tanks and debris
A burnt and destroyed street in Bucha, Ukraine (Matthew Hatcher / SOPA / LightRocket / Getty)

About the author: Andrew Exum is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. From 2015 to 2017, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy.

Let us talk about war crimes.

Let us talk about the atrocities the Russian military is committing in Ukraine, yes, but let us also talk about what they mean for us. Because if we assume that we could not commit such crimes ourselves, we are wrong—and we need to think about what it takes to prevent our own military from doing so.

Over the past several days, reporters and social-media users have documented what appear to be some truly horrific outrages perpetrated on the Ukrainian people by occupying Russian forces. The Biden administration says that these atrocities are aligned with the broader Russian policy aim of terrorizing the Ukrainians into submission. And this may well be true.

But Russia’s military has not yet proved an ability to competently execute any strategy in Ukraine, so I am dubious that Russian policy objectives fully explain the bulk of the crimes we are witnessing.

What we are seeing is likely something much more familiar, and much more universal: These sorts of crimes occur when military organizations are committed into combat without clear, achievable objectives, and without a professional noncommissioned-officer corps to enforce discipline within the ranks. They are what happens when military organizations are not held to account for their actions; when soldiers, after seeing the deaths of their friends in the face of unforeseen resistance, resort to savagery; and when the guardrails to prevent such a descent into inhumanity are absent.

In retrospect, looking back on two decades of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is remarkable how few crimes U.S. troops committed against civilian populations. Civilians in both countries suffered greatly, make no mistake, but the incidence of tactical units committing heinous crimes was lower, despite the duration of those wars, than that among Russian troops in a few weeks in Ukraine.

There are several reasons for that disparity. First, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are mostly led, at the tactical level, by a professional noncommissioned-officer corps—something Russia’s army largely lacks. I asked a friend who led a brigade in Baghdad during the surge of 2007 why we did not see more war crimes then, despite the intensity of the combat. “That’s all down to the junior officers and noncommissioned officers who led the infantry platoons and squads,” he replied. “Those young men didn’t allow it.”

Second, the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan was—often to the detriment of its war aims—quite isolated from the populations themselves. U.S. troops lived in remote outposts, which hamstrung their efforts to defend the populations from insurgents but also reduced the kind of contact between occupying soldiers and civilians that has led to crimes of intimacy in Ukraine: looting on one end of the spectrum, rape and murder on the other.

Third, the U.S. military prosecuted many of its war criminals. Convicted war criminals such as Clint Lorance and Eddie Gallagher were turned in by their own men before being tried and convicted in the military justice system. The military moved, before others could move it, to enforce discipline within its own ranks.

Of those three reasons, the last is most important, because it reflects an organizational culture that holds leaders responsible for their own actions as well as for the actions of their men.

Some have attempted to argue that Russian culture is somehow to blame for the crimes Russia’s military has committed, and although this is inaccurate and perhaps even bigoted, it is fair to say that Russia’s military culture and organization is to blame for the crimes in Ukraine—and for the fact that Russia’s military seems to commit similar crimes in every conflict it fights.

Russia’s military, as we have seen these past five weeks, is a mess: Seemingly leaderless in Ukraine, it cannot even effectively maneuver against its opponent, much less carry out a coherent terror campaign against Ukrainian civilians.

Our own military, by contrast, is much better led. It is better organized too, and we recruit, train, and equip our troops with more thought and care than the Russians do.

But we’re lying to ourselves if we think that our troops cannot commit the same heinous crimes Russian troops are committing today. On an individual level, an American is no more morally perfect than his or her Russian counterpart. The difference is how each military organization responds to criminality.

Our military’s culture of accountability took a blow when then-President Donald Trump pardoned both Lorance and Gallagher and was then cheered on by a morally loathsome minority of veterans and military fanboys who elected to side with Lorance and Gallagher against the many others in uniform who had testified against each man.

As Americans look at what is taking place in Ukraine, they should condemn Russia but also reflect on the efforts of a reactionary minority to excuse similar behavior in our own ranks. That we kept our military engaged in combat for 20 consecutive years without facing horrors on the scale that we are witnessing in this relatively short conflict in Ukraine is truly remarkable. But ensuring that will remain the case in future conflicts will take hard work and vigilance.