This blog post is inspired by Ian Fritz’s new memoir: WHAT THE TALIBAN TOLD ME, a book with many lessons for those hoping to be good people.
Starting around 2011, Fritz served as a U.S. Air Force cryptologic linguist who rode in large aircraft in the skies of Afghanistan listening in on the people below, hoping to identify threats to American soldiers on the ground or American aircraft in the sky. Whether or not he identified those people on the ground as innocent civilians or as a Taliban threat often determined whether they would live or die, whether they would have a peaceful afternoon or be literally blown to smithereens.
We humans are incredibly skilled at dividing people into in-groups and out-groups (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/in-group-out-group). We manage this in virtually every setting, including sports (Aggies vs. Longhorns, Tarheels vs. Blue Devils), politics (Democrats vs. Republicans), and (especially) wartime (Hutu v. Tutsi, Israel v. Hamas).
In Afghanistan, it was, to a large extent, Americans vs. Taliban. Fitz was initially proud to serve because the Taliban were the evil bad guys. The Americans wore the white hats, he believed. However, after hours and hours and hours of listening to conversations of people he knew or suspected were Taliban fighters, Fritz reached an unsettling conclusion: they were human beings. Although he had no truck with Taliban ideology—the misogyny, the extremism, the violence, the dedication to living in the past and using religion to justify their opposition to democracy, to education, to any modern values—he became extremely unsettled with his role in killing other humans.
The lesson here has a lot to do with a behavioral ethics concept that we frequently write about—the Tangible & the Abstract (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/tangible-abstract). Our brains are affected more by stimuli that are close in time and space than by those that are far away. Military experts have often made the point that it is easier to take the actions necessary to kill someone if you are 20,000 feet in the air pushing a button in an aircraft to bomb an unseen target below than if you are looking an enemy in the face just a few feet away and have to decide whether to thrust a knife or pull a trigger.
Listening to hours and hours of Taliban chatter, hearing these possible enemy combatants talk about their families, their friends, and their ambitions humanized them for Fritz in ways that most other soldiers (and certainly most other Air Force members) would never experience. Alcohol abuse, depression, and PTSD followed for Fritz, as did moral injury (“the lasting psychological, biological, spiritual, and social impact of perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that can transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations”—Nash & Litz). Fritz left both the war and the Air Force earlier than he had committed to. Many other linguists had similar unhappy experiences.
To encourage soldiers to kill the enemy, military leaders must train them to dehumanize their enemies. The late Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura wrote about numerous ways that humans manage to disengage their actions from their moral values, all of which are useful for those in war.
Moral justification. If we can convince ourselves through rationalization that ours is a righteous cause, then we can easily justify killing the enemy, who must, if we are righteous, be evil. As Bandura writes:
Rapid radical shifts in destructive behavior through moral justification are most strikingly revealed in the military. The conversion of socialized individuals into dedicated fighters is achieved not by altering their personalities, aggressive drives, or moral standards but by cognitively reconstruing the morality of killing so that soldiers can do it free from self-censure. (Bandura, p. 49)
Fritz’s experience was consistent with Bandura’s explanation:
At a minimum, to be a true member of a gunship crew, you must be okay with killing people. Ideally, you don’t just accept the task, but embrace it…
If you find this hard to understand, the idea that you can take an average person and convince them to enjoy taking lives, I get that. It’s unsettling. But teaching men and women how to kill without hesitation is what a not small amount of the military exists to do. And so they remove doubt that the people we are killing are subhuman, and they remove doubt that our mission is ordained by God or gods above, and they remove any and all doubt that if we don’t kill them, they will kill us. And then, suddenly, there’s a day when it seems not only reasonable, but right, to take great joy in this, your duty. (p. 190)
This worked on Fritz for a time, but only until his hours of eavesdropping on the Taliban convinced him of their humanity and turned the abstract into the tangible. “Knowing about their lives, however mundane and banal, eliminated the sense of remoteness that came with shooting them from on high.” (p. 197)
Euphemistic language. Bandura notes that “[e]uphemistic machinations are used widely to detach and depersonalize doers from harmful activities. … For example, people behave much more cruelly when assaultive actions are given a sanitized label than when they are called aggression. … Soldiers ‘waste’ people rather than kill them. Death tolls are reported with the acronym KIA, for ‘killed in action.’ Bombing is called ‘coercive diplomacy.’” (p. 53) Fritz and his fellow crewmates used such euphemisms: “We stopped feeling bothered when we referred to dead civilians as collateral damage, so as to eliminate their humanity, as this meant we didn’t have to worry about killing civilians.” (p. 235) This method of moral disengagement worked for Fritz until it didn’t.
It stopped working when the distance, the abstraction, created by moral justification, euphemistic language, and other psychological parlor tricks disappeared. After hearing endless conversations about family, about life, about beliefs, between Taliban fighters, Fritz concluded:
These are the things I wish I hadn’t heard.
If I hadn’t heard those things, infinity [the distance between two persons] would have remained, well, infinite. I would have been able to tell myself that the Taliban were not men, were not even human, that they were in fact Enemies, whose only purpose was to be Killed in Action. If I hadn’t heard those things, I wouldn’t have loved the men I was listening to. If I hadn’t loved them, killing them would have been easy. If killing them had been easy, my consciousness would have remained intact. (p. 232)
To be the effective killing machine that our military demands, soldiers arguably must maintain this mental distance between themselves and “the enemy.” But for the vast majority of us who are not in wartime combat, we should be working at erasing that infinite gap between ourselves and others. In business, in sports, in politics (especially), and elsewhere, we too easily divide ourselves into tribes and demonize “the other,” denying their humanity.
Polls indicate that almost a quarter of Democrats view Republicans as not just wrong on policy, but as evil. A similar percentage of Republicans feel the same way about Democrats. Because members of opposing political parties are dating less, socializing less, and listening less to those with opposing views, they are losing the opportunity to be reminded that their political “enemies” are human beings also and that Republicans and Democrats share more core values than many believe to be the case.
Fritz had to listen to the out-group. It was his job. The rest of us should do so because it is our moral obligation as members of a civilized society.
Albert Bandura, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves (2016).
Ian Fritz, What the Taliban Told Me (2023).
Kenzie Holbrook, “How Important Are Politics in Marriage?” The Daily Universe, Nov. 10, 2020, at https://universe.byu.edu/2020/11/10/how-important-are-politics-in-marriage/.
David Klepper, “Democrats and Republicans Share Core Values But Still Distrust Each Other,” AP, June 14, 2023, at https://apnews.com/article/poll-democrats-republicans-values-polarization-trust-misinformation-7704ad7b024a7f2324453fecfffaf6f3.
William Nash & Brett Litz, “Moral Injury: A Mechanism for War-Related Psychological Trauma in Military Families,” Clinical Child Family Psychological Review 16(4): 365-375 (March 10, 2018.
Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech, “Politics Are Increasingly a Dating Dealbreaker—Especially for Women,” The Hill, March 25, 2023, at https://thehill.com/changing-america/enrichment/arts-culture/3917348-politics-are-increasingly-a-dating-dealbreaker-especially-for-women/.
Ian Williams, “Why I Hate Duke,” The Daily Tarheel, Jan. 17, 1990, at https://www.dailytarheel.com/staff/ian_williams.
Ian Williams, “Why I Still Hate Duke,” The Daily Tarheel, Feb. 5, 2024, at https://www.dailytarheel.com/staff/ian_williams.
David Wood, What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars (2016).
The Tangible & the Abstract: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/tangible-abstract.
“Moral Injury,” at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/moral-injury
“Moral Injury: When McKinsey Comes to Town,” at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/moral-injury-when-mckinsey-comes-to-town.
“COVID-19’s Moral Harm,” at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/covid19-moral-harm.
“‘Working the System’ – Euphemisms Inflict Collateral Damage on Integrity,” at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/?s=euphemism.