Department of Political Science

Morten Brænder

Deployment and Dehumanization: A Multi-Method Study of Combat Soldiers’ Loss of Empathy

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Studies in soldier motivation and socialization have shown that servicemen's level of compassion decreases following deployment to war. This may to some extent be explained by the transgressive nature of the combat soldier's service : the soldier puts himself in harm's way, and must if necessary kill the enemy. Hence, a certain 'emotional distance' may be required for him to cope with deployment life. To kill the enemy, it might be necessary for the soldier to deprive the enemy of his human capacities, to dehumanize him. However, by combining quantitative and qualitative methods, this study suggests that the enemy is not the only one who is dehumanized. The data analyzed were collected immediately before and after deployment of Danish combat soldiers to Helmand, Afghanistan. Quantitative findings show that the soldiers' empathetic motivation to serve civilians, compatriots and other soldiers in general decreases. The subsequent qualitative analysis centres on interviews with one of the soldiers, whose level of compassion dropped most remarkably during this tour of duty. Drawing on a theoretical distinction between “animalistic” and “mechanical” dehumanization, the main - qualitative - analysis shows that the difference between emotional proximity and emotional distance is not a question of whether you are serving the same cause, but whether you are sharing the same hardships. Accordingly, whereas following deployment the Taliban is perceived with greater respect, Afghan civilians and Danish staff personnel alike are regarded with increasing contempt.
Original languageEnglish
JournalRES militaris
Volume5
Issue2
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 2015

    Research areas

  • Danish combat soldiers ; Afghanistan ; empathy ; compassion ; dehumanization ; public service motivation ; multi-method research

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