For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Q&A: Military Psychology and Russian Atrocities in Ukraine

September 01, 2022

Image of a destroyed Russian vehicle under the Ukrainian flag outside.

Drexel University Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology and Athletic Director Emeritus Eric Zillmer, PsyD, has been following the news and updates coming from the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine while preparing the third edition of “Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications,” a book he co-edited with Drexel alumna Carrie H. Kennedy, PhD, a captain in the Medical Service Corps of the U.S. Navy. As an expert in military psychology, Zillmer has extensively taught and researched the psychological toll of war and conflict throughout  more than 20 years when initially writing and then updating the book — which, coincidentally, came out five days after the six-month anniversary of Russia’s invasion. 

“As a psychologist who is interested in what humans can possibly do to each other, I am very interested in the neuropsychology of the war crimes committed by Russian forces … how is it possible?” said Zillmer, who traveled for research with the Department of Defense to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006 at the beginning of the Iraq War and with the Pennsylvania National Guard to Bosnia in 2002 immediately after the Serbian War.

DrexelNOW asked Zillmer to share his view of the ongoing military conflict and how he thinks it has profoundly impacted Ukraine’s civilians, civilian-soldiers and military members over the past six months and will continue to do so into the future.

Q: How have you been following and digesting the war in Ukraine as a military psychologist?

A:  It is hard to stomach the alleged atrocities and war crimes coming out of Ukraine, but in my head, I know better. I have been studying perpetrators of genocide and war crimes for decades, and I know as a psychologist that once the mechanism of war is set in motion, there seems to be little restraint in the human condition for total war. 

Q: How dangerous is this moment for the world?

A: Well, the war in Ukraine has destabilized the world, including the global economy and energy support infrastructure. Of course, the two-year coronavirus pandemic had something to do with this too. Plus, Russia has significant nuclear weapons capability, including intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the U.S. And it often suits our politicians and military leaders to escalate the perception of imminent danger so that possible military action would seem justifiable, even logical. 

So yes, this seems like a very dangerous time. Having said that, the “science” of threat assessment is difficult. The perception of safety is very much a psychological process that can be influenced cognitively and emotionally.

One must balance the current threat within the context of military history. I believe there has always been danger throughout history. I am currently travelling in Ireland, and in examining the country’s historic medieval castles, one realizes that their inhabitants must have been very, very afraid.

Editions and translations of “Military Psychology,” including, clockwise from top left, the third edition, the second edition and the first edition, and then the Portuguese and South Korean editions. Photos courtesy Eric Zillmer.

Editions and translations of “Military Psychology,” including, clockwise from top left, the third edition, the second edition and the first edition, and then the Portuguese and South Korean editions. Photos courtesy Eric Zillmer.

Q: “Military Psychology” focuses a lot on aftermath and treatments for veterans, particularly in the United States. What do you anticipate happening for those who survive the war in Ukraine?  

A: I am very proud of the release of our third edition of “Military Psychology” together with my co-editor Carrie Kennedy, PhD, who is a Drexel alumna and currently an active-duty captain in the U.S. Navy who has been deployed to Cuba and Afghanistan. We have worked on this topic for over 20 years and through several wars. We now know that the psychological and mental health needs of our military are unique. Our volume provides a research-based roadmap for prevention and intervention with America’s nearly 1.2 million service members and 17 million veterans, but “Military Psychology” also applies to any individuals experiencing trauma, including law enforcement and first responders. “Military Psychology” has also been used as a textbook. Issues of mental health in the military, especially conditions arising from service, require attention across patients, providers and organizations, and we have been humbled by the fact that our work has appeared in three editions and been translated into several languages. Personally, I consider this my most important work. 

Besides the war and immediate trauma of the crimes themselves in Ukraine, there is an unimaginable psychological toll that can span an entire generation and beyond. All of this is traumatic and has direct psychological and physical consequences for the millions of people being displaced, the families torn apart, the children growing up during this insanity and the military troops themselves.

Q: What role did and/or does propaganda play in preparing Russian military troops and civilians for the invasion?

A: Propaganda is essential to waging war. The Russian propaganda machine is at full force in trying to spread Russia’s state ideology and its anti-Western sentiment, not only to Russian citizens and military, but also on a global scale. Russian President Vladimir Putin presents himself to his people as a pivotal historical figure, and he painted the war in the Ukraine as a peacekeeping mission and a “denazification” of the country. As someone who researched Nazi Germany extensively, wrote a book entitled “The Quest for the Nazi Personality” and lived in Germany for more than 14 years, I believe Putin’s allegations about denazification are far-fetched, but this type of propaganda is essential on the battlefield because troops do better when they believe in the mission they are risking their lives for. In life and death situations, it is easier to act than it is to think, which is what Russian soldiers are being literally programmed to do. Whether this is working or not remains to be seen.

The other side of Russia’s state-run propaganda machine is the squashing of dissent, including the free press. For example, the Vietnam War showed that if there is public doubt or open discourse about a war, it will be difficult to win it. Ironically, Russia is accusing Ukraine of its own propaganda efforts related to their reporting of war crimes. The war in Ukraine is as much a military engagement on the battlefield as it is a war of ideas, news and ideology.

Eric Zillmer photographed visiting a detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006 with U.S. military leaders. U.S. Navy photo by: MC3 Remus Borisov; UNCLASSIFIED//Cleared For Public Release; CDR Robert T. Durand, JTF-GTMO PAO.
Eric Zillmer photographed visiting a detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2006 with U.S. military leaders. U.S. Navy photo by: MC3 Remus Borisov; UNCLASSIFIED//Cleared For Public Release; CDR Robert T. Durand, JTF-GTMO PAO.

Q: Have you ever travelled to Russia or done intellectual work there? 

A: I travelled to the Soviet Union with my sister who competed as the West German Champion in the 1970 European Figure Skating Championships in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). My father, David Zillmer, who did not come with us, was a United States Military Academy West Point alum and former member of their faculty. As an officer in the U.S. Army and a Cold War agent, he worked around the globe and also assisted in establishing NATO in Germany. Because of my dad’s military career, we were often followed when my sister competed in the Communist Bloc, and this was true in Leningrad as well. I was only 13 years old then, but I could not understand why there were often men with long trench coats standing in the shadows, just like in the movies, and my mother told me that our rooms were bugged. But we were generally left alone given that my sister, who finished 10th at the Euros, was a high-profile athlete.

More recently, I collaborated on two Russian-produced documentaries that examined Nazi war crimes:The Nazi Nuremberg Trials: Banality of Evil” (2018) and “Trawniki: School of Executioners” (2019). I was asked to participate in the documentaries because of my books “The Quest for the Nazi Personality” and “Military Psychology.” Russia is still working on processing World War II and that is why I believe it is still in the zeitgeist of the Russian public and why Putin introduced a Nazi context into the war in Ukraine.

Q: Can you talk about the use of sexual violence in wartime, and why it is prevalent with Russian troops stationed in Ukraine?

A: Over the course of military history, sexual violence has had a role in war conflicts. Psychologically, I believe it is linked to the intent to dehumanize, dominate and defeat the victims of war. I strongly believe that we need to have more awareness and increased recognition of sexual violence in such war-time conflicts, including rape, as a military tactic and consequence of war. By taking more international responsibility, we can strengthen criminal accountability, responsiveness to survivors and the overall judicial response to sexual violence during wartime. I am grateful for the present condemnation by the international community of all forms of war crimes and atrocities that are occurring as part of this war, but I think we need to do much more for the occurrence of sexual violence.

Q: What do you think about the influx of non-Ukrainians with military backgrounds joining the war effort to defend the country at great personal risk?

A: I would like to think that such actions are an example of altruism and kindness. But I also worry that this is extremely dangerous and wonder if those foreign nationals joining the fight in Ukraine do so for personal reasons as well as political ones. It may also undermine our national position, which has been not to put “boots on the ground.”

“War crimes are difficult to prosecute because they are almost always perpetrated in secrecy. Brcko, near the border with Serbia, was the scene of some of the worst atrocities of the Serbian war. There have been accounts of ethnic ‘cleansing’ and mass executions and graves, including reports that over 1,000 Muslims were executed in this factory after they had been separated from their families,” said Eric Zillmer. Photo credit: Eric Zillmer.

“War crimes are difficult to prosecute because they are almost always perpetrated in secrecy. Brcko, near the border with Serbia, was the scene of some of the worst atrocities of the Serbian war. There have been accounts of ethnic ‘cleansing’ and mass executions and graves, including reports that over 1,000 Muslims were executed in this factory after they had been separated from their families,” said Eric Zillmer. Photo credit: Eric Zillmer.

Q: Not that there’s such a thing as “normal war crimes” but is there anything that stands out to you as particularly atrocious or abnormal with what’s being done to Ukraine? 

A: War crimes are the most serious of all crimes. They are directed towards a total population or ethnic group to dehumanize and eradicate an entire culture of people. It robs individuals of their identify and the reason for their existence. Simply put … it is human destruction.

In my research on Nazi Germany and during a trip to war-torn Bosnia in 2002, it is clear to me that war-crime atrocities are committed secretly, in the back alleys, ditches and deep in the woods of history, so to speak. Almost always, the perpetrators deny having committed them and cover up their tracks. Even they know it is wrong and not “normal.”

Q: Russia had not anticipated Ukraine to defend itself as it has. What’s that like for Russian soldiers and commanders who started a military conflict thinking it’d be easy?

A: War is never easy. Our own Revolutionary War must have surprised the British forces, which at that time was the largest and best trained military in the world. Ukraine is also a relatively large country roughly the size of Texas, and its formidable resistance has been boosted significantly by high-tech weapons supplied by the West as well as their military leadership style. That is, Ukraine’s military is organized in small and mobile units, who seemingly trust their leaders and are making decisions in real time. In contrast, the Russian troops suffered demoralizing setbacks by following a more linear, hierarchical approach that put them into harm’s way by their leadership, which resulted in an erosion of confidence.

But Ukraine borders Russia, so I think that purely from a geographic point of view, this could be a difficult and prolonged conflict. War is a very dynamic and fluid process. This is certainly a lesson we, as well as the Russians, should have learned from our respective “failed” wars in Afghanistan. So, I think it is pretty clear that Russia’s military is regrouping and rethinking their tactics and overall scope of their mission. My hope would be that if the battlelines get hardened that there might be a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Q: Civilians have played a large role in the Ukrainian resistance, from enlisting after the invasion to setting up local militias. How does that affect their “military psychology?”  

A: One fact we have learned from military engagements over the history of time is that mental, as well as physical, preparation goes a long way in terms of dealing with the soldier’s preparedness for war, including their mental health. In “Military Psychology,” we discussed how even for the most stressful of wartime situations, such as captivity, it is essential to be mentally prepared and anticipate what is coming, and perhaps even having been exposed to it in a training simulation. We also learned that once military trauma occurs, it is best to deal with it right there and then. Otherwise, it is much more likely that PTSD or other mental health challenges crystalize and have to be dealt with later, unfortunately with more severe consequences.

However, literally fighting for your homeland on your homeland after an invasion is also a source of profound pride. The Ukrainian people have demonstrated amazing strength and cohesion; they clearly have a reason to fight and thus an unbending belief in their mission. They are mounting an impressive defense against a larger force, which is only boosting their confidence and resolve to continue fighting. These psychological factors are some of the reasons that they are doing so well. 

Q: How does a conflict in Europe affect the Drexel community?

 A: Drexel students and Drexel University can play a role in this conflict. Our students often feel like the war in the Ukraine is something that is happening “over there” and that there is very little we can do about it. As an educator, however, I think this is a great opportunity for us to think pedagogically how we can make such world events accessible to our students. By making this part of our classroom discussions it allows our students the opportunity to express themselves, their feelings and attitudes about this conflict, which quite frankly is very important in-and-of itself, that is to process and discuss it.

By doing so, we can challenge our students about our responsibility as future business, legal and community leaders to look at the world as an interconnected international place where we are problem-solving together in order to make a difference. I have found this to be very stimulating and know that our students are very much game-on.

That would be my final point: our emotional and intellectual response to deal with emerging global threats right here and now on our campus. By doing so, we become change agents. It empowers us to make a difference in the world, but if left unprocessed could make our students feel like victims themselves. This is very much in line with what I believe was the vision of our University’s founder Anthony J. Drexel: a commitment to a social consciousness nurtured through the arts, industry and science for the greater good.