The field of psychology was founded on the lofty goals of understanding, quantifying, and explaining human behavior. However, shortly after embarking on the audacious quest of staking claim to a new science, behavioral researchers became frustratingly aware that classifying human behavior was about as easy as getting both houses of our current Congress to agree on...well, anything.
As a former Army psychologist and author and speaker on military mental health issues, my opinion is often sought when our troops make the front pages for less than flattering and honorable reasons. Why would Marines urinate on dead enemy combatants? What psychological factors account for Soldiers posing with mangled body parts? What would cause someone to go on a shooting rampage? These are the typical questions needing immediate answers so that our twenty-four hour a day media can soothe our burning desire for explanations to inexplicable behavior.
I can usually draw upon a relatively small but media tested repository of phrases: "The stress of combat can have a tremendous strain on troops", "A few rogue soldiers is not representative of our military", or my personal favorite, "War makes people do strange things". These comments are all true, but they don't really explain anything.
So, here it is. My unfiltered and unadulterated explanation for why people engage in strange and horrific behavior is—I don't know! I feel a little like a magician giving away the secrets of how magic tricks work, but it has to be said. As a profession, psychologists just don't know why people do the things they do. But, that doesn't keep us (including myself) from speculating and trying to satisfy those who are interested in hearing what we have to say.
Don't get me wrong. Psychology is a science, but it ain't chemistry or molecular biology. Therefore, psychologists often provide explanations based on vague and general theories that may lack robust scientific support.
I think it is important to understand and appreciate this proclamation. It is very likely that we will continue to see pictures and videos of men and women in uniform engaging in deplorable behavior. People like me will provide the media—which will in turn provide to you-sounds bites about how combat stress, PTSD, brain injury, and poor leadership likely contributed to the behavior. But, we won't say definitively. And we won't because it is impossible for us to know for sure.
The next time you hear an expert pontificate about why a service member engaged in some strange or vile behavior, remember that it is mostly speculation and theory. So, save the judgements for the courts, the outrage for the uninformed, and bestow the honor and respect our troops deserve on the next man or woman in uniform you pass on the street.