Armed Hostilities

Dehumanization and Its Evolution in Warfare

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. Ancient Propaganda
  3. The Rise of the Printing Press
  4. Modernization of Dehumanization
  5. The Change in Dehumanization
  6. Dehumanization Today
  7. Conclusion
  8. References


The advent of the digital age comes with various changes in the modern political landscape. In the last few decades, rapid changes in communications and media networks have resulted in different outlooks in regards to considerations of peace and conflict. Consequently, it can be speculated that these changes are also reflected in modern warfare practices. One running theme in the history of warfare is dehumanization, which has often served the purpose of legitimizing the taking of human life during a war. Historically, dehumanization has been an integral part of the war machine and its accompanying propaganda. In the course of any war, it is common for feelings against the enemy to change into a manner that justifies brutal treatment or elimination of opponents. While dehumanization has been a reliable tool of warfare in the last century, its use was heightened during World War 2. However, during this last major global conflict dehumanization was closely associated with high moral standards. In the modern political atmosphere, actors have been forced to change the dehumanization rhetoric to match it with higher public awareness. Nevertheless, the dehumanization strategies that were used against Hitler would have little in common with the ones that were used against Saddam Hussein. The evolution of dehumanization has gone from the bloody World War 2 era to the current advent of technological warfare. Currently, modern warfare is akin to playing video games whereby officers can obliterate human lives with the help of a joystick. This paper is an analysis of the evolution of dehumanization with an emphasis on how people went from dehumanizing enemies to dehumanizing their soldiers through technology.

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Ancient Propaganda

In ancient times of the Roman Empire, the military was not just necessary for the protection of one’s country, but it was a conquering force bred to expand borders and subjugate countries and city-states. For such an army to function effectively, a strict culture of discipline was cultivated among the soldiers. It was not just a code of conduct, but a complete way of life, filled with its rituals, obligations, and morals. In modern terms, the tactics used to build such an army involved a primitive but effective use of propaganda. Soldiers in various conquering cultures were taught to see themselves as mythological heroes, servants of the gods, and in general, as superior warriors. Propaganda was also used to create a negative image of the enemy, with less technologically developed cultures being portrayed as savages or more cultured nations seen as weak or deviant. However, without the invention of the printing press, the opinion of the masses was not so easily swayed, and there was no real need to sway them, as soldiers often encompassed a completely separate caste within the society. Moreover, despite the conquering nature of the Roman Empire, they were not bent on extermination or complete enslavement of the people.

The most successful Roman emperors understood that to effectively control such a large empire, they need to get on the good side of people whose country they just took over. Often this meant they had to improve the infrastructure of the country, while also letting people continue their way of life with minimal changes, or instead improve their conditions to show the good side of being a part of the Roman Empire. This does not mean that Romans treated their enemies as equals, but rather that dehumanization was not a priority and would not work for the benefit of the Empire. A good indication of this could be seen in the works written by the authors of the era about the people from the British and Austrian tribes. The authors often marveled at their physical condition, customs, and way of life which had nothing in common with the one in Rome. In an expression of dark irony, these humanizing papers would later serve as the basis for Nazi propaganda thousands of years later (Le Bohec, 2013).

The Rise of the Printing Press

These attitudes persisted until the invention of the printing press. One of the first prominent uses of the printing press for the sake of propaganda has to do with the origin of the Protestant Church. In the 1500s the Holy Roman Church was the only institution that had control over the text of the Bible. To keep this control, the Bible was kept in Latin, and no official translation was done into any other language. This made the word of the Roman Catholic Church the law when it came to the matters of Christianity. Martin Luther saw the Roman Catholic Church as a corruption of the original ideas of Christianity, to the point that he compared the Pope to the Antichrist. With his work titled “Ninety-five Theses,” he started the Protestant Reformation movement in Germany. Similar movements had appeared before, but all of them were ruthlessly destroyed by the Catholic Church, and their leaders were burned at the stake. However, unlike those groups, Martin Luther and his partners had the printing press as their trump card. They quickly realized that it could be used to spread their message by printing translated and illustrated versions of the Bible, filled with notes and commentary that would attract the readers to their way of thinking. Although this was an essential part of the plan, it was not the only way they used the printing press. Propaganda against the Catholic Church quickly began to spread throughout Europe.

Long screeds against its lavish use of resources, the overreach of authority, and the ways it strayed from the words of the Bible were printed just as much as the Bibles themselves. This would eventually lead to the deadliest religious war in history. With more than 8 million people dying in the Thirty Years’ War it could be seen as the first war that used the relatively modern idea of propaganda. Even despite the protests of some of the Protestant leaders, the people were inspired to fight against the Catholic Church for decades in one of the most brutal European conflicts in history. Despite this being an early example of modern propaganda, its power should not be underestimated. By portraying the opposition as unholy keepers of the holy texts, Protestant leaders were able to dehumanize, and what was more important to them, remove the divinity of the Catholic Church that prevented the masses from going against them (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2014).

With years, this type of propaganda would grow and change, finding new forms and purposes. Anthropomorphic representations of countries were often used to represent the will of the government or to create an image of superiority. For example, the British Britannia was often the symbol of colonization and superiority of the English government over the countries it subjugated. Although stereotypes have existed long before the printing press, it served as a tool for their reinforcement. Caricatures of different ethnicities and races became the norm in propaganda. Political cartoons of the time would often use them to diminish the struggles of the people by reinforcing the negative stereotypes among their readers. For example, English papers often used an ape-like brutish creature called “Paddy” to represent the people of Ireland. These types of cartoons have been used to dehumanize the people whose plight would otherwise be sympathetic. When fighting an offensive war, a country would often use these stereotypes to undermine the image of the enemy by showing them as foolish or weak opponents, while the allied soldiers would be shown as courageous and virtuous heroes. However, the culture of many armies still valued morals and discipline to the point where atrocities against the enemy would be severely punished by commanders that valued them.

Modernization of Dehumanization

During World War I, there were some interesting developments regarding dehumanization. First, the commanders and other leaders saw the need to dehumanize soldiers because this made it easier for the fighters to kill their enemies. This strategy was quite effective at the beginning of the conflict because most of the soldiers in this conflict had a false sense of confidence. This delusion came from access to weapons of the industrial era such as explosives, tanks, and machine guns (Bahador, 2015). However, the dehumanization process encountered challenges when it became clear that the leaders of this war lacked effective strategies and the fighters were often left to their own devices. The levels of attrition were even on both sides of the conflict, and this realization led soldiers in opposing sides to start recognizing their similarities rather than their differences. Consequently, dehumanization was not as effective during World War I as its perpetrators had hoped it would be.

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This lack of effectiveness was due to multiple factors. The first is that at the beginning of the war, propaganda tried the old type of dehumanization by showing the enemy as harmless fools. While this tactic worked when warfare consisted of relatively short and decisive battles, World War I proved to need a different approach. Later in the war, the enemy was portrayed as a ruthless monster. Real-life atrocities became the basis for propaganda to create feelings of hatred against the enemy. For a soldier going to war at that time, the enemy was not a person, but a monster that is trying to kill and rape their family. This would soon become the staple of wartime propaganda, as new horrible atrocities are committed by the combatants, more and more hateful images and texts were able to be produced. Sometimes they would come without a confirmation of the event. One popular example of this phenomenon would be the story of a crucified soldier. The story described in horrific detail a scene of the improvised crucifixion that happened after a battle. However, when an investigation team was sent to the field, it turned out that none of the eye-witness accounts match up, and even contradict each other. The result of this investigation showed that the soldier was probably pinned to the tree by shrapnel, and not by the enemy soldiers. This story would also change with time, with different victims and battlefields. Horrific imagery combined with visceral and symbolic details has a very powerful effect on a person’s psyche. When hearing of such events, it becomes much easier to justify murder and even horrible revenge acts on people who were likely innocent (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2014).

The greatest victory for dehumanization was delivered by Adolf Hitler during World War II when he sought to wipe out entire races using this concept. For instance, “Hitler was able to isolate one group of people based solely on their religion, and dehumanize them” (Kohl, 2011, p. 12). This form of dehumanization was new because it was targeted at ordinary civilians as opposed to the Allied soldiers who were actively fighting Hitler. In response to the Hitler-led campaign, most countries in the West sought to renounce dehumanization especially after the war ended. Therefore, World War II is the conflict that opened the world’s eyes to how the concept of dehumanization can be hijacked. Furthermore, several anti-dehumanization treaties were put into place including the Geneva Convention and other United Nation’s stipulations.

The Change in Dehumanization

After World War II and its resulting attempts to humanize the enemy, stakeholders of conflict found it difficult to adjust wars without blatant dehumanization. Life became difficult for soldiers, especially the ones who had been involved in World War II. This resulting conflict can be seen through the events of the Vietnam and Gulf Wars. Military scholars also began questioning whether it was possible to win wars without dehumanization (Gray, 2013, p. 34). In the period when the world actively churned dehumanization, most wars ended without concise outcomes, as was the case in the Gulf War. Therefore, most of the conflicts that dominated the 1970s and 1980s are the same ones that resurged into the 1990s and 2000s. In a bid to adapt to conventions that criminalized the blatant dehumanization of the enemy, nations began to adapt by “constructing enemies as less than human; through carefully crafted rhetorical practice” (Engels, 2009, p. 43). Therefore, in the last two decades, governments have been preoccupied with narratives that portray enemies not just as lesser humans, but also as monsters who are threats to human civilization. In the United States, the war on terror and extremism has taken a direction whereby the government convinces citizens that their enemies are a threat to their way of life. The speech that former President George W. Bush delivered after the September 11 attacks is a good example of the new form of dehumanization. In this speech, existing war conventions were cast aside under the guise of the enemy being too dangerous to be considered human.

During this time, film and television became a major force in the world of propaganda. Visual media is perfect for creating propaganda narratives. When a war could not be fought directly, these tools were used to fight the possible influence the perceived enemy could have on the population. While American and Soviet forces rarely crossed each other during that time, their war was waged on the screens of movie theaters. Countless stories of communist spies ready to take down the democratic regime of the United States filled comic books and films. Stories of a Soviet invasion were used to show the need for a strong military, and to create hate towards communist ideas. In those stories, the enemy was shown as barbaric, stupid, and untrustworthy. New stereotypes were created, and with the isolationist attitude of the USSR, there was nothing to fight against them. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, these stereotypes remained strong, leaving many people dehumanized, despite their lack of involvement in the cold war itself (Shaw & Youngblood, 2014). After it was over, the same tactics were used for the wars in the middle east and the war on terrorism. The September 11 attacks became a turning point that made many writers and directors express their hate toward the terrorists through their work. Unfortunately, the message was often muddled due to a lack of research and resulted in the creation of a very negative attitude to people of the Muslim faith (Hatton & Nielsen, 2016).

Dehumanization Today

In modern warfare, armies rarely come face to face with other organized armies. Currently, guerilla warfare is the most common form of combat, and this form of conflict comes with new trends of dehumanization. Most guerilla fighters are convinced that outside armies are on a mission of superiority or they are mere imperialists. Therefore, ideology and propaganda are significant elements in modern dehumanization (Smith, 2016). In recent times, leaders have often realized that some wars cannot be won. Consequently, these conflicts often mutate into new wars, where dehumanization is often more than in the previous conflict. At the center of modern dehumanization are the concepts of power (mostly monetary) and ideology. Leaders who are involved in conflicts often use these concepts interchangeably depending on how they want to dehumanize their fighters. Amid modern conflict, “there are too many actors including soldiers in uniform, freedom fighters, religious fighters, Mujahedeen, warlords, mercenaries and of course, men who simply love killing and migrate from country to country” (Van, 2012, p. 43).

The ever-changing and conflicting alliances have made it necessary to dehumanize the soldier instead of the enemy. This development comes from the fact that today’s enemies are tomorrow’s allies. Therefore, the modern fighter is more effective when he is detached from the entire conflict process. A modern soldier is a machine that can commit any act of cruelty without necessarily questioning the motives behind his/her actions. To facilitate this dehumanization process, modern armies have to use the necessary tools for training. Drones are the most commonly used weapons in modern warfare. A soldier can control a drone from a military base in Washington and use it to kill enemies in Afghanistan. This soldier is completely dehumanized because he never has to come into contact with the perceived enemies. For example, some of the people fighting the Taliban War have never stepped into the enemy territory. Consequently, these soldiers “do not know the way of life, the culture of the little blobs of humanity they track in their monitors and have no understanding of the political and corporate background to the war they are fighting” (Van, 2012, p. 43). Nevertheless, the destruction of human life that results from drone attacks has a different meaning to the people who treat or bury victims of the war. The ability to kill enemies from a distance contributes greatly to the dehumanization of the soldiers. It is also important to consider that when the soldiers are using technology to attack their enemies, they are often sheltered in a no-danger position. Therefore, the damage they do to the lives of others cannot be done to theirs. Military agents train these fighters to operate like machines without giving emotional consideration to their actions (Royakkers & Van Est, 2010). Therefore, most device operators are not given any background information on their targets other than the fact that they are dangerous.

In recent years, dehumanization has evolved into something that was only seen in science fiction novels. By its nature, propaganda was always used to make citizens justify war and murder, and to make them want to go to war through the dehumanization of the enemy. However, soon this might become obsolete, as autonomous weapon systems are becoming a reality. While a person would need propaganda to want to fight, a machine has no such needs or wants. At this moment, autonomous sentry weapons are guarding the Korean DMZ and the border between Palestine and Israel. They can operate without any input from a person, aiming and shooting by utilizing algorithms. In another ironic twist, those countries have dehumanized their soldiers by literally removing the human out of the equation. These weapons have already been responsible for the deaths of multiple people, and have become one of the most controversial topics in dialogue about warfare. Their programming is very simple and does not permit the same level of the judgment of a real person, making them unable to distinguish between civilian and combatant targets. Despite this, other autonomous weapons are already in development, including mobile ground, air, and sea vehicles (Sparrow, 2016).

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The history of human conflict is characterized by extreme devastation to humanity. Society is expected to learn from these historical lessons especially the role that dehumanization has played in wars. During World War I, dehumanization achieved short-lived success, but its use in World War II prompted the society to rethink its essence. In modern times, dehumanization is shifting from the enemy to the soldier, and there is adequate technology to facilitate this shift. Nevertheless, historical patterns indicate that turning fighters into guilt-free machines does not necessarily signal the end of war and dehumanization. In the future, dehumanization is expected to continue in its course of evolution.


Bahador, B. (2015). Communication and peace: Mapping an emerging field. London, UK: Routledge.

Engels, J. (2009). Friend or foe?: Naming the enemy. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 12(1), 37-64.

Gray, C. H. (2013). Postmodern war: The new politics of conflict. London, UK: Routledge.

Hatton, A., & Nielsen, M. (2016). ‘War on Terror’ in our backyard: Effects of framing and violent ISIS propaganda on anti-Muslim prejudice. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 8(3), 163-176.

Jowett, G., & O’Donnell, V. (2014). Propaganda & persuasion. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Kohl, D. (2011). The presentation of “self” and “other” in Nazi propaganda. Psychology & Society, 4(1), 7-26.

Le Bohec, Y. (2013). The imperial Roman army. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

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Royakkers, L., & Van Est, R. (2010). The cubicle warrior: The marionette of digitalized warfare. Ethics and Information Technology, 12(3), 289-296.

Shaw, T., & Youngblood, D. (2014). Cinematic cold war. Lawrence, KA: University Press of Kansas.

Smith, D. L. (2016). Paradoxes of Dehumanization. Social Theory and Practice, 42(2), 416-443.

Sparrow, R. (2016). Robots and respect: Assessing the case against autonomous weapon systems. Ethics & International Affairs, 30(01), 93-116.

Van, M. (2012). Transformation of war. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

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