Alcohol and Atrocities

Alcohol and atrocities

Despite the fact that alcohol adds to a soldier’s willingness to commit atrocities, rape, and other kinds of violence, soldiers have consumed large quantities of alcohol for centuries. Warfare and intoxication have often gone hand in hand. Members of armed forces consider drunkenness socially acceptable and an inevitable occurrence due to the stresses of war. Commanders often have forgiven heinous crimes due to the acceptance of alcohol abuse and its consequences. Soldiers routinely are provided with alcohol to deal with combat trauma, although military leaders provide cautionary statements about using alcohol in moderation.

In various armed conflicts, many factors are similar: alcohol, men, extended periods of sexual abstinence, high stress levels due to life-threatening situations, and unarmed civilians who become victims of senseless crimes, sexual torture, or ethnic cleansing. Military culture, peer pressure, and large groups of armed, exhausted, terrified, or intoxicated men together pose grave dangers to civilians. Although the issues behind alcohol abuse are complex, numerous studies in the medical and biological fields document the strong correlation between alcohol consumption and violent crimes, including sexual violence. Studies show that in times of peace there can be an increase in human aggression, a great increase in the risk of sexual violence and in the severity of an attack when alcohol is involved. Thus, due to the extraordinary emotional stress in times of war, and in light of the massive evidence that reveals the close relationship between intoxicated soldiers and violence, it is safe to assert that alcohol causes more casualties and more violence during wartime.

In World War I, during which armed men committed countless violent crimes, British and German soldiers received alcohol as part of their daily ration. In the Vietnam War, Americans had access to alcohol, marijuana, and opium. The atrocities and rape soldiers committed against Vietnamese civilians are well documented. During World War II, both the Nazi and the Soviet leadership purposely supplied troops with drink. On the eastern front partisans, local police forces, and Soviet soldiers used excessive amounts of alcohol to cope. The exhausted and drunken Red Army committed mass rape as they pushed the Germans back through eastern Europe and into Germany. Being intoxicated helped Germans commit mass murder of civilians and deal with the emotional stresses of handling hundreds of corpses daily. Germans also committed mass rape and torture in the areas they occupied. With the use of alcohol people were more willing to break regulations, such as German racial laws, and they probably experienced heightened sexual desire and a loosening of inhibitions.

During the Bosnian war (April 1992 to December 1995) much of the ethnic cleansing was committed under the influence of alcohol. The soldiers and officers who committed mass rape of women were often excessively intoxicated. In the Rwandan war (October 1990 to August 1993) drunken paramilitaries sang and chanted songs that praised murder and violence, and there were many reports of drunken soldiers and pillaging gangs committing brutal crimes. In the Iraq (2003 to present) and Afghanistan (2001 to present) wars, a high percentage of the Americans who have been convicted of serious crimes, such as murder, rape, and assault, also received drug- or alcohol-related charges. Indeed, the use and abuse of alcohol has been a widespread phenomena, especially among armed men, and it has significantly contributed to the amount and the kinds of crimes they committed.

During World War II, as early as late 1941, each month 500 Canadians were arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct in Britain. Disorderly conduct is not an atrocity, but it is an example of the violent behavior drinking soldiers engage in. Indeed, not all forces abuse alcohol. In India there were fewer incidents of drunken riots during ethnic unrest in the last century, though Hindu rioters occasionally had alcohol.

The conflict for commanders is that there is a need for soldiers to be sober and able to carry out military duties. Yet, depending on a soldier’s assignments, alcohol can temporarily prevent emotional break-down, and it relieves the pressures and stresses of fighting in a war. Still, alcohol abuse has significantly contributed to atrocities and civilian torture and death throughout history, and the link between alcohol and violence has been established in different fields of study. We also continue to see soldiers return home to the United States after active duty with life-altering drug and alcohol addictions.

Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen

See Also: Drug use; Drunkenness; Intoxication.


Bushman, Brad J. and Cooper, Harris M., “Effects of Alcohol on Human Aggression: An Integrative Research Review,” Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 107:3, 341-354, 1990.

Gertjejanssen, Wendy Jo. Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front During World War II. PhD diss., University of Minnesota, 2004.

Mann, Michael. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Stiglmayer, Alexandra, ed. Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Wolfgang, Marvin E. Patterns in Criminal Homicide. New York: Wiley, 1966, c1958.


Submitted to ABC-CLIO encyclopedia Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes: An Encyclopedia, 2013.