How do soldiers come to terms with having taken a life in combat? Research has suggested that when people consider themselves to be “good” but are forced to do something “bad” to others, they adopt negative opinions about their victims to rationalize their actions. But according to a new study, this tendency may not apply to soldiers or at least not to those who have served in the Iraq War. American soldiers who have killed in Iraq do not think more poorly of Iraqis than Iraq War soldiers who have not killed—they do, however, think worse of Americans who speak out against the war.

Wayne Klug, a psychologist at Berkshire Community College, asked 68 Iraq War veterans about their experiences, their thoughts on the war and their opinions about Iraqis and Americans. Compared with soldiers who never saw combat and those who witnessed a death but were not involved, veterans who “were directly involved in an Iraqi fatality” were much more likely to consider the war to be beneficial to both countries. The finding is consistent with prior evidence that people tend to value outcomes that require great effort or distress. But although previous research predicts that these soldiers might disparage their victims, investigators were surprised to find that these veterans instead resented Americans whose opinions about the war suggest that their killings may have been unjustified.

This change could be a result of the unique circumstances surrounding the Iraq War. “A clue lies in the political and public nature of a controversial war fought by a volunteer army,” says Klug, who presented his findings in August at the annual conference of the American Psychological Association in Boston. For example, in the Vietnam War soldiers were drafted, and people who avoided serving were viewed with suspicion, he explains. But today the situation is reversed.

“The veterans are aware of their status as the ‘stepchildren’ of polite American society, a sense that’s enhanced by their abysmal treatment upon returning,” he posits. Because America’s decision to go to war was the sole reason these soldiers killed, they “now depend on that policy to justify their actions,” Klug believes. Those who disagree with the policy, then, become automatic enemies.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Soldiers Who Have Taken a Life Defend Iraq War More".