Below is an excerpt from a New York Times article.

Civilian deaths and crimes committed by soldiers figure into every war, not least those fought by the United States in recent decades in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. It has always been difficult to explain why soldiers commit atrocities, or to describe how the orders of commanders, military culture, national propaganda, battlefield frustration and individual malice can come together to produce such horrors.

In Russia, however, such acts are rarely investigated or even acknowledged, let alone punished. That leaves it unclear how much the low-level brutality stems from the intent of those in charge or whether commanders failed to control their troops. Combined with the apparent strategy of bombing civilian targets, many observers conclude that the Russian government — and, perhaps, a part of Russian society — in reality condones violence against civilians.

I'm wondering what "low-level" specifically means in this context. Is it

1)the atrocities are too serious and inhumane, as in if we are to grade the level of crimes on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the light/decent(?) crime, the war crimes happening right now are too "low-level" or 2)the atrocities are committed rather secretly, not officially led by the government or military thus less apparently seen, as in "low"-profile? Or does it mean something else?

I also want to know if, to native English speakers, the interpretation of "low-level" could be different depending on the individual. When one see this sentence, would it be understood as one same meaning by most people, or would it be different to each individual and up to interpretations?

1 Answer 1


I'm fairly confident that most people would interpret your 1-10 scale the other way round, with 10 being the most serious war crimes like deliberately bombing places where many civilians are assembled.

Dictionaries define low-level as 'of low importance' and 'low in intensity or degree'. The passage seems to be referring to the spontaneous behaviour of individual soldiers or small groups in mistreating civilians with whom they come into contact.

  • i was 1 minute too late :(
    – DialFrost
    Apr 18, 2022 at 7:36
  • Thank you. So is "low-level" here in a way half and half of 1) and 2)? - 1) (1-10 the other way around, as you explained) less significant in severity/intensity, since the killings are individually targeted rather than genocide & 2) of low importance, since it's not officially and strategically committed but by "individual soldiers or small groups"
    – dbwlsld
    Apr 18, 2022 at 7:57
  • So here in that context, since it's "low" level meaning "low in intensity/importance", am i right to understand it's implying that individual brutality is lesser of a crime compared with large scale attacks? (every killing is inhumane thus can't be measured in degree, but moral arguments aside I'm asking linguistically.)
    – dbwlsld
    Apr 18, 2022 at 8:09
  • 1
    Obviously I haven't read the whole article, but I would understand 'low-level brutality' as describing general maltreatment of civilians, not necessarily limited to killings, and 'on a smaller scale' than organised military attacks. Apr 18, 2022 at 8:22

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