Norms, Command, and the ‘Combatant’s Trilemma’: Civilians and the Law of War in Modern Conflict
My book manuscript investigates the sources of variation in military conduct toward civilians during war. In this research, I examine the puzzle of why some military forces engage in systematic atrocities against civilians while others, facing similar strategic and political constraints, engage in restraint. In the chaotic environment of conflict, where there is often little distinction between combatants and civilians, we should expect civilian victimization to be widespread. Instead, history reveals significant variation in military conduct toward civilians. What causes such variation?
Countering rationalist literature that emphasizes strategic drivers of armed group behavior, I examine the effect of norms, training, and culture in shaping military conduct. I argue that norms underlying a military’s organizational culture can determine how such a group fights. Specifically, I show how armed groups with cultures founded in norms of civilian immunity socialize combatants to such organizational norms, shifting combatant preferences and military conduct toward restraint at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Such norms lead combatants throughout the military organization to opt for strategies and tactics of restraint toward civilians during war.
To test this theory, I utilize a multi-method research design that examines the effects of military culture at the individual, unit, and state level. In this research, I conduct surveys and interviews with over 1,000 U.S. Army officers and cadets, analyze a quasi-experiment using an original dataset of war crimes prosecution data from Iraq and Afghanistan, and examine comparative case studies of conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq, and Uganda. Additionally, for this research I have conducted field research in Uganda, interviewing Ugandan military officers and human rights experts.
Based on this research, I find that military cultures founded in norms of civilian immunity and the law of war can produce military restraint toward civilians in conflict, countering strategic, identity, and regime-type influences that otherwise lead to civilian victimization. Such findings provide unique policy insights by which governments and international organizations may be able to improve military institutions and training, increasing respect for human rights and, ultimately, limiting violence against civilians in war.