Norms, Command, and the ‘Combatant’s Trilemma’: Civilians and the Law of War in Modern Conflict
My first 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.
The Impunity Triad: Trumpism, Conservative Media, and the Undermining of the Law of War (with Thomas Gift)
In related project, I examine (with Thomas Gift) democratic erosion under President Trump and the role of “Trumpism” in destabilizing respect for U.S. and international law and institutions within the U.S. military and American society. For decades, the U.S. military has centered its culture in domestic and international legal and ethical norms on the use of force, known also as “norms of restraint.” Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency presented significant challenges to civil-military relations and the U.S. military’s adherence to these norms. These challenges culminated in Trump’s 2019 and 2020 pardons of multiple US servicemembers for war crimes, but they also manifested in efforts to loosen rules on the use of force by the US military — including presidential threats to authorize U.S. military war crimes, efforts to reboot U.S. torture programs, and initiatives to undermine the International Criminal Court and the Geneva Conventions.
In this research, we exploit national survey experiments with U.S. voters and military veterans, an original dataset of U.S. presidential media coverage, and interviews with U.S. combatants to examine 3 main questions: 1) How did Trump implement this “impunity” agenda? 2) Why? and 3) To what effect? We develop the concept of the “Impunity Triad” (IT) to explain how 3 core actors—Trump, right-wing media, and Republican allies in Congress—implemented severe challenges to the military’s adoption of law of war norms. We draw on moral foundations theory to highlight the role of populism, in-group bias, and right-wing media in motivating Republican politicians to reject institutions of accountability—thus shaping the ideological preferences of U.S. conservatives, including the conservative-leaning membership of the U.S. military.
Findings from our research contribute to our understanding of military culture, civil-military relations, and combatant adoption of norms of restraint. We argue that the IT agenda may significantly shift the norms underlying US military culture regarding conduct in war, negatively influencing the attitudes and behavior of U.S. combatants on the battlefield. Ultimately, we suggest that these signals from the IT can weaken the US military’s organizational ethos and its foundations of military justice, which affect how its members view law of war norms and employ force on the battlefield. With the persistent rise of “Trumpism” in American politics, we contend that American society and the U.S. military will continue to face these challenges in the years and decades to come.