Norms, Command, and the ‘Combatant’s Trilemma’: Examining Law of War Compliance in Modern Conflict
In June 2005, a small team of U.S. Navy SEALs operating in Afghanistan was inadvertently discovered by local civilians, compromising their safety. Remarkably, the SEALs freed the civilians, likely leading to a Taliban attack that killed most team members hours later. The team’s restraint—and military restraint in general—often challenges our understanding of civilian victimization: Why did the members of that isolated team risk themselves to follow U.S. and international legal rules on “norms of restraint”?
My book examines this fundamental puzzle of modern conflict: Given the brutality of warfare, the blurring of “civilian” and “combatant” categories, armed groups’ frequent reliance on civilians, and the minimal enforcement of rules and the law of war on the battlefield, why do armed groups sometimes engage in restraint? And, importantly, can — and how — do norms influence military conduct on the battlefield?
Advancing current literature on civilian victimization, I argue that the violence and restraint executed by these actors can be understood through the interaction of two important factors: combatant norms and organizational command dynamics. Norms influence combatants and commanders as they balance civilian protection against two other principal values, military advantage and force protection—an often unresolvable balance I label the “combatant’s trilemma.” Additionally, the degree of control exerted by individual commanders over subordinates influences combatants’ use of force—a relationship I label “command control.” Together, these factors produce a “norm-command” framework for understanding violence and restraint. I show how these normative and organizational factors shape military conduct at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.
To test this framework, I use a multi-method research design examining the U.S. Army in its conflicts in Iraq (2003-2010) and Afghanistan (2001-2021), drawing on combatant behavioral surveys and survey experiments, interviews, quantitative analysis of an original dataset of U.S. Army war crimes prosecutions, and qualitative case studies. As this research shows, rules, laws, and policies alone are not enough to generate restraint on the battlefield: the protection of civilians requires a normative basis—one rooted within military command dynamics—to shape military conduct in war.