Norms, Command, and the ‘Combatant’s Trilemma’: Civilians and the Law of War in Modern Conflict
In June 2005, a small team of U.S. Navy SEALs operating in Afghanistan was inadvertently discovered by local Afghan civilians, an encounter that put the team in great danger. Despite this threat, the SEALs freed the civilians—a decision that likely led to a Taliban attack that killed most SEAL team members hours later. The team’s restraint—echoing similar examples in recent conflicts—challenges our understanding of civilian victimization. On that isolated battlefield, why did these combatants put themselves at risk to abide by the U.S. military’s rules and “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?
Existing theories generally focus on the effects of state- and organizational-level policies, incentives, and ideational factors in explaining civilian victimization. Advancing this literature, I examine the key analytical gap of how these factors are implemented by organizational actors—combatants and commanders—on the battlefield. 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 “combatants’ 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 theorize that this violence is dependent on the interaction between three critical factors: 1) the combatant’s “trilemma” normative balance; 2) the commander’s “trilemma” normative balance; and 3) the command control relationship between combatants and commanders. 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 implement “norms of restraint” in war.