Skip to main content

About this book

War crimes have devastating effects on victims and perpetrators and endanger broader political and military goals. The protection of civilians, one of the most fundamental norms in the laws of war, appears to have weakened despite almost universal international agreement. Using insights from organizational theory, this book seeks to understand the process between military socialization and unit participation in war crimes. How do militaries train their soldiers in the laws of war? How do they enforce compliance with these laws? Drawing on evidence from the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, and the Canadian peacekeeping mission in Somalia, the author discovers that military efforts to train soldiers about the laws of war are poor and leadership often sent mixed signals about the importance of compliance. However, units that developed subcultures that embraced these laws and had strong leadership were more likely to comply than those with weak discipline or countercultural norms.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Introduction

War is always costly, both in economic terms and in human lives. However, throughout history, leaders have sought to create norms, and eventually international treaties, to reduce its destructive impacts. Although war is never fair, states have agreed to prohibit tactics that lead to undue suffering, including the deliberate targeting of civilians. Unfortunately, these prohibitions have been violated repeatedly. Leaders often try to cover up these violations or blame “bad apples,” individual soldiers at the bottom of the chain of command. Rarely do leaders ever ask the question of why these soldiers committed these acts of violence or what they could have done to prevent them. Using organizational theory, this chapter introduces military socialization and subculture influence as possible explanations for unit participation in war crimes. Better understanding of why these crimes happen may aid policymakers in crafting plans to prevent them.
Christi Siver

Chapter 2. Exploring and Explaining Participation in War Crimes

This chapter begins by noting the legal recognition of the concept of war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly prohibiting targeted attacks against civilians. It then examines efforts to explain compliance with war crimes norms at the state and individual levels. However, these broader theories fail to recognize the empirical variation present within most cases: some units commit war crimes while others do not. Instead, the author argues that organizational level explanations may provide more nuanced tools to understand this variation. Examining socialization efforts, including training programs and enforcement, evaluates the development of a military’s efforts to comply with these laws of war. Investigating the evolution of unit subcultures and the role of unit leadership provides insight on how the unit internalizes the broader organization’s efforts. This mid-level approach offers greater opportunity to understand differences between units and their compliance with civilian protection norms.
Christi Siver

Chapter 3. The Korean War and the Challenge of Civilian Refugees

When North Korean forces invaded South Korea in 1950, the United States quickly deployed forces to aid its ally. These forces immediately faced aggressive North Korean soldiers and fearful civilian refugees. While some U.S. forces balanced these challenges and offered protection for civilians, others targeted and killed civilians; one of the worst incidents was at No Gun Ri. Why did units facing similarly daunting situations react so differently? Many observers blamed the savagery of the North Koreans, the poor readiness of U.S. troops, and weak morale. However, none of these factors could explain why some units protected Korean civilians while others targeted them. After examining training records, efforts to enforce international law, and the subcultures of units deployed, the author finds that units that targeted civilians were not well socialized and lacked unit leaders that could ensure their compliance with the laws of war.
Christi Siver

Chapter 4. Enemies or Friendlies? British Military Behavior Toward Civilians During the Malayan Emergency

After World War II, the British re-entered Malaya to find that anti-Japanese forces they previously supported had now begun an insurgency against colonial interests. While the British had extensive experience with jungle warfare, the first British units in Malaya struggled to deal with insurgent attacks. For some units, frustration with insurgent tactics boiled over into reprisals against civilians. The massacre of twenty-five civilians at Batang Kali is the most extreme example of this violence. However, many units took pity on the civilians caught in the crossfire and endured tremendous risks to protect them. Based on extensive archival research, the author finds that, while all units received relatively little training in the laws of war, some units had subcultures that valued tactical innovation and pride in service. Leaders of these units helped to steer uncertain soldiers toward the ideals of minimal force and civilian protection.
Christi Siver

Chapter 5. The Dark Side of Peacekeeping: The Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia

In 1993, the Canadian peacekeeping operation in Somalia came under international scrutiny when a young Somali, Shidane Arone, was beaten to death. His killing cast a dark shadow over a Canadian mission that aimed to provide humanitarian assistance and ensure Canada’s international reputation as a promoter of human rights. Subsequent investigations revealed that 2 Commando, the unit that killed Arone, had been involved in several violent incidents with civilians. However, other Canadian units in similarly hostile conditions had offered comfort and assistance to civilians. After examining training records, enforcement of civilian protection norms, and unit subculture, the author finds that 2 Commando had developed a pernicious subculture that led them to quickly escalate situations to violence and endanger civilians. Although responsibility for Arone’s death was properly attributed to the members of the unit, failures in socialization, particularly in ignoring 2 Commando’s countercultural subculture, occurred throughout the chain of command.
Christi Siver

Chapter 6. Conclusion

Fulfilling international treaty obligations in the midst of conflict, such those demanded in the Geneva Conventions, are difficult under the best of circumstances. Although states agreed, after the horrors of World War II, to formally commit themselves to reduce some of the most extreme brutality in war, those commitments can seem less important in the heat of battle. Organizational theory provides an especially fruitful theoretical lens through which to understand why some military units commit war crimes but others do not. Based on the author’s findings regarding the ability of socialization and subculture to explain unit commission of war crimes in the case studies of Korea, Malaya, and Somalia, some initial policy suggestions that could increase compliance with the laws of war are discussed. Challenges remain, and in that light, the chapter concludes with a discussion of the limitations of this project and outlines additional research needed and questions that remain.
Christi Siver


Additional information

Premium Partner

image credits