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Political Science


On July 25, 1950, an American infantry unit killed a large number of refugees near the South Korean village of No Gun Ri. On December 12, 1948, a British patrol killed twenty-five civilians near the Malayan village of Batang Kali. On March 16, 1993, members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment beat a Somali teenager to death. While each of these events is horrific, they also represent only one side of the story; many units in these conflicts, facing similar threats, did not kill civilians. This variation raises a critical question: why do some units participate in war crimes while others do not? To answer this question, I tested three explanations: socialization in the laws of war, civilian influence, and unit subcultures. First, I examined the military's training and enforcement of the laws of war to test whether socialization could explain this variation. Second, I analyzed the influence of civilian leaders. If they exaggerate the importance of a conflict or dehumanize the enemy, units may be more likely to participate in war crimes. Third, I examined the role of unit subcultures. Units may develop beliefs that challenge organizational norms and encourage participation in war crimes. I tested these arguments in case studies of the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, and the Canadian peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Each conflict provides variation in outcomes: some military units complied with the laws of war and others did not. Based on extensive archival research, I reached three conclusions. First, while the American, British and Canadian militaries as institutions inadequately trained soldiers in the laws of war, junior leaders could compensate and insure compliance with international law. Second, I found that civilian signaling had little effect. In these cases, soldiers did not trust the statements of civilian leaders. Third, my research revealed that countercultural subcultures may increase the likelihood that units will participate in war crimes. These countercultural subcultures seem to have the greatest effect when junior leaders support them or when junior leaders cannot control the unit. In this case, junior leaders efforts to impose control fuel the in-group-out-group dynamic that strengthens the subculture.


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