The Training and Socialization of Combatants to IHL Norms: A Brief Review

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Can state and nonstate armed forces and humanitarian organizations socialize combatants to “norms of restraint”—in essence, train soldiers to adopt norms of international humanitarian law (IHL) on the battlefield? And, importantly, how can the effectiveness of this socialization be evaluated?

The importance of effective training for generating compliance with IHL has long been recognized by IHL proponents, but until recently academic and policy studies have generally underemphasized empirically-based examinations of the efficacy of IHL training methods. A paucity of data and methodologically-oriented analyses has thus inhibited the ability of militaries and organizations that promote IHL to institute robust and effective training processes. While scholars are now finding that training can help transmit IHL norms to combatants, evaluating the efficacy of such training continues to present hurdles for proponents of IHL in academic, military, and humanitarian policy communities.

This picture is slowly beginning to change, however: spurred to a large degree by the counterinsurgency conflicts of the last two decades, IHL proponents have begun identifying practices and mechanisms most effective for training combatants in law of war principles. As I review below, scholars have in recent years begun to examine in greater detail the impact of IHL training on the conduct of armed organizations. The global community’s ability to train combatants in IHL and limit violations can thus be significantly enhanced through rigorous and empirically-oriented analyses of IHL training and conduct in war.  

IHL and Research on Military Conduct

Despite being stated as a core IHL obligation, the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols provide surprisingly little guidance for instruction of IHL principles. As reviewed in depth by Elizabeth Stubbins Bates, legal analyses have, since the late twentieth century, evolved from the historical assumption that dissemination of IHL principles would largely generate IHL compliance. In progressing from this assumption, these studies—based largely on studies of individual cases or anecdotal experience—argued compellingly that IHL compliance requires effective training based in realistic teaching, qualified instructors, and the internalization of an “ethos” of IHL principles.

Despite these conclusions, however, early social science research on violence against civilians provided little evidence regarding the claims of this scholarship. In the years following the new millennium, political science literature was largely influenced by rationalist theories that viewed armed groups as unitary actors motivated primarily by instrumentalist battlefield incentives. Social psychology research, directing its lens downward toward small units and individual combatants, concurrently attributed IHL violations to “moral disengagement” on the part of combatants—a perspective adopted by the 2004 Roots of Behaviour in War study from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). While starting from different theoretical and methodological frameworks, both literatures deemphasized the influence of norms and ideology as constraints on armed organizations, instead highlighting IHL as “law”—a mechanism for mandating and enforcing combatant compliance.

However, these perspectives—and their implications for IHL training—have in recent years prompted some reevaluation. Political scientists have increasingly recognized the role of social and organizational influences in motivating combatant behavior outside of strictly rationalist models. Constructivist international relations scholars have highlighted the role of norms and military culture in curbing state military violence, while comparativist scholars investigated the role of organizational factors in limiting violence by nonstate actors through such mechanisms as ideology, leadership emphasis, and political education.

Political science research has increasingly highlighted these influences in examining socialization, the transmission of norms, ideas, and beliefs to combatants as members of armed organizations. Conceptually distinct from informational “training,” socialization involves the shifting of target actors’ internal attitudes and beliefs toward alignment with actors’ broader communities or organizations. The socialization of combatants to the norms of restraint embodied within IHL thus entails the shaping of combatant beliefs through “formal” official norm socialization processes, such as IHL training and norm enforcement structures, as well as “informal” (peer-based) socialization processes. Studies from the U.S. and Ugandan  militaries have drawn attention to the vital role of this “horizontal” socialization of norms in military units. As recent investigations into war crimes by the U.S. and Australian militaries have revealed, informal unit norms can subvert official military norms promoting IHL, even when endorsed by the military’s highest command leadership.

This evolution in understanding of social influences and armed group behavior has, importantly, also been reflected in the ICRC’s own shift in policy focus over the past few decades. After initially emphasizing dissemination of IHL principles, the ICRC later shifted to a model focused on the integration of IHL within armed groups’ organizational processes, a shift culminating more recently in the organization’s new emphasis on the socialization of combatants to IHL principles and norms of restraint more generally. Thus, consensus continues to grow in both academic and policy communities on the vital nature of combatant socialization to IHL norms.

New Research on Socialization and Norms of Restraint

In spite of this growing consensus, substantial methodological difficulties continue to inhibit attempts to evaluate empirically socialization, training, and other organizational influences in armed groups. Administrative and logistical factors can limit access to combatants (particularly in state armed forces), and ethical and legal considerations generally preclude the use of randomized experiments—the “gold standard” for studying causality in social phenomena.

Despite these challenges, recent literature has attempted to build upon existing knowledge through further empirical studies of the effects of socialization. Using in-depth combatant surveys, U.S. military researchers found that an Iraq War battlefield ethics training program produced marked decreases in ethical violations by U.S. servicemembers in combat. Similarly, a quasi-experimental study found that a one week Swiss Army training program resulted in increased moral decision-making, while another recent qualitative study with the Dutch military examined the impact of an ethics “train-the-trainer” course.

New survey research by this author finds that intensive training increased U.S. military cadets’ adoption of norms of restraint, but that these norms are balanced against the competing values of military advantage and “force protection” in an often-unresolvable “combatant’s trilemma.” Related research also suggests that norm adoption may also be mediated by combatants’ internal “moral foundations” and ideological alignment.

Notably, the ICRC’s 2018 Roots of Restraint in War (RoR) study, drawing on original academic research (including by this author), finds that socialization based on organizational and community norms and values can significantly influence combatants’ attitudes and behavior. Subsequent academic work from the RoR project, including case studies from Mali and South Sudan, reveals the impact of religious and cultural norms (as well as humanitarian engagement with armed actors and civilians) in shaping violence. Studies also reveal a “paradox of rank” in norm socialization, in which the enlisted small unit leaders most influential for junior soldiers may themselves be the most resistant to adopting norms of restraint. Indeed, recognizing the value of this mode of inquiry, the ICRC has established a new center for operational research, and other humanitarian organizations are devoting increased attention toward evaluating training and other initiatives to promote compliance with IHL norms.

Open Questions and the Future of IHL Research

While this brief analysis only scratches the surface of this burgeoning literature, more work in this field is clearly necessary. Given the highly complex ethical (and technological) context of modern warfare, scholars now recognize the need for IHL training that builds upon the norms, values, and “deeper registers of meaning” that motivate armed actors.

As a result, there are increasing calls for systematic research into the efficacy of IHL training and socialization and training methods—particularly by state armed forces —and significant questions remain in our understanding of these processes. What methods of socialization—such as lectures, discussions, or combat exercises—are most effective in internalizing IHL principles? What actors (military or otherwise) are most effective in transmitting IHL norms to combatants? What normative content is most conducive for adoption by combatants—and how does technology interact with this norm transmission process? To what degree should socialization processes emphasize enforcement-oriented (“logic of consequences”) versus normative (“logic of appropriateness”) messages—and under what conditions?

The answers to these and other questions can help militaries and humanitarian organizations develop more efficient, effective, and evidence-based processes for socializing combatants and generating respect for the principles of IHL.

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