Breaking the Chain of Command

This PhD research aims at finding out how and why soldiers abstain/refrain from becoming war criminals after they have received orders to commit illegal acts.

Previous research has shown that many war criminals and human rights violators are not sadists, but rather average people. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that the situational context is extremely influential for the transformation of ordinary people into perpetrators of international crimes. In the extraordinary circumstances under which people commit international crimes, many psychological mechanisms have been identified that enable individuals to obey authority irrespective of their moral judgement. In contrast, much less is known about individuals defying authority, epically about military personnel confronted with illegal orders, who are under an obligation to obey.

This NWO-funded research examines soldiers who did not obey illegal orders. It aims at identifying and understanding factors that may account for the behavior of individual soldiers and describes ways they refuse or circumvent such orders. The environment and the nature of the various behaviors of soldiers are looked at in greater detail in two case studies, namely the MyLai massacre in Vietnam (1968) and the shootings at the inner-German border (1961-1989). Biographical information, individuals’ accounts of the situations, interview (transcripts) and a survey among one group are analyzed to gain more insight into the individuals and to understand which mechanisms may have prevented individuals from becoming perpetrators of international crimes.

For more information on the project contact: Eva Whitehead.

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