The Problem of Human Shields in War

For as long as humans have waged war, they have distinguished between combatant persons that are liable to attack, and protected persons that should enjoy immunity from attack. And for just as long, combatants have exploited such protected persons as “human shields.” Leaders from Agathocles of Syracuse to Saddam Hussein have moved protected persons to military targets, and military targets to protected persons with designs as grand as thwarting the outbreak of war itself, and as narrow as deterring attacks within war. Such strategies of “interposition,” as I call them, are pervasive, and pose intractable strategic, political, legal and moral problems that are often at the center of public debate. However, they remain poorly understood. This research program offers the first systematic study of the problem of “human shields” in war, integrating insights from psychology, sociology, interviews with military commanders and lawyers, in-depth archival research, and experiments.


1. Dissertation

One part of this research program–my dissertation project, The Problem of Human Shields in War–probes the deterrent power of interposition, and the effect of interposition on popular judgments about collateral damage. In short, it probes how people weigh lives, and evaluate the weighing of lives weighed. Through in-depth case studies of crises during the Cuban Revolution, the Gulf War, and the Bosnian War, it shows how moral emotions, impression management considerations, and even legal obligations can drive deterrence in armed conflict. With an original survey experiment, it also adduces new evidence about popular attitudes toward collateral damage. It finds that lay observers are as averse to harm to “human shields” deliberately exposed to attack as they are to bystanders who incidentally find themselves in harm’s way.


2. Counting and discounting collateral damage in war

3. “Danger-hostages” under the laws of war