Research

My main research examines trade-off behavior in war. In particular, I study how people weigh lives and evaluate lives weighed in war.

My current research examines these questions through the problem of human shields in war. The research finds evidence for a kind of proximity bias. Closing the causal distance between attacking targets and harming civilians can amplify moral aversions to attack as well as apprehensions about third-party blame for collateral damage.

My other research (under review) examines the genesis and transmission of miracle reports in jihad. Another (in preparation) concerns the replacement of ministries of war with ministries of defense.

My research is interdisciplinary and methodologically pluralistic. I yield theoretical insight from diverse fields, including political science, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and sociology. I also combine qualitative and quantitative methods, including archival research, interviews, and experiments.

Papers

Human Shields: The Anatomy of a Debate (under review)

The Problem of Human Shields Before the Persian Gulf War: A View from the Archives (under review)

“Operacion Antiaerea” during the Cuban Revolution, 1958 (under revision)

Hostages, human shields, and the threat of liability (in preparation)

“I am sorry we had an accident:” US Condolence Payments in Afghanistan (in preparation)

This paper documents condolence payments, or cash dispensed as “gifts of sympathy” to victims of collateral damage, by US forces in Afghanistan. It describes variation in sums dispensed by harm, victim, region and command, and evaluates prescriptions to enhance consistency, equity and transparency.

Miracles in the Folklore of Jihad (under review)

Reports of miracle are ubiquitous in jihad. We know that such reports move and inspire, and are widely shared and reshared across social networks. We also know that they have independently promoted and fundraising in some cases. However, we know little about their genesis. That in part reflects a commonplace emphasis on their propaganda qualities, and perhaps an impression that classifying them as propaganda suffices as understanding them. But that is hardly the case. They are sometimes propaganda, to be sure. However, they are rarely only that. They are also rumor and legend—part of what might be called the folklore of jihad. This paper examines this folkloric aspect of miracle testimony, drawing on a repository of hundreds of reports culled from books, magazines, newsletters, speeches, lectures and video and audio recordings spanning decades, as well as interviews. I track official and semiofficial reports back to narratives, many circulating by word of mouth, on and off the battlefield, often in variations. Then I document the recurrence of reports across various times and places localized to definite people and locations. In so doing, I throw light on an understudied undercurrent of talk about ecstatic sights, smells and sounds, as well as a living “tradition” about God’s activities on earth.

The Decline of Ministries of War (in preparation)

Dissertation

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.” They 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.

My dissertation explores two sets of questions about these strategies and tactics of “interposition,” as I call them, at the intersection of international relations, law, and ethics.

First: Whence the power of “human shields?” When and how can belligerents, somewhat paradoxically, find safety in exposure with unarmed persons? Under what conditions can noncombatants exposed at flanks, for instance, deny superiorly positioned ambushers, and captives tied to warehouses deny entire fleets of aircraft?

Second: How do we evaluate harm to people deliberately placed in harm’s way? And to what extent are our judgments consistent with prevailing prescriptive models from international law and ethics?

I argue that interposition leverages a peculiar kind of threat; and I attribute the force of this threat to its peculiarities, integrating theory from psychology, anthropology, sociology and evidence from detailed case studies, interviews with military commanders, lawyers and soldiers, and accounts from tens of conflicts across the centuries culled from chronicles, archives, original and memoirs. In a word, the threat is of killing, of directly and foreseeably harming others, of being identified with killing, of being held liable for killing, of authorizing outrage, massacre and scandal. The threat is distinct because it leverages not a hesitancy to incur damage, but to inflict damage. And it is under some conditions sufficient to thwart war and attacks in war.

Moreover, I present suggestive experimental evidence demonstrating some degree of conformity between lay intuitions and prevailing international legal and ethical prescriptions on proportionality in war. Lay respondents to a survey-embedded conjoint experiment balanced military value and collateral damage in ways prescribed by mainstream prescriptive models from international law and ethics. The results evince a lay or “intuitive” theory of proportionality whereby higher value targets are favored over lower, targets with fewer civilians nearby are favored over greater, involuntary shields are weighed as bystanders, and voluntary shields are discounted.

In sum, the dissertation illuminates prevalent but poorly understood patterns of conflict behavior, and sheds light on understudied aspects of moral and legal judgment about harm in war.