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From Milgram’s experiments to the battlefield: towards an understanding of combatant behaviour

31-03-2004 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 853, by Jean-Jacques Frésard


Jean-Jacques Frésard
has carried out many assignments for the ICRC as a delegate and head of delegation. With Daniel Muñoz-Rojas, he was in charge of this research project, part of which was carried out in collaboration with the Faculté de Psychologie et des Sciences de l'Education of the University of Geneva. A summary of the research, in English and French, was published in the “Reports and documents” section of this Review. The present article is taken from a longer work entitled “The roots of behaviour in war: a survey of the literature,” the full version of which will be published later. This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the ICRC. 

At the ICRC there has been ongoing discussion about the behaviour of combatants in wartime, in particular about the factors involved in compliance or lack of compliance with the basic rules of the law of armed conflict. Does the inherent violence of war necessarily lead to extremes? Does war by definition encourage crime? Does it inevitably involve a succession of atrocities?

  As Eric David rightly pointed out in the conclusion of his Principes de droit des conflits armés, “upholding the law involves difficulties that are ultimately far more psychological and sociological than legal.” Starting from this observation, the ICRC carried out a study with the aim of determining whether its strategies for promoting better compliance with international humanitarian law among warring parties are effective and, if necessary, of suggesting alternatives. This article highlights two factors that are central to combatant behaviour: obedience to authority and moral disengagement.  

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