Cornell University Press Authors' blogs

Regular Soldiers, Irregular War

Return to Home

In recent weeks, federal Homeland Security forces deployed to Portland, charged with guarding its federal courthouse. Agents in combat fatigues barricaded the area, clashing with protesters and bringing about a steep rise in resistance and aggression. To some, the images evoked scenes from the counterinsurgency campaigns waged by many modern militaries in the past few decades, from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in which troops clashed with local populations, escalating conflict and leading to violent repression.

Like the narratives emerging from Portland, accounts of military forces in irregular conflict tend to focus on the policies of leaders and the political machinations that led to the deployment of forces, depicting the troops as either obedient implementers of policy, or as gangs seeking to inflict harm. The perspectives of combatants, and the processes through which they came to carry out the violence, are hidden from view. This is not unusual: the closed world of combat is difficult to access, especially in times of conflict. Soldiers themselves are acutely aware of this silence, frequently commenting on the inability of outsiders to understand their experiences.

Soldiers themselves are acutely aware of this silence, frequently commenting on the inability of outsiders to understand their experiences.

Yet homogeneous depictions of combatants can obscure the often considerable differences among them when it comes to participation in violence. Sometimes, soldiers follow violent orders to the letter, while other times they commit violence far beyond their orders, and still other times, they shirk or resist violence. My book, Regular Soldiers, Irregular War: Violence and Restraint in the Second Intifada, examines these differences, through a case study of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) in the Second Intifada, a period when Israeli combat soldiers spent the bulk of their service engaged in repressing the Palestinian insurgency. Departing from scholarly perspectives that focus on differences between armed groups rather than within them, as well as from those that examine the social psychology of violence in ordinary people, the book explores the implications of working in an organization that, by definition, exercises a monopoly on violence.

Departing from scholarly perspectives that focus on differences between armed groups rather than within them, as well as from those that examine the social psychology of violence in ordinary people, the book explores the implications of working in an organization that, by definition, exercises a monopoly on violence.

Drawing on dozens of in-depth interviews, survey responses, and memoirs of former combatants, supplemented by a multitude of other sources and perspectives, the book explores the organizational dynamics of small combat units and how they shape the use of force by soldiers on the ground. Though the military is often associated in the popular imagination with strict discipline and punishment, the book finds that the most powerful organizational mechanisms motivating soldier behavior are social, and include such tools as socialization, persuasion, charismatic leadership, and the creation of a shared identity and culture.

Though the military is often associated in the popular imagination with strict discipline and punishment, the book finds that the most powerful organizational mechanisms motivating soldier behavior are social, and include such tools as socialization, persuasion, charismatic leadership, and the creation of a shared identity and culture.

These mechanisms begin in the training period, when extensive efforts are invested in aligning the interests and beliefs of soldiers with those of the military, valorizing the use of force for military ends. Yet in deployment, the lessons of training can gradually fade, and soldiers become less likely to conform to the will of their superiors, in some cases producing more violence than demanded of them or using it for their own purposes, and in other cases shirking or evading violence. When that happens, it is not the policies devised by political and military elites that bring soldiers back in line, but rather junior commanders on the ground, who are tasked with re-instilling military preferences among soldiers, with varying degrees of success.

While the strategies that policymakers devise to repress insurgency and resistance matter, they tell only part of the story. A fuller understanding of the processes through which violence is unleashed and curbed emerges from incorporating the perspectives of those who implement them. Though Regular Soldiers, Irregular War draws its data mostly from the Occupied Palestine Territories during the Second Intifada, much of its analysis and lessons can be  applied in other situations where armed troops attempt to control civilian populations.

*Featured photo by Tito Texidor III on Unsplash.


Devorah S. Manekin is Assistant Professor in the International Relations Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. You can follow her on Twitter @DevorahManekin.

Book Finder