Until the Bitter End? The Diffusion of Surrender Across Battles

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Authors Todd C. Lehmann, Yuri M. Zhukov
Paper Category
Paper Abstract Why do armies sometimes surrender to the enemy and sometimes fight to the bitter end? Existing research has highlighted the importance of battlefield resolve for the onset, conduct, and outcome of war, but has left these life-and-death decisions mostly unexplained. We know little about why battle-level surrender occurs, and why it stops. In this paper, we argue that surrender emerges from a collective-action problem: success in battle requires that soldiers choose to fight as a unit rather than flee, but individual decisions to fight depend on whether soldiers expect their comrades to do the same. Surrender becomes contagious across battles because soldiers take cues from what other soldiers did when they were in a similar position. Where no recent precedent exists, mass surrender is unlikely. We find empirical support for this claim using a new data set of conventional battles in all interstate wars from 1939 to 2011. These findings advance our understanding of battlefield resolve, with broader implications for the design of political-military institutions and decisions to initiate, continue, and terminate war. Across a sequence of battles, surrender and desertion can cascade through an army, undermining unit resolve and hastening a military’s disintegration.1 During the Battle of Sailor’s Creek in the US Civil War, eight Confederate generals and 7,700 troops surrendered to the Union army, following a string of similar events in the Appomattox Campaign. Analogous episodes occurred during the Italian campaign of World War II, Israel’s conquest of the Sinai Peninsula in 1967, and recently the fall of Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul to the Islamic State in Iraq. Decisions to raise the white flag of surrender have consequences far beyond the battlefield. Besides the obvious—loss of territory and shifts in the local balance of power—surrender reduces the costs of war for the opponent, making conquest easier and military action more attractive. It is difficult to signal resolve, deter aggression, or compel the opponent to stop fighting if one’s own troops will not fight. Surrender is also individually costly—many political authorities consider it high treason, and establish political-military institutions to prevent it. Given the gravity We are grateful to Mark Dovich, Daniella Raz, and Kate Ruehrdanz for research assistance, and to Scott Gates, Brian Greenhill, Jim Morrow, Scott Tyson, Andreas Wimmer, and workshop participants at Princeton University for helpful comments. A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2016 Peace Science Society International annual meeting, South Bend, IN. 1. We define resolve as a unit’s ability to continue fighting as an organized, cohesive force. International Organization, 2018, page 1 of 37 © The IO Foundation, 2018 doi:10.1017/S0020818318000358 h t t p s : / / d o i . o r g / 1 0 . 1 0 1 7 / S 0 0 2 0 8 1 8 3 1 8 0 0 0 3 5 8 D o w n l o a d e d f r o m h t t p s : / / w w w . c a m b r i d g e . o r g / c o r e . I P a d d r e s s : 5 4 . 7 0 . 4 0 . 1 1 , o n 1 5 D e c 2 0 1 8 a t 1 0 : 2 0 : 4 2 , s u b j e c t t o t h e C a m b r i d g e C o r e t e r m s o f u s e , a v a i l a b l e a t h t t p s : / / w w w . c a m b r i d g e . o r g / c o r e / t e r m s .
Date of publication 2019
Code Programming Language R

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