Menu Adam R Brown

Notes navigation: Browse by titleBrowse by authorSubject index

Legro: Military culture and inadvertent escalation in World War II

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Legro. 1994. Military culture and inadvertent escalation in World War II. International Security 18 (Spring): 108-42.

Key puzzle: Why would states escalate into a bloody conflict even if neither wants to? This is especially relevant to wondering what might prompt some future use of "bad" weapons like nukes and chemical/biological weapons.

The military's organizational culture plays a key role in explaining why, for example, WWII escalated to unrestricted submarine warfare and bombing of cities.

If the military culture faces an even that agrees with the type of war it views as the kind it wants to fight, it will seize on accidents and propaganda opportunities to escalate. If not, it will try to avoid conflict (pg 110). The beliefs and norms embraced by the military are the key, more so than just military organizational structures. Basically, here's the argument: accidents happen, some of which are true accidents and some of which occur as a lapse in judgment due to a commander's military culture. A military's culture (norms and beliefs) determine what kinds of accidents it will seize as an excuse for escalation, and what kinds of accidents it will treat as accidents (even in the face of evidence that it wasn't entirely accidental).

He also reviews other approaches to explaining unintended escalation

The organizational culture approach: the pattern of beliefs and norms about how battle should be conducted determines which accidents will be perceived as impermisible violations of the rules of war by the enemy. These "violations" will then be met with escalation.

Some cases: when Nazi planes missed a target near London and dropped a few bombs on London, Churchill immediately broke the rule against bombing capitals by sending massiive bombing raids to Berlin. But Hitler had ignored similar mistakes by the British, because the Luftwaffe was less keen on strategic bombing.

Also: when a Nazi sub broke a rule against shooting trade vessels, the UK ignored it because its culture viewed submarines as best used for intelligence and anti-sub warfare, and it didn't want to get bogged down in war against commerce.

Also: both sides ignored events that could have been used as an excuse to start chemical warfare, but chemical warfare ran counter to both RAF bombing preferences and Nazi land tactics, so both sides ignored such events.

Research on similar subjects


Legro, Jeffrey (author)Comparative PoliticsWarCulture

Wikisum home: Index of all summaries by title, by author, or by subject.