Dissertation Project

Explaining Decisiveness in War

What makes a war’s outcome decisive? Although historians and military strategists have long stressed the need to strive for a decisive victory in war and political scientists have identified the unique effects of decisive outcomes in war, there is little agreement on what decisiveness is or how to achieve it during a war. In this dissertation, I propose a new definition of decisiveness as the degree to which all actors at the end of a conflict hold strong, similar beliefs about each side’s long-term relative military power. I argue that more consistent experiences over a longer period of time that directly affect a greater proportion of civilians, the military, and political leaders should make a war’s outcome more decisive and thus less likely to recur. Empirical evidence from a variety of conflicts suggests that the accumulation of direct experiences during a conflict affects both popular opinion among civilians and decision-making among elites in post-war politics.

How Wartime Experiences Affect Beliefs About Military Power: Evidence from the 2008 Russo-Georgian War (Chapter 4 of Dissertation)
11/30/18 OPSC video presentation available here

How do actors learn from wars? Explanations for war that stress the presence of asymmetric information argue that fighting during a war provides information about the relative military power and costs of fighting for each side. But how fighting informs the different actors on each side is less clear. In this chapter, I argue that civilians who have direct experiences with enemy forces during a war should be more likely to negatively assess their own side’s relative military power after the war compared to civilians who only have indirect experiences with the enemy. More direct experiences with the invasion provide both an unmanipulable signal of military weakness as well as a psychological shock that leads to significantly more negative assessments by civilians of their side’s relative military power and costs of fighting compared to less direct wartime experiences. Such assessments may then play an important role in determining the future relations between the belligerent states, including the likelihood of conflict or peace.

The 2008 Russo-Georgian War is a unique opportunity to investigate this expectation about wartime experiences and learning in the context of a recent interstate war. Using nationally representative surveys in the country of Georgia from both before and after the war, I examine differences in expressed beliefs and attitudes relating to relations with Russia among Georgians in the regions invaded by Russia compared to those in the regions not invaded by Russia. Accounting for pre-war preferences and demographics, I find that survey respondents in regions invaded by Russia were significantly more likely to support reducing spending on the Georgian military and abandoning hope of competing militarily with Russia. Respondents in invaded regions were also significantly more likely to support giving up claims over disputed territory with Russia in exchange for obtaining security guarantees against future Russian encroachment. This result is robust to several alternative specifications. A region-by-region examination of the results suggests that direct experiences with political violence may prove particularly informative.

Non-Dissertation Papers in Progress

Casualties, Success Perceptions, and Public Support for Military Operations [with Christopher Liu]
Presented at the 2018 Meeting of the International Studies Association
Status: Revise and Resubmit

Existing studies of casualty sensitivity tend to focus on the relationship between battle deaths and public support for a given war. Yet many military interventions are increasingly conducted outside the context of large-scale wars and instead primarily involve raids, patrols, or other small-scale operations. Do previous findings on the effect of casualties and perceptions of success on public opinion still hold for these types of operations? In this study, we first experimentally and independently manipulate casualties and success perceptions in order to isolate the causal effect of each on approval for a specific hypothetical small-scale military operation. We then investigate why casualties and/or success may impact approval. We find that the perception of success—more so than casualties—affects approval of military operations. Additionally, the effect of success is primarily mediated by beliefs about mission importance while any negative effect of casualties is concentrated among subjects low on vengefulness. We conclude by discussing the implications of these findings in the context of several recent high-profile operations.

The Effect of Political Violence on Political Partisanship: Evidence from Alabama and Texas in the American Civil War
Poster Presentation at the 2015 Peace Science Society Conference
Status: Under Review

What is the effect of political violence on the political beliefs and behavior of those who are affected by such violence? Recent studies of the effects of violence suggest a variety of positive effects on group cohesion and engagement, but few studies have focused specifically on partisan political beliefs and behavior. In this paper, I argue that deadly personalistic violence can have a powerful effect on post-war political beliefs by hardening certain cleavages among individuals in areas that experienced such violence. Using evidence from the American Civil War, I exploit the presence of a “pretest” in the various secession votes before the Civil War began to account for pre-war political sentiment along the secessionist cleavages. Using genetic matching, I generate balanced matched groups of counties accounting for the pre-test and several controls and examine the effect of deadly violence on later political results. These quantitative results suggest that violence had a modest but longstanding impact on partisan vote share in presidential elections that emerges about two decades after Reconstruction and lasts until the middle of the twentieth century. Qualitative evidence from a set of matched comparison counties supports the results and emphasizes the strength that personalistic violence can have on memory and political behavior.