BREAKING THE CHAIN OF COMMAND: Toward a theoretical framework: How and why soldiers refuse to obey illegal orders

Eva Whitehead

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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Soldiers who receive an illegal order find themselves in a dilemma: they must make a choice between refusing to obey their superior or committing a crime. This study takes a multidisciplinary approach to better understand and explain how and why soldiers refuse to obey illegal orders for conscientious reasons. The study aims at contributing to the academic community by proposing a novel theoretical framework that includes examining factors in three interactive dimensions. The macro, meso, and micro dimensions of the theoretical framework bring the conflict, the military, and environmental factors together with the context of the illegal order, the role of the superior and comrades, and how the individual soldier’s own cognitions, self-image and experience influence to what extent the soldier activates moral disengagement mechanisms, summarised as authorisation (of violence), routinisation (of violence) and de-humanisation (of victims) that are commonly reinforced in the macro dimension and perpetuated by surrounding individuals in the meso dimension. The study applies the theoretical framework to two cases, the 1968 massacre perpetrated by U.S. soldiers in My Lai, and the controversial East German regulations (firing order) aimed at halting citizens fleeing to the West during the Cold War. The study distinguishes between direct and indirect disobedience. The conclusion places emphasis on the willingness of military institutions to enable soldiers to disobey illegal orders.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • Veraart, Wouter, Supervisor
  • van Wijk, J, Co-supervisor
Award date9 Feb 2021
Place of Publications.l.
Print ISBNs9789464231236
Publication statusPublished - 9 Feb 2021


  • disobedience, military, nonconformity


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