The Politics of Combat: the Political and Strategic Impact of Tactical-Level Subcultures, 1939-1995

Project: Dissertation

Research areas and keywords

UKÄ subject classification

  • Political Science


  • implementation, public administration, civil-military relations, strategic, tactical, military, combat, war, security, strategic corporal, submarine, u-boat, Ubootwaffe, Silent Service, Tiger tank, Bosnia war, Dutchbat, Nordbat, peacekeeping, peace enforcement


This dissertation argues that lower-level military leaders, commanding between a dozen and a few hundred troops, can have a major political and strategic impact. Furthermore, it is argued that the decisions made by these lower-level military leaders are shaped by subcultures, in particular under conditions of stress and uncertainty. The concept of tactical-level subcultures is defined, drawing on existing research from public administration, military psychology, tactical decision-making and management studies, and used as a conceptual framework for the dissertation. Using the conceptual framework, the theory is then presented, stating that the degree of convergence or divergence between these subcultures and the political and strategic policy objectives can be used to predict the likelihood of compliant output, defined as decisions that are in line with the policy objectives, and thus more likely to produce the desired outcome. Eight case studies are employed to illustrate the conceptual framework and theory. The case studies are arranged in four pairs, which are first compared to each other. In the summary of the dissertation, the case pairs are then evaluated as a whole. In the first case pair, German and American submarine warfare is compared by studying the first year of combat operations of each organization, in 1939-1940 and 1941-1942, respectively. In the second case pair, two Israeli armored units fighting on the Golan Heights in 1973 are compared to German independent tank units on the Eastern Front in World War II in 1942-1945. In the third case pair, atrocities committed by the American Charlie Company in Song My in 1968 is compared to the development of the German concentration camp guards (Totenkopfverbände) in 1933-1942. In the fourth and final case pair, the Swedish-Danish-Norwegian peacekeeping battalion Nordbat 2 in Bosnia in 1993-1995 is compared to the Dutch battalion operating in the same country during the same time period. The case studies show that tactical-level subcultures can have a significant impact on the outcomes of war, the conduct of diplomacy, the propensity to commit atrocities and the effectiveness of military units in demanding peacekeeping operations. The dissertation also finds that lower-level military leaders should be regarded as a type of street-level bureaucrats, and that the impact they can have on major political and strategic outcomes has largely been overlooked within political science.

Layman's description

This dissertation compares lower-level military leaders in different historical contexts, from 1939 to 1995, and argues that their decisions have had political and strategic consequences. The case studies include the German submarine arm in 1939-1940, the American submarine arm in 1941-1942, the Israeli 7th and 188th armored brigades on the Golan Heights in 1973, the German independent Tiger tank battalions 1942-1945, the role of the American unit Charlie Company in the Song My massacre of 1968, the German Totenkopf concentration camp guard organization 1933-1942, the Swedish-Danish-Norwegian peacekeeping unit Nordbat 2 in Bosnia in 1993-1995 and finally, the Dutch unit Dutchbat in Srebrenica in 1993-1995. The author argues that subcultures at the lower levels of military organization (i.e. the platoon-, company-,battalion- and ship-level) influences the decisions of lower-level military leaders, and thus can have a political and strategic impact. Finally, the author concludes that military units which have subcultures that are compatible with the political and strategic goals are more likely to be effective, while military units that have subcultures that are incompatible are more likely to make decision that create political and strategic problems.
StatusNot started