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Unthinkable and Tragic: The Psychology of Weapons Taboos in War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 January 2013

Thomas M. Dolan*
University of Central Florida, Orlando. E-mail:
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Discussions of weapons taboos have failed to take into account the possibility that prescriptive international and national norms of behavior may come into conflict. Using psychological studies of trade-offs and protected values as a guide, this article argues that when these conflicts exist, the taboos' individual-level constraining effects can be vitiated. An analysis of General George Marshall's proposal to use chemical weapons against the Japanese in 1945 demonstrates that normative conflict can produce a readiness to violate weapons taboos. In these situations, state decisions to violate taboos may depend on the extent to which the perception of normative conflict is shared by other decision makers and society more generally.

Research Article
Copyright © The IO Foundation 2013

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