Skip to main content Accessibility help

Until the Bitter End? The Diffusion of Surrender Across Battles

  • Todd C. Lehmann and Yuri M. Zhukov

Why do armies sometimes surrender to the enemy and sometimes fight to the bitter end? Existing research has highlighted the importance of battlefield resolve for the onset, conduct, and outcome of war, but has left these life-and-death decisions mostly unexplained. We know little about why battle-level surrender occurs, and why it stops. In this paper, we argue that surrender emerges from a collective-action problem: success in battle requires that soldiers choose to fight as a unit rather than flee, but individual decisions to fight depend on whether soldiers expect their comrades to do the same. Surrender becomes contagious across battles because soldiers take cues from what other soldiers did when they were in a similar position. Where no recent precedent exists, mass surrender is unlikely. We find empirical support for this claim using a new data set of conventional battles in all interstate wars from 1939 to 2011. These findings advance our understanding of battlefield resolve, with broader implications for the design of political-military institutions and decisions to initiate, continue, and terminate war.

Hide All

We are grateful to Mark Dovich, Daniella Raz, and Kate Ruehrdanz for research assistance, and to Scott Gates, Brian Greenhill, Jim Morrow, Scott Tyson, Andreas Wimmer, and workshop participants at Princeton University for helpful comments. A previous version of this paper was presented at the 2016 Peace Science Society International annual meeting, South Bend, IN.

Hide All
Angeletos, George-Marios, Hellwig, Christian, and Pavan, Alessandro. 2007. Dynamic Global Games of Regime Change: Learning, Multiplicity, and the Timing of Attacks. Econometrica 75 (3):711–56.
Asal, Victor, Conrad, Justin, and Toronto, Nathan. 2015. I Want You! The Determinants of Military Conscription. Journal of Conflict Resolution 61 (7):1456–81.
Bartov, Omer. 1992. Hitler's Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich. New York: Oxford University Press.
Belkin, Aaron, Clark, Michael, Gokcek, Gulriz, Hinckley, Robert, Knecht, Thomas, and Patterson, Eric. 2002. When Is Strategic Bombing Effective? Domestic Legitimacy and Aerial Denial. Security Studies 11 (4):5188.
Biddle, Stephen. 2004. Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Biddle, Stephen, and Long, Stephen. 2004. Democracy and Military Effectiveness: A Deeper Look. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (4):525–46.
Brooks, Sarah M. 2007. When Does Diffusion Matter? Explaining the Spread of Structural Pension Reforms Across Nations. Journal of Politics 69 (3):701–15.
Bueno de Mesquita, Ethan. 2010. Regime Change and Revolutionary Entrepreneurs. American Political Science Review 104 (3):446–66.
Carlsson, Hans, and Damme, Eric Van. 1993. Global Games and Equilibrium Selection. Econometrica 61 (5):9891018.
Casper, Brett Allen, and Tyson, Scott A.. 2014. Military Compliance and the Efficacy of Mass Killings at Deterring Rebellion. Unpublished Manuscript. Available at SSRN 2434297.
Castillo, Jasen. 2014. Endurance and War: The National Sources of Military Cohesion. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Clodfelter, Micheal. 2008. Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1494–2007. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Cochran, Kathryn McNabb, and Long, Stephen B.. 2017. Measuring Military Effectiveness: Calculating Casualty Loss-Exchange Ratios for Multilateral Wars, 1816–1990. International Interactions 43 (6):1019–40.
Cronin, Audrey Kurth. 2006. How al-Qaida Ends: The Decline and Demise of Terrorist Groups. International Security 31 (1):748.
Davenport, Christian. 2015. How Social Movements Die: Repression and Demobilization of the Republic of New Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dupuy, Trevor. 1984. Analysis of Factors That Have Influenced Outcomes of Battles and Wars. Vol. 1. Technical Report, CAA SR-84-6. Dunn Loring, VA: Historical Evaluation and Research Organization.
Edmond, Chris. 2013. Information Manipulation, Coordination, and Regime Change. Review of Economic Studies 80 (4):1422–58.
Edwards, Bob, and Marullo, Sam. 1995. Organizational Mortality in a Declining Social Movement: The Demise of Peace Movement Organizations in the End of the Cold War Era. American Sociological Review 60 (6):908–27.
Fearon, James D. 1995. Rationalist Explanations for War. International Organization 49 (3):379414.
Feaver, Peter D. 2009. Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Francisco, Ronald A. 2004. After the Massacre: Mobilization in the Wake of Harsh Repression. Mobilization: An International Quarterly 9 (2):107–26.
Gates, Scott, and Nordås, Ragnhild. 2016. Recruitment, Retention, and Religion in Rebel Groups: Exploring the Advantages of Extremism. Unpublished Manuscript. School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University.
Goldman, Emily O., and Andres, Richard B.. 1999. Systemic Effects of Military Innovation and Diffusion. Security Studies 8 (4):79125.
Granovetter, Mark. 1978. Threshold Models of Collective Behavior. American Journal of Sociology 83 (6):1420–43.
Grauer, Ryan. 2014. Why Do Soldiers Give Up? A Self-Preservation Theory of Surrender. Security Studies 23 (3):622–55.
Hammarström, Mats. 1994. The Diffusion of Military Conflict: Central and South-East Europe in 1919–20 and 1991–92. Journal of Peace Research 31 (3):263–80.
Hamner, Christopher H. 2011. Enduring Battle: American Soldiers in Three Wars, 1776–1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Helmbold, Robert L., and Kahn, Aqeel A.. 1986. Combat History Analysis Study Effort (CHASE): Progress Report for the Period August 1984–June 1985. National Technical Information Service. Available at <>.
Holmstrom, Bengt. 1982. Moral Hazard in Teams. The Bell Journal of Economics 13 (2):324–40.
Horowitz, Michael C. 2010a. The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Horowitz, Michael C. 2010b. Nonstate Actors and the Diffusion of Innovations: The Case of Suicide Terrorism. International Organization 64 (1):3364.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). 2016. Treaties, State Parties, and Commentaries. Available at <>.
Johnston, Patrick B. 2012. Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns. International Security 36 (4):4779.
Jones, Daniel M., Bremer, Stuart A., and Singer, J. David. 1996. Militarized Interstate Disputes, 1816–1992: Rationale, Coding Rules, and Empirical Patterns. Conflict Management and Peace Science 15 (2):163213.
Keegan, John. 1976. The Face of Battle. London: Penguin.
Kim, Hyohoung, and Bearman, Peter S.. 1997. The Structure and Dynamics of Movement Participation. American Sociological Review 62 (1):7093.
Koopmans, Ruud. 2004. Protest in Time and Space: The Evolution of Waves of Contention. In The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by Snow, David A., Soule, Sarah A., and Kriesi, Hanspeter, 1946. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Kuran, Timur. 1991. Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989. World Politcs 44 (1):748.
Lyall, Jason. 2014. Why Armies Break: Explaining Mass Desertion in Conventional War. Unpublished Manuscript. Available at SSRN 2524561.
MacCoun, Robert J. 1993. Unit Cohesion in Military Performance. In Sexual Orientation and US Military Personnel Policy: Policy Options and Assessment, 283331. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.
MacCoun, Robert J., Kier, Elizabeth, and Belkin, Aaron. 2006. Does Social Cohesion Determine Motivation in Combat? An Old Question with an Old Answer. Armed Forces and Society 32 (4):646–54.
Macy, Michael W. 1991. Chains of Cooperation: Threshold Effects in Collective Action. American Sociological Review 56 (6):730–47.
Marshall, Monty G., Gurr, Ted Robert, and Jaggers, Keith. 2014. Polity IV Project. Available at <>.
Marshall, S.L.A. 1947. Men Against Fire: The Problem of Command in Future War. New York: William Morrow.
McLauchlin, Theodore. 2010. Loyalty Strategies and Military Defection in Rebellion. Comparative Politics 42 (3):333–50.
McLauchlin, Theodore. 2015. Desertion and Collective Action in Civil Wars. International Studies Quarterly 59 (4):669–79.
McNeill, William H. 1982. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since AD 1000. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mearsheimer, John J. 1989. Assessing the Conventional Balance: The 3:1 Rule and Its Critics. International Security 13 (4):5489.
Morrow, James D. 2014. Order Within Anarchy: The Laws of War As an International Institution. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Most, Benjamin A., and Starr, Harvey. 1980. Diffusion, Reinforcement, Geopolitics, and the Spread of War. American Political Science Review 74 (4):932–46.
Powell, Robert. 1996. Bargaining in the Shadow of Power. Games and Economic Behavior 15 (2):255–89.
Powell, Robert. 2004. Bargaining and Learning While Fighting. American Journal of Political Science 48 (2):344–61.
Ramsay, Kristopher W. 2008. Settling It on the Field: Battlefield Events and War Termination. Journal of Conflict Resolution 52 (6):850–79.
Reiter, Dan, and Stam, Allan C.. 1997. The Soldier's Decision to Surrender: Prisoners of War and World Politics. Paper presented at the 1997 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC.
Reiter, Dan, and Stam, Allan C.. 2002. Democracies at War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Shils, Edward A., and Janowitz, Morris. 1948. Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II. Public Opinion Quarterly 12 (2):280315.
Showalter, Dennis, ed. 2013. The Encyclopedia of Warfare. London: Amber Books.
Siebold, Guy L. 2007. The Essence of Military Group Cohesion. Armed Forces and Society 33 (2):286–95.
Siegel, David A. 2011. When Does Repression Work? Collective Action in Social Networks. The Journal of Politics 73 (4):9931010.
Simmons, Beth A., and Elkins, Zachary. 2004. The Globalization of Liberalization: Policy Diffusion in the International Political Economy. American Political Science Review 98 (1):171–89.
Singer, Joel David. 1979. Explaining War: Correlates of War Project. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Singer, J. David, Bremer, Stuart, and Stuckey, John. 1972. Capability Distribution, Uncertainty, and Major Power War, 1820–1965. In Peace, War, and Numbers, edited by Russett, Bruce, 1948. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Slantchev, Branislav L. 2003. The Principle of Convergence in Wartime Negotiations. American Political Science Review 97 (4):621–32.
Smith, Alastair, and Stam, Allan C.. 2004. Bargaining and the Nature of War. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (6):783813.
Toft, Monica Duffy, and Zhukov, Yuri M.. 2012. Denial and Punishment in the North Caucasus: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Coercive Counter-insurgency. Journal of Peace Research 49 (6):785800.
Van Evera, Stephen. 1998. Offense, Defense, and the Causes of War. International Security 22 (4):543.
Weidmann, Nils B. 2015. Communication Networks and the Transnational Spread of Ethnic Conflict. Journal of Peace Research 52 (3):285–96.
Weisiger, Alex. 2016. Learning from the Battlefield: Information, Domestic Politics, and Interstate War Duration. International Organization 70 (2):347–75.
Zhukov, Yuri M., and Stewart, Brandon M.. 2013. Choosing Your Neighbors: Networks of Diffusion in International Relations. International Studies Quarterly 57 (2):271–87.
Zolotarev, Vladimir Antonovich. 1997. Prikazy narodnogo komissara oborony SSSR. 22 iyunya 1941 g.–1942 g. [Orders of the USSR state commissar of defense. 22 June 1941–1942]. Russkiy arkhiv: Velikaya Otechestvennaya 13 (2–2).
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Lehmann et al. supplementary material
Lehmann et al. supplementary material 1

 Unknown (755 KB)
755 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed