On the last day of class in “Rules of War,” I ask my students what kinds of things are needed to strengthen the regime governing the conduct of war. They come up with all kinds of nifty ideas, and then I ask them what they’ll personally do to move the world in that direction. For awhile they struggle to come up with anything more concrete than “raise awareness,” but after awhile they will say things like, “run for office,” or “join the State Department,” or “go to work for Doctors Without Borders.”

They rarely say they’ll join the military and work from within to uphold the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. This year, I asked my students if any of them would consider this. A few raised their hands, but most shook their heads, almost in disbelief. I asked why. Someone said, “Because the culture of the military pushes you in the opposite direction.”

It was an interesting moment for me as an educator, to realize how many of my students had taken this message away from class, when in fact military culture can and does push in either direction, depending on the nature of the policy, the circumstances and in particular, the leadership. And when in fact the relevant question to ask is whether other institutional cultures in US foreign policy are really more Geneva-friendly than the military. I have my doubts, but I had failed somehow to cultivate those in my students.

Maybe it was all the atrocity literature we’d read, the Milgram and Stanford prison studies, and the detailed case material on Abu Ghraib that made them so certain that if you want to protect innocent people, the military – or any institution that teaches obedience first and foremost – is the wrong place to be. Maybe my error was in not balancing the story of Lieutenant William Calley out sufficiently with the story of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, the helicoper pilot who put himself between Calley’s men and the civilians of My Lai. Perhaps in dwelling too much on the surveys from Iraq showing that more than a third of US troops think torture is sometimes OK, I missed the important comparison, which is what percentage of the US civilian masses, or policymakers, answer the same way on such surveys. Turns out that for the general public, at least, it’s around the same – 38%, according to a 2006 Gallup poll.

Or maybe it was the absence of active-duty military personnel in this particular class. (This was an important shift from the normal distribution of students I would teach at University of Pittsburgh, which in the past included an Army Chaplain whose policy paper argued for incorporated laws-of-war training into first-person-shooter games to prime enlistees to respect civilians in urban areas, and Roy Nickerson, whose blog posts from Iraq regularly include notes like the following:

“It’s the children that make me feel it: hope. Not some hope related to grand government programs, campaign promises, or lofty world peace solutions, but a next-day type of hope. A hope that maybe these kids will come closer to a reliable sewer system, sanitation, clean water, and consistent electricity. The hope that maybe life for them gets a little bit better tomorrow.”)

At any rate, I thought about that student from this year’s class, at once ready to join the State Department and forego military service, when I read this news story about the UN response to piracy off the Horn of Africa. The Security Council has authorized governments to use “all necessary means” to stamp out piracy on Somalia’s coast, essentially sanctioning the use of ground forces against pirate strongholds. It’s interesting to note that the US State Department pushed for this very approach, but the Pentagon is more cautious. Why? Because of the potential for collateral damage:

“The commander of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet expressed doubt last week about the wisdom of staging ground attacks on Somali pirates. Vice Adm. Bill Gortney told reporters it is difficult to identify pirates and said the potential for killing innocent civilians “cannot be overestimated.”

While US military personnel do not think as one, I think this anecdote suggests an important line of inquiry for teachers and students of international security norms: which institutional cultures in the US (and in other countries) are actually most and least predisposed to restraint in the use of political violence, and what does this mean for generating compliance with the rules of war? It’s an interesting academic question, but also one with a direct bearing on the tactical decisions of our human-security minded youth as they make decisions about where to best leverage their own professional capital in pursuit of their values.