Adam Oler on “A More Comprehensive Approach to Counter-Atrocity Education”

Today’s guest post is a truly fascinating one by my great friend, Adam Oler, who explains the sophisticated counter-atrocity education the National Defense University (NDU) offers military and civilian leaders attending its graduate programs.  Adam is currently an associate professor of strategy and department chair at my (and his) alma mater, NDU’s National War College (NWC).

With then Lt Col Oler during a 2009 trip to Iraq and the Middle East.

Adam is no ordinary academic as his views are informed by the more than twenty-four years he spent on active duty as a military lawyer in a very wide variety of assignments – including a tour of duty as my executive officer during which we traveled the world as part of our military duties.

In tackling atrocity prevention, Prof Oler illustrates the awesome range of sources and techniques NWC uses to help students internalize how atrocities arise in armed conflicts, and – especially – and how to stop them.

Incidentally, here at Duke Law this issue is critical part of our International Law of Armed Conflict course.  In trying to understand the how and why of these tragedies, we examine the Vietnam era My Lai massacre (which surprising to those of a certain age, is not as well-known these days as some might think).

We also unpack the case U.S. v. Schwarz, 45 C.M.R. 852, (N.C.M.R. 1971) which concerns a different Vietnam tragedy, and one detailed in Gary Solis’ brilliant book, Son Thang: An American War Crime We also use Gary’s fabulous text, the Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War which–somehow–is perfect not only for specialists who want a nuanced and thoughtful examination of the law and how it works in practice (Gary’s a Marine and Vietnam vet), but also for those who have little or no background in the law or the military.  (I’d normally suggest you go out and buy a copy, but the much-anticipated third edition is coming out in June.)

Additionally, I have the class read Mark Felton’s article, A Culture of Cruelty, about Imperial Japan’s World War II war crimes.  Given the pacifistic tenor of contemporary Japanese society, it is almost unimaginable that the horrors could have occurred, but they did, and it’s important to try to understand why.

For America’s recent wars, I find Dr. George R. Mastroianni’s article, Looking Back: Understanding Abu Ghraib, very helpful–and easily digestible for the non-expert.  I also assign my personal favorite, William Langewiesche’s terrific 2015 article in Vanity Fair, How One U.S. Soldier Blew the Whistle on a Cold-Blooded War Crime.  It’s one I believe ought to be read by every American, and certainly all who wear the uniform.

Finally, one of the films Adam recommends, Eye in the Sky is part of my Readings in the Ethical Issue of the Practice of National Security Law seminar.  If you want a film that explores the legal and ethical issues drone strikes occasion, that’s the best (and you can experience the phenomenal acting ability of gifted Helen Mirren who plays the commander).

But Adam’s article reflects how NWC takes the analysis to a whole different level, as would be appropriate for an institution filled with students who already have years of field experience and who are destined to occupy–often much sooner rather than later–some of the most critical senior posts in the military enterprise as well as civilian government.  The educational process he describes is exceptionally well-designed and one obviously cognizant of the complex challenges leaders of rule-of-law countries face in the 21st century.  I think you’ll learn a lot– I know I did!

Here’s Prof Oler (the hyperlinks and illustrations are my add so if they’re wrong don’t blame Adam!):

A More Comprehensive Approach to Counter-Atrocity Education

by Adam Oler

In a recent issue of Joint Force Quarterly (JFQ), Professor David Wigmore makes an important contribution to atrocity prevention education.[1] Citing ten justifications for a new course at the nation’s war colleges, the JFQ article presents a thoughtful set of objectives and topics.[2] With his rich experience and previous contributions in this area, the author’s insights are particularly valuable;[3] his proposals should certainly be considered by Senior Developmental Education (SDE) curriculum designers.

Though certainly helpful, the JFQ article falls short in two ways. First, it neglects robust steps already underway at National Defense University (NDU) to teach this subject matter. Second, the proposed course would appear to focus almost exclusively on detection and reporting. This limited approach is insufficient. At the SDE level, students should also understand the nexus between atrocities, the complex question of intervention, and national security strategy design and implementation.

National War College

Given the high-level assignments many NDU graduates fill, this more comprehensive course of study is essential. National War College—in close partnership with other NDU components—offers methods for teaching this critical material. Supplementing NDU’s existing courses with some of Mr. Wigmore’s excellent insights can improve them further, and serve as a model for other institutions.

The War Crimes and Strategy Elective

The JFQ article asserts, “[a]t the Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) II level, including at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, DC—the flagship U.S. institution for joint Service and interagency national security education—no course exists that emphasizes how to recognize and assess the often nonviolent warning signs of atrocities.”[4]

Since 2016, NDU has offered the “War Crimes and Strategy” elective.[5] Taught by National War College faculty and attended by students from across the University, this 12-week course focuses on many of the learning objectives the JFQ piece identifies. The two foundational textbooks it recommends, Scott Straus’s Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention[6]and Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide[7] are issued to the students, and have been for the past four years. Causation is a central facet of the elective.

While the prospective course envisioned in JFQ would address the topic of U.S. misconduct tangentially, if at all,[8] War Crimes and Strategy makes much use of Philip Zimbardo’s case study of Abu Ghraib, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how Good People Turn Evil.[9] As the elective’s point of departure, the topic introduces lessons on causation from Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority, and the Abu Ghraib investigative reports.[10] Zimbardo provides the students with the first of several analytical frameworks to identify and prevent atrocities. He also introduces heroic prevention—or at least heroic intervention—a topic the JFQ article suggests as well.[11]

Through these materials, the students leave War Crimes and Strategy with steps senior leaders can take to ensure would-be whistleblowers have reporting space.

Abu Ghraib is not studied because the U.S. has a proclivity towards misconduct; it most certainly does not. Rather, recent history demonstrates that changes in the informational instrument of power’s utility are fundamentally altering the character of war.[12] As British scholar James Gow has identified, misconduct by one’s own forces can undermine strategic success like never before.[13] Gow expands upon Clausewitz’ overlapping Trinity concept, and argues a third Trinity of public support undergirds legitimacy.[14] Legitimacy in modern war can be the ultimate center of gravity.[15]

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

The JFQ piece also encourages course designers to partner with the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum (USHMM). Each year, students from the War Crimes and Strategy elective visit the USHMM as an integral part of their education.[16] The half-day trip includes a guided tour of the exhibit, with emphasis on events between 1933 and 1942. The official visit occurs after the students spend two weeks studying the Holocaust, much of it focused on causation.[17] They also watch a re-creation of the Wansee conference as part of their preparation.[18]

As importantly, the students meet with leaders of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, receive instruction about the resources it provides, and study the methodology it uses to predict mass atrocities. NWC’s partnership with the USHMM is an excellent way to connect historical case studies with practical tools available to them in future postings.

Several chapters in A Problem from Hell inform the elective’s case studies. For instance, students examine how America’s strategic bombing campaign over Cambodia collaterally contributed to Pol Pot’s rise,[19] and scrutinize the Carter Administration’s efforts to keep Cambodia’s UN general assembly seat in Khmer Rouge hands.[20] That this action helped preclude timely justice for the victims is another important lesson the students analyze. The case study on Rwanda examines why the free flow of small arms can be a genocide harbinger, before analyzing the U.S. decision not to intervene.[21]

Other books used in the course include David Crowe’s War Crimes, Genocide, and Justice: A Global History,[22] John Fabian Witt’s Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History,[23]and Sarah Sewall’s Chasing Success: Air Force Efforts to Reduce Civilian Harm.[24] Professor Crowe provides a superb opportunity for students to discern patterns of causation across history, including cultural and structural drivers. Sarah Sewell’s book analyzes efforts at preventing civilian casualties from a normative – as opposed to law of war – perspective.

Professor Witt’s book provides a highly accessible account of the Law of War’s history in the United States. While War Crimes and Strategy is not a course focused on the law, accountability efforts – including the Nuremberg trials, the International Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court – receive considerable attention. Seminar discussions focus on the latter’s creation and shortcomings.

To complete the elective successfully, each student researches and delivers a half-hour presentation on a past or ongoing atrocity not covered elsewhere in the course. The students must analyze what led to it; the decision to (or not to) intervene; and attempts at perpetrator accountability. Presentation topics are especially diverse, yet often reinforce course objectives about warning signs, causation, and fitful efforts at reporting and resolution. The students must also produce a publication worthy op-ed arguing for or against intervention into a recent or ongoing crisis. Some have gone on to publish their submissions.

Towards the end of the course, the students participate in the Burning Sands wargame, a product of the National War College and NDU’s Center for Applied Strategic Learning (NDU/CASL). The exercise is based on the Israeli experience at the height of Operation Protective Edge, and challenges students with competing objectives in a highly complex and modern battlefield scenario.

Playing the role of senior joint force commanders, the students must (1) liberate a city occupied by unlawful combatants; (2) do so with a minimum of coalition casualties; and (3) conduct all operations despite their being broadcast in real time by the enemy. Critically, each inject is built around the prospect of mass civilian casualties, and the strategic ramifications that would occur. As a result, Burning Sands compels students to balance moral and ethical concerns with operational requirements and strategic outcomes. 

The 2016 film Eye in the Sky complements the exercise; after watching the movie students wrestle with the ethical dilemmas at the film’s heart.[25]

In an effort to expand this important learning beyond NDU, beginning in 2016, NWC and CASL began a partnership with Emory Law School, where Burning Sands was further refined as a training tool for law students, judge advocates, and other national security law practitioners. This version of the wargame focuses on Law of War issues arising in the scenario, and requires participants to prepare legal advice to a senior joint force commander.

In addition to NWC and Emory, Burning Sands has been used at West Point, The Air Force JAG School, The Army JAG School, and in combined programs with law schools in Europe and Israel.

The National War College Core Curriculum

The core curriculum at National War College is a living product; about a third of each core course’s material changes annually. Three years ago, several topics from War Crimes and Strategy made their way into a case-studies-based course, Statecraft II: The Design and Implementation of Strategy in the Modern Era.

Since the 2018 academic year, Samantha Power’s chapter on Srebrenica framed a multi-topic assessment on how the US wielded the various instruments of power in pursuit of the Dayton Accords. Other case studies—depending on the academic year—focused on NATO’s intervention in Kosovo (1999), Libya (2011), and America’s role in countering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014).

While the latter case study did not involve an atrocity per se, it did confront issues of military intervention, sovereignty, and international cooperation to stop a humanitarian catastrophe.

A More Comprehensive Study of Atrocities

The second area of concern with the JFQ article is its narrow focus. In addition to detection and reporting, NWC students—especially those potentially bound for senior policy positions—must also wrestle with questions of response. As future senior leaders, students should consider the moral, political, and bureaucratic tensions that constrain options.

At various points (depending on a given year’s curriculum), NWC students are exposed to disparate views about the Responsibility to Protect—R2P.[26] On this topic, another text moved from the elective to the core curriculum was Michael Doyle’s The Question of Intervention: John Stuart and Mill and the Responsibility to Protect.[27] Doyle, a former Assistant Secretary-General and Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General, provides an invaluable framework for senior policymakers confronting humanitarian or other crises. Most students ultimately come to recognize that the question of intervention falls along a spectrum.

The aforementioned case study on Libya is particularly valuable, as students are required to conduct a cost-risk-benefit analysis, based the readings and guest-speaker insights. Eye in the Sky was also added to the core curriculum as part of Statecraft II in 2017. As a result, more than 800 NWC students have studied it as part of a block of instruction on ethics and the use of force; the film accompanies topics on just war theory and the International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

Other NWC core courses address the matters of causation and response, albeit more abstractly. The newly rewritten International Context course examines links between climate change, resource scarcity, mass migration, and humanitarian crises. It also requires students to analyze mass violence in the Northern Triangle and the enduring crisis in Sudan. Past versions of the International Context have explored ongoing crimes in China (the Uighurs) and Burma (the Rohingya); these are currently covered in the War Crimes and Strategy elective. Prior versions of NWC’s Domestic Context course included topics on delayed ratification of the genocide convention and the “torture memos” scandal.

Again, the NWC curriculum undergoes significant updates every year; as a result not every case study can be used. Contact hours with students are a precious commodity in any masters’ level curriculum, which is why it is vital to build electives that can elevate topics to the core curriculum when opportunities arise. A principal goal of the five-year old War Crimes and Strategy elective has been to create modules and methods for that purpose.

A final point raised in the JFQ piece that is worth expounding upon the assertion that, “only the United States can lead in atrocity prevention based on its moral underpinnings, strong tradition of equipping national security professions with ethics, and the reach and might of the nation itself.” To be clear, other countries have taken leadership roles and spearheaded actions to prevent and stop mass atrocities. Australia (in East Timor), France (in the Sahel), and the United Kingdom (in Sierra Leonne) are just three instances worthy of consideration—there are many others.[28] Students in the NDU International Fellows program are an excellent resource not only for developing case studies, student presentations, or potential speakers, but for diversifying seminar discussions on these subjects as well.

Completing the Task—Applying Strategic Logic

Genocide, mass atrocities, and war crimes transcend history because they are part of war’s enduring nature, something reflected in the writings of the great strategy theorists. Thucydides’ Melian dialogue is the recounting of a mass atrocity, after all.[29] Nonetheless, such horrors are not inevitable, and war college graduates can play a central role in their prevention and just resolution.

While the course outlined in JFQ would focus on detection and reporting, Senior Developmental Education needs to go further. To properly assess U.S. strategic interests, National War College graduates are taught how to identify and analyze atrocity allegations contextually. Only then can threats to those interests be understood, achievable ends be proposed, and viable strategic courses of action be presented. As importantly, senior leaders—both military and civilian—must be able to dispassionately weigh the costs and risks of intervention and non-intervention.

In short, students should learn how to apply strategic logic whenever evidence of atrocities arise. The National Defense University, through its National War College Component, is teaching future U.S. and partner-nation senior leaders to do just that.


[1] Wigmore, David. 2020. Expanding Atrocity Prevention Education for Rising U.S. National Security Leaders National Defense University.,

[2] Ibid., 49-50.

[3] Ibid., 49.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The elective uses “war crime” to capture serious violations of the laws and customs applicable across the range of conflict. Although somewhat nebulous, it permits the course to address misconduct ranging from individual and unit-level Law of War violations, to mass atrocities and genocide. Precise definitions, and challenges with those definitions, are discussed in the course. See, e.g., de Waal, Thomas. 2015. “The G-Word.” Foreign Affairs 94 (1): 136-148.

[6] Strauss, Scott. Fundamental of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention (Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2016). Since early 2016, the book has been generously provided by the USHMM to the elective’s students. It is also available as an e-book or .pdf on the USHMM’s webpage.

[7] Power, Samantha. 2007. A Problem from Hell : America and the Age of Genocide. 1st Harper Perennial ed. ed. Harper Perennial.

[8] Mr. Wigmore notes, “[i]t merits mentioning that while [t]his article is not about atrocious acts that could be committed by unethical U.S. personnel, it might raise consciousness.” Wigmore, 53.

[9] Zimbardo, Philip G. 2007. The Lucifer Effect : Understanding how Good People Turn Evil. 1st ed. ed. Random House.

[10] Ibid., 285-66, 267-76, 382-402. In his 1992 book, Professor Browning examined a group of reserve policemen who, as part of a paramilitary SS death squad, committed some of the most heinous atrocities of World War II. Browning, Christopher R. 1992. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. 1st ed. ed. Harper Collins.  Browning’s conclusions echoed the conclusions of Stanley Milgram, whose experiments in the early 1960s produced troubling evidence of a human propensity to blindly obey authority figures. See Milgram, Stanley. “Some Conditions of Obedience and Disobedience to Authority.” Human Relations 18, no. 1 (February 1965): 57–76. To help students appreciate the Milgram experiments, the elective shows a ten-minute recreation. The Heist, produced by British personality Derren Brown in 2006, provides a very provocative demonstration mimicking the experiment’s tenets. The video was uploaded by Derren Brown in 2014, and is available at

[11] Zimbardo, 457-71. Mr. Wigmore proposes a topic on “Environments Where Atrocities Can Happen and the Phenomenon of ‘Heroic Prevention.’” Wigmore, 49. In The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo discusses the “paradox of heroism”, offers a novel heroism taxonomy, and provides multiple examples for discussion. Ibid., 457-88. For instance, he introduces Hugh Thomson, who epitomized heroic intervention when he helped end the My Lai massacre. Zimbardo, 474-75. To supplement Hugh Thompson’s lessons, see Nell Boyce, Hugh Thompson. (Cover Story). Vol. 131 US News & World Report, L.P, 2001.

[12] For the past two academic years, NWC has used David Patrikarakos’ book, War in 140 Characters, to examine the impact of social media on the use of force. Patrikarakos, David. 2017. War in 140 Characters: How Social Media is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. First edition. ed. Basic Books.

[13] Gow, James. 2013. War and War Crimes: The Military, Legitimacy, and Success in Armed Conflict New York: Columbia University Press.

[14] Gow 36-43.

[15] Gow, 42. Briefly, Gow argues legitimacy stems from three factors, including international support. The other two are the basis for military action, and performance during the conflict. By performance, Gow emphasizes conduct. Ibid., 34. When allegations of war crimes arise—real or perceived—they impact competing narratives, strips a belligerent’s legitimacy, and can lead to strategic defeat. This was the impact of Abu Ghraib for the United States. See, e.g., Pryer, Douglas A. 2010. At what Cost, Intelligence? A Case Study of the Consequences of Ethical [and Unethical] Leadership U.S. Army CGSC.

[16] In recent years, students developing strategies towards Germany or Israel as part of their Individual Research Strategy Projects (ISRPs) have visited the USHMM as well; this is part of their analysis of the international context—a key facet of strategic logic. For a detailed discourse on “strategic logic,” see, Steven Heffington, Adam Oler, and David Tretler, eds., A National Security Strategy Primer (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 2019), X. The USHMM offers myriad resources for professionals, including educators, and employs personnel who specialize in military and civilian education initiatives. Information is available on the USHMM webpage at

[17] The elective has employed several methods for teaching about the Holocaust’s causation. Early versions of the course assigned competing perspectives from Timothy Snyder, Christopher Browning, and Daniel Goldhagen. See Snyder, Timothy. “Hitler’s World.” (Cover story). New York Review Of Books 62, no. 14 (September 24, 2015) and Browning, Christopher R. “A New Vision of the Holocaust.” New York Review Of Books 62, no. 15 (October 8, 2015): 41-43. Dan Stone—one of the top experts in the field of Holocaust studies—has written extensively on holocaust historiography. His chapter in The Historiography of Genocide introduces competing theories such as functionalism and intentionalism, which still frame much of the causation debate. Dan Stone, “The Holocaust and its Historiography,” in The Historiography of Genocide (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 323-43.

[18] Conspiracy, Frank Pierson (BBC/HBO Home Video, 2001).

[19] Power, 90-95.

[20] Ibid., 149-54.

[21] To supplement Power’s chapter on Rwanda, the students read a 1994 causal assessment published just two months after the genocide ended. Goose, Stephen D., and Frank Smyth. “Arming Genocide in Rwanda.” Foreign Affairs 73, no. 5 (September 1994), 86-96.

[22] Crowe, David M. 2016. Warcrimes, genocide, and justice: aglobal history. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[23] Witt, John Fabian. 2012. Lincoln’s Code : The Laws of War in American History Free Press.

[24] Sewall, Sarah. 2019. Chasing Success: Air Force Efforts to Reduce Civilian Harm. (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press).

[25] For a very critical appraisal of Israeli actions during the conflict, see Blumenthal, Max. The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza Nation Books, 2015. More measured assessments that provided context for Burning Sands included, Merriam, John J. and Michael N. Schmitt. “Israeli Targeting.” Naval War College Review 68, no. 4 (10, 2015): 15-34. Shamir, Eitan. “Rethinking Operation Protective Edge.” Middle East Quarterly 22, no. 2 (Spring, 2015): 1-12, and “IDF INVESTIGATING EXCEPTIONAL INCIDENTS FROM OPERATION PROTECTIVE EDGE.” States News Service, September 10, 2014. Gale In Context: Biography (accessed May 12, 2020).

[26] Mr. Wigmore touches on R2P, but cautions that lessons in his new course would be presented independently “on whether R2P is approved for a given situation.” Wigmore, 50. Again his focus would largely be limited to causation detection and reporting. At the SDE level, a course on mass atrocities needs to address matters of intervention, not just with regard to R2P, but across the spectrum of interstate conflict and competition.

[27] Doyle, Michael W. The Question of Intervention : John Stuart Mill and the Responsibility to Protect [New Haven Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2015]. Doyle and his colleague Camille Strauss Kahn assembled an empirical assessment of 334 “overt interventions” between 1815 and 1830. The summary of their research is included in an appendix, and provides an excellent source of potential student research projects. More so, it helps demonstrate why the norm is not to intervene, given that “at best one out of five” interventions succeed in their objectives. Ibid. 45-47.

[28] A contemporary, helpful assessment of Australia’s leadership of the International Force East Timor (INTEFET) is available in Moreen Dee’s ‘Coalitions of the willing’ and humanitarian intervention: Australia’s involvement with INTERFET, International Peacekeeping, 8:3, 1-20 (2001). For an introduction to the British-led intervention in Sierra Leone see, Scott, Lucy. Successful Intervention? Critical Reflections on the Legacy of British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone Peace, Conflict & Development, 2016.

For a summary on French-led operations in the Sahel, see Berger, Flore. “West Africa: Shifting Strategies in the Sahel. The Africa Report, September 30, 2019.

[29] Thucydides, Robert B. Strassler, and Richard Crawley. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. Free Press trade, 2008, 357.

Biography: Adam Oler is an associate professor of strategy and department chair at the National War College, National Defense University, in Washington, DC. Professor Oler spent twenty-four years as a judge advocate, serving multiple tours in Europe, Korea, and the Middle East. At the National War College, he instructs on national security design and implementation, the Middle East, and national security law. You can follow him on Twitter at @aonwc11.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.  Additionally, the views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!




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