Reshaping the Identity of Former Combatants: Reeducation during the Korean War, 1950-1953

Sam Erkiletian, University College London

Why do some former combatants retain their conflict identity? Conflict identities are the attitudes and behaviors instilled in combatants by their armed group. Despite mounting evidence in both the military socialization and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration literatures that conflict identities are often incompatible with postwar societies and peace initiatives, little is known about what factors can assist former combatants in their transition into a postwar identity. Leveraging theories of military socialization, I provide a novel argument and theoretical framework for resocialization in post-conflict environments. I argue that similarly to identity formation within armed groups, identity reformation for former combatants is primarily a bottom-up process driven by subgroups—the various social units within in an environment or organization that form its informal structure and whose members exert peer-pressure on individuals to conform to distinct norms. I test the implications of my theory using archival data in a mixed-method analysis of the reeducation program to democratize communist prisoners of war (POWs) administered by the United States during the Korean War (1950-1953). American officials issued reeducation initiatives to POWs divided into separate compounds that came under the control of either communist or pro-democratic subgroups. Preliminary findings suggest that the alignment of subgroups within the compound effected the overall environment of resocialization and their outcomes. Compounds that featured pro-democratic subgroups in support of official reeducation objectives increased the likelihood of identity reformation, while compounds controlled by resistant, communist subgroups disrupted reeducation initiatives and decreased the likelihood of resocialization.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 150. Democratization, democratic ideology