International Organization

Research Notes

From Loss to Looting? Battlefield Costs and Rebel Incentives for Violence

Reed M. Wood


Research into the causes of civilian abuse during civil conflict has increased significantly in recent years, yet the mechanisms responsible for changes in actors' tactics remain poorly understood. I investigate how the outcomes of discrete conflict interactions influence subsequent patterns of rebel violence against civilians. Two competing logics suggest opposite influences of material loss on violence. A stylized model of rebel-civilian bargaining illustrates how acute resource demands resulting from recent severe conflict losses may incentivize insurgent violence and predation. I also identify several factors that might condition this relationship. I evaluate hypotheses based on these expectations by first analyzing the behaviors of the Lord's Resistance Army using subnational conflict data and then analyzing a cross-sectional sample of post–Cold War African insurgencies. Results from both the micro- and macrolevel analyses suggest that rising battlefield costs incentivize attacks on civilians in the period immediately following the accrual of losses. However, group-level factors such as effective control over territory and the sources of rebel financing condition this relationship. The findings suggest potential benefits from examining the interaction of strategic conditions and more static organizational characteristics in explaining temporal and geographic variation in rebel violence.

Reed M. Wood is Assistant Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University, Tempe. He can be reached at


  I thank Chris Butler, David Cunningham, Mike Findley, Scott Gates, Mala Htun, Kelly Kadera, Kendra Koivu, Brian Lai, Mark Ramirez, Sara Mitchell, Andrew Schrank, Bill Stanley, and Cameron Thies for their useful feedback on earlier drafts of this manuscript. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor for their detailed suggestions. I am also grateful to the National Science Foundation for helping to support this research (SES-0921702).