war on the rocks

Don’t Focus on Civilian Casualties

September 16, 2014

Civilian casualties are everywhere, in the press at least. You might be forgiven if you assumed, in this day and age, that civilian casualties are central to analysis of war, deciding whether or not to go to war, and how to wage war. We see this in the enormous amount of mainstream media coverage on civilian casualties anywhere that armed conflict takes place. This was highlighted recently in reports on Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza and Hamas’ resistance to it. A huge number of column inches and air time are devoted to “human interest” stories about the civilians who have become casualties in this war, together with photographs and videos of people in hospitals or otherwise injured. There is rarely much, if any, political or military context in these stories. They are of the “oh, the horror of it all” genre of journalism. Lately, most of this coverage concentrates on those injured or killed by Israeli military action. While some people have attributed this to anti-Israel or anti-Semitic attitudes, I have no doubt that if the Israelis had suffered several hundred, or more than a thousand, dead civilians of their own, the same kind of reportage would have become pervasive in the Israeli media.

The problem is, we — that is, the world — pay far too much attention to civilian casualties, both in reporting about war and in thinking about war. Our fixation on civilian deaths and injuries is based on historical misconceptions, moral sloppiness, and an unwillingness to confront some inconvenient truths about the nature of war. There may be occasional practical objections to inflicting civilian casualties, but a blanket assumption that inflicting them is always wrong is highly suspect. Underneath most of the reflexive blanket condemnation of inflicting civilian casualties lies moral superficiality. By concentrating so much on civilian casualties, and assuming that the civilian costs of war are the most important aspects of war, we actually diminish our understanding of the phenomenon of war. We strip it of its most important aspects: why it is being fought, how it is being fought, why one side is winning and the other is losing, or why there is a stalemate.

Perhaps the most fundamental falsehood about civilian casualties is the belief that because civilians are not active combatants, they are merely onlookers who do not contribute to the war effort of a country, internal faction, or transnational movement. This is not the case. Civilians are almost never just bystanders. This is especially true in modern states with tightly integrated economies and participatory (whether democratic or authoritarian) political cultures, structures, and wartime mobilization efforts. Civilians work in war industries. They keep the civilian economy of a nation at war going. They provide necessary civil administration. Furthermore, no matter what their occupation, age, or sex, civilians provide a powerful social and psychological underpinning for combatants who claim to fight on their behalf. It is true that civilians rarely have a choice in whether or not they freely participate in such support, but that is irrelevant. The fact that German and Japanese civilians had no choice to support those two countries’ warmaking capability had nothing to do with the fact of providing such support, and the desire of the Allies to attack them because they did provide it. Whether or not these civilians were “legitimate” targets is a subject for legal or moral dispute; their contribution to the Axis war effort, however, is utterly indisputable.

In fact, the case of civilians in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II is very instructive. They made weapons and equipment for the Axis countries’ armed forces and kept the German and Japanese infrastructure working. When American and British strategic air bombardment campaigns attacked the German and Japanese homelands, and when American, British, and Soviet ground forces approached and then invaded Germany (and prepared to invade Japan, if necessary), the idea that they were fighting for their families and homes greatly animated the spirit of resistance among German and Japanese soldiers. It thus made perfect sense to attack German and Japanese cities, including residential areas, by strategic bombing. (There were also other reasons, unrelated to civilian participation in the Axis war efforts, for sustaining the strategic air campaign.) While the strategic air offensives against the Axis powers could not have won the war by themselves, there is no doubt that the attacks on civilians contributed markedly to the overall Allied victory. Those who decry the effectiveness of the strategic air campaign against Germany (there are few who question its significance in the war against Japan) tend to set an artificially high barrier for “success,” make arguments based almost entirely on hindsight, or have moral objections to the campaign which colors their operational analyses. This was particularly true of the oft-cited Strategic Bombing Survey which was undertaken right after the war.

It is even more dubious to criticize armies for causing civilian casualties in the course of attacking and defending urban areas. If civilians are in a town or city, the structures in which enemy soldiers have fighting positions cannot be bombarded with artillery or airpower — nor, for that matter, can either attackers or defenders even use small arms, crew-served weapons, or grenades and mortars — without putting civilians at risk. For instance, in February 1945, the U.S. Army lost 1,000 men killed and 5,600 wounded in the retaking of Manila from the Japanese. The Japanese lost 16,000 men killed. The Army’s official history of the re-conquest of the Philippines notes that an estimated 100,000 Filipino civilians lost their lives in Manila during the battle. Was the Army supposed to forego retaking Manila? Was it supposed to avoid using heavy weapons to mitigate civilian casualties, which would have greatly increased American casualties? The same was true in the Battle of Stalingrad. Retired Army Col. David Glantz, probably the greatest living authority on the Red Army of World War II in the West, and perhaps in the world, has estimated that at least 80,000 Soviet civilians died in the city during the battle. Was the Red Army supposed to refuse to fight the Wehrmacht because civilians might suffer? Did the Red Army have a short-term obligation to minimize its resistance to the invaders on Soviet soil rather than being concerned more about the long-term effort to halt the enemy and eventually occupy his homeland?

There is no question that there exist situations in which efforts should be made to avoid civilian casualties to varying degrees. One may involve counterinsurgency operations in which inflicting too much pain on civilians might make an insurgency stronger, or insurgencies in which the insurgents forbear inflicting civilian casualties to make their ultimate victory easier.   Country A allied with Country B against Country C may decide to minimize civilian casualties because it wishes to ally itself with against C when the war ends, or where it is in the interests of both A and C to reconstitute B’s economy and society when hostilities are over. And it is clear that civilian casualties inflicted out of pure sadism or based on ideologies of human inferiority, such as those perpetrated by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, are as militarily counterproductive as they are morally repulsive.

There are also constitutional issues, at least in a moral sense, when the United States and its government confront these matters. We have recently been told that President Bill Clinton did not order air attacks against Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s because he was concerned that several hundred civilian casualties might result. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in discussing American military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world, since 9/11, repeatedly returned to the mantra of avoiding civilian casualties. Yet the world did not elect presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. The American people did. The president of the United States and the U.S. government generally have an obligation to defend and advance the interests of the United States by armed force where necessary. What happens to people in other countries is, or should be, less important. If the United States government is more concerned about foreign civilians — friendly, enemy, neutral — than achieving American strategic goals, then the United States government is failing in its obligation to the American people.

The judgment that civilian casualties should always be minimized, or so otherwise restricted as to compromise the success of military operations, involves an abdication of moral responsibility — the need to balance ends and means. Privileging means over ends all the time is as morally deficient as only considering ends and never means. The essence of morality is judgment, and this involves stepping up to the plate and making difficult decisions. The anti-civilian casualties attitude, no matter what the situation, consists of running away and hiding behind absolutes.

Some will say that I am endorsing or providing moral justification for the 9/11 attacks. It is true that Bin Laden justified his attack on the World Trade Center by claiming the civilians inside were pistons in America’s economic engine. But to focus on that is to miss the point of my argument. I am trying to shift the argument away from what is moral or immoral according to universal moral standards. According to their lights, al Qaeda was indeed taking the moral and strategically sound course. According to ours, it was not. Regardless of what one thinks about whether it was “fair” or “moral” for, say, al Qaeda to attack us on 9/11, we should frame our actions in terms of obtaining revenge and retribution—always useful things to be known for in international politics—and act with the underlying motivation that we do not want to live in the kind of world that al Qaeda does. Rather than going around in endlessly unresolvable circles about what is, or is not in accordance with eternally applicable moral standards, let us instead realize that in war and strategy where you stand depends entirely and completely on where you sit, and that universality is a pipe dream.

Finally, the Geneva Conventions are always raised in considering these matters. I am not a lawyer, international or otherwise. But what I have seen of the Conventions indicates to me that a scrupulous adherence to many of them would materially affect the ability of any nation or other political entity, or movement, to conduct military operations effectively. The Conventions wallow in an unrealistic distinction between “military” and “civilian” in terms of warmaking. If one questions that premise, then the Geneva Conventions become something to bypass, interpret in our favor, or ignore. Would this open American military personnel to actions taken against them by our enemies that violate the Geneva Conventions? Of course. But that has been the case anyway since 1945. In fact, the Conventions have largely been dead letters among our enemies since World War I, with the partial and peculiar exception of Nazi Germany. The Germans treated most American and British POWs reasonably well during World War II, because they were not considered subhuman untermenschen, in accord with Nazi racial views unlike the Soviet POWs, who were viewed as inferior and died in large numbers in German custody. The Japanese, as we know, paid scant attention to the Geneva Convention. If our enemies are not going to adhere to them, why should we always handicap our military operations by being scrupulous in doing so?

What to do? What follows below is what I would like to hear from the President of the United States when he or she has to order U.S. forces into action against a country. Let’s call it Ambarzagoomiland:

My fellow Americans, I am speaking to you tonight regarding the commitment of U.S. armed forces to halt and reverse the aggression of the Republic of Ambarzagoomiland against countries that are friends of the United States. The Ambarzagoomian subversion and invasion of its neighbors follows several years in which the government of Ambarzagoomiland has rejected all attempts by the international community and the United States to end its actions by peaceful means. In order to protect the strategic and economic interests of our country, I have therefore concluded there is no choice but to defeat the Ambarzagoomian forces, and insure that Ambarzagoomiland has no more potential to make war against its neighbors.

One thing should be clear. We intend to win. We will not settle for the status quo that exists now or existed before the war, that of a constantly threatening Ambarzagoomiland intimidating those countries that border it. Nor will we be deterred from attacking not only Ambarzagoomian military forces, but also the Ambarzagoomian economic and social infrastructure that supports Ambarzagoomian aggression. Furthermore, after years of repressive and autocratic rule, the Ambarzagoomian people support their country’s aggression. I will therefore not have American soldiers put at risk, or damage the ability of our armed forces to achieve victory, if Ambarzagoomiland hides its armies and war-making potential behind civilian shields. We will strike not only those Ambarzagoomians who fight, but also those who provide support for the fighting. We have restrained ourselves in such cases before and the result has been defeat. We will not do so again.

There can be little doubt that there would be worldwide condemnation of these words from what can only be called the usual suspects, but most of them would condemn the United States anyway. And many, if not most, Americans who would attack the president’s words would be against U.S. military action under almost any circumstances. But I have no doubt that the great majority of the American people — and they are the only people to whom the president, the U.S. military, and the U.S. government as a whole have any decisive obligation— would be very supportive of such presidential words. Many would suggest that in our current media-saturated age, particularly with videos and photographs, that the infliction of such civilian casualties would not be acceptable to the American people. This is questionable at best. There is arguably a major disconnect between the views of what have been called WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) elites, particularly those in the public policy establishment, and what the vast majority of Americans think about these matters. It may well be that a president, and administration, willing to directly and overtly bypass perceived elite views, and go to the masses, would find enormous support among that majority. And they count more than the elites. Much more.


Robert L. Goldich retired from a 33-year career in the Congressional Research Service in 2005. He was the senior CRS military manpower analyst when he left. Bob is currently writing a book on conscription in history, from the first human civilizations to the present.


Photo credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi