Don’t Focus on Civilian Casualties

September 16, 2014

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

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

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

18 thoughts on “Don’t Focus on Civilian Casualties

  1. The level of effort the United States puts forth to avoid civilian casualties in war, perhaps simply to avoid the CNN effect, is not worth the cost of refraining from striking enemy assets.

    As the author suggests, the United States needs to loosen the self-imposed restraints in waging war against its enemies. Perhaps a less restrained America in today’s wars could enhance deterrence against tomorrow’s aggressors.

  2. I’m going to assume that the author of this article, whose brief biography notably has no military service annotated, wrote it as an intellectual exercise. If not, then I must say it is one of the most morally reprehensible articles I’ve read on this site. Furthermore it flies in the face of the Constructivist trajectory the international community has been on for the past 70 years.
    A very disappointing read.

  3. Well said.

    It is all well and good to pretend the world is a better place and we can all just sit around and talk about our problems but at the end of the day we need to be ready and willing to use whatever force is needed to defend America, our allies and our partners. The current crisis in the Ukraine is a great example of this fact. All the hugging it out and talking in the world is not a substitute for the ability and willingness to fight back – to do what is necessary to win.

    1. Defend America from what?

      “The current crisis in the Ukraine is a great example of this fact”

      How so?

      “All the hugging it out and talking in the world is not a substitute for the ability and willingness to fight back – to do what is necessary to win.”

      Recycling the arguments from the Vietnam era, are we? I love the way the war-mongers like you fight to keep reality out of your analysis, such as it is. The reality, then: the United States has been engaged in half a dozen wars for over 13 years. In that time, the executive has never been curtailed by the Congress; every request for further funding has been rubber stamped. This despite the fact that:

      1) The reasons for going to Iraq were false

      2) The propping up of the Karzai Regime – a cleptocracy – has neither stemmed the expansion of the Taliban nor lessened the attacks on NATO troops. And still 30,000 thousand more are being sent.

      But by your estimation, the generals are holding “our boys back”, not “letting them win.” I’ve heard all this this SHITE before: whenever the U.S. comes up against a determined foe it can’t handle, like the Vietcong or (to a lesser degree) Afghani extremists, no credit is given to them. It’s always, rather, that WE were never ‘allowed’ to win. Imagine that: the “greatest military” in history – socalled – cannot quell resistance fighters armed with Kalashnikovs and IEDs. So what do you want, sport? Tactical nukes? Mustard gas? Agent Orange? What “handcuffs” need to be removed? Do you intend to inject substance into the debate or simply proffer moral indignation and outrage as a substitute?

      To claim restraint, of course, is to miss the following, crucial point: its not altogether clear whether America CAN defeat a determined opponent. Iraq 2003 does not qualify, since in both instances overwhelming airpower obviated the need for a drawn-out campaign (the occupation, of course, is another matter). Given its history and geography, Afghanistan seems to fit the mold of the ‘unwinnable’ war better. But you are immune to this thinking because you assume, without foundation, that there is lurking within the U.S. military some sleeping giant that merely needs to be awakened. Alas! Were it not for the treasonous liberal fifth column, victory over the Islamist scourge would have been achieved long ago.

      To deluded hawks like you and GOldfinch, problem-solving is never a question of complexity and nuance, of understanding and accommodation. It’s always reducible to will and courage. If only we were allowed to be audacious and unrestrained, everything would fall into its rightful place. This is BS.

      You make this mistake with Israel as well: somehow, in your convulted thinking, you believe it too is acting in restrained fashion. WTF! Israel goes into a refugee camp (Gaza), slaughters 2000 people – 500 children among them – and you still claim it labors under limited rules of engagement? Are you out of your mind?

      And the reason that Hezbollah kicked the crap of the Israeli forces is because the latter is just not that good anymore. Israel could boast of a true citizen’s army forty years ago, formed, as it was, in the crucible of its socialist origins and its spirit of self-sacrifice. But this is no longer the case: as each decade passes, Israel fights smaller opponents with less conclusive results. It’s soldiers have become too Westernized and thus soft; they play video games and surf on the net more than they drill. Much like the U.S., the IDF has become too reliant on its technological superiority. So please stop lionizing Israel and its prowess. It has no basis in reality.

      Also abandon the thinking that there is some subversive force undermining the martial spirit of both the U.S. and Israel. It’s verifiably false and exposes the degree to which paranoia and irrationality have taken hold of pro-war hawks like you.

  4. A fascinating perspective. Building on his ideas you can justify the Germans use of Jews as workers for the war effort and their eventual genocide, although I don’t think Mr Goldich would argue that such a crime could ever exist as long as the deaths of the targeted population were in furtherance of a war or national security. “[T]he 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 (civilians)…” Civilians cannot be distinguished from Soldiers since they are contributing in one fashion or another in the defense of their homeland. Likewise, a nation can conscript its citizens and compel then into service. OK, that one I assume Mr. Goldich concurs with since he plans to write a book on the subject. It therefore follows that National leaders can do whatever it takes to win, be that exterminating the enemies civilian population since they may, at some point, form a resistance; or working his own population to death (or simply killing them to conserve resources for those who are fighting) in support of the war effort. Goldich has justified the force labor and murder of Jews by the Nazis in furtherance of their war effort. Well done Mr Goldich.

    Perhaps this is the ultimate in cold, hard logic, but it is a logic I want no part of. I do not agree with his argument or his conclusions.

    1. Although I find it hard to whole-heartedly accept Mr. Goldich’s assertions on the targeting of or collateral damage to civilian targets, I think Operation Protective Edge has shown the folly of trying to fight a “humanitarian” war. If the enemy now knows that they simply must cover their command and control, their logistics centers, and even their barracks in order to make them immune from attack, then only the most ruthless of regimes will be able to wage war as all Western Democracies will simply refuse to fight for fear of the human cost.

      I would support a six week war in which massive, necessary strikes were made agaginst an enemy’s ability to make war with less regard for civilian casualties than a prolonged four, six, or even ten-year campaign in which the same number or even more casualties are inflicted by a thousand small skirmishes in the name of humanitarianism and proportionality.

      1. You have it backwards.

        There was no thing humanitarian about Operation Protective Edge. Israel started an unnecessary war, using lies as a pretext (ie. punishing Hamas for a murder they were not responsible for), then changing the pretext to defending against the rockets that resulted from those attacks.

        That aside, Israel showed no regard for civilians and used area weapons like 120 and 150 mm artillery shells.

        What’s more, Israel has demonstrated many times that they are are not hesitant about striking civilian targets. The whole human shields BS was created to justify the fact they made no distinction between civilians and military targets.

  5. This is literally the justification used in terror attacks, including that of 9/11. The U.S. was seen as an enemy, and particularly given its democratic political system, anyone who participated in that political system or contributed to the economy was a fair target. Congratulations, you have produced a secular version of Al Qaeda’s justifications for civilian slaughter.

  6. The Guardian had an article yesterday on the Syrian town of Reqaa, I believe, currently under ISIS control. The thrust of the article was that while the citizens felt like they were living under a reign of terror, their greatest fear is of possible U.S. airstrikes on the town, in the belief that they would bear the brunt of those attacks (among other tactics, ISIS is moving as much of its equipment and command-and-control structures into civilian structures as possible. If future air strikes result in high civilian casualties, it can be believed ISIS, like Hamas, will do all it can to bring it to the world’s attention, in the process gaining even more recruits and possibly turn Western public opinion against the air war. Beyond the moral considerations (including terrorizing and killing those we are ostensibly going to war to save), civilian casualties can have the very practical effect of damaging a war effort.

  7. I would understand if the argument was that spotlighting civilians can wind up focusing on outliers rather than representative cases, and so can provide a skewed perspective on the ethical landscape one is trying to navigate. By focusing on case studies, one can lose track of the greater harm or good that most people are experiencing or being spared.
    But the argument he actually seems to make is so ethically bizarre that I feel like I must be getting it wrong. The end effect is that I feel like I’m reading word soup.

  8. This article hinges most of its arguments on the examples of national-scale “total wars” against an enemy with a well-developed industry funding its war effort. It should be clear on even a cursory examination that these examples are not relevant to the modern limited wars fought by Israel and the United States. These wars do not seek to win by industrial attrition. Nor could they: Hamas does not manufacture its own AK-47s, let alone maintain the massive ball bearing, steel, and POL factories of World War II-era Germany. The argument that civilians are vital cogs of an industrial machine that is feeding the enemy war effort are unrelated to the modern examples given.

    Further, this article completely misunderstands the role of civilians in a limited war. There was little hope in World War II of convincing civilians to abandon their national causes. Instead, the war could be won on a military footing; when conventional military forces were defeated, civilians abided by their governments’ surrenders. This situation is completely different in Afghanistan and Gaza. Civilians are, if anything, the most important factor in winning the respective wars. The ability to draw real-time, accurate information from the civilian population is one of the only ways to isolate and engage insurgent groups that otherwise decline battle except on extremely favorable terms. In Gaza in particular, the Israeli Army cannot be expected to maintain a permanent occupation of Gaza, and must rely on the good will of the Palestinian people in rejecting the ideology of Hamas that demonizes Israel. It is hard to expect them to do so if their relative has been killed in an airstrike, and the more precautions are taken, the less civilians there are with this story.

    Finally, the author completely ignores the development of precision-guided munitions in his arguments. In the World War II era, it took a fleet of hundreds of bombers and thousands of unguided bombs to attack a factory, bridge, railway junction, or other strategic target. In the modern era, a B-1 with sufficient intelligence and defensive support could likely destroy all of these targets in a single sortie. Further, modern aircraft can be expected to place their munitions within a couple of meters of their target with reasonable certainty. World War II bombers were often lucky to drop their bombs within a mile of their intended target. This was a leading cause of civilian casualties: with bombers unable to precisely hit their targets, Allied bombers turned to a strategy of starting devastating fire storms in German and Japanese cities, which were easier to create with imprecise attacks while much more likely to cause the industrial stoppages required. There is simply no need for this kind of mass destruction anymore.

    All of these arguments are practical. The moral arguments, well-covered in other comments, also apply. Civilian casualties might be overplayed, but the article would have the United States or Israel make a desert and call it peace. Ignoring the Geneva Conventions because our enemies have not recently followed it misunderstands (willfully) the purpose of the Conventions, which is the protect those that are not deliberately participating in hostilities. A military without a strong moral compass is a dangerous thing, and this article argues for removing a large portion of that moral compass for modern military forces.

    Civilian casualties are indeed an unavoidable part of modern war, and are sometimes over-covered by media. It does not at all follow that they should not be avoided to the maximum extent possible.

    1. +1 The author also blunders around he purpose of war. War does not stand by itself as an end. War is only a means. You don’t even have to technically win a war to achieve your political goals, something the Palestinians understand and the Israelis apparently don’t.

      I think the author would be well served, in illustrating his point, to demonstrate the economics of killing civilians. What level of civilian deaths serve the political interest of Israel in defeating Hamas. And show that that level of civilian casualties is a more valuable outcome for Israel than conceding a two state solution and giving up war to achieve its political/economic interests.

  9. “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…”

    That is not true. The president and Congress have an obligation to defend the Constitution, not vague and ever-shifting concepts of “interests” The flaw in this article is trying to see the issue of civilian casualties through a “moral” prism, when the question really exists in a legal prism. The UN Charter, for example, sets out very clearly the legal basis for use of force by nations, and it does not include advancing “interests”. Technically, under international law, unless under direct attack, causing any civilian casualties is understood as murder and should lead to legal consequences for the perpetrators.

  10. There is a peculiarity of American politics that cuts off the authors point at the knees. One of the major justifications we use to go to war is that the people we are fighting are killing civilians (r.e Iraq, ISIL, Afghanistan). To justify the killing of civilians to win a war to prevent civilian deaths would tend to undermine the rational for war in the first place.

    Instead we would have to resort to justifications, like we want their resources, or we want revenge, or we want their government to bow to American interests. Which don’t sound as noble and sets a precedent for militarism that the US doesn’t want other countries to use against its interests.