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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Wednesday, October 22, 2003 - 10:35 pm:   

I came across a factoid today that made me wonder if over the course of the last century ethicists and theologians have altered the terms of debate on the morality of particular wars. The factoid is this: Civilian casualties were 20 percent in World War I, 50 percent in World War II, 80 percent in the Vietnam War, and estimated at about 90 percent in today's wars. (J.J.Pettman, _Working Women: A feminist international politics_, London, Routledge, 1996, p.89) It would seem, given those figures, that the moral equation of war must change. If it has, though, I've not caught wind of it. We still hear conservative theologians & philosophers continue to back the ceaseless flow of the US's military attacks as always & ever "just." I wonder at what percentage of civilian casualties the balance of the equation would be affected?

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Jeremy Lassen
Posted on Thursday, October 23, 2003 - 05:55 pm:   

This is an excellent point. Does it demonstrate the underlying moral hollowness of trying to justify ANY war? From the above statistics, it seems to suggest that civilian casualties don't really play into the determination of weather a particular war is moral, or not.

Deciding weather a war is just, or moral seems seems to be an extension of tribal morality... “They” are different... “They” don't share our values... “They” are threatening our values/way of life... etc. etc. Absolute morality never seems to enter into the equation...

People call WW2 a "Just" war, but it was not fought because of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime... It certainly seems to be a "just" war in hindsight, but the holocaust was not used to justify participation in the war when nations, and organized religions declared their support for entering the WW2.

I'm not really sure where I am going with this, but it does make me question the people who claim to be strict moralists... that is they eschew situational ethics and moral relativism... EXCEPT when the situation warrants... ala a "just" war.

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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, October 24, 2003 - 12:10 am:   

Duchamp: "[civilian casualties are] estimated at about 90 percent in today's wars"

Not to sound like a party pooper, but where does Pettman get his/her figures? Vietnam I can understand -- a lot of carpet-bombing took place there, so civilians were bound to die; that was one of the things Westmoreland should have been held accountable for. But today's wars are most frightening in their surgical precision, so I'm not at all convinced that ninety percent of the casualties of (e.g.) the Gulf War were civilians. Does Pettman give any kind of verifiable data?

And Jeremy, I'm not even a little bit sure what you're getting at. The U.S. didn't fully understand what the Holocaust was until its ground troops began to liberate the camps. Some few politicians might have had a general idea of Hitler's design, but who could have imagined such a thing without seeing it? The U.S. entered WWII under the pretense of stopping German agression, though we'd been itching to get involved for some time before that. No, you're right, it wasn't the Holocaust wich drew us in. Perhaps it was the annexation of Poland, or the attacks on other neighbors. Or perhaps it was the fact that Germany had proven itself in the past to be capable of extreme belligerence. In any case, the world was better off for U.S. intervention. Was it not?
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Robert Devereux
Posted on Friday, October 24, 2003 - 05:16 am:   

Surgical precision? If I remember my figures correctly (it's been a few years since my college research on this), normal bombs have 20% accuracy and smart bombs have 40%. The media just doesn't report on how inaccurate they are, but the information is there in scientific and miltary journals.

I'm not sure on the 90% estimate, but I can see that for something like the Gulf War. Most of the soldiers surrendered without a fight, and the huge campaign of bombing would still have 60% of the bombs going off target, and likely hitting civilians.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Friday, October 24, 2003 - 06:52 am:   

Robert -- Okay, I see your point. And yes, I agree "surgical precision" was a bad choice of words, though I wasn't speaking only of bombs, but rather of the mindset involved in recent U.S. military operations -- small teams, precise targets, overwhelming force. But you're right, that's only one aspect of warfare these days. Before those fire teams can go in, the bombs must first stop falling.

I'd still like to see the figures, if anyone can throw them out. I'd also like to know some raw numbers on civilian casualties, conflict by conflict. Percentages are nice, but 90% of 500 is a lot fewer corpses than 40% of several million.

I have a sense, too, that the rhetorical looseness of "estimated 90% in today's wars" renders the claim practically useless -- qualified, flexible, and deniable. We are estimating, but we don't say what we're basing our estimates on. We are comparing percentages, rather than numbers, and that makes a huge difference in the emotional impact of our claims. And we have the gem in the crown with the phrase "today's wars." Hard to get much less clear. Are we restricting ourselves to U.S.-led military adventures such as Gulf War and Son of Gulf War? Or are we throwing in such delightful diversions as Eastern European ethnic cleansing, clashes between Hutu and Tutsi tribesmen, and the Israeli-Palestinian doo-wop? There is, after all, considerable difference among these conflicts. Some conflicts are designed to spill civilian blood; some are designed to minimize loss of civilian life while going after strategic targets. These are operational differences which merit mention.

Not that I'm championing war, mind you. I'd just like to work some of the kinks out of the rhetoric.
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Posted on Friday, October 24, 2003 - 08:21 am:   

Neal: When I first read that my reaction was the same as yours -- that it couldn't be right because the total number of casualties in conflicts of similar magnitude has fallen and not risen over time. But then I read it again and realized the claim is quite different and deals only with the ratio of civilian to military casualties in a particular conflict. And that could certainly be correct. I'm not persuaded, however, that it has any particular implications for just war theory. Among other things, a just war requires that you have a legitimate or just objective, that you take reasonable steps to minimize civilian casualties and that you generally observe a principle of proportionality in the terms of the projected total casualties and the goal. However, I've never heard of the principle of proportionality expressed in terms of the proportion of civilian to military casualties and I'm not convinced it make sense.

Take the following hypothetical: Imagine that there's some legitimate military goal on which most people can agree (e.g., removing an army that has invaded a neighboring country and has announced that they will not leave until they have killed every member of some minority ethnic group). Now imagine that thirty years ago dislodging this army would have likely involved casualties of 50,000, of which 40,000 would have been military casualties and 10,000 would have been civilian casualties (that's 20%). Now imagine that because of technological advances and other factors we believe that the same conflict, if held today and even after reasonable attempts are made at minimizing civilian casualties, would likely involve casualties of 5,000, of which 500 would be military and 4,500 would be civilian (that's 90%). So long as you take steps to minimize civilian casualties and your objective is just I'm not sure why the ratio alone should have any bearing on the decision.
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Posted on Friday, October 24, 2003 - 01:23 pm:   

I'm wondering what we are measuring here. In WWI and WWII just about every able-bodied male who could fight was conscripted and therefore could become a "military" casualty. Present day wars tend to be fought by small, professional armies and happen very quickly, thus preventing any attempt at mass-mobilization by either side.

On the other hand, I've just been watching a documentary about the fall of Mayan civilization. One of the most popular current theories for why the Mayan cities were abandoned is a move away from ritualized warfare to a "total war" and conquest type of behavior, resulting in masses of refugees leaving defeated cities.
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Posted on Saturday, October 25, 2003 - 11:43 am:   

I also doubt the numbers in the original reference and point out that record keeping has gotten a lot better over the years since WWI.

Very few people kept official records in WWI and now there are so many watchdogs counting that official numbers are unnecessary - just ask the NGO's they know better than anyone else.

Also, one has to keep in mind that many civilian deaths (as opposed to casualties) result from infrastructure collapse. Many wounded die and many sick civilians die because hospitals have few staff and have been looted of critical medicines and supplies.

A five day old baby in Iraq who dies of diarrhea is now counted as a civilian death.

However, when soldiers are captured on the battlefield, allied forces are bound by Geneva Convention to treat them to the best of their abilities. And they do.

A couple of reasonable sources on the topic are for the recent gulf conflict - PDA (Project on Defense Alternatives) Recent Gulf Conflict: http://www.comw.org/pda/0305iraqcasualtydata.html

Daniel Ellsberg on Vietnam: "Civilian casualties between 1965 - 1970 were approximately 1.1 million, including from 325,000 to 335,000 killed.


But there a lot of disagreement over numbers and sources. For a quick look at the range of numbers, see: http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/warstat2.htm

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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, October 25, 2003 - 02:26 pm:   

Gabriel -- I'm with you, I think. Much of what you said would have fit quite nicely with what I was trying to express. There will, of course, be no pleasing those who believe there is no such animal as a "just" (as opposed to "justifiable") war. I believe otherwise, and I would point to the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a recent example. I only wish I could say the humanitarian and structural aftermath of that war was conducted as solidly as the initial assaults. We (that is, the U.S.) left (and continue to leave) the job unfinished, to our shame.

Cheryl -- I honestly can't answer your first question. We are apparently measuring deaths of those NOT in military ranks, as a percentage of overall counted casualties. Or are we? Surely that can't be right. Can it? Can we assume this means that partisans and other armed militants count as "civilian" casualties? Do "military" casualties have to appear on a government payroll, or can they just be people shooting at other people? Or is any belligerent in a conflict a "military" casualty.

At the core of this, of course, is a question about how we define "war." Can only governments make war? But I've been over this on another thread, so I'll shut up about it.

As for your "small, professional armies" claim, while you're correct in terms of the ground forces of developed Western nations, the model isn't general (witness recent conflicts in West Africa). Nor does it account for the kinds of bombs available today, including "daisy-cutters" and "cluster" bombs. When those bad boys go off-target, lots and lots of people get hurt, and not all of them have insignia on their arms. And then there's human error, which doesn't go away just because we open a cybernetic interface and fly our missiles via technologies which cost more than any hospital you've ever visited.

Tactics are another factor. When your enemy is entrenched in a populated area, and when he may be preventing the evacuation of that area, your choices are grim however you slice it. You can pound the area, thus killing huge numbers of casualties, but also reducing the amount of deadly resistance encountered by your infantry and armor. Or you can send in tanks and troops and absorb military casualties which may reduce your army's effectiveness in future conflicts within the same war. Not to mention what such a choice will look like back home, as the aluminum coffins roll off the C-130. Public sentiment in America sours quicker than milk left outdoors in the Dog Days. It's a hard choice, and I don't envy the person who must make it.
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Neal Stanifer
Posted on Saturday, October 25, 2003 - 03:29 pm:   

Jeremy: "People call WW2 a 'Just' war, but it was not fought because of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime."

You're correct. It was fought because of a combination of factors, among them the naked territorial aggression of the Nazi regime; the formation of the Axis powers, all of whom had imperial aspirations; the terrifying speed with which Hitler was able to amass a nigh-unstoppable fighting force; and the rhetoric of the Nazi party, which promised exactly what it delivered -- aggressive conquest and authoritarian rule.

Was WWII a "just" war on the Allies' part, even without the Holocaust as casus belli? You're goddamn right it was. The atrocities were a postwar confirmation of that fact, but they were by no means a necessary condition of conflict. Nevertheless, had Hitler been permitted to acquire and hold the land he wanted, the nightmare wouldn't have been limited to the staggering millions he killed. The death would have ranged much farther and lasted far longer than any of us care to think about. Twelve million, twenty million, fifty million... How high can we count? At the heart of it all, though, is the matter of how much land such a regime is permitted to control. Nothing else. Land.

People in the Thirties and Forties didn't need the excuse of a cultural "little-guy" on the ropes as justification for war: that's a mindset we acquired after WWII, when we saw the pictures and heard the stories of U.S. GIs who endured the first psychic shock of Auschwitz and other death camps, when they saw with brand-new eyes the kind of horror humans were capable of. In the Thirties and Forties, raw, red-toothed, naked territorial aggression was enough. Those people seemed to know something we've forgotten. Who controls the land, controls the people.

It wasn't a matter of "good culture / bad culture" when German tanks were rolling into Warsaw. It wasn't a temporary lapse in moral relativism, or a resort to absolute morality in the face of untenable ethics, or anything quite so esoteric and bookish. I'm not sure where you get your interpretations of history, but they seem to have lead you astray if they've blinded you to the real and deadly aggression which was a prelude to the Allies' entry into the Second World War. There were guns and bombs and bodies, and factories turning out more and more of them every day. There were walled ghettos and subjugated citizens, civilians lined up on village streets and forced at gun point to salute their conquerors. And to this, the Allies said "No." And they acted in a decisive way. And eventually, that horror stopped.

Were there blackshirts in New York subways killing Jews while all this was going on? Yes, there were. Did Dr. Seuss pen racist anti-Japanese political cartoons during this period? Yes, he did. Was the mindset which produced fascism endemic to all governments in the West from the Twenties onward? It certainly was. None of this, however, makes the least bit of difference when we are asking whether stopping an autocrat from riding roughshod over all of Europe was a just act. It was.
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Posted on Saturday, October 25, 2003 - 04:05 pm:   

I have no experience with the Gulf War of Iraqi Freedom, but I have plenty of experience in dealing with war stats. In Viet Nam we (journalists) used to show up at the Ritz for USAID news briefings which gave the numbers of enemy dead and ours: total fabrications, of course. Only reason I went was for the buffet. Great ham sandwiches. After Viet Nam it was discovered that one of the bombsights used in the B-52s, which did the major bombing runs, was approximately as accurate as would have been the human eye. That makes me dubious about the entire concept of smart bombs. Also this: NVA calvary units and VC contingents were moving freely along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Someone got the idea to develop these long green sliver-shaped sensors that would detect concentrations of uric acid...so we could determine when these units stopped to pee; wehn they did, the theory went, the sensors would transmit a signal that would be picked up at the CIA radio base on the Plain of Jars and this would trigger a rocket strike on the position of the uric acid concentration. The VC learned of this, began seeking out these sensors and started hanging pots of urine in trees close to US firebases and then tossing a sensor in the pot; so the CIA base was engaged for quite some time in ordering rocket strikes on US positions. It;s been my experience that with the armed forces, while new technology offers a great many advantages, it also offers "military intelligence" countless opportunities for fuck-up. I guess my feeling is, smart bombs are no different in this regard.
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Laura MK
Posted on Saturday, October 25, 2003 - 06:12 pm:   

When one asks about the moral consequences of civilian casualties, I feel that one must consider not only the numbers of people killed, but also the method of their destruction.

We certainly did not start WWII in the Pacific, but we ended it in just a few days with a couple of bombs that were very new pieces of technology at the time. As a society, we've been dealing with the consequences of that choice ever since. But many involved in the production of those weapons continued to praise their benefits - because we won the war with them.

Likewise, the Japanese killed Chinese civilians in some of the most hideous experiments ever conceived at their unit 731. First infecting inmates with diseases and then vivisecting them to study what the bacteria and viruses did to their bodies. Or field testing delivery methods for their biological weapons on local peasants. The deaths numbered only in the hundreds or a couple of thousands, but the scars of survivors and those orphaned by the experiments are very deep indeed. The principal doctors involved with the experiments (led by Dr. Ishi) received no punishment by the allies in exchange for detailed debriefings on the project. Many of the men went on to hold leadership positions in Japanese society that included Governor of Tokyo, President of the Japan Medical Association and head of the Japan Olympic Committee.

I guess what I'm asking is whose moral consequences are we exploring? And are moral consequnces predicated on some sort of retribution for the misdeeds?
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L. Timmel Duchamp
Posted on Saturday, October 25, 2003 - 07:37 pm:   

There have been many, many wars in the last 20 years, & I can't spare the time to look for casualty figures for each of them. Since the US's war against Panama in 1989 was short & limited to mainly Panama City, I went to the Physicians for Human Rights site & looked at the figures it offers there. Of course once I read a summary of their report, I then recalled-- very, very vaguely-- that as is often the case in recent wars, the figures were in dispute. PHR, like most human rights organizations, uses very conservative figures. (IIRC, the Catholic Church estimated civilian casualties a good deal higher.) Here is the relevant portion of the PHR's summary:

(December 16, 1990) - At least six times as many civilians as Panamanian military died in the December 1989 U.S. invasion, according to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) which released its report today on the human costs of the invasion. "This belies the claim by the U.S. government that it had planned and achieved a surgical strike against military targets," said Jonathan Fine, M.D., PHR's executive director. (Veiw table of contents)

The 60-page report, released on the first anniversary of the invasion (December 20, 1989), also found that:

*At least 300 Panamanian civilians died due to the invasion, a toll more than 100 higher than that reported earlier this year by U.S. military commanders. This figure represents a conservative estimate of the number of civilian deaths which we have been able to verify from all sources.

*The official U.S. total of 314 Panamanian military deaths could not be supported by reliable evidence. Belatedly, the U.S. government has acknowledged the determination by PHR that only approximately fifty Panamanian military were killed in the invasion.

*Neither Panamanian nor U.S. governments provided a careful accounting of non-lethal injuries. PHR determined that at least 3,000 Panamanian civilians received physical injuries sufficiently serious to require emergency treatment at hospitals or the U.S. military's field medical units during the invasion and its violent aftermath.

*Relief efforts were inadequate to meet the basic needs of thousands of civilians made homeless by the invasion. The United States took responsibility for support of no more than 3,000 of the estimated 15,000 displaced persons.

The war in Rwanda obviously killed almost exclusively civilians. Ditto for the wars in the Balkans-- including the US/Nato war against Yugoslavia, where the Serb miliatry came out of the war nearly unscathed. (All those tanks Nato commanders claimed to have been hitting turned out to have been mock-ups. The bunkers empty. Etc.) Where Muslim civilians are concerned, the figures are bound to be too low, since the religion requires the dead to be buried within 24 hours & official figures will not count deaths that have not been verified in very particular ways. & finally, as we know from many, many news stories (& now from the recent complaints of human rights organizations), the Occupation in Iraq doesn't bother to count the civilians it kills.

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