The deaths of others: the fate of civilians in America's wars

  • Fall 2011
John Tirman

Watch a video discussion with John Tirman about his book

By John Tirman
November 1, 2011

An excerpt from the introduction

A FRIEND AND I WERE WALKING across the National Mall in Washington, DC, one day in the spring of 2009 and happened upon the Korean War Memorial, which I had never seen closely. It commemorates the Americans who died protecting South Korea from an invasion by North Korea; some three million people died in the three-year war, more than 30,000 of them US soldiers. The memorial was striking in design, with its platoon of bronze-cast soldiers, frozen in time, making its way through the mud and cold, and the eerie photographic images on an adjacent marble wall. But one thing was missing—any mention of the Korean people. Even the South Korean forces were lumped together with all the countries that served under the UN command. We then ventured across to the Vietnam War Memorial, which I had visited before and which had always struck me powerfully, probably because the 56,000 names of the dead on the Wall were men and women of my generation. But I noticed that here, too, there was no reference to the people these memorialized men and women were there to protect. It was as if, in these two conflagrations, only the Americans could be cited, only their deaths mattered: not even the place or the call-to-arms merited more than a glancing note.

One of the most remarkable aspects of American wars is how little we discuss the victims who are not Americans. The costs of war to the populations and common soldiers of the "enemy" are rarely found in the narratives and dissections of conflict, and this habit is a durable feature of how we remember war. As a nation that has long thought of itself as built on Christian ethics, even as an exceptionally compassionate people, this coldness is a puzzle. It is in fact more than a puzzle, for ignorance or indifference has consequences for the victims of American wars and for America itself. 

Wars can kill a great many people, and innocent people, which everyone knows but few consider more closely; it seems to be a regrettable but unavoidable fact of armed conflict. Throughout the twentieth century, it was apparent that war was killing by direct violence more and more civilians as a share of total deaths, flipping the one-to-nine ratio of civilian-to-soldier mortality in the First World War to nine-to-one in many of the ethnic conflicts that occurred after the Cold War ended. Whether this startling reversal of fortune is exactly correct is less important than the underlying reality of breathtaking civilian tolls. In that same, gruesome century, only gradual fluctuations in attitudes about war and its human cost were discernible. The horror of the carnage of the Great War in Europe probably had the most lasting impact, deflating the glorification of war that held sway for so many centuries.

John Tirman

The Deaths of Others, by John Tirman, principal research scientist and executive director at CIS. Published by Oxford University Press, Summer 2011.

Since then, however, a bleak sensibility of war's necessity has persisted, chiefly in the United States, which has been spared devastation since our Civil War and has regarded itself as safeguarding the free world against fascism, communism, and terrorism. We have altered the dynamics of death in wartime—more efficient killing, more civilians than soldiers dying—but we have not altered how we think about the human consequences of war. Even the Cold War could sustain nuclear weapons of such power that the casualties in a full-out US-Soviet war were estimated in the hundreds of millions, and this risk was thought acceptable by large numbers of Americans, so much so that the risk continues even though the conflict has vanished.

In the wars since the two-time use of nuclear weapons ended the Second World War in 1945, the US military has been in three major wars: Korea, 1950–53; Vietnam, 1964–75; and Iraq, 1991–present. (Author's Note: The war in Afghanistan, now America's longest, is much smaller than the other three in the numbers of casualties among the local population. Several aspects of Operation Enduring Freedom are considered, however, as it fits patterns explored in this book.) Between one and three million people have died in each of those wars. Most of the dead were civilians. The Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 were of doubtful legality, making those high casualties all the more vexing. The US military did not kill those six to seven million people alone. The adversaries—North Korea and China, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and dozens of insurgent groups—did plenty of killing, as did the armies we supported. There was a rationale attached to each American intervention, not always a compelling rationale, but one that was shaped by both a sense of national destiny and specific, perceived threats. These three wars were enormous conflicts, and with a couple of exceptions—the Chinese Civil War, which took eight million lives, and the war in the Congo, which by some estimates has five million dead—the American wars are the largest since the Second World War. So we have had, as a people, ample opportunity to experience war, if remotely, and to debate the consequences of those wars that were, paradoxically, distinct expressions of the Pax Americana.

Each of these interventions was initially popular among the American people, but they ended in political failure and public disappointment. (While I explore the Iraq War as one venture from Operation Desert Storm to the present, declining public favor applies to the main phase beginning with the 2003 invasion.) The disintegration of support for war follows notably similar patterns in each instance. "Rally-round-the-flag" zeal soon crumbles as reports of setbacks on the battlefield and American casualties mount. Whether antiwar voices are prominent or muted seems not to affect the downward cycle of public distaste for the conflict. Nor does this growing aversion in each instance stem from concern about the bloodshed spilled by the populations in the war zone. Apart from yellow ribbons and occasional hero status accorded the American troops, a recent trend, the home front was indifferent to the human costs of war. The Vietnam War (itself a misnomer, as the United States carried the war into Cambodia and Laos) generated more aversion to these human costs by peace activists and the news media than did Korea or Iraq, but even then the war opposition mainly built its case on the growing numbers of US casualties and the futility of their sacrifice.

Pondering what was happening to the civilians in the distinctive kinds of mayhem that characterized each war was typically reserved to some scattered depictions of hardship in communities the United States supported (and stories of GIs rescuing them), or, far more troubling, reports of atrocities. The nature of war, and the new wars in which combatants mix with civilians routinely, yields atrocities on all sides. It perhaps bespeaks American innocence that My Lai or Haditha could provoke bursts of surprised and tearful outrage, but they did, at least initially, and for a brief time focused a dimming spotlight on the conduct of a few misbehaving soldiers or marines. Such episodes of war coverage were perhaps typical of the news media, fixating, however glancingly, on a spectacular case and missing the quotidian reality of what war does to a society that is torn by opposing forces, suffers saturation bombing and house-to-house incursions, has millions forced from their towns and villages, copes with poisoned soil and water and ruined crops, and feels and sees death everywhere. For years in each place, this suffocating trauma of war—the senseless brutalizing of civilians—escaped Americans' notice or sympathy, appeared very rarely in literature or film, stirred virtually no debate or calls for new policies, and never seemed to be at the roots of disgust with the war.

The question, then, is why: why were civilians so badly mistreated? Why does this mistreatment persist under US political and military leadership? And why are Americans so indifferent to these massive human tragedies?

Several suppositions litter that series of whys, and in the following chapters I address each one empirically. Did civilians suffer excessively? Certainly, the scale of mortality and displacement, to say nothing of postwar traumas, is very high. Was the United States responsible for this suffering? In league with others, yes, though I suggest that in Indochina and Iraq, the United States has primary culpability. The harder question is how much of this "collateral damage" is intentional, or merely callous. That American elites and the broader public do not seem to care much about innocent bystanders in the wars we begin is not really in dispute. But, again, the question is why: is it a product of political culture, as many suggest, or a more universal response to war by major powers that are not suffering from war's disturbances? And does this indifference matter?

This topic has been missing from public discourse and academic studies alike. Most academic treatments of war look at causes, behavior of states, military strategies, effects on other states, and the like. Some interest in analyzing genocide is surfacing, but it has little to do with America. The human element, apart from a nascent interest in human rights, is almost entirely missing. A new emphasis on "human security" (in contrast to the security of states) has not gained much footing inside the university, much less US politics. Sociology and anthropology view wars more closely and with more attention to impacts on humans, but the work of these traditions in the war zones of Korea, Indochina, and Iraq is very limited. So, too, are the voices of the victims, at least in English, and this constrains the scholar's ability to address the social consequences of war (particularly as in two of the venues I examine a repressive state remains in place, and in Iraq the grappling with war's effects is only beginning). As a result, the study of war stays focused on causes, military strategy, and relationships between states.

One cannot escape the sensation, however, that the lack of attention to this topic derives from more than just indifference or oversight. During the Israeli-Hezbollah war in the summer of 2006 and the Israeli siege of Gaza in 2008–2009, for example, the major American newspapers had dozens of editorials and many news stories about the targeting of civilians, as well as the consequences of that action. Why so little attention to the Iraq War, which during the summer war in Lebanon was frenzied with violence, with as many people dying in any two days as were killed in Lebanon during the entire skirmish? Large natural disasters—the tsunami in Asia in 2004 and the earthquake in Haiti in 2010—earn extensive news media coverage and an outpouring of generosity from Americans, both of which are laudable, but neither of those disasters actually caused as much human damage as has the long war in Iraq. One wonders if the American-made disasters are simply too painful to discuss, even by those policy makers, journalists, and academics who are meant to do so.

The squeamishness Americans feel about addressing the very raw questions posed in this book is perhaps normal. It is not likely that Britain or France, with their many colonial wars, have been more forthright about their occasionally brutal behavior, to say nothing of the Soviet Union. But this book is about the United States, and it is notable how little we discuss American wars in any but very rote ways about winning, toughness, American heroism, and letting "slip the dogs of war." The consequences for American society—the financial costs, the flotsam of American casualties—also earn some uneasy attention for a time. Academic discourse follows the same path. And this is a country that has a lot of wars and a lot of popular literature and films and television programs about war, and yet the interest in what happened to the Koreans, Vietnamese, and Iraqis is almost nonexistent.

When civilian casualties are discussed, it is typically undertaken in ways that explain how carefully the US military avoids collateral damage. This, too, is to be expected, since US policy makers and other elites have often demonstrated sensitivity to the potential for a negative public reaction if the United States appears to be too unsympathetic to civilian suffering. (The political and military leaders tend to be more worried about foreign opinion than American, and that is a correct perception, since it is mainly foreigners who express disgust at war's destruction.) So, for example, Lyndon Johnson disavowed intent to harm civilians in the bombing of North Vietnam, and Donald Rumsfeld stated that Americans don't kill civilians, terrorists do. The apologists for American behavior range across the political spectrum and typically settle on a few devices to ward off closer inspection: the US military has rules in place to protect civilians; the bad behavior of a few do not reflect the broader conduct of soldiers in the war; the enemy and its sympathizers exaggerate civilian casualties; the other side is worse, and so on. The topic of culpability for very large-scale civilian suffering is deflected by reference to the essential rightness of the war, its ultimate benefits to those very populations under siege, and the good intentions of Americans abroad. Actual practices and consequences are thus shuffled to the side, and the conventional wisdom is secured.

Concern with civilian death is channeled toward the academy and jurisprudence, namely, a philosophical interest evolving over the twentieth century that addresses "noncombatant immunity," now drawing on a legal basis in the Geneva Conventions. The Conventions, which became international law in 1949 (with Additional Protocols in 1977) sanction warring states and occupying forces from "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture...[and] outrages upon personal diginity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment," among other strictures, specifically with reference to civilians. The rules imbedded in the Conventions are subscribed to by the US government, and while there has been ample discord on their scope and application in Washington, the United States generally accepts the moral and legal obligations the Conventions embody. Treatment of detainees came under special scrutiny during the "war on terrorism," precisely because the Conventions were being violated. The protection of civilians more broadly gains less attention—there was far more coverage of a few detainees at Guantanamo than to the entire civilian population of Iraq—but the Geneva accords remain the legal norm to which military and civilian leaders pay homage. 

This legal and philosophical tradition is useful: it is taught in war colleges and finds its way into some military training, as it does engage directly the matter of whether attacks on civilians can ever be justified, and tries to set out some rules for this quandary. In many respects, this is a narrowly legal discourse and largely divorced from the realities of war. What policy makers and legal advisers claim the US military is doing and what is actually happening on the ground may be—often are—two entirely different things. Concerns with noncombatant immunity also draw on a "just war" discourse that is significantly unsuited to the vagaries of contemporary conflict. If one were to take the thrust of "just war" arguments and apply them to the Iraq War, one could claim that all insurgent attacks on Americans are justified because the invasion was not legal, was conducted under false pretenses, and therefore every single American in Iraq is fair game. By the same reasoning, all deaths caused by the U.S. military are wrong and possibly could be classed as war crimes. Conversely, since nearly all Arab Iraqis in the 2004–2007 period wanted the US military to leave, and many thought attacks on Americans were justifiable, then an argument could be made that (if one considered the invasion to be legal, perhaps post hoc) US attacks on civilians were justifiable on the basis of their support for insurgency. In other words, the just war tradition, however well meaning, and accompanying arguments about noncombatant immunity are not merely detached but malleable and thereby not compelling. A strict constructionist reading of the Geneva Protocol is far more useful.

Legal strictures notwithstanding, more constraints on the use of military firepower against civilians will come about only if we understand fully the human consequences of war. Whether or not this book fills in some of the gaps in our understanding of civilian suffering in war remains to be seen. It was spurred by my involvement with one attempt to account for the dead of Iraq. I was struck by how little attention there was to civilian deaths and displacement in Iraq from the outset of the 2003 war. The first attempt I knew of—the article published in a British medical journal, The Lancet, in October 2004 estimating that 98,000 Iraqis (not just civilians) had died in the first eighteen months of the war—got virtually no attention at all. I spoke with the principal author, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, a leading institution, and found myself drawn to this topic. Apart from the emotional impact of learning about the scale of killing, this magnitude explained, as no other account did, why the insurgency rose so quickly and ferociously in Iraq. Other explanations, notably, that Sunni Arabs were deprived of their status, seemed inadequate or at least incomplete. The killing or roughing up of Iraqis by US troops, putting many thousands in a Dickensian detention system, disrespecting social norms, and so on, had alienated many tens of thousands; and in the dense kinship networks of Iraq this sparked obligations of revenge and of defending one's community. And this would be significant only if the killing itself had been sizable. Heuristically, then, this appeared to be a significant finding: the US military was battling an insurgency that was to some important degree one of its own making, and the methods of battling it only intensified that very response of resistance. To explore this further, I commissioned another household survey with a different lead researcher, also at Hopkins, from a program I headed at the MIT Center for International Studies. This survey, taken in the late spring of 2006, found an astonishing 655,000 "excess deaths" attributable to the war, 90 percent by violence, and about a third attributed to US firepower. If this was indeed the case, if even half true, then the violence of the war was far more understandable than its being an ethnic rivalry or loss-of-status issue. The Iraqis were being attacked, and they were fighting back. But another aspect of the mortality study we commissioned was disturbing—the public remained utterly unmoved by this scale of carnage, and indeed the pro-war advocates dismissed the findings altogether (including President George W. Bush in a press conference the day after the survey's release). The news media, after a one- or two-day flurry of articles, largely misinterpreted the survey techniques, making the results seem less credible. The downward trend in public support for the war at that time did not appear to be affected by the survey's results, although pollsters in the United States rarely ask about concern for the populations in war zones. So, again, the public indifference was glaring, and in my view needed to be investigated in tandem with the indifference of policy elites and indeed the policies and practices toward civilians. At the suggestion of my editor, this inquiry was expanded to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which showed the same tendencies and patterns, the same ideological gloss, the same grisly outcomes. 

As this work evolved, then, a set of patterns in American attitudes and consequent actions emerged. The argument of the book is as follows. The US military, despite policies that claim to protect civilians in war zones, do not in practice do so adequately or consistently. Field commanders are given considerable leeway to deal with local conditions, particularly when US troops are possibly vulnerable to attack. In Korea, initially deployed troops were poorly trained, operated in an intense "fog of war," and believed they had an acute problem of discriminating civilians from North Korean infiltrators. The saturation bombing of North Korea was conducted with nearly complete disregard for the civilian consequences. In Vietnam, discrimination was a daily challenge and led to the wholesale destruction of villages suspected (often without evidence) of communist sympathies. Officers were pressured by commanders for high body counts. Aerial bombing and artillery shelling were frequently excessive and indiscriminate. In Iraq, discrimination again appeared as a major problem, but high civilian casualties also resulted from US force protection, the methods of house-to-house searches and checkpoints, detention of tens of thousands of Iraqis, and, by 2005, the inability to provide order. All of these actions in three wars led to the killing of an astonishing number of innocent people. There has been, in effect, a two-tiered system of a policy that avows to uphold the Geneva Conventions but an unacknowledged practice having priorities that frequently victimize civilians, people who are discardable because they are gooks or hajis or, simply, "savages." The US government's dissembling about civilian casualties radiates into elite discourse, which appears less as an intentional strategy than as an absence of discourse, or merely draws upon the old tropes of the frontier, the civilizing mission of American force, and the consequences for those who get caught in the crossfire. Reinforced by or causative of public indifference, this lack of concern may also be a state of passive denial; no public demand for different behavior is forthcoming as a result. The denial is not merely cultural or political; it is psychological—avoidance of the trauma of so many dead, wounded, and displaced, and even reactions leading to blaming the victim.