Uncommon Sense

August 18, 2016

Civilian War Casualties are Invisible, Honest!

Filed under: History,Politics — Steve Ruis @ 8:32 am
Tags: , , ,

The N.Y. Times had an op-ed piece this morning that asked the interesting question: “Does the U.S. Ignore Its Civilian Casualties in Iraq and Syria?” The reason it is interesting is why would anyone in their right mind limit the discussion to Iraq and Syria?


The U.S. has ignored civilian casualties in every conflict we have engaged in. Recall the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. Recall the indiscriminate bombing in Viet Nam and bordering countries. Recall, well, Sherman’s march through Georgia. Recall, the U.S. Indian Wars in which Native American women and children somehow were considered combatants and were slaughtered indiscriminately.

If you think otherwise, name a conflict in which our behavior changed for the better because of a reaction to civilian casualties. I cannot think of one.

Instead of discussions of the usual chest thumping topics in our high school textbooks, this would be an interesting discussion for all U.S. History classes.


  1. The U.S. has ignored civilian casualties in every conflict we have engaged in.

    Steve, that’s not true.

    There is very much a military concern about causing civilian casualties and real policies to try to mitigate them. Granted, this is a strategic rather than legal policy but one cannot have a military confrontation in civilian settings and not have civilian casualties. It cannot be done. But one should at least gain some appreciation to what extent the US military really does try – and that is a key point in this consideration – to mitigate civilian casualties.

    As for your examples, Dresden was intentional and in response to Coventry… as intentional as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The intention was to cause mass civilian casualties and that objective was obtained. That’s what total war looks like in action. And yes, democracies founded on secular enlightenment principles are willing and able to do so. This is important to know globally. As for reaction, there’s also no question about the negative political implications of troops committing unguided slaughter with an official cover-up. My Lai comes to mind and this, along with the first real televised conflict, I think fundamentally changed warfare from large manned assaults towards a growing use of smart bombs, guidance ordinance, and drones.

    And good history classes aren’t about moral judging from today’s perspective but learning how to understand the very real, the very human, and the very difficult task of being there, of making decisions, of committing acts that change things. Understanding how this occurred in real time in real places and in what real context matters… if one wishes to learn from them rather than merely learn about them.


    Comment by tildeb — August 18, 2016 @ 9:36 am | Reply

    • I do not doubt that our military services have addressed this issue … I doubt seriously that all of us collectively have. Do we pay any attention to news stories about civilian casualties? Do we collectively eschew war for diplomacy? Do we have other policies that make the ones reducing civilian casualties moot? Do we make demands on our lawmakers to reduce the number of lethal conflicts we get involved in?It seems that our general stance … as a nation … is fairly war-like and our attitude: you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. Unfortunately those “eggs” are other peoples lives and the lives of our dedicated soldiers who get killed and maimed to further political ends that are dubious at best. As long as the effect is on “others” we … as a nation … don’t seem to care much.


      On Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 9:36 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 9:43 am | Reply

      • Yes, the US is a very war-like country. Has been since its inception.

        The problem I have is that I have family in the Canadian, British, American, and Australian armed forces and so this affects how I look at military events. They are all connected to help explain the here and now. Get students to understand this, gain their attention and promote their involvement in the larger world.

        I understand how seductive it is for civilians in each country to judge that their own foreign policy carried out by military means is somehow to blame for inflicting death on others. This is a surface understanding. But that has never been to goal but the byproduct of conducting military operations to achieve political ends. If trying to achieve those ends are deemed worthwhile, then civilian deaths are widely condoned as part of the cost. If those ends are deemed to be morally suspect, then civilian deaths are considered to be exported murder. Understanding the difference is important… as important as any court case involving intent.

        A significant problem with so much of today’s teaching of history is getting students to calculate that difference without using today’s standards, without using the end results but the prior situation as the metric. Not doing so is neither fair nor accurate. The men and women in the armed forces are doing what they see as their sworn duty to the best of their abilities not for personal gain, not for the joy of killing, not because they are evil, not for personal aggrandizement, but in service to their countries and the safety of their fellow citizens. Students need to learn this, and see the North Korean soldier, the Russian sailor, the Syrian helicopter pilot, as doing the same. The historical issue isn’t about the killing; it’s about studying when achieving political ends (and if those ends are justified) should be or can be accomplished by military means. In the same way there is a time and place for legitimate and moral killing, so too is there an historical time and place for civilian casualties.

        This study is more important and serious, I think, than many others because it’s not simply an esoteric undertaking but involves the killing of real people in real life sanctioned by each of us as members of the society in which we live and pay taxes. That’s serious business because each of us is partly responsible and we can’t wave that away by pretending being against something eliminates our part in being responsible for it. And we need to teach students the real cost of isolationism, the real cost of committing to half measures, the real cost to foreign policy failures and prevarication… not just from a national but global perspective.


        Comment by tildeb — August 18, 2016 @ 11:18 am | Reply

        • That the soldiers are young men ground between the grievances of old men has been known for years. I have no grievances with the tools of war, simply with how they are used. This country moved to an all-volunteer army, a professional army, and now seems to feel empowered to abuse those soldiers in ways they never would have back in the days of the draft. The general population does not seem to be engaged by the plight of these soldiers, other than to show pro forma respect. The fact that the record mess of the VAA has been allowed to go on for decades is appalling in its lack of gratitude, for example.

          It also seems that many of our military adventures are fueled by corporate/economic needs rather than political ones. What was the Iraq War about? (Hint: oil.) Was Iraq a threat to the U.S.? No? was Iraq a threat to its neighbors? Probably not, but it wasn’t as if Iraq’s neighbors could have done anything about it … and we might have learned a great deal about our erstwhile allies in how that was accomplished.

          On Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 11:18 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 12:29 pm | Reply

          • You raise a good point, Steve. There is a growing disconnect between the people of the US and its government’s use of the military. I think understanding history and being able to apply its lessons is a really good way to bring these two back into a better alignment, to be able to determine if the military is being used as a tool of the few or actually in service to the many. And the treatment of veterans is a very good indication of which is which. Young men and poverty are a wonderful recruiting combination, n’est pas? Makes you wonder…


            Comment by tildeb — August 18, 2016 @ 2:13 pm | Reply

            • If you go back to Sparta, if you were male you were a soldier until you proved otherwise (to your disgrace). I think we lost something when we left having a citizen army behind. I do understand that soldering has become way more complicated and requires a great deal more training but we are paying (through the nose) for civilian “contractors” to do menial jobs that used to be done by soldiers. I think those jobs are easily done enough by citizen soldiers and some form of universal service (not necessarily military) would re-engage people in the body politic.

              On Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 2:13 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



              Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

  2. Sorry. I failed to close the link after ‘real policies to try to mitigate them’. My bad


    Comment by tildeb — August 18, 2016 @ 9:36 am | Reply

    • The link to the new army manual seems like a step in the right direction. Whether it will have an impact remains to be seen. And it has taken us this long to get to this point?

      I have seen too many international and national policies/agreements/treaties flat out ignored (water boarding is torture, no it is an enhanced interrogation technique).

      On Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 9:36 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 9:46 am | Reply

      • But the intent is there.


        Comment by tildeb — August 18, 2016 @ 11:21 am | Reply

        • And there are whole roads paved with good intentions. ;o)

          Yes, it is an error to apply standards of one era to another, but a reasonable exercise, even with high school students, is to compare the standards of two eras. There were times in which slavery was supported by most individuals, most governments and most religions. Today it is considered almost universally as being immoral and criminal. Moral then, immoral now. At one point, it was considered immoral (by some) to attack civilian sites during a war. Now, the question is under open debate (Gaza and Syria being recent foci for such).

          On Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 11:21 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

          • Right. And those are the kind of lessons so vital in life that history enables each generation to learn.


            Comment by tildeb — August 18, 2016 @ 2:14 pm | Reply

  3. Dresden was burned by the Brits. Harrison.

    I think, though, the US has gone to greater efforts than any other nation in trying not to kill civilians. Think, after all, how easy it would have been to simply develop field nuclear weapons.


    Comment by john zande — August 18, 2016 @ 9:49 am | Reply

    • A defense that the U.S. is not quite as bad as everybody else is rather feeble and hardly fits in with the Doctrine of American Exceptualism (sic). ;o)

      On Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 9:49 AM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 9:57 am | Reply

    • Well, just to quibble, Bomber Command at night, which necessarily meant the British (and Canadians) and Dresden. Americans in the day. I’ve spoken with Air Force veterans about this raid, and to a man (including an uncle) would do it again in a heartbeat… not as a rationalization for past actions but as a necessary means to what they saw as an end. And that intention was to shorten the war.

      I think it’s easy to forget in the Dresden example that when these guys have a 10% casualty rate per sortie, they lose many friends. Those friends are dead. They were killed. They had been shot down, machine gunned when hanging from parachutes, burned alive, blown apart, indiscriminately targeted by mass shrapnel, and bombed at home. Entire neighbourhoods gutted and in rubble. Family and friends dead. My father survived Bomber Command by the simple flip of a coin he ‘lost’. His entire crew – the guys he had trained with, played ball, ate together and shared stories – had a two tail gunners and so they flipped to see who who go and who would stay. The plane lost a wing shortly after takeoff, crashed and exploded at the end of the runway, and all while he watched. It’s real.

      Death in war is indiscriminate and is no more tragic at the end of the runway by people in uniform than it is in a civilian home of Dresden or Nagasaki. These actions helped to bring about an end to the war just as the soldiers and sailors and airmen wanted, not just by the fighting between military but by the dying of its host civilian population in unsustainable numbers. That’s what a military does and we often forget this central role: to kill.

      So it almost goes against the ethos for a military to be responsible for NOT killing. Kudos to the Western military for trying to land the coin flip on its edge.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by tildeb — August 18, 2016 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

      • This is the damnable thing about war. The participants are doing much of what they do to protect the ones closest to them (their bomber crews, their squad mates, etc.) but those feelings should not be the basis of policy/strategy. The idea was that the heads behind the lines would be cooler and more deliberate holds some merit. My problem is not with individual soldiers making decisions in real time, it is with larger scale things (and if the grunts supported the bombing of Dresden, then apparently they also supported Abu Grab (sp?)). And the question of “would you do it all over again” is not a valid question. It asks people to second guess, it allows them to base their answer upon what they now know to be the results, it is a slap at their superiors if they answer “no,” etc. An alternative is “Would you accept the equivalent being done to your own home town?”

        On Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 12:24 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



        Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

        • I happen to think the whole premise of Bomber Command – mass sorties night and day – was very poor because the results were not attained. But that personal view doesn’t matter when it comes to understanding the historical role Bomber Command played, why it had such a loud voice behind the scenes, why such high casualty rates were acceptable, and so on.

          I also understand why dropping bombs is preferable to dropping troops. It is always easier to destroy than build. However, this is why I think state sponsored war should not be half done. It should be understood by all parties that war means the annihilation of all the institutions and infrastructure of the Other, a complete and utter conquering of a society of people made wholly dependent on the conqueror. That means victory for the conqueror doesn’t occur until the Other has been successfully rebuilt and re-institutionalized. The conqueror must be responsible for that generational transition back to independence, back to making the vanquished once again a contributing member of the peaceful international community. War must become known as both a time to destroy and a burden to bear. Half measures keeps us constantly on the brink of war with some military meddling here and there. Military capability is not police force. It is a tool for killing.


          Comment by tildeb — August 18, 2016 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

      • Agreed. It’s for this reason I think “police actions” are ridiculous. If you are going to consider war, you better have a damn good reason, and if you do order your troops out of their barracks you should understand it’s a bloody fight to the death. In 1999 Australia was prepared to go to war with Indonesia over East Timor. Most importantly, Jakarta understood we were prepared. Planes and personnel had all been moved forward to northern bases, SAS moved from Perth to Kununurra, and if the Indonesians tried to force their hand on the island after we landed (preparing the way for INTERFET) they knew it would be on. They chose wisely, thankfully, on that occasion.


        Comment by john zande — August 18, 2016 @ 12:54 pm | Reply

        • There is an art to being un-subtle. (Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oy, oy, oy!)

          Or is it Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, oy, oy, oy? Communications cross cultures is so difficult!

          On Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 12:54 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 1:25 pm | Reply

          • It’s a good ploy, having the SAS based outside Perth; the furthest city on the planet away from anything. If you move them, and their equipment, the people “looking” (the people who’re paid to be paranoid) know something is up.


            Comment by john zande — August 18, 2016 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

            • And SAS stands for Serious Assed Suckers if I recall rightly.

              On Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 1:43 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


              Liked by 1 person

              Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 2:01 pm | Reply

  4. The dialogue between you and tildeb was worth the read here.


    Comment by lbwoodgate — August 18, 2016 @ 2:02 pm | Reply

    • You are very kind.

      On Thu, Aug 18, 2016 at 2:02 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 2:49 pm | Reply

    • Which makes one wonder why we are training local police in military tactics and equipping them with military equipment.

      Basically I do not disagree with anything you have said (at least not vigorously). I am just a grumpy old man who doesn’t like the direction this country has turned in. And maybe that has to do with our sanitized education system. Learning about all of our atrocities after the fact undermines the false faith I was given to have in the moral stance of our government/people.


      Comment by Steve Ruis — August 18, 2016 @ 3:03 pm | Reply

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