Civilians, the Forgotten Victims of War

W.J. Astore

You could fill libraries with books written about war campaigns, battles, generals, and weapons, but the amount of attention dedicated to civilians as victims of war is slim indeed. I’ve been browsing bookshelves for nearly fifty years for books on war, and for all the books on Rommel and Panzers and Patton and tanks and Lee and Grant and Jackson and Sherman that I’ve seen time and time again, I’ve only seen a couple of books dedicated to war and civilians as victims. One book I found was in a used bookshop in Woodstock in Oxfordshire in c.1993. Its title is “The Forgotten Victim: A History of the Civilian,” by Richard Shelly Hartigan, published in 1982.

In his preface, Hartigan wrote that he discovered In his research on “just war” theory that no single work existed on civilians as “innocent” noncombatants and how this status manifested itself in the history of warfare. More recently, Hugo Slim in 2008 wrote a book, “Killing Civilians: Method, Madness, and Morality in War” that also tackled this subject. I reviewed Slim’s book for the Michigan War Studies Review. Here’s how I began it:

Due to their vulnerability, civilians, not professional soldiers, usually suffer the most from war. They are, in fact, “the forgotten victim[s]” of war. Take today’s war and occupation in Iraq: whereas the U.S. military has lost about four thousand troops killed, the war and its resulting social and political chaos have caused at least 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths (some estimates are higher by a factor of five or more). The wide variance in estimates for Iraqi civilian deaths in itself indicates the physical and moral messiness of modern wars (as well as the political agendas of the estimators). And, naturally, militaries count and commemorate their own dead more assiduously than those of civilians caught in the crossfire of combat …

Next, Slim details the “seven spheres of civilian suffering” in war, including genocide, massacre, torture, mass rape and sexual violence, involuntary movement, impoverishment, famine, disease, and emotional distress. His accounts are informed by historical examples as well as his own experiences working in humanitarian relief efforts in West and Central Africa. He reminds us that civilians often suffer long after wars are over, whether from psychological issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or such detritus of war as unexploded munitions and mines.

Most civilians, Slim notes, “die from war rather than in battle“—with loss of identity and livelihood ultimately proving more deadly in the aggregate than bullets and bombs (91). His emphasis on loss of identity is especially telling. In war, people “lose themselves. Socially and personally, they are no longer the people they were …. If destitution, personal injury or rape has humiliated them and brought them very low, they may have lost that essential dignity and self-esteem which was the anchor of their sense of self and gave them the confidence with which to take their place in the world” (109-10). They have become strangers to themselves, and estranged as well from traditional communal networks of support.

Rarely did (or do) we hear in the U.S. mainstream media about civilian suffering and death from the Iraq and Afghan Wars, among other countries and peoples swept up in America’s still ongoing war on terror. Interestingly, the U.S. media is now reporting in harrowing detail about Ukrainian civilian casualties and alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops. What was very much kept in the background, and largely offstage, for America’s various wars has been foregrounded, often taking center stage, in the Russia-Ukraine War.

What we truly need is intense media coverage of civilian casualties in all wars, especially our own, and today’s article by Andrea Mazzarino at TomDispatch.com helps to rectify that need (along with a searing introduction by Nick Turse). Mazzarino’s title is telling: “the true costs of war,” including the suffering of innocents that so often goes unreported or is otherwise ignored. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s easy to forget how regularly soldiers kill and maim innocent civilians, sometimes deliberately.

According to our count, by 2022, some 387,000 civilians had been killed thanks to war’s violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. Civilian deaths similarly occurred in countries like Somalia where President Biden just redeployed hundreds of American troops in another round of the military offensive against the Islamic terror group al-Shabab (which has grown stronger in these years of all-American violence).

People living where the U.S. has fought have died in their homes and neighborhoods from bombings, shellings, missile attacks, and shootings. They’ve died while shopping for groceries or walking or driving to school or work. They’ve stepped on mines or cluster bombs while collecting wood or farming their fields. Various parties in our conflicts have kidnapped or assassinated people as they went about their everyday lives. Girls and women have purposely been raped as an attack on their communities. Human Rights Watch has documented how, in Afghanistan, parties on all sides of the war on terror, including troops and police allied with the United States, have raped, kidnapped, shot, or tortured civilians, including children.

The International Committee of the Red Cross defines war crimes as acts that are disproportionate to the military advantage sought, that do not distinguish between military and civilian targets, or that fail to take precautions to minimize injuries and loss of life among civilians. It was symbolically apt that the last U.S. drone strike in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as U.S. troops were withdrawing from our 20 year-old war there, reportedly killed three adults and seven children. And yet most Americans never seemed to take in how much civilians suffered from our war tactics, widely publicized as “surgical” and “precise” in their targeting of Islamic extremists, even as they now take in how the Russians are slaughtering Ukrainian civilians.

It’s high time we examine war in all its destructiveness and inhumanity. It’s high time we had far fewer books on “great captains” and “decisive weapons” and far more on the true costs of war. If we can stop glorifying war and start opening our eyes to all its horrors, we might finally act in a concerted nature to put a stop to it. A man can dream, right?

13 thoughts on “Civilians, the Forgotten Victims of War

    1. Vast coverup by the Pentagon? That can’t be. The deaths of thousands of innocents, many of them children? Can’t be. Obama said our technology is super-precise.

      Plus that reporter, Azmat Khan, has a funny name. She can’t be trusted.

      Seriously, we have great power but take no responsibility. Totally amoral. So much for what Uncle Ben taught Spider-Man.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Andrea Mazzarino ~ author of the Tom Dispatch article cited ~ is a co-founder of The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs [https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/]

    The Project tracks the Human, Economic, Social, and Political Costs of America’s Forever War:

    U.S. BUDGETARY COSTS: $8 Trillion
    HUMAN COST: Over 929,000 Killed
    PEOPLE DISPLACED: 38 Million
    GEOGRAPHIC REACH: Over 85 Countries

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  2. You wrote, Colonel: “Rarely did (or do) we hear in the U.S. mainstream media about civilian suffering and death from the Iraq and Afghan Wars, among other countries and peoples swept up in America’s still ongoing war on terror. Interestingly, the U.S. media is now reporting in harrowing detail about Ukrainian civilian casualties and alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops. What was very much kept in the background, and largely offstage, for America’s various wars has been foregrounded, often taking center stage, in the Russia-Ukraine War.”

    Any thoughts on Why that is?

    ~ Here’s what Al Jazeera had to say back 4 days after Russia invaded: “‘Double standards’: Western coverage of Ukraine war criticized for hypocrisy in its coverage of Russia’s war on Ukraine compared with other conflicts”

    Media pundits, journalists, and political figures have been accused of double standards for using their outlets to not only commend Ukraine’s armed resistance to Russian troops, but also to underlying their horror at how such a conflict could happen to a “civilised” nation.

    CBS News senior correspondent in Kyiv Charlie D’Agata said on Friday: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”

    His comments were met with derision and anger on social media, with many pointing out how his statements contributed to the further dehumanisation of non-white, non-European people suffering under a conflict within mainstream media.

    D’Agata later apologised, saying he spoke “in a way I regret”.

    On Saturday, the BBC hosted Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze.

    “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blonde hair and blue eyes being killed every day with Putin’s missiles and his helicopters and his rockets,” Sakvarelidze said. The BBC presenter responded: “I understand and of course respect the emotion.”

    Someone on social media pointed out “But people with ‘blue eyes and blonde hair’ dropping bombs over the Middle East and Africa is OK. And ‘Blue eyes and blonde hair’ is Hitler’s words from the Mein Kampf about the superior Aryan race.”

    Meanwhile on Friday, Sky News broadcast a video of people in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro making Molotov cocktails, explaining how grating Styrofoam makes the incendiary device stick to vehicles better. To which one observed: “Amazing mainstream Western media gives glowing coverage of people resisting invasion by making molotov cocktails. If they were brown people in Yemen or Palestine doing the same they would be labeled terrorists deserving US-Israeli or US-Saudi drone bombing.”

    From https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/27/western-media-coverage-ukraine-russia-invasion-criticism

    ~ And here’s what AJ columnist Andrew Mitrovica wrote two weeks after the invasion:

    I have written about this disgraceful double standard in column after column long before it became apparent that besieged blond-haired, blue-eyed Ukrainians murdered by Russian thugs in uniforms were made martyrs by Western media, while besieged brown-eyed, olive-skinned Palestinians murdered by Israeli thugs in uniforms are regarded as cheap and disposable by the same Western media.

    “This is the overarching truth that has been on glaring display since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began: the lives of white Europeans engulfed by war matter and the lives of everyone else outside that continent engulfed by war do not.

    “Even more contemptible is the common refrain among much of the Western media that when countless Arabs, Africans or South Asians are killed in war, their deaths are the acceptable byproduct of the West’s honourable designs to “liberate” them from the talons of one diabolical autocrat or another.”

    From “Some lives are more valuable than others according to Western media’s coverage of the Ukraine war”
    https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/3/8/some-lives-are-more-valuable-than-others

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    1. What’s interesting here is that Jesus Christ, who came out of Palestine, most likely was brown-eyed and olive-skinned. So why are we crucifying Him again?

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        1. Always liked & admired/ followed Alan Watts philosophies. One of the biggest concerns/ reasons why I don’t believe on Gods is that if any true Gods & Miracles really existed then they’d be a helluva lot less Violence and Injustice in this World of ours…! Interesting take here.

          Liked by 2 people

    2. In 1932, in a series of Guernica-like atrocities, the British used poison gas in Waziristan. The disarmament convention of the same year sought a ban against the aerial bombardment of civilians, but Lloyd George, who had been British prime minister during World War I, gloated: “We insisted on reserving the right to bomb niggers” (Fitzgerald and Gould, p. 65). His view prevailed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “The scale of the catastrophe in Iraq is so extreme that it can barely be reported.” — Noam Chomski, Failed States

    Thanks for Nothing

    Benevolent invader of my land
    How can I thank you for the helping hand?
    Why, had you not come here with awe and shock,
    Reducing my poor home to piles of rock,
    I might have raised my children safe and sound,
    But, thanks to you, I’ve laid them in the ground.

    A wife I had, once too, but now no more.
    She died one day while driving to the store.
    Some nervous mercenaries that you hired
    Screamed something at her once, then aimed and fired.
    The bullet-riddled windshield told the tale:
    That “freed” of life, our women need no veil.

    Your generals have come so many times,
    Yet never have to answer for their crimes.
    Instead, promotion weighs them down with stars
    But never, like enlisted men, the scars
    Resulting from the bungling and sheer waste
    Of thinking last but shooting first in haste.

    On nine-eleven, two-thousand-and-one
    You got a taste of what you’ve often done
    To countries that had never caused you harm
    Yet still, too late, you sounded the alarm
    And whipped yourself into a lather thick
    So you could hurt yourself with your own stick.

    Three thousand on that fateful day you lost.
    Six thousand more you’ve added to the cost
    Since then, which only proves that there or here
    You act the same: in folly, rage, and fear.
    In time, you’ll go back home to where you’re from,
    To fight among yourselves, the deaf and dumb.

    Too bad for all the carnage that you’ve caused
    Who never thought or for a minute paused
    Before afflicting us with your disease:
    A plague of bankrupt bullies, fascist fleas,
    Who, both hands outward stretched to beg a loan,
    Continue “helping” us to shrink and groan.

    You talk to pat yourselves upon the back.
    Your actions only scream of what you lack:
    The insight and intelligence to see
    How much you’ve harmed yourself as well as me.
    But just the same I’ll thank you to go home
    Before you earn the fate that toppled Rome.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2009

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