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 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?