Civilian Devastation During War Explored in ‘Why They Die’

Posted: August 15, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: August 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm

By James Greif

Daniel Rothbart. Photo courtesy of Daniel Rothbart

The saying “war is hell” is especially true for civilians, as Mason professors Daniel Rothbart and Karina V. Korostelina detail in their new book, “Why They Die: Civilian Devastation in Violent Conflict” (University of Michigan Press, 2011).

“Without taking a stand on a particular war or particular country, we wanted to look at the realities of war, and what we found is that noncombatants are affected disproportionally by prolonged armed conflict,” Rothbart says. “Civilians bear a greater burden than combatants, yet their plight is notoriously absent from military and political rhetoric.”

Rothbart and Korostelina previously collaborated as contributors and co-editors on “Identity, Morality and Threat: Studies in Violent Conflict” (Lexington Books, 2006). At Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), the professors conduct research and teach classes on conflict theory, identity conflicts and philosophy.

The book includes case studies that highlight civilian devastation, including the Second Lebanon War of 2006, the Iraq War, the genocide in Rwanda and the deportation of Crimean Tartars by the Soviet authorities during World War II. Through these case studies, the professors find that civilian devastation is systematically embedded in various sectors of modern warfare and not just “collateral damage,” as government and military leaders might argue.


Karina Korostelina. Photo courtesy of Karina Korostelina

Estimate: Civilian Deaths 10 Times More Than Combatants

“In times of war, civilians tend to live extremely difficult lives. They can be uprooted from their homes, removed from guardianship of their land and treated like refugees in their own country,” Rothbart says.

“War denies civilians agency and voice, disempowering them and transforming them into objects of manipulations,” Korostelina adds.

The World Health Organization estimated that 310,000 people died as the result of war in the year 2000. Recent statistics estimate that a majority of that number are civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in violent conflicts since World War II has been 10 to 1.

“Civilians become victims not only of the enemy or a rival state,” Korostelina says. “In time of war, a state can progressively transform its own citizens into enemies, stripping their rights for protection and imposing brutal policies, including deportation and forced migration.”

“While each war has different characteristics, I don’t know of a single prolonged conflict in the modern day where there are fewer civilian deaths than combatant deaths. It is likely that any long war will have more civilians killed than soldiers,” Rothbart says.

The larger number of deaths has to do with the increased use of firepower, combined with the soldiers’ confusion about who is a combatant and who is a civilian. Because of this confusion, major casualties among civilian populations are rationalized as inevitable and, in some cases, even necessary.

Civilians No Longer Perceived as Innocent

“In many cases of state-sponsored war, a soldier’s limited experience in a particular combat zone leads to a mantra of ‘better safe than dead,’ when there is a question of whether their life could be in danger,” Rothbart says. “The less the soldier knows about the intent or identity of a civilian, the more license they feel they have to use lethal force according to rules of engagement.”

Korostelina adds, “This removal or dispersion of the social boundary between enemy combatants and civilians is the main focus of our study. Civilians are no longer perceived as innocent but as fellows of a vicious and violent enemy.”

The researchers have some recommendations to improve civilian-military relationships and change the culture that puts citizens at so much risk. These include establishing stronger civilian-to-civilian connections and cultural exchanges between the countries postconflict. Rothbart and Korostelina also suggest that militaries collect better data about what happens to civilians during conflict and establish civilian advisory groups.

“Civilians should be given a voice; they should be recognized as equal stakeholders of war,” Korostelina emphasizes.

“There are a lot of well-intended people involved in the sectors of war — military, government and the international community — that want change and want to see the number of these casualties reduced,” Rothbart says.

Rothbart also notes that there is no “memorial day” for civilians, and society rarely recognizes the sacrifices they make.

“While it is important to remember the sacrifices of solders, there needs to be a change in the culture of warfare to engage in empathic understanding of those who are on the other side of the bombs and bullets,” he says.



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