Targeting Civilians in War

Targeting Civilians in War

Alexander B. Downes
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Targeting Civilians in War
    Book Description:

    Accidental harm to civilians in warfare often becomes an occasion for public outrage, from citizens of both the victimized and the victimizing nation. In this vitally important book on a topic of acute concern for anyone interested in military strategy, international security, or human rights, Alexander B. Downes reminds readers that democratic and authoritarian governments alike will sometimes deliberately kill large numbers of civilians as a matter of military strategy. What leads governments to make such a choice?

    Downes examines several historical cases: British counterinsurgency tactics during the Boer War, the starvation blockade used by the Allies against Germany in World War I, Axis and Allied bombing campaigns in World War II, and ethnic cleansing in the Palestine War. He concludes that governments decide to target civilian populations for two main reasons-desperation to reduce their own military casualties or avert defeat, or a desire to seize and annex enemy territory. When a state's military fortunes take a turn for the worse, he finds, civilians are more likely to be declared legitimate targets to coerce the enemy state to give up. When territorial conquest and annexation are the aims of warfare, the population of the disputed land is viewed as a threat and the aggressor state may target those civilians to remove them. Democracies historically have proven especially likely to target civilians in desperate circumstances.

    In Targeting Civilians in War, Downes explores several major recent conflicts, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Civilian casualties occurred in each campaign, but they were not the aim of military action. In these cases, Downes maintains, the achievement of quick and decisive victories against overmatched foes allowed democracies to win without abandoning their normative beliefs by intentionally targeting civilians. Whether such "restraint" can be guaranteed in future conflicts against more powerful adversaries is, however, uncertain. During times of war, democratic societies suffer tension between norms of humane conduct and pressures to win at the lowest possible costs. The painful lesson of Targeting Civilians in War is that when these two concerns clash, the latter usually prevails.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5853-8
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-XII)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    War, as it is so often said, is hell. ʺWar is cruelty and you cannot refine it,ʺ wrote General William T. Sherman in justifying his decision to evict the inhabitants of Atlanta and burn the city during the American Civil War. One of the principal reasons why war is thought to be hell is the impact it has on innocent civilians, for in addition to consuming the lives of armed combatants, war also devours the lives of those who are not involved in the fighting. Over the past three centuries, for example, civilians (a term I use interchangeably with noncombatants)...

  5. 1 Defining and Explaining Civilian Victimization
    (pp. 13-41)

    What is civilian victimization, and why do governments victimize civilians in warfare? I begin by defining the concept of civilian victimization, the phenomenon I seek to explain in this book. Civilian victimization is a military strategy chosen by political or military elites that targets and kills noncombatants intentionally or which fails to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants and thus kills large numbers of the latter. I then outline the common forms of civilian victimization and provide illustrative examples.

    In the second part, I summarize three competing perspectives on civilian victimization: regime type, civilized-barbaric identity, and organization theory. The regime-type view...

  6. 2 Statistical Tests: Civilian Victimization, Mass Killing, and Civilian Casualties in Interstate Wars
    (pp. 42-82)

    The purpose of this chapter is to evaluate empirically the competing explanations for civilian victimization outlined in chapter 1 against evidence from a large number of cases. The analysis uses evidence from a new dataset that includes data on 323 belligerents in interstate wars between 1816 and 2003 as well as 53 cases of civilian victimization. The statistical results provide solid support for the view that desperation to win and to save lives on one’s own side, as well as an appetite for territorial conquest and annexation, are the primary drivers of civilian victimization. Indicators of desperation, such as battle...

  7. 3 The Starvation Blockades of World War I: Britain and Germany
    (pp. 83-114)

    The First World War is remembered mainly for the years of carnage and futility of trench warfare on the Western front that followed the defeat of Germanyʹs Schlieffen Plan. The naval aspect of the war—of which so much was expected after the prolonged Dreadnought race between Germany and Great Britain—was anticlimactic. Both sides anticipated a titanic clash of battleships in the North Sea, but a decisive battle failed to materialize because each had settled on a largely defensive strategy. The British, for example, implemented a policy of distant blockade, hoping that the ships of the German High Seas...

  8. 4 Strategic Bombing in World War II: The Firebombing of Japan and the Blitz
    (pp. 115-155)

    This chapter discusses in detail two cases of civilian victimization via aerial bombardment in World War II: the United States versus Japan (1944–45) and Germany versus Great Britain (1940–41). In each case, a state—a democracy in the former and a dictatorship in the latter—faced a costly seaborne invasion of its enemyʹs homeland and reacted in similar ways: by shifting the potential costs to enemy civilians. Against Japan, American officials understood from the start that the war would be a protracted affair. The bloody nature of the fighting in the Pacific then convinced top American political and...

  9. 5 Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Civilian Victimization: The Second Anglo-Boer War
    (pp. 156-177)

    Although uncommon in the dataset used for the statistical analysis in this book, guerrilla warfare is an important cause of civilian victimization.¹ In a study of mass killing since 1945, for example, Benjamin Valentino, Paul Huth, and Dylan Balch-Lindsay find that guerrilla wars in which the government faces a militarily threatening insurgency with widespread popular support are very likely to result in mass murder by the incumbents.² Furthermore, data compiled by Ivan Arreguín-Toft shows that strong actors are far more likely to use ʺbarbarousʺ strategies that violate the laws of war and harm noncombatants when battling weak actors who employ...

  10. 6 Territorial Annexation and Civilian Victimization: The Founding of the State of Israel, 1947–49
    (pp. 178-209)

    The bulk of this book has been devoted to delineating the desperation causal mechanism for civilian victimization. This chapter, however, turns to the second causal mechanism: territorial annexation. The desperation logic makes no assumptions about belligerentsʹ war aims and ascribes the occurrence of civilian victimization solely to battlefield events that take place after the war has begun: failure to win a quick and decisive victory, higher than anticipated costs of fighting, or the failure of particular counterforce strategies. Civilian victimization is adopted as a means to coerce the enemy—whether it be a state or a rebel force—to capitulate....

  11. 7 Negative Cases: Why Civilian Victimization Doesnʹt Happen
    (pp. 210-242)

    In the past four chapters I have presented evidence to support the claim that desperation—to win and to save the lives of oneʹs own soldiers—and the intention to conquer and annex territory cause civilian victimization. These case studies have shown, for example, that democracies and nondemocracies each target civilians when these factors are present. Moreover, states from similar and disparate cultural backgrounds have attacked each otherʹs noncombatant populations, indicating that the perception of ʺbarbarityʺ is not the key factor. Finally, military organizations with and without ʺpunishmentʺ cultures, and services seeking organizational independence and those already established as separate...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 243-258)

    I began this book with a simple question: Why do states target and kill noncombatants in war? I argued that two factors account for the bulk of the variation in civilian victimization. First, desperation to win and to save lives causes civilian victimization in protracted wars of attrition. States seek to win the wars they fight quickly and in an economical fashion. States rarely begin wars with a strategy predicated on targeting civilians: the enemy army is usually viewed as the opponentʹs center of gravity because coercive strategies that strike at civilians or civilian morale typically do not win wars...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 259-308)
  14. Index
    (pp. 309-316)