Learning about civilian casualties - and how we can reduce their number

November 05, 2006|By Theo Lippman Jr.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health dropped a metaphoric "cluster bomb" last month in an article in the British medical journal Lancet. The research team interviewed 1,849 Iraqi households picked at random in 47 "clusters." It concluded that total civilian deaths in the war - between 400,000 and 800,000 - were four times as great as they had been in a comparable prewar period. More than half of all those deaths in the country in the first three years of the war were a result of war-related violence, not natural causes, the team said. Most of those casualties were victims of insurgents, terrorists or sectarian death squads, according to the report, but about 30 percent were killed by the U.S.-led coalition.

The Hopkins researchers' interviews were conducted with family members of the dead. Then death certificates of the victims were studied. Civilian deaths were estimated by a standard epidemiology formula. The study concluded wartime deaths to have been between 426,369 and 793,663.

A range like that is hardly precise and invites criticism. The U.S. commander of ground forces in Iraq says he has seen no figure higher than 50,000 civilian war casualties. President Bush used a figure of 30,000 last year. Asked about the Hopkins conclusion, he called it "not credible."

The U.N. Development Program, and even one human rights organization in London, Iraq Body Count, could count no more than about 49,000 civilians killed by warfare as of last year.

Nevertheless, some other academics in the field say the Hopkins conclusion is probably not too far off. For example, a public health researcher at Boston University, Paul Bolton, has been quoted as saying, after reviewing the Hopkins work, "You can't be sure of the exact number, but you can be quite sure that you are in the right ballpark."

Many people don't consider the administration's numbers credible. Dr. Paul Stolley, a medical epidemiologist and former chairman of the department of preventive medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, has said that given the conditions in Iraq, the Hopkins' team could not expect an ideal result, but it is probably about as close to the truth as the president.

Whatever the true number of civilian casualties of war in Iraq is, everyone knows it's a lot. That should hardly come as a surprise. Civilian casualties have been routine and often huge in modern warfare.

According to one detailed estimate, 30 million of the known 58 million deaths in World War II were civilians. In 1945, the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces firebombed Dresden, Germany, killing at least 30,000 civilians in a few days of raids. Also that year, after dropping leaflets warning of a campaign of massive firebombing of Tokyo, which sent millions of residents fleeing to safety, U.S. planes quickly incinerated 16 square miles of the city, killing about 90,000 civilians.

And then came Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the Korean War, estimates of South Korean civilian deaths were in the scores of thousands. Estimates of North Korean civilian deaths were as high as 2 million, most by air raids.

The estimates of civilian deaths in the Vietnam War are all over the chart. As good an estimate as any, probably, is maybe a half-million in the South, perhaps 2 million in the North.

Six years ago, I wrote an article on civilian war casualties for "The Argument" feature of the Sun book review section. I interviewed Douglas Maclean, then a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who was on leave to teach at the Naval Academy's Center for the Study of Military Ethics. He is now on the faculty of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

He told me that present and future military leaders think about noncombatant casualties a lot. He told me that several weeks each semester, his class is devoted to "studying `just war' theory and the proper conduct of war."

Similar courses are offered at the other military academies and at continuing education institutions for officers. Mr. Maclean said not many civilians get such educations. But Chapel Hill has a "Peace, War and Defense" program. He teaches a course on ethics there, alongside political scientists and journalism professors.

That's important to civilians who later will debate, vote on and oversee wars, perhaps as members of Congress - as well as those civilians, including journalists, who report and comment on the waging of wars.

Civilian casualties probably are lower today because military officers have devoted time to studying war ethics. But senior officers, much less their subordinates, are seldom responsible for environments and tactics that inevitably cause civilian deaths, "collateral" and deliberate, though they may be the instruments of the deaths.

Most of all, what is needed is continuing education about warfare for civilians, who might grow up to become the superiors of generals and admirals in the chain of command.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorial writer living in Sussex County, Del. His e-mail is theo@mail.splus.net.

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