The European Council estimated that of the almost 4 million people who died in wars between 1990 and 2003, about 90 percent were civilians. Certainly, there is a lot of disagreement about the number of civilian casualties in wars: Estimates of the civilian toll from the Iraq conflict range from 150,000 to more than 500,000. Civilian casualties in the Korean War vacillate, as do those in the Vietnam War – give or take a million. The numbers vary because some estimates include only those people killed by direct violence, while many more died as a result of infrastructure destruction and other secondary effects. But even accounting for varied estimates, the numbers are incredibly high. Since World War I, civilian deaths have become a larger proportion of war casualties. World War I claimed about 7 million civilian lives and World War II estimates rise well above 35 million – though, it’s estimated that China suffered between 20 million and 50 million civilian casualties alone.
Following World War II, a series of treaties governing the laws of war were adopted. These Geneva Conventions were adopted, in no small part, because of concerns about the massive toll from military practices during that conflict. Although the Fourth Geneva Convention attempted to erect some legal defenses for civilians in time of war, it was amended in 1977 with Protocol I, which prohibited the deliberate or indiscriminate attack of civilians, among other provisions. Although ratified by more than 170 countries, the United States has not signed on, nor has Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India and Turkey.
Nations’ justification for civilian casualties as “collateral damage” is supported by what is known as the “just war theory.” Essentially, the theory is based on the notion that the ends justify the means – in this case, defeating the enemy justifies the killing of innocent civilians. Such an argument was used by Allied Forces when firebombing a German city in World War II and by the United States for napalm bombs in Vietnam and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In a Washington Post op-ed, John Tirman, executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies, argued:
The United States, which should be regarded as a principal advocate of human rights, undermines its credibility when it’s so dismissive of civilian casualties in its wars. Appealing for international action on Sudan, Syria and other countries may sound hypocritical when our own attitudes about civilians are so cold.
In the lack of memorials, the inaccurate casualty counts and the failure to support Protocol 1, the United States and other nations have demonstrated an uncaring and blind attitude about civilian suffering. While the deaths of soldiers often command the attention of the public and media, our awareness of civilian atrocities in Vietnam, China, Sudan, and Rwanda tend to fade quickly or receive passing attention. These attitudes need to change, starting with how we observe Veterans Day. Today, let’s not only remember the fallen soldiers and military survivors, but also the hundreds of millions of innocent civilians who died with no opportunity to defend themselves. That, then, would be true remembrance.