Daniel W. Drezner

Trends in the civilian costs of war

Over at Duck of Minerva, Charli Carpenter has some interesting blog posts on recent trends in civilian casualties of interstate wars.  These casualties are traditionally divided into two categories.  The more prominent category is the intentional targeting of civilians by militaries — what we now call "war crimes."  The other category is the unintentional killing ...

Over at Duck of Minerva, Charli Carpenter has some interesting blog posts on recent trends in civilian casualties of interstate wars.  These casualties are traditionally divided into two categories.  The more prominent category is the intentional targeting of civilians by militaries — what we now call "war crimes."  The other category is the unintentional killing of civilians in the course of routine military operations — what is often referred to as "collateral damage." 

Carpenter is asking the question, "what percentage of total civilian deaths are ‘collateral damage’ and is this percentage trending up or down over time?"  Her first, very preliminary cut at an answer — remember, this is a blog post, not the American Political Science Review — is rather surprising:

This analysis suggests that collateral damage rather than war crimes now constitute the majority of civilian deaths in international wars worldwide, and that the total number of collateral damage deaths is 20 times higher than at the turn of the last century.

The ratio of collateral damage victims to war crimes victims has dramatically increased since the end of the Cold War. According to Downes’ dataset, between 1823 and 1900, unintentional deaths constituted 17% of all deaths in war. Since 1990, that number has risen to 59%….

In other words, the majority of civilian deaths since 1990s have not been war crimes but have been perfectly legal "accidental" killings. Of course this could partly be a result of a decrease in direct targeting of civilians over time, which would be a good thing.

But collateral damage is not only increasing as a percentage of all civilian deaths. The number of collateral damage victims is also increasing over time in absolute terms. Between 1823 and 1900, 84 civilians per year on average were the victims of collateral damage. Since 1990, the number is 1688 per year – a twenty-fold increase (emphases in original). 

This finding, if it holds up, is surprising for two reasons.  First, the number of interstate wars has been trending downward for the last thirty years — so an increase in the absolute numbers of civilian collateral damage would not be expected.  Second, this bump in collateral damage also took place during a revolution in precision-guided munitions — which, in theory, was supposed to reduce the likelihood of collateral damage. 

One could argue that the good news portion of this is that the intentional killing of civilians is trending downward.  And I’d like the security studies readers to go over Carpenter’s approach to see if it holds up. 

Developing….

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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