Thursday, March 2, 2017


This is a companion piece to the previous post, What War Is, in which we considered the hypothetical case of inflicting civilian casualties in order to destroy a threat to national security.  Most readers undoubtedly react with horror at the thought of intentionally killing civilians even in the pursuit of legitimate military operations.

When it comes to war, America bends over backwards and then some to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage to civilian structures.  Well, of course we do - is your initial reaction - we’re the good guys and that’s what good guys do.  We fight the evil enemy soldiers but we bear no ill will towards the enemy’s civilians who are wonderful, innocent people, just like us, who, through sheer bad luck, find themselves trapped in the physical space occupied by the enemy.  Why, were it not for the presence of the evil enemy soldiers, the enemy’s civilians would be shining beacons of freedom, friendliness, good will, prosperity, and openness just waiting for the sunshine of democracy and the American way of life to shine on their eager, upraised arms as they reach out to embrace us in a hug of brotherhood.

For this obvious reason the American military tends to make avoidance of civilian casualties one of the main objectives, often the overriding objective, of any military action even to the detriment of mission accomplishment and often at the risk of American lives.  For example, how many American soldiers have been killed and wounded conducting house to house clearance operations instead of simply blowing up the suspect house and moving on with no US casualties?  We do it to avoid civilian deaths and collateral damage but we pay a price.

So, we’re all in agreement, then, that civilian lives are sacrosanct and nothing has a higher priority than preserving civilian lives and avoiding collateral damage?  Well, before I wrap this up, let’s take a moment and dig just a little deeper into the concept of “civilian”.

What is a civilian?  We all know the answer to that one, right?  A civilian is, in addition to the description above, anyone who is not in uniform and a member of the military.  So, the mother raising her children is a civilian, right?  The farmer working his field is a civilian, right?  What about the civilian who works in the enemy’s headquarters assisting in the organization of the logistical effort that directly supports the enemy army?  Is he a civilian or just a non-uniformed enemy combatant?  How about the civilian who works in the factory that manufactures fighter jets for the enemy air force?  Is he a civilian or just a non-uniformed enemy combatant?

You can see where this is going, right?

Let’s reconsider that farmer working his field.  If his crop is going to support the enemy army, either directly or indirectly, is he a civilian or just a non-uniformed enemy combatant?

Look at our own history.  Take WWII, for example.  Were the women who took over the factory jobs so that the men could go fight, civilians or just non-uniformed combatants?  Were the millions of people who grew Victory Gardens civilians or just non-uniformed combatants?  I’m not going to belabor this.  It was clear that the entire country, whether uniformed or not, acted together as a single military force.  There were no civilians.  Everyone was involved in the war effort.  Everyone was at war with the Axis nations.  Had the enemy bombed our cities, they would have hit no civilians – there weren’t any!

The enemy’s civilians aren’t really civilians.  They’re non-uniformed combatants.  Of course, one may legitimately question the degree of willingness of those non-uniformed combatants, in some cases, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re supporting the enemy’s military effort and, therefore, part of that military effort. 

There is certainly historical precedent for the involvement of civilians in the war effort and the subsequent inclusion of civilians in attacks.  Recall the wholesale bombing of German cities or the use of atomic bombs on Japanese cities.  Even the targeted bombing of enemy factories acknowledges that civilians are part of the legitimate target.  Japan disbursed military related manufacturing among small homes and villages.  Terrorists routinely co-locate themselves and their weapons among the civilian population.

Consider the “civilians” in the Middle East.  How many of them are providing food, shelter, information, and various other forms of support for the terrorist groups we’re fighting?  The number of true civilians begins to drop drastically when that kind of support is taken into account.

Even the Geneva Conventions and other international laws recognize the involvement of civilians and acknowledge the lawfulness of attacks on civilians and civilian structures under appropriate circumstances.  For example, the customary protection afforded hospitals can be violated if the hospital is used to execute acts harmful to the opposing force.

Convention (I), Article 21

“The protection to which fixed establishments and mobile medical units of the Medical Service are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after a due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded.”

This convention merely codifies common sense.  If an enemy is shooting at you, you have the right to return fire regardless of the location of the enemy or the presence of civilians and civilian structures.  The onus is on the enemy not to create situations that put their own civilians at risk.  Failure of the enemy to thus protect and shield its own civilian population is not the fault of the opposing party and not a reason to grant a de facto immunity to the enemy.

The question becomes, at what point does the work of civilians become an act of enemy activity?  Is the farmer growing food to support the enemy army a part of the enemy’s military effort.  All common sense says that the answer is yes and that the farmer forfeits any immunity to attack that he might otherwise have.

Is a hospital that is caring for enemy wounded who will then be returned to the fight a legitimate target?  It’s certainly an active supporter of the enemy’s military effort and is engaged in an activity that will produce a result harmful to the opposing force.

These are not easy questions but the US’ refusal to even consider the involvement of “civilians” suggests that we have forgotten what war is, how an enemy military “army” operates, and how to wage war.

Before we wrap up this discussion, let’s consider the possible effect of failing to kill civilians in the pursuit of legitimate military targets.  The most recent example is the fight against ISIS.  The US has repeatedly and systematically passed up opportunities to inflict significant destruction against ISIS due to the co-mingling of civilians.  For example, the US has refused to attack ISIS oil convoys despite the immense damage that would have done to ISIS’ financial capability out of reluctance to kill the civilian drivers of the convoy trucks.  For starters, and referring to earlier paragraphs, are drivers of enemy convoys really civilians?  Setting that aside, the refusal to attack resulted in the continued operation and, indeed, expansion of ISIS activities which, in turn, resulted in thousands more deaths at the hands of the terrorists.  By sparing a handful of “civilians” and not attacking the convoys, the US condemned thousands to death in the future.  As a point of interest to this example, the US has very recently begun attacking these convoys in a limited way.

In summary, civilians are not quite what we believe them to be.  In a war, it is highly questionable whether true civilians even exist.  Thus, as we consider whether to bomb that grid square to remove the threat of Hezbollah missiles, we need to consider whether there are actually any civilians there or whether the “civilians” are actually just non-uniformed combatants.  It makes a difference and we need to begin remembering the distinction and the implications of that distinction. 

Note:  This should not need saying but, inevitably, there are idiot readers who can’t distinguish what’s actually being said from what they think is being said.  This post does not call for, nor advocate, the indiscriminate killing of civilians.  The post merely notes that our popular conception of the term “civilian” and how it applies to war is faulty and that a true understanding of the term has implications for our military planning and operations.  Again, this is not a blanket call for mass killing of civilians.


  1. I would point out that this is precisely the logic that Timothy McVeigh followed when justifying the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building in 1995. Something to ponder.

    1. Even under todays system attacking a enemies command center is considered a legit target.

      McVeigh however didn't represent any nation so his act was that of a domestic terrorist. Was tried, convicted, executed as such.

    2. No, it's not something to ponder. What an absurd comment.

  2. I worked on a couple of Provincial Reconstruction Teams and some USAID programs in Iraq. In a counterinsurgency, most of the civilian population might be inclined to support you and your allies, the police and army of the legitimate elected government. With limited American forces at your disposal, the best, most economical and most successful course is to avoid innocent civilian casualties. Contrary to some opinion, the USA did not do that sufficiently in Iraq.

    1. "With limited American forces at your disposal, the best, most economical and most successful course is to avoid innocent civilian casualties."

      From your perspective as someone trying to accomplish whatever specific tasks you had, this would seem to be an eminently reasonable statement and philosophy.

      Now, to a country faced with a national security threat, do you believe your statement still holds true? Expand your perspective a bit and see what you think. If you were tasked with taking out weapons factory that your enemy was using to decimate your population (the national security threat), would you still suggest that the most successful course is to avoid innocent civilian (referring to the post's premise that workers in an arms factory are not civilians) casualties?

    2. That is a different situation and facing a mobilized nation state which is a national security threat I agree with much of what you say. Workers at a defense plant are not exempt from targeting.

      We aren't fighting that kind of war now, though.

    3. This post was not about the war we're fighting now (the war on terrorism?) but about the general nature of war and the fact that we've forgotten what real war is. Your original comment suggests that you, like most people, have forgotten what an ugly business real war is. It is this general mindset that I'm trying to re-educate people about. We think we'll be able to fight a real war the same way we fight our current, dainty, limited, no casualties to either side, low end conflicts. My overarching point is that we need to begin preparing for a brutal, high end, high intensity, ugly war from both a mental and equipment perspective because China and Russia still remember what war is and they're preparing just as fast as they can for it.

    4. Maybe I've "forgotten what real war is," but I've spent time with my face in the sand praying when rockets and mortars were falling too close, been shot at, windows blown out, had friends killed.

    5. And that's given you a very narrow perspective at the individual's end of the spectrum. We're discussing war at the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of strategy and national security threats.

    6. Talking with a few veterans who came back from Afghanistan, I've heard similar stories.

      One of the reasons why the Taliban was able to re-surge was because they US and the Coalition were never really able to get the support of the people. That was in no small part due to the tactics used.

      It's a complex issue, but I'd say the problems were:

      The coalition could not get the buy-in of the Afghan people (there are many different groups, the dominant of which is the Pushtun) because of their actions. Most Afghan actually do not support the Taliban so much as they see it as the "lesser evil".

      In the kind of war CNO is proposing, yeah I'd agree with targeting. However, when occupying enemy lands, it's no different for the reasons I described.

      If you treat occupied people too harshly, then partisans form, as the Germans and the Japanese discovered during WW2. That means fewer troops to fight enemy conventional armies and more required to pacify the occupied territories. Worse, too much brutality only increases the support of the guerrilla.

    7. Tactics had nothing to do with Afghanistan. The people have never been able to have a government since Alexander the great found them ungovernable.

  3. The bottom line is WAR is not pretty is not nice is not clean. The modern version of PC war has only made war more common and worse given US forever war.

    War should be fought hard nasty rough dirty FAST. Defeat crush the enemy, force him to surrender, or if he is unreasonable force those around him to contain kill him for their own sake. If war is returned to the ole ways of war we will have less war because both sides will do all it can to avoid it. Enemies will be less likely to attempt a fight if they know you will fight 100 and will crush them brutally if you win. We will be less likely to jump into a fight if we know what we will have to do.

  4. ISIS is now mingled amongst civilians in West Mosul. It's a strategic objective of the USA to preserve the unity of Iraq and maintain a good relationship.

    US SOF and artillery are supporting Iraqi forces on the ground. Iraqi SOF were trained by US SOF and have adopted American style down to the personal swagger. This is good for the USA.

    There are so many moving parts in the Mosul picture and the political aftermath of kicking ISIS out. It could be a very good thing, as the Arab Iraqis gain unity, and the USA demonstrates good faith. Part of good faith is restraint in the use of force.

    The Nisoor Square massacre, the Mahmudiyah rape murder, Haditha, the various wedding bombings and smaller incidents did a lot of harm to the mission.

    1. You do realize that no one advocates indiscriminate killing of civilians, right? You realized that this is not what this post and the previous are suggesting, right? You realize that the US military prosecutes soldiers who commit crimes, right?

      I ask because your comment suggests you don't realize those things.

    2. You referenced ISIS and the war against it. There is a narrative popular in a lot of places that if we "took the gloves off" in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan - counterinsurgencies- victory would be forthcoming. We killed a lot of civilians in all three places. I tend to think that at least two of those wars should not have been fought, Vietnam and Iraq. But the wars we have are counterinsurgencies, and supporting a "take the gloves off" attitude or easing ROI with regard to civilians is not a good idea. As GEN McChrystal said "We have killed a lot of civilians."

      As far as "realizing" that the US military prosecutes murderers and those committing atrocities, do you "realize" that the record in that regard is far from perfect? There is a lot of shit excused, some of which I have first hand knowledge.

  5. Nice piece and thought provoking. Good actually reference to the Genève convention.

    (Which some people seem to think guarantees pretty and nice things for everyone, and nobody will ever be hurt in a bad and nasty way. Tut. )

    Thomas above I think makes an interesting comment when he says “We aren't fighting that kind of war”.

    CNO you reference aspect of WW2 in terms of victory gardens etc.

    There is a subtext her that apparently there are different settings for war.

    “Set your Warfare to Stun”, says the captain.

    We have reference above to fast, dirty and brutal wars, certainly we have had those, as well as wars of attrition with huge civilian impact. And of course civil wars in which everyone is a civilian.

    So what? Is the one word to simple? Do we have degrees of warfare? I think we probably have a semantic issue here.

    Of course the short answer is RULES OF ENGUAGEMENT, as flexible as the wind and as inflexible as the situation allows. The bane of every soldier’s life. But on the whole I think this just confuses the issue.

    Let’s define our wars on the fly, not what you were after as an answer I suspect.

    1. "Let’s define our wars on the fly"

      I'm not entirely sure what you mean by that but here's my response, nonetheless.

      The problem with "defining" war on the fly is that, by definition then, it prevents planning. In fact, it's the exact opposite of carefully planning, preparing, equipping, and training. The whole point of training is to think about (define) war ahead of time so that when the time comes, you're ready. You'll have the right equipment, the right assets, the right training.

      If you wait to "define" war until it comes, you likely won't have the right equipment, training, and so forth.

      Your answer also implies a degree of ethical mutability - that you'll set your ethics "on the fly", according to circumstances. That's just plain wrong. Ethics are not gray and malleable. Ethics are constants. Right and wrong are black and white despite what many morally cowardly people would suggest.

      Maybe I've completely misunderstood what you meant?

    2. I think my point really here is that apparently we DO think wars come in many flavours.

      And we cope with this by changing our rules of engagement.

      To this end maybe the establishment IS saying morals are flexible. I don’t know, and I tend not to agree. [Tend I say because, let’s face it in the real world they are (but that’s a debate for another time)]

      Rules of engagement are certainly saying warfare comes in different types, and hence definitions of acceptable targets and how far we are willing to go to achieve our goals can change from war to war, or even mission to mission.

      This I agree is a weird idea. But there you go.

      Therefore your premise for the debate above is really what the TOP RANGE of our rules of engagement is really. I think?

      And Given Hiroshima, I recon we know the answer to that.

      Other than that we are just into the eternal debate on a case by case basis of second guessing the R.O.E. and what we should \ could have done if they were just a little different and wouldn’t that have been better.

      But I think we can all agree it a big old sh1t hole and nuking everything would just be quicker and easier some days ?

      ( simple the natural progression of your destroy the house to kill the sniper argument, and not a serious opinion )


    3. "... nuking everything ... the natural progression of your destroy the house to kill the sniper argument, and not a serious opinion"

      I understand that you aren't advocating nuking everything and I'm pretty sure you get that I'm not either. The one irritating aspect of the discussions in the last two posts is that most of the commenters have ignored what I actually wrote in favor of espousing their own horror at the mere suggestion of civilian deaths.

      You'll recall that I framed the discussion as being applicable for the case of a THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY. That implies that your very existence as a state is imperiled. Certainly, that mandates the use of extraordinary measures? I also added a statement that consideration of avoidance of civilian deaths was a valid SECONDARY consideration that could act to modify the methods used in a military action. IN FACT, I EXPLICITLY USED THE EXAMPLE OF A NUCLEAR BOMB BEING USED TO KILL A SINGLE SNIPER!!!!

      Despite this carefully limited framework, most commenters chose to believe that I was advocating unrestricted slaughter of civilians. In actuality, my overall point was, simply, that fear of civilian deaths can't be the driving factor when faced with a threat to national security. The level of willful misinterpretation of what I write is one of the disappointing aspects of running a blog such as this. There are times when I seriously consider eliminating the comment feature. Fortunately, there are the occasional excellent comments that make it all worthwhile.

      Forgive me. I'm using your comment to express some general disappointment. This is not really a response to your specific comment. Your last two sentences simply triggered the generic response.

    4. "eternal debate on a case by case basis of second guessing the R.O.E. "

      I'm thinking that you are equating ROE with ethics. If so, that's just plain wrong. As I've stated, ethics are clear cut and immutable. Right and wrong are black and white. If not, then you (the generic you, not you personally) have no moral compass.

      Now, what can change is specific ROEs around the periphery of the unchanging ethics. The analogy is playing various card games. The specific rules of each game differ but the underlying ethics remain the same - you don't cheat while playing. From conflict to conflict or even operation to operation our specific ROE may change but the underlying ethics don't (or shouldn't). You don't kill unarmed, unresisting civilians, you don't ... well, you know all the things that we consider morally/ethically wrong. The exact criteria for using force may change (the ROE) but the underlying ethics do not. If they do, then you have no moral compass as a country and as a military force and, by definition, a country/military without a moral compass is evil. That is why we consider the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and NKoreans to be evil. Haven't you ever wondered why we consider them evil? Now you know!

      Does that make sense?

    5. Yikes, Right, OK.

      That does make sense, and I seriously didn’t interpret you post that way.

      This will take some thinking about !!!,

      (I can’t believe you’re going to have a War and morality debate?)

      I may have to exit this one. Because frankly THAT debate is madness.

      On the other note I have often wondered about the “evil” thing, but I just put it down to the age old tradition of every nation to;

      a) Believe the enemy is evil, ( then make up a reason why afterwards ), and

      b) Invoke God to be on their side.

      But thanks for clarifying.

      Obviously I’m British and we have a bit of a different take on these things. I fear this on one of those items when there is an ocean between us :)

      We DO kill unarmed unresisting civilians and we call it collateral, (I thought that’s where we came in).

      [Our weapon of choice is called Paveway and we film it and show it on the news.]

      Currently 15 – 30% collateral is considered acceptable, or WAS until recently. Sorry mate, we are “evil” too.

      Or we would be if I thought your definition of evil was ok.

      Its Friday afternoon here, so in going down the Pub!


    6. "(I can’t believe you’re going to have a War and morality debate?)"

      We're not going to have a morality debate because there is no debate. Right is right and wrong is wrong. There's nothing to debate. The context may change (at home, in a war, driving to work, at a picnic, whatever/wherever) but the morality does not.

      The "debate" can only occur when you're dealing with someone who has no moral compass. Such a person, as I've already defined, is inherently evil and you're wasting your time "debating" them.

      If you have a strong moral compass, so many of lifes seemingly difficult problems are actually quite basic and simple. They may be heartbreaking to implement, but they're simple at their core.

    7. "Obviously I’m British and we have a bit of a different take on these things."

      If you mean you have a different take on morality and a moral compass, then I weep for Britain. You've lost your way.

    8. "We DO kill unarmed unresisting civilians and we call it collateral"

      No, we do not kill unarmed, UNRESISTING civilians. This is where the definition of civilian comes in. The civilian who works in the factory making arms for the enemy may be unarmed but he IS RESISTING and ACTIVELY TRYING TO KILL US, just indirectly rather than directly. We have the moral right to defend ourself and kill him before his actions kill us.

      We do not have the moral right to kill a truly unarmed, unresisting civilian but the point of the post was that such true civilians are much rarer than we think. Even so, there are circumstances where killing a true civilian is justified. If a terrorist holding the detonator to a nuclear bomb and ready to detonate it and kill a hundred thousand people could be stopped but doing so would kill one truly innocent civilian, we are justified in doing so. The moral imperative, in such a case, is to save as many people as possible. It's an ugly, horrible choice and circumstance but that was also the point of the post - that war, and the situations that arise in war, are ugly, brutal, and horrible even when you operate with the guidance of a moral compass.

      So many people want to call such discussions difficult - too difficult to be able to take a stand or make a decision. They say there's too many nuances and it's not our place to judge. Well, it's only difficult if you lack a moral compass. The decisions may be ugly and horrible but they're basic at their core.

      I hope this makes sense to you. Find your moral compass and always follow it. Others may dither about morality because they're moral cowards or ethically bankrupt but you'll always be true.

      Hmmm.... I may have to start my own church!

    9. "Sorry mate, we are “evil” too."

      Do our (both the UK and US) leaders fail the moral test? Often! Should we, the citizens, allow it? Never!

      Almost by definition, a politician is someone without a moral compass. In my experience, the politician with a strong moral compass, A) never gets elected because he won't compromise his beliefs and, B) is extremely rare, almost non-existent. Is it any wonder, then, that our leaders violate the ethics of war on an all too frequent basis?

  6. Civilians (Ivy-leaguer) killing civilians (collateral).

    I'm still waiting for Bush2/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Bremer to have straight talks with American public on why rendering our military in such untenable stuck position.

    What are in the minds, normalizing/rationalizing, of Ivy-league PolSc and MBA majors? (because they are the ones who repeat this, not the military)

  7. In conventional war, as I discussed, for occupations, yes you do have to treat your population you occupy reasonably well. They may not love you, but they cannot hate you to the point where you are faced with an insurgency. If that happens, then you have to pull conventional forces to fight insurgents ... while fighting enemy conventional forces.

    However, as far as bombing enemy territory goes, the record of strategic bombing suggests that:

    1. Instead of hitting production facilities directly (often the most heavily guarded targets), the war critical materials (ex: ball bearings are cited in WW2, in today's world, things like semiconductor plants too) are actually very vulnerable and often less heavily guarded.

    2. Destroying enemy transportation links like railways and major bridges is extremely important.

    3. Attacking oil is very important. Apart from nuclear powered ships, everything needs oil to run. Even nuclear reactors need oil as lubricants. Plus oil is needed for food production as well.

    4. Bombing enemy cities to try to break the enemy will to fight is counterproductive. The Blitz is remember in the UK with pride. Bombing Germany and Japan in WW2 did not cause their surrender. It took physically occupying Germany and in the Japanese case, nukes + the emperor. Bombing North Korea in the Korean War and North Vietnam was not effective either.

    5. Fixed targets like airfields are very tempting to bomb. They are also very heavily guarded.

    6. Bombing without air superiority leads to very high bomber loss rates.

    7. Using bombers for tactical interdiction can be very effective if coordinated well with ground forces.

    I'd say in today's world, there's going to be a lot fewer bombers and more missiles.

    1. "In conventional war, as I discussed, for occupations, yes you do have to treat your population you occupy reasonably well."

      And I'll repeat, you get that the last two posts applied to the framework of a THREAT TO NATIONAL SECURITY, right? Occupying a conquered country is a completely different animal. I agree 100% that you don't go around killing civilians in an occupancy. For starters, an occupancy is a police action not a war and the civilians are true civilians, at that point, not the non-uniformed combatants that the post discussed.

      Your comment is fine and I happen to agree with it. It is not, however, a rebuttal to the post, if that's what you intended. I hate when people argue something I haven't actually said! I don't know if that's what you're doing or not. I'll assume not and that you're just amplifying on the post.

    2. I don't disagree with all that you said, just some parts.

      Also, occupation is unfortunately both a war and a police action. In a conventional war, occupying a hostile nation means that you will have to occupy, but fight the enemy at the same time.

      Meanwhile, in enemy occupied territory, you have a resistance to deal with, no doubt supported by enemy intelligence agencies. Compounding the problem, too much brutality causes too more civilians to hate you ... and want to join.

    3. "Also, occupation is unfortunately both a war and a police action."

      You seem to be refusing to understand the scope of the posts. They apply to THREATS TO NATIONAL SECURITY. A "war" may or may not be in response to a threat to national security - which leads one to question the validity of a war that doesn't involve a threat to national security, but that's another topic.

      Occupation is not a war. If you're engaged in an occupation, the war part is over or has moved on and nothing in the posts applies.

      Come on. My premise about civilian deaths in the pursuit of military objectives was limited to - say it with me, now - THREATS TO NATIONAL SECURITY. This isn't that hard to grasp. You seem to want to argue just to argue. In fact, you've all but agreed with me in other comments!

    4. Occupation is an inevitable part of large scale conventional war.

      That's just the cruel reality.

      In a war, you are going to advance deeper into enemy territory and that means occupation. While a "quick victory" is ideal (ex: the Battle of France for the Germans), that's not always the case, either due to the size of the nation, or because the initial assault did not work as planned.

      In that case, you have a situation where you:

      1. Have to fight against a conventional enemy
      2. Must hold the parts of enemy terrain you've captured

      The only way to solve 2 is to pull back ... in which case there's the risk the enemy might advance onto your territory.

  8. As far as any civilians (ex: those working in oil fields, war material production), I'd consider them collateral damage in a conventional war when bombing in enemy territory.

    OCcupying, I've discussed - you need them to at least not hate you enough to fight you.

  9. I offered my views on this in the previous post, so I'll try not to go over old ground.
    I would like to add that there are indisputably different kinds of conflicts.
    In fact it's safe to say that no two conflicts are the same. WW2 is not indicative of most wars or armed conflicts throughout human history. It was the most terrible, brutal, full scale total war in human history.
    The majority of conflicts are not on the same scale and are limited in both their scope and intensity.

    Of course, that is in part because there hasn't been a full scale war between great powers since WW2. There's no doubt that the threat of a conflict escalating to full scale nuclear war is a big contributor to the restraint the great powers have shown in the 70 odd years since.

    Most conflicts since WW2 (and indeed most conflicts that preceded it, with the obvious exception of WW1), have not been what you could describe as a total war - implicit in which is the attempt by belligerents to annihilate entire societies' abilities to sustain warfare, including the destruction of cities and the deliberate targeting of civilians as what CNO has termed "unarmed combatants".

    Even when two relatively modern powers have come to blows in the modern era (e.g. the Falklands War), they've been able to keep the conflict within agreed boundaries. In fact, with the notable exception of the Belgrano sinking, the UK and Argentina were able to actually agree on a zone of conflict outside of which military conflict was not to occur. Seems remarkable on the face of it that two warring powers could make such an agreement, but in reality these kinds of either explicit or implicit grounds of agreement are often reached between warring nation states.

    In terms of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan (and even Yemen, Somalia etc) - these are not conventional wars at all. They are certainly not total wars, where two great powers pit the entire resources of the state against one another.
    These are slow, grinding insurgency campaigns. These kinds of wars are as old as warfare - in fact you might argue that they are the most common form of conflict throughout human history. They have a flavor and strategic nature all their own. I can think of few Generals or strategists who would regard the deliberate targeting of civilians as "unarmed combatants" in these kinds of conflicts as a useful strategic or tactical approach in most circumstances.

    Of course, like all things, the devil is in the detail, an it is eminently possible to identify specific instances where the deaths of civilians in pursuit of military objectives could be justified from a strategic or tactical point of view.

    1. "Most conflicts since WW2 (and indeed most conflicts that preceded it, with the obvious exception of WW1), have not been what you could describe as a total war - implicit in which is the attempt by belligerents to annihilate entire societies' abilities to sustain warfare, including the destruction of cities and the deliberate targeting of civilians as what CNO has termed "unarmed combatants"."

      That's debatable.

      Vietnam War saw widspread intimidation and killing of civilians by the VC/NVA for aiding the US. The US attempted to win hearts and minds but all too often would up killing civilians - partly due to the inability to distinguish combatant from civilian.

      Korean War saw widespread shelling which caused lots of civilian deaths, if not always intentionally.

      Bosnian War - From Wiki, "The Bosnian War was characterised by bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns, ethnic cleansing and systematic mass rape, mainly perpetrated by Serb, and to a lesser extent, Croat and Bosniak forces."

      The on-going Syrian war has seen massive, indiscriminate killing of civilians including the use of chemical weapons.

      Russian-Ukraine war has seen many civilian deaths.

      The various Israeli-Palestinian conflicts have seen massive civilian casualties with indiscriminate rocket attacks on the Israeli population and numerous civilian casualties in Gaza.

      The various MidEast Sunni-Shiite clashes are heavy on civilian killing and ethnic cleansing.

      The ISIS actions are horrifically focused on civilian killing and ethnic and religious cleansing.

      The Taliban in Afghanistan have routinely targeted civilians through killing and terror.

      I can go on but the pattern seems to be overwhelming that civilians are routinely targeted and even ethnic cleansing is far from uncommon. Your example of the Falklands war seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

    2. My point was simply that none of those are what might be described as total war. Total war implies two or more large nation states employing their full resources and productive capacity to destroy each others ability to wage war.

      I did not say that WWW2 is the only war that involved the deaths of civilians, or the targeting of civilians.

      But I can see how that wasn't 100% clear. The point is that different conflicts require different strategies and tactics and that this includes varying ROE.

      If we go through your examples :

      Vietnam was primarily a counter-insurgency - US tactics weren't actually well tuned to this reality and large scale bombing campaigns and destruction of towns and cities occurred. The hamlet strategy was an attempt to control the civilian population because of the difficulty in distinguishing them from combatants. But Vietnam is in many ways a lesson in how NOT to prosecute a counter-insurgency campaign. Many of the tactics and strategic efforts on behalf of the US were counter productive. Certainly they were not successful in defeating the insurgency.

      The Korean war was essentially a conventional campaign that began as a civil war. Many of the tactics applied were those of conventional war - which generally allows for greater application of force, with the resulting civilian casualties such an approach implies. But Korea doesn't really meet your standard of National Security threat. It did for China (at least in their view) - though all the big powers displayed some restraint in the Korean War - the Soviets in particular worked hard to mask their involvement and reduce their footprint and even China never officially entered the war.

      The Balkans conflicts were basically brutal civil wars, with horrific internecine ethnic conflict and ethnic cleansing. When the US entered the war, they actually applied a great deal of restraint (though Serbia might not see it that way). The US worked very hard to keep the conflict within prescribed ROE and to reduce civilian casualties. In my view, this was the correct decision from a strategic point of view. Carpet bombing Serbian cities was not the way to bring the conflict to an end. On the other hand, the ridiculous ROE imposed on UN troops is a clear example of what I believe you are attempting to criticize - the UN soldiers had so many restraints placed upon them, that they basically served no purpose at all and they became a macabre joke.

      Syria - This is a brutal civil war. Historically civil wars are often where you see some of the most brutal, terrible, intentional violence against civilian targets. In terms of the US though, there are obviously extensive ROE in place - this is driven almost as much by politics as anything else, in my view. If you recall, Obama faced massive domestic political backlash when he initially proposed intervening militarily in Syria. This tempered everything that has happened since. In addition, the growing involvement of Russia heavily complicated matters for the US and her allies - in an effort to avoid a conflict with Russia, and because of the complicated, Byzantian politics of balancing the objectives of competing regional powers and ethnic groups aligned with and against the US - Syria involves balancing countries like Turkey, Russia, Saudi, UAE, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Sunni, Shiite, Alawite etc.

      I'll stop there - there's infinite complexity in all these issues, and it would be easy to go down the rabbit hole on this stuff.

      Suffice to say that my point is simply that ROE serve a clear strategic purpose, and different conflicts require different ROE. You don't apply the same standards to a low-end counter insurgency that you do to a conflict with a tier 1 power, etc.

  10. With regard to your "we're not discussing that kind of war" (the counterinsurgencies, foreign internal defense wars we are fighting) response to my comments, what did this refer to:

    "Consider the “civilians” in the Middle East. How many of them are providing food, shelter, information, and various other forms of support for the terrorist groups we’re fighting? The number of true civilians begins to drop drastically when that kind of support is taken into account."

    That seemed to me to refer to those wars. You didn't say "In our next war against a Tier 1 nation like China"

    Own your words and stay in your area of expertise, which is naval warfare and ship procurement.

    1. "With regard to your "we're not discussing that kind of war" (the counterinsurgencies, foreign internal defense wars we are fighting) response to my comments, what did this refer to: "

      Reread the posts, if you need to refresh your memory. I'm not talking about insurgencies when I talk about civilian casualties as a part of military operations. I've discussed civilian casualties only in the context of threats to national security. An insurgency is not normally a threat to national security, at least not our national security. Of course, some of the concepts can carry over, such as my definition of "civilian", and that may impact anti-insurgency military operations but I recognize that, lacking the urgency of a threat to national security, an anti-insurgency operation is "fought" to a different set of rules and objectives.

    2. "stay in your area of expertise, which is naval warfare and ship procurement."

      First, thank you for the acknowledgement of expertise! Second, you recognize that I run the blog so I'm pretty much free to venture into any area that interests me, right? So ...... Request denied! :)

    3. My God. This is one of the most simplistic analyses of the differentiation of "civilian" vs "combatant" I have ever seen in my 4 decades of studying war, near war, irregular war and OOW.

      There is a reason FDR declared total war. Its wisdom is much debated. The cost of his actions are not. They are on record. I think he was wise under the conditions he faced. Had Eisenhower or Kennedy done the same thing in Vietnam I would say they should have been impeached. You can define "civilian" anyway you want. What matters is how your your enemy shapes the conflict with your definition, vs your polity's acceptance of your definition and their willingness to accept the consequences.
      War is first and foremost a political endeavor. It is not a mechanism, it is a dysfunctional expression of the human struggle for power. In a perfect and imaginary political world, war would never occur. The group with the most power would gain predominance every time. But we are a war loving species. Done bad by the powers that be, we go to war and sacrifice our current young in exchange for being able to determine the course of our future young. Its natural logic. Why should we let some other culture co-opt our progeny? We can sacrifice them to "the other" by acquiesce or we can sacrifice them for the future of our culture's existence. Its a no brainer.
      As a war loving species, the bright lines you advocate don't exist. At times we can all be combatants. If only for a split second. Except for the warriors among us we are all also civilians most of our lives.
      What matters is the engaged parties ability to shape perceptions. FDR shaped them: We were attacked on our own soil, we did nothing wrong, they are a nation of Japs bent on our destruction, we want total capitulation, hence total war.

      How do you apply that to Vietnam or any other peripheral conflict of the Cold War? You can't. The cold war was a highly evolved expression of a power struggle between 2 cultures that devolved into war on its periphery. To the Vietnamese it endangered the Vietnamese culture's existence. It endangered our standing. They could have justified dying to the last man woman and child to preserve their culture. We would have lost the Cold War by killing too many for our standing.

      Operating using the logic you advocate would push the most mundane of operational conundrums above not only the strategic level of consideration but I would argue above the historic level of considerations. By your logic, Sherman should not only have burned his way through Atlanta, but killed all the slaves in the South too, as that surely would have ended the Civil War in record time. Perfect logic in your construct.

      I would suggest you go take Political Science 101 at a decent university then try re posting this or just stick to how the Navy builds stuff.

      Al L.

    4. "This is one of the most simplistic analyses of the differentiation of "civilian" vs "combatant" I have ever seen ..."

      I started reading this comment with high hopes and great expectations. I enjoy a good rebuttal and most of the other comments didn't really disagree with the basic premise of the post. Unfortunately, your comment was mainly a series of, "you're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong" statements without actually presenting any logic or data about why.

      When I finished reading your comment, my reaction was that there wasn't much there to disagree with. Your comment didn't say much relevant to the topic. I was disappointed.

      You clearly have a passionate position that you think differs from mine but you failed to elucidate how or why. I urge you to take another shot at offering a comment that uses logic and data to explicitly counter the points I made rather than the rambling bit about shaping perceptions and progeny that you did and that didn't really relate to the post.

      Please, take another pass at this. I truly love people who write with passion rather than simply nitpick peripheral items.

      By the way, your comment comes close to being disrespectful which is something I won't allow. If you opt to try again, argue the ideas not the person. Keep it impersonal, respectful, and analytical.

  11. Of course, lol. The more the merrier as far as I am concerned. I have a related sea story.

    I was a new ENS 1165 standing JOOD watch on the bridge of a DDG one night in the spring of 1983. The ship was in Fire Support Area (FSA) 1, which was a box in the ocean one nm off Ras Al Beirut. We were barely making way, going back and forth in the box. FSA 2 was a couple miles away with a French destroyer in it.

    This was after the US Embassy bombing but months before the Marine and French barracks bombings.

    The captain was in the captain's chair on the starboard side, which at that point was nearer Beirut. We were watching the show of tracers being fired up and down the hills of Beirut.

    The captain said, "I don't know why we are here. If we fired into that city we'd have no idea what the fuck we were hitting."

    The captain was a smart guy, ended up making ADM.

    We never fired anything but illumination rounds requested by the Marines when we were there.

    After we left, the USA decided to take sides in what was supposed to be a neutral peacekeeping mission. The USA got behind the Lebanese army and the allied Christian Falange and Sunni militias against the Shia militias. Somebody not as smart as my captain ordered naval gunfire into the Shia neighborhoods (Amal, Hezbollah). There were civilians killed.

    The Marine and French barracks bombings followed this. Reagan was smart enough to GTFO of that mission. Months later the Syrian Arab Army rolled into town and settled things down. Beirut was rebuilt.

    A couple of years ago, I went to Beirut to visit and stayed in the Rivera Hotel, which was on the water. I wanted a balcony looking out at where FSA 1 was 30+ years earlier. I highly recommend Beirut. I spent a lot of time walking through the city, Hamra, Ashrafiyah, Gemmaizeh. One day I ended up in a Amal/Hezbollah neighborhood. I was studying Arabic, so I could read enough to recognize the names on the posters. It was strange. No reason to have permanent enemies. That also shaped my thoughts on minimizing civilian casualties.

    1. Not sure of your slightly cavalier tone Thomas...

      Well as you were in the Navy let me tell you because you must have missed it. They fired big, big rounds from the battleship on station...And we flew what was called an Alpha strike from the sea. Vietnam tactics.

      Yes. Our rounds and our tactics failed because we weren't ready... However, lessons were learned. 241 Marines died. Travel to NC and see the memorial at Camp Lejuene A jet was shot down. The NSWC at Fallon was developed and put in service 2 years later.. We learn, we adapt.

      We don't fail much on the execution phase anymore....We've had a lot of practice since 1983... While you were having your epiphany of.... "no reason to have permanent enemies"... on your personal journey, you must have also known that you could have been kidnapped, judged as an infidel and beheaded despite your own travelogue....

      IMO, the neighborhoods where terrorists/uniformed or otherwise live in large groups, make bombs, plan operations and proliferate; are the equivalent of the German industrial factories that supported war whether or not they were close to a military target. generally today both Germany and Japan are not belligerent towards us disputing your thesis.

      Let me remind all here that only by "winning" (IE- Victory) does a nation/winner get to define what the meaning of all this martial philosophy being discussed from COMNAVs post. Winners write history.


    2. b2, let's keep the discussion polite and respectful. Argue the idea, not the person.

    3. b2, I was more concerned with division PMS and my SWO quals at the time, but the New Jersey only fired and aircraft shot down after the barracks bombings.

      This looks like a reasonable history of the events:

      As I said, Reagan was smart enough to get out. But the 16" shelling and bombing just looks like pointless vengeful flailing. The New Jersey killed the Syrian commander and some civilians, what was the point of that?

      Trying to make sense of the Byzantine factional struggles represented by chameleons like Walid Jumblatt was foolish. We killed a lot of civilians for no good reasons.

      As the captain said "If we fired into those hills, we'd have no idea what the fuck we were hitting."

      Eventually the Lebanese worked it out amongst themselves, rebuilt Beirut, kicked the Syrian army out. That is why I felt safe walking in Amal neighborhoods. Hasn't been a kidnapping in years. Shia like Amal and Hezbollah are not usually headchoppers anyways, those are the Sunni Salafis. My personal journey involves a tolerance for risk, otherwise I'd be staying home in fear.

      If you think we learned anything, you should take a trip to Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya. Saying "we don't fail much on the execution phase anymore" seems like a phrase from an alternate universe. Failed massively in Phase 4 operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq because of Rumsfeld, failed in Libya and Syria because of Obama.

    4. My point simply is, If those neighborhoods are known as "Hezbollah" (your anecdote) neighborhoods they are legitamite targets, whole or in part. Just like the Nazi aircraft factory.
      Point two. Please point out any tactical mission or battlefield engagement the US military has lost since Vietnam. We have had setbacks due to the nature of assymetric warfare, and our civilian leadership has ordered withdrawal but we have never lost. Even Mogadishu where on a broken mission good men died, the battlefield losses were 60 to one...
      I will not accept that the last 16 years as a military failure for those who have srved just like Vietnam was not a military failure
      Re your risk? Enjoy your dates and strong coffee.

    5. Did the US achieve its strategic goals in any of these engagements? If not, failure.

    6. "Did the US achieve its strategic goals in any of these engagements? If not, failure."

      The discussion is about civilians as legitimate targets, not strategic success or failure. Do you have any further comments about civilian targets?

  12. I would like to bring up the second Boer war. Great Britain at the turn of the 20th century had invaded the former Dutch colony that is today primarily South Africa and were facing a successful insurgency and possible defeat. The British then started a massive round-up of civilians to deprive the boers from having any kind of support (i.e. food, shelter, arms or recruits). The insurgency collapsed quickly there after. The civilian population were relocated into concentration camps, where poor planning on the British side lead to disease and starvation killing off a significant number of the boer civilians.

    The British viewed the entire population as a hostile force and removed their aid to the insurgents, if not it is quite possible the British army would have been bleed to death.

    To quote Major General Von Mellenthin, "no rule or law that conflicts with an army's survival, will likely be followed."

  13. Before starting a war we need to study and understand the opposition. Otherwise we end up repeating history. The content. Religion and other factors need to be understood in the context and culture of which were preparing to fight. Otherwise it will bog down due to misplaced objectives and unnecessary civilian casualties will Occur.

    It's all content and context otherwise we end up killing people who do not need killing.

  14. On the topic framed within the context of a general war with a major adversary like China or Russia:

    I agree that workers and people in the close environs of defense plants, transportation staging areas like railways and ports and military communications would be legit collateral damage. Beyond that, you step on a serious escalatory ladder. National and local civilian government facilities? Power plants, water works? Caution.

    Bombing farming villages, factory worker neighborhoods? I think not. You have to factor in emotional responses and the existential danger of nuclear escalation. While the Chinese and Russians might be able to control all media, you can't rule out instant dissemination of gruesome images on regular and social media there and a corresponding mass popular agitation for harsher retaliatory measures. The same is true with regard to US politics and public opinion.

    I read that every time they wargame USA vs China it goes nuclear because of the inability of the Elephant on its land (China) being unable to defeat the Shark in the water (USA) and vice versa.

    1. Your logic is inconsistent. You classify non-uniformed civilians as legitimate targets if they're near certain facilities but the exact same person working in an arms factory which directly supports the military effort is off limits? That's inconsistent logic.

      You apparently have no problem bombing a factory with a civilian worker in it but you won't bomb that same worker if he's at home? Inconsistent. He's either a legitimate target, in which case you kill him wherever he is, or he's not, in which case he's off limits anywhere he is which means you can't attack a factory.

      Perhaps you need to rethink this topic and try to come up with a consistent set of logic and ethics?

    2. The facilities are the targets. The people working within them are legit collateral damage.

      The point of the post was not moral, except insofar as avoiding escalation to nuclear exchange is moral.

      Remember, the enemy has a vote, too.

  15. CNO:
    Thank you for stating a point which I have long advocated, who are legitimate civilians and who are enemies without uniforms. I cannot think of a single thing that you wrote with which I disagree.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

    1. You're welcome for the post! Glad you enjoyed it.

      Now, since you agree, how do you think this should impact our general "way of fighting"? What broad operational changes should we be making? What impact should this have at the doctrinal and tactical levels?


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