Civilian Casualty Ratio

truth by Carlos Latuff

In armed conflicts, the civilian casualty ratio is the ratio of civilian casualties to combatant casualties, or total casualties. The measurement can apply either to casualties inflicted by a particular belligerent, or to casualties in the conflict as a whole.

According to a 2001 Red Cross study, the civilian-to-soldier death ratio in wars fought since the mid-20th century has been 10:1, meaning ten civilian deaths for every soldier death. In 2007, Israel achieved a ratio of 1:30, or one civilian casualty for every thirty combatant casualties, in its targeted killings campaign on militants in the Gaza Strip. According to Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School, ‘No army in history has ever had a better ratio of combatants to civilians killed in a comparable setting.’ Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, made a similar assessment of Israeli operations during the Gaza War, saying this civilian causalty ratio ‘was by far the lowest in any asymmetric conflict in the history of warfare.’

Although it’s estimated at least 1 million people died in the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), most died from disease and hunger as an indirect result of the war. Combat deaths are generally agreed to have totaled about 250,000. According to Eckhardt, these included 125,000 civilian deaths and 125,000 military deaths, creating a civilian-combatant death ratio of 1:1 among combat deaths.

Some 9 to 10 million combatants are estimated to have died during World War I, along with an estimated 6.6 million civilians. The civilian casualty rate in World War I is therefore approximately 1:6. Most of the civilian fatalities were due to famine or Spanish flu rather than military action. The relatively low rate of civilian casualties in this war is due to the fact that the front lines on the main battlefront, the Western Front, were static for most of the war, so that civilians were able to avoid the combat zones. Casualties for the Western allies, consequently, were relatively slight. Germany, on the other hand, suffered 750,000 civilian dead during and after the war due to famine caused by the Allied blockade. Russia and Turkey suffered civilian casualties in the millions—the latter including at least 500,000 Armenians killed in the Armenian genocide.

According to most sources, World War II was the most lethal war in world history, with some 70 million killed in six years. The civilian to combatant fatality rate in World War II lies somewhere between 6:1 and 2:1. The high rate of civilian casualties in this war was due in part to the increasing lethality of strategic weapons, used to target enemy industrial or population centres, and famines caused by economic disruption. A substantial number of civilians in this war were also deliberately killed by the Axis Powers in the Holocaust as a result of racial policies and ethnic cleansing campaigns.

The median total estimated Korean civilian deaths in the Korean War is 1,547,000. The median total estimated Korean military deaths is 429,827. The civilian-combatant death ratio among Korean casualties is just under 4:1. One source estimates that 20% of the total population of North Korea perished in the war.

The Vietnamese government has estimated the number of Vietnamese civilians killed in the war at two million, and the number of NVA and Viet Cong killed at 1.1 million — estimates which approximate those of a number of other sources. This would give a civilian-combatant fatality rate of approximately 2:1. These figures do not include civilians killed in Cambodia and Laos.

In 1981, the PLO in Lebanon began shelling villages in northern Israel. In 1982, Israel mounted its response. The war culminated in a seven-week long Israeli naval, air and artillery bombardment of Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, where the PLO had retreated. The bombardment eventually came to an end with an internationally brokered settlement in which the PLO forces were given safe passage to evacuate the country. According to the Red Cross, by the end of the first week of the war alone, some 10,000 people, including 2,000 combatants, had been killed, and 16,000 wounded—a civilian-combatant fatality rate of 5:1.

During the First Chechen War, 4,000 separatist fighters and 40,000 civilians are estimated to have died, giving a civilian-combatant ratio of 10:1. The numbers for the Second Chechen War are 3,000 fighters and 13,000 civilians, for a ratio under 5:1. The combined ratio for both wars is under 8:1. Casualty numbers for the conflict are notoriously unreliable. The estimates of the civilian casualties during the First Chechen war range from 20,000 to 100,000, with remaining numbers being similarly unreliable. The tactics employed by Russian forces in both wars were heavily criticized by human rights groups, which accused them of indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian areas and other crimes.

In 1999, NATO intervened in the Kosovo War with a bombing campaign against Yugoslav forces, who were alleged to be conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The bombing lasted about 10 weeks, forcing the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army from Kosovo. Estimates for the number of casualties caused by the bombing vary widely depending on the source. NATO unofficially claimed a toll of 5,000 enemy combatants killed by the bombardment; the Yugoslav government, on the other hand, gave a figure of 638 of its security forces killed in Kosovo. Estimates for the civilian toll are similarly disparate. Human Rights Watch counted approximately 500 civilians killed by the bombing; the Yugoslav government estimated between 1,200 and 5,000.

If the NATO figures are to be believed, NATO achieved a civilian to combatant kill ratio of about 1:10, on the Yugoslav government’s figures, conversely, the ratio would be between 4:1 and 10:1. If the most conservative estimates from the sources cited above are used, the ratio was around 1:1. According to military historian and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, for every Serbian soldier killed by NATO in 1999 (the period in which Operation Allied Force took place), four civilians died, a civilian to combatant casualty ratio of 4:1. Oren cites this figure as evidence that ‘even the most moral army can make mistakes, especially in dense urban warfare.’

According to a 2010 assessment by Iraq Body Count, a UK-based organization, American and Coalition forces had killed at least 22,668 combatants as well as 13,807 civilians in the Iraq War, indicating an essential civilian to combatant casualty ratio of 1:2. It is not clear what percentage of civilians were killed in the initial (conventional war) invasion, as opposed to the percentage killed in the insurgency since.

The civilian casualty rate for U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan is notoriously difficult to quantify. The U.S. itself puts the number of civilians killed from drone strikes in the last two years at no more than 20 to 30, a total that is far too low according to watchdog NGOs. At the other extreme, Daniel L. Byman of the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill ’10 or so civilians’ for every militant killed, which would represent a civilian to combatant casualty ratio of 10:1. Byman argues that civilian killings constitute a humanitarian tragedy and create dangerous political problems, including damage to the legitimacy of the Pakistani government and alienation of the Pakistani populace from America. A study by the New America Foundation in 2011 estimated that between 830 and 1,210 civilians in total have been killed by drone strikes since 2004, a civilian fatality rate of about 1:2.

Several analysts have attempted to calculate the Israel Defense Force’s civilian casualty ratio in the Gaza War. All have noted that the ratio differs significantly depending on which figures are used regarding the total number of casualties and their identity. The main sets of figures are those published by the IDF, essentially corroborated by Hamas, the opposing belligerent in the conflict, on the one hand; and those published by Israeli NGO B’Tselem, on the other hand. The final IDF report identified 709 militants out of a total of 1,161 Gaza fatalities, with another 162 whose status could not be confirmed (300 were ID’d as civilians). The ratio is 1:3 according to the Israeli figures, and 6:1 according to B’Tselem’s figures.

Terrorists fight from among civilians because they know that the inevitable civilian casualties will result in opprobrium for their victims who fight back, and that this norm will not change as long as this modus operandi remains profitable. However, Israel attributed its reported ratio to investment in special weapons systems, including small smart bombs that minimize collateral damage, and to an upscaled effort to warn civilians to flee areas and to divert missiles at the last moment if civilians entered a planned strike zone. Over 81 percent of the 5,000 missiles the IDF dropped in the Gaza Strip during the operation were smart bombs, a percentage which is unprecedented in modern warfare.

Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, spoke in 2011 about Israeli operations in the Gaza War. He said that a study published by the United Nations showed ‘that the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in Gaza was by far the lowest in any asymmetric conflict in the history of warfare.’ He stated that this ratio was less than 1:1, and compared it favorably to the estimated ratios in NATO operations in Afghanistan (3:1), western campaigns in Iraq and Kosovo (believed to be 4:1), and the conflicts in Chechnya and Serbia (much higher than 4:1, according to anecdotal evidence).

Kemp argued that the low ratio was achieved through unprecedented measures by the IDF to minimize civilian casualties, which included providing warnings to the population via telephone calls, radio broadcasts and leaflets, as well as granting pilots the discretion to abort a strike if they perceived too great a risk of civilian casualties. He also stated that the civilian casualties that did occur could be seen in light of Hamas’ tactical use of Gazan civilians ‘as human shields, to hide behind, to stand between Israeli forces and their own fighters’ and strategic use of them for exploitation of their deaths in the media.

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