June 14, 2013
A popular myth emerged in the late 1990s: in 1900, wars killed one civilian for every eight soldiers, while contemporary wars were killing eight civilians for every one soldier. The neat reversal of numbers was memorable, and academic publications and UN documents regularly cited it. The more it was cited, the more trusted it became. In fact, however, subsequent research found no empirical evidence for the idea that the ratio of civilians to soldiers killed in war has changed dramatically. But while the ratios may not have changed, the political significance of civilian casualties has risen tremendously.
Over the past century, civilians in war have gone from having no particular rights to having legal protections and rights that begin to rival those accorded to states. The concern for civilians in conflict has become so strong that governments occasionally undertake humanitarian interventions, at great risk and substantial cost, to protect strangers in distant lands. I n the early 1990s, the UN Security Council authorized military interventions to help feed and protect civilians in the Kurdish area of Iraq, Somalia, and Bosnia. And in May 2011 , Barack Obama ‘s National Security Advisor explained the United States’ decision to support NATO’s military intervention in these terms “When the president made this decision, there was an immediate threat to 700,000 Libyan civilians in the town of Benghazi. We’ve had a success here in terms of being able to protect those civilians.”
Counting Civilian Casualties aims to promote open scientific dialogue by high lighting the strengths and weaknesses of the most commonly used casualty recording and estimation techniques in an understandable format. Its thirteen chapters, each authoritative but accessible to nonspecialists, explore a variety of approaches, from direct recording to statistical estimation and sampling, to collecting data on civilian deaths caused by conflict. The contributors also discuss their respective advantages and disadvantages, and analyze how figures are used (and misused) by governments, rebels, human rights advocates, war crimes tribunals, and others. In addition to providing analysts with a broad range of tools to produce accurate data, this will be an in valuable resource for policymakers, military officials, jou rnalists, human rights activists, courts, and ordinary people who want to be more informed–and skeptical–consumers of casualty counts.