Politics of Civil Casualties – Are States Really Interested in Less Bloody Conflicts?

The following blog post is written by Ofer Fridman, our School nominee for the University’s PhD Researcher of the Year competition.


Different conflicts that have taken place in the last few decades significantly highlighted the problem of tackling with civilian population and collateral damage. In the last few decades of the 20th century, a universal respect for human life has become a crucial variable within the international community, in general, and Western societies in particular. In this new political reality, military seeks new technologies that have greater precision, shorter duration, less lethality, and reduced collateral damage. While Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW) seem to be the perfect answer for this military quest; to this day the operational use of available non-lethal weapons by the military has been limited.

While an employment of NLW, undoubtedly, demands a paradigm shift in military affairs; the history of such fundamental changes proves that they can occur only under significant pressure and support from the political leadership. In the case of NLW, this required pressure becomes even more significant, as the military approach toward NLW has substantial political roots. The analysis of the existing literature clearly shows that not only their name (Non-Lethal Weapons) was chosen for political reasons, but their proposed role was more political than military, i.e. to add new options for policy makers in the ‘grey area’ between no application of military force and application of lethal military force.

My research, however, argues that despite visible political sensitivity to civil casualties during military operations, political leadership do not pressure military organisation significantly enough to fundamentally re-evaluate its doctrinal approach towards lethality. To solve this puzzle, the research focuses on three cases (Russia, the U.S. and Israel) analysing domestic and international political factors that have the potential to force the military organisations to fundamentally decrease their lethality.

Regarding domestic factors, on the one hand, it seems right to argue that the perception that human life is a universal value expected to stress political leadership, demanding its military to employ less lethal options. On the other, a deeper analysis of this aspect suggests entirely different situation that can be explained by two trends. The first trend assumes that in the 21st century people indeed value human life significantly higher than before. This appreciation, however, has been translated largely into general unwillingness to sacrifice one’s own life and the lives of his relatives, rather than a universal value that applies on the enemy’s civilians.

The second trend suggests that the increasing transparency of the military activity in the 21st century will create more public moral tolerance, thus demanding to minimise civil casualties on the battlefield. To deal with this emerging domestic political pressure, the political leadership with its military have developed different ways to justify civil casualties as an unavoidable part of the military activity that is intended to save more lives than caused deaths. In other words, the military has been required by its political leadership to reduce the number of civil casualties to the politically defendable rather than operationally or technologically possible minimum.

Regarding the international factors, during the last several decades, the number of civil casualties caused by military operations has become an important argument in international relations. Different international players (states, as well as non-state organisations) more frequently and more powerfully make use of this argument to criticise military activity of their international opponents, and therefore create pressure on their political leadership to withdraw military activity or, at least, minimise civil casualties.

However, an analysis of the foreign policy of all three countries suggests that these countries have developed mechanisms that help them to withstand international pressure, thus minimising its influence on political-military decision making process. In the Russian case, to fend international (mainly Western) criticism off, the Kremlin has developed a narrative of ‘Double Standards.’ Facing international criticism Russian leaders powerfully dismiss it, arguing that their activities comply with international law, at least with the same degree as Western actions do.

The American leadership, in its turn, minimises possible international criticism by building coalitions: as many states are involved in the military activity as less pressure will be applied on the U.S. decision makers themselves.

In Israel, the political leadership has decided, long ago, that the outcomes of military activity and the number of civil casualties have nothing to do with the international pressure. In other words, Israel believes that even an unprecedented low number of civil casualties during their operations will not decrease the already high level of the international pressure. Consequently, as the battle for the international public opinion is lost in advance and tight relations with the U.S. will protect Israel in the Security Council, the international pressure has little influence on the Israeli political-military decision making process.

On the one hand, unfortunately, my analysis does not suggest a feasible future for NLW. Political leadership is not stressed enough (domestically or internationally) to demand fundamental changes from their military organisations. Consequently, under insignificant political pressure, military organisations choose to adopt their existing capabilities (precision strikes, selective weapon systems, strict the rules of engagement, etc.), rather than employ NLW.

On the other hand, during the last several decades, military operations themselves have deviated from previous wars, where victory was considered solely by military terms. The winning of the “hearts and minds” has become a vital factor in achieving the final aims of military operations. Military organisations begin to understand that the achievement of a comprehensive victory demands support from the local population; and therefore, harming civilians, in most cases, will increase their involvement against the military and delay the successful end of operations.

Consequently, it seems that the future of NLW does not lie in the hands of politicians, and NLW will be eventually employed not because of political costs of civil casualties, but due to their military effectiveness. However, as history of military innovations suggests, without political demand and support, it can be a very long process.

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