Civilians in the Path of War

Article excerpt

Grimsley, Mark, and Clifford J. Rogers, eds. Civilians in the Path of War. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2002. 280pp. $50

This edited volume of essays provides an important set of historical case studies about noncombatant victims of war. From ancient Greece to the French Revolution, to strategic bombings of urban centers in World War II and the Gulf War, these articles address not the ethical or moral dimensions of war but rather the military calculus in planning violence against enemies that could also endanger or kill civilians. This collection gives historical perspective to the concept of collateral damage.

In their introduction the editors state, "This book is about occasions in which soldiers and governments have deliberately attacked the helpless." The authors provide specific, highly detailed examples, removed from the lens of morality and judgement, of the "whys" of strategic interventions. It is difficult, however, not to document the uncertainty that accompanies military decision making, as author Conrad Crane describes in his article, "Contrary to Our National Ideals." In spite of the important strategic use of American airpower to exact a toll on cities during World War II, he explains how American public opinion shifted against such ruthless bombings. The concept of "surgical strikes" by airpower was a concept conceived in part to assuage public opinion that rejected the indiscriminate use of force to destroy noncombatants.

Nine essays, originally commissioned as part of a 1993 conference on military history, reveal a central ambivalence by the authors about the impact of military imposed violence on civilians. These historical cases try to balance what generals depict as a military necessity for bombings or invasions against the realities of on-the-ground conditions, which reveal large numbers of civilians getting in harm's way. What is frequently developed in the name of military necessity is often immoral in practice. Certainly, this is the conclusion of Holger Herwig in his "The Immorality of Expediency," which takes on German military planning and the exclusion of civilians from such discussions on the eve of World War I. Williamson Murray's "Not Enough Collateral Damage: Moral Ambiguities in the Gulf War," extols the use of American airpower to seek "surgical strikes" to minimize the loss of life on the ground but also points out that such an approach does not always produce decisive military victory. …