Civilians in the Path of War

Civilians in the Path of War

Civilians in the Path of War

Civilians in the Path of War


"War," wrote Gen. William T. Sherman, "is cruelty, and you cannot refine it." Throughout history, noncombatants have always been among the victims of war's violence. In this book, nine distinguished historians examine twenty-five hundred years of human conflicts and their varied impacts on civilian society. Each case study examines not only what military forces did to noncombatants in the area of their operations, but why they did it and how they justified their actions. The focus, however, remains firmly on the practical realities of war, not on normative theories or the prescriptions of the "laws of war."

The patterns that emerge from the nine case studies are not simple ones. Some of the same factors and pressures appear again and again, though the balance among them and the ultimate outcome vary greatly. We see how often devastation has served as a tool of coercive diplomacy, but also how logistic considerations have greatly affected the calculus of pillage versus restraint. The importance of precedent, of culture, of ideology or morality, and of morale become clear.

This book addresses crucial issues in an era in which historians have come to appreciate that a full understanding of war must address its victims as well as its victors, and when policymakers are perhaps more concerned than ever with minimizing the impact of war on civilian society.


Mark Grimsley and Clifford J. Rogers

If war is the scourge of humanity, the killing of the helpless is its worst manifestation. the deaths of thousands, even millions, of young servicemen are mourned but accepted. But the deaths of even a few women, children, or elderly people can provoke outrage when they die at the hands of soldiers. the cry from time immemorial has been that such killings are pointless, vicious, immoral, atrocious. Ethical prescription and international law alike have condemned the evil and sought to restrict it if they could not eliminate it altogether. and yet the killing of the helpless has been a hall mark of war fare throughout the centuries, and never more so than during the one just ended.

“Helpless” is a term chosen with care. Although the title of this book employs a more common word whose current meaning seems clear, “civilians” is arguably ambiguous and, in any case, altogether anachronistic when applied much earlier than the late Middle Ages. Another expression, “innocent,” is even less satisfactory. Who is innocent? in the bitter annals of atrocity even infants have been denied this quality. John Chivington, the colonel responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre, is reported to have authorized the killing of Cheyenne and Arapaho babies with the curt observation, “Nits make lice.”

A third possibility, “noncombatant,” comes closer to the mark, but like civilian and innocent it can be contested. Is a worker in a munitions factory truly a noncombatant? a farmer whose grain fields help feed an army? An educator whose teachings legitimize and help to perpetuate a hated regime? Then too, strictly speaking, the term “noncombatant” also encompasses military personnel (e.g., chaplains and prisoners of war) whose exemption from violent harm derives mainly from military convention, not moral imperative.

The language of war is inherently politicized, and no portion more than the language used to refer to its victims. in this respect, a recent . . .

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