Bryan Caplan  


Clive Crook on Monetary Policy... Sounds Like PSST...
Hawks love the analogy between defensive war and individual self-defense.  But as I keep saying, there's a big difference: so-called "defensive war" almost always involves the deliberate or reckless killing of innocent bystanders.  Why They Die: Civilian Devastation in Violent Conflict, a new book by GMU profs Daniel Rothbart and Karina Korostelina, has details.  Quick version:

The World Health Organization estimated that 310,000 people died as the result of war in the year 2000. Recent statistics estimate that a majority of that number are civilians. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in violent conflicts since World War II has been 10 to 1.


"...I don't know of a single prolonged conflict in the modern day where there are fewer civilian deaths than combatant deaths. It is likely that any long war will have more civilians killed than soldiers," Rothbart says.

The larger number of deaths has to do with the increased use of firepower, combined with the soldiers' confusion about who is a combatant and who is a civilian. Because of this confusion, major casualties among civilian populations are rationalized as inevitable and, in some cases, even necessary.

If pressed, I suspect that most people would condone the killing of enemy civilians on the grounds that "they started it."  But these same people condemn almost every other application of the concept of "collective guilt."  Very suspicious.  Even more suspicious, though, is that fact that so many people combine an historical theory of justice with zero interest in history.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (9 to date)
OneEyedMan writes:

I doubt most people justify it on the basis that "they started it.". It seems much more likely that they would describe it as unavoidable collateral damage, like bystanders injured when police give high speed pursuit or innocent people sent to prison.

Tracy W writes:

I'm with OneEyedMan - after all, I support vaccination programmes even though I know that a non-zero number of innocent people will be killed or seriously harmed by the vaccine, because I've been convinced that that number of people will be lower than the numbers killed or seriously harmed by the infections if the population is unvaccined.

And, apparently in 1999, an estimated 750,000 to 880,000 people died in road deaths (see, page 3). I suspect that many of these people were as innocent as those civilians killed in war. But generally people show a remarkable lack of willingness to get rid of cars, trucks, etc.

Daublin writes:

Like OneEyedMan says, the same issue comes up with personal self defense. If you ever have a chance to speak with policemen or with self-defense instructors, they will be happy to talk your head off about things like proportional response and about awareness of bystanders.

None of that changes whether it's a good idea to defend oneself at all. It just means you have to consider the collateral impact of any choices you make.

It's a huge subject, but one saying I've heard emphasized is, "It is better to be judged by 12 than buried by 6". There's usually not much time to make the perfect decision. If you think you're in danger, if you're sure you're in danger, then for goodness' sake fight.

Pandaemoni writes:

While OneEyedMan makes a good point, I think "collateral damage" is only part of the explanation. When the "collateral damage" is the deaths of enemy civilians that is far more emotionally acceptable than when the collateral damage is friendly civilians.

At least I know that's how I feel about it, which could suggest that, on some level, I view the enemy civilians as more morally culpable in starting the war.

I've seen estimates of around 100,000 Iraqi civilians reported dead in the Iraq War, and paused but only briefly when I saw the figure. I am sure I'd have been more circumspect if 100,000 U.S. civilians had died as a result. That might not be because the Iraqis are more morally culpable, though, but rather just that they are not in my perceived "in group," and so I am less emotionally invested in them.

CBrinton writes:

Another completely unconvincing post on this topic from Bryan Caplan.

What percentage, in his opinion, of the "violent conflicts since World War II" discussed by the authors he cites meet any rational definition of a defensive war conducted by a nation-state?

Guerrilla conflicts tend to occur in areas where governments do _everything_ poorly, including waging war. Drawing a general conclusion that defensive war cannot be waged competently, and with priority given to minimizing civilian casualties, because wars are often waged incompetently and with no such priority given, is an obvious logical error.

There are obvious historical examples showing how polities who want to minimize civilian casualties can fight in their own defense. The Finnish conduct of the Winter War of 1940 is only one of them. Fighting on one's own soil and evacuating civilians from likely war zones, together with a selective scorched-earth defensive policy, are some of them.

A libertarian who is concerned about how groups of libertarians can defend their rights from aggressors should not merely say, over and over, that war is bad and surrender preferable.

John David Galt writes:

You seem to be turning a blind eye to the main reason for the civilian deaths in recent wars: some combatant forces -- not only the likes of Al Qaeda but also those involved in overt warfare such as Hezbollah and the Taliban -- deliberately hide themselves and their weapons in civilian clothing and civilian neighborhoods, so that their opponents cannot strike back at them without killing a lot of civilians.

It is naive, and plays right into these bad guys' hands, to then blame their opponents when they do strike back. The force that hides itself among civilians is the one responsible for their deaths. In affect it has taken them hostage.

Karl Gallagher writes:

A willingness to wage defensive war, or taking the offensive in a "best defense", deters opponents from attacking. A policy of pacifism offers a strong incentive to anyone interested in conducting banditry or extracting Danegeld.

Roger Zimmerman writes:

Partly unavoidable collateral damage in exigent circumstance, but, more fundamentally, in the case of defensive action, the fault of the aggressor. In other words, war is hell - you shouldn't fight one unless you have to; but, if you do fight, the best thing to do is get it over quickly, by damaging the enemy wherever and whenever you can. Worrying too much about innocents will actually make things worse for the average one by prolonging the violence and economic depredation.

And, yes, the above implies one can objectively identify an aggressor, and also that one's own life is of greater value (to you) than is that of the random stranger.

CBrinton writes:

The excerpt says that "The International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in violent conflicts since World War II has been 10 to 1".

This appears to be false.

The ICRC has, in fact, strongly questioned this 10-1 claim:

"Over recent years a number of sources have cited figures that purport to document the proportion of civilians injured by weapons in various conflicts. Many of these sources put the proportion at 80 to 90% of all people injured. It is important to note that these estimates are almost always provided with no indication of how they have been arrived at. Most commonly, a reference is given which merely refers to an earlier report quoting the same figure. . . . there are relatively few sources that provide original data which directly addresses the issue. One such source is the ICRC surgical database, begun in 1991 to record information relating to the ICRC’s surgical activities. An analysis of the first 17,086 people admitted for weapon injuries reported that 35% were female, males under 16, or males aged 50 and over . . . A study in Croatia used death certificates and employment records to examine the civilian proportion of conflict-related fatalities and found that civilians could at most have accounted for 64% of the 4,339 fatalities studied."


For an overview of the popularity of this uncited zombie statistic, see

(And before anyone bothers to say so, I'm not arguing that 64% civilian fatalities would be a good thing--just that Caplan is spreading dubious research)

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top