Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Civilians and war casualties

Hugo Slim, Killing Civilians: Method, Madness, and Morality in War (Columbia University Press, 2008) is a fascinating and far-ranging study of civilian suffering during war. The publisher's description explains: "Slim analyzes the anti-civilian ideologies that encourage and perpetuate suffering and exposes the exploitation of moral ambiguity that is used to sanction extreme hostility. At what point does killing civilians become part of winning a war? Why are some methods of killing used while others are avoided? Bolstering his claims with hard fact, Slim argues that civilian casualties are not only morally reprehensible but also bad military science. His book is a clarion call for action and a passionate defense of civil immunity, a concept that is more urgent and necessary today than ever before."

Much like Drew Faust's recent book on the dead of the Civil War, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf, 2008), Slim's book (if less elegantly, with the fervor of a humanitarian activist rather than the authority of a master historian) helps to strip away the veneer of civility that we routinely impose on the brutality of modern warfare.

Slim identifies common military strategies as blatantly "anti-civilian" and suggests (hopefully) that "pro-civilian thinking and behavior" (7) can alter the violent balance of war and shift conflict toward the protection of civilians. He writes that "[a]bove all, this is a book about intention and suffering, identity and ambiguity, tolerance and compassion" (7). He seeks to complicate our understanding not simply of "citizen" or "soldier" but of "civilian" itself (8).

Slim's effort to sort out the essence and liabilities of the "civilian" label is especially intriguing;
he points out that civilians are often regarded with suspicion and as lacking integrity by soldiers, and that the sacrificial rhetoric of war accepts, and even promotes, not only military but also civilian casualties as a necessary prerequisite to positive change. Death and suffering can become their own justification in the face of a need to give meaning to tremendous and otherwise inexplicable loss -- a reckoning that Faust finds in the mourning for and celebration of the Civil War dead (her preface is entitled "The Work of Death"). She writes that Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s 1895 Memorial Day Speech "became emblematic of the elegiac view of the war that hailed death as an end in itself" (The Republic of Suffering, 270).

For a military historian's perspective on Slim's volume and other aspects of war, past and present, see Mark Grimsley's blog. Grimsley is a historian at Ohio State who is now the Harold K. Johnson Professor of Military History at the U.S. Army War College.