Modern Warfare's Terrible Toll

Over the last few decades, the likely balance of suffering in any war has changed. More than ever, military conflicts are fought, won and lost through the creation of misery for non-combatants. Military-to-military combat can still have a significant influence on the terms of an eventual peace, but traditional battles have become much rarer, clear victors are rarer still.

Traditional fighting between armed groups easily and often moves into violence mostly perpetrated by people who control deadly weapons on those unable to fight back. This rather fundamental shift in the character of combat should change the moral and political approach to wars. What Pope John XXIII said in 1963 about nuclear weapons, “In this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice,” is now true of almost every military venture.

War’s nature remains constant: it is killing for political gain. War’s character, which we can call “warfare,” changes. Warfare is nowadays skewed more towards the destruction of non-combatant lives and the almost irrevocable annihilation of otherwise stable societies than to the struggle for any meaningful political objective.

The Change in Warfare

The novelties of the modern world have altered the way people fight in many ways. Three shifts are particularly relevant for understanding why non-combatants (the technical term for people who are often called civilians) are at the losing end of these changes.

  • First, technology: mass production and increased scientific knowledge have led to the development of weapons which are ever cheaper to make, easier to use, and much more deadly. For example, a good AK47 rifle can usually be had for no more than a few hundred dollars in conflict zones. Each person armed with one carries the firepower of thirty or forty US civil war soldiers, or of ten British soldiers in the First or Second World Wars.
  • Second, sociology: over the last century or so mass conscription has produced more soldiers for these improved weapons to kill in traditional military-to-military combat; urbanization brings together a much greater number of non-combatants in places where they can be killed or terrorized with ever greater ease.
  • Third, economics: lives that are increasingly dependent on basic infrastructure and advanced technology are ever easier to disrupt and destroy, while modern economies, even dysfunctional ones, can support disruptive and destructive military forces, both official and insurgent, that are remarkably powerful by pre-modern standards.

One thing that is not novel in war is the purposeful killing of non-combatants in warfare. Indeed, throughout most of history and in most cultures until well into the nineteenth century, the killing, raping, and enslaving of non-combatants was more often than not standard practice. Although the infliction of great harm outside of combat was sometimes justified militarily or psychologically, more often it was hardly noticed. It was simply the way of war. Even the early modern theorists of “just war” paid little attention to the destruction of non-fighters’ lives, dignity and property. In a war deemed just, some amount of carnage visited upon non-combatants was treated as inevitable, and thus excusable. Even those theorists who did condemn militarily unnecessary killing rarely objected to such practices as starving besieged opponents, setting contested towns on fire, or enslaving conquered peoples. Those were accepted methods of achieving an objective.

Although the killing of non-combatants has a long history, something changed with the Second World War. In that conflict, each side’s modern infrastructure, industrial productive capacity, and research expertise were all mobilized for massive destruction of the other side’s modern infrastructure, industrial productive capacity and urban populations. No weapon was considered too horrible and no death toll too high. The intentional killing of large numbers of non-combatants in bombings played a central role in the winning side’s strategies, while the scientific slaughter of Jews and other non-combatants, not to mention the million or so non-combatant deaths in the ultimately unsuccessful siege of Leningrad or the “Rape of Nanjing” (in 1937; the war started earlier for China than for Europe) amongst many other horrors, show the Axis powers had a similar approach.

Since that war, the technology of destruction has continued to advance. The increase in efficacy of sophisticated weapons and the reductions in cost of many simpler types of arms have created two shifts, both of which point to greater non-combatants casualties.

The Battles Are Lost

Yet, at the same time, there is a declining effectiveness in winning battles. At the very top of the scale of weaponry, the problem has been clear for decades. Nuclear weapons are not useful for battlefields. The tiniest two-way nuclear exchange at a so-called “tactical” or “army-army” level would simply eviscerate both forces, and would be followed by much larger exchanges. In the Indian subcontinent, the region of the world where nuclear exchanges are perhaps easiest to envisage, India has stated that it will immediately destroy a Pakistani city if Pakistan uses any small battlefield nuclear device to offset India’s military numerical advantage.

Besides, the killing-power of nuclear weapons is basically wasted on even the largest collection of soldiers. In practice, if such weapons can win wars, it will be through giving cities a reprise of the shock, horror, and awe that helped accelerate Japan’s surrender in the Second World War. If there is ever a nuclear war, and if victory is an appropriate term for the end of such a conflict, the prize will be awarded to the side which was best able to endure the slaughter of its people and the damage to the environment of the combatant nations and indeed the entire planet.

There are almost identical stalemates over the battlefield use of chemical and biological weapons. The ultimate reason for keeping all such weapons of mass destruction in an arsenal is to threaten the mass deaths of non-combatants. This “balance of terror” has held until now.  However, the panic and anger which accompany any sort of war, combined with the “friction” (anything that can go wrong generally will) and “fog of war” (confusion and uncertainty), which Clausewitz rightly tells us accompanies all combat all but ensure that government promises of never resorting to the “first use” of these battle-changing tools cannot be believed in the context of large-scale conflict between nuclear-armed states.

A similar illogic of battle increasingly applies to so-called conventional weapons. Today, if two well-armed forces of even roughly equal size were to meet in battle, such as a clash between Chinese and US forces in the Western Pacific, the casualties and destruction could be unbearable on both sides. Contemporary air power, including missiles and drones, is too deadly to allow large open manoeuvres on land. Anti-ship weapons are powerful enough to make naval attacks very difficult. Even much weaker sides can restrain would-be conventional military attacks, especially from countries with limited political tolerance for military casualties. Even China, with the largest population in the world, is considered susceptible to this. The disastrous social effect of killing tens of thousands of young males in a society where the value of such people is disproportionately large still deters China from initiating conflicts with weaker nations. The “fighting-age” generation of the 2020s was born during the currency of the one-child policy there.

At the other end of the continent of Asia, Iran is a relatively poor country. The United States has by far the largest military capacity in the world. However, Iran has sufficient capability to hurt the United States badly, to a point where the political cost of high casualties in a dubious war could be too high. The nature of actual wars over the last few decades confirms the futility of battle. The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war was the last substantial-scale peer-to-peer conflict. Both countries were devastated. There was no victor, and the enmity and debts which followed the destruction were key links in the continuing chain of conflicts in the entire Middle East. Historians point out that the rate of casualties was lower than that of the First World War, but it was high enough to discourage other militarily ambitious regimes from trying their luck on the conventional field of battle.

Most recent conventional wars have been far more lopsided. For example, the Serbian forces were much stronger than their rivals in the post-Yugoslav civil wars and the NATO forces were then much stronger than the Serbians. The Iraqis were much stronger than the Kuwaiti defenders in 1990, and the coalition forces were much stronger than the Iraqis later in the year. However, even the full force of sophisticated modern armed forces is often not powerful enough to rout much less armed but more determined and better-embedded opponents. Both the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies have had this experience in Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia and its allies are learning a similar lesson in Yemen. Military superiority rarely translates into durable military gains, let alone a desired political outcome.

The Alternatives

What happens to military conflicts between well-armed forces when direct combat is judged to be militarily unwise or politically unacceptable? The most desirable outcome is a new balance of conventional terror, where actual conflict is avoided. Another possibility is limited conflict. For example, Russia has military as well as political reasons to keep the conflict in Ukraine from expanding too much. Its leaders know that there would be no victors if NATO forces decided to defend their sometime allies in Kiev. Russia has been more assertive in Syria, but it would likely pull back in those countries if the Americans, or even the Turks, decided to make a strong stand. Conversely, the Turks and Americans are very unlikely to make a stand strong enough to lead the Russians to make full use of their armory. There are gestures and threats from one government to another, but the fighting is kept under control.

Finally, and all too plausibly, there is the favoring of military-civilian fighting over military versus military engagements. Killing non-combatants and driving them out of their homes has been central to the strategy for both government forces and their opponents in the wars in Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Iraq (during the Civil War of 2003-2018) and Libya. These were all civil conflicts, but it is hard to see why a similar approach would not be used between two states with generally accepted borders such as a Baltic War Scenario involving NATO against a revanchist Russia. It is also the most likely outcome if China were ever to invade Taiwan or India and Pakistan to engage in serious combat. As in Iraq, conventional battles would be followed by massive attacks by conventional and paramilitary forces on non-combatants.

The Russian-Assad victory in Syria shows how conventional weapons can still win wars. If the killing-tools are used with enough brutality, targeting non-combatants as well as much more poorly armed military opposition, they can produce something that resembles traditional military victory. In our judgment, the path to winning for conventional armed forces will more and more look like that being followed in Syria, where about 2% of the pre-war population has been killed, many more injured and disabled, and half the population has moved to flee a similar fate. Peace is not likely to prevail once the war is over. Even if the former rebel militias do not manage to regroup, gain new foreign allies, and restart military killing, the government’s violence against non-combatants is likely to continue, to forestall exactly that sort of renewed armed resistance. Syria is not an exception to the modern norm. And so it is at best misleading to talk about “limited war.” Regardless who “wins” modern military conflicts, the main victims are always non-combatants, who are killed, terrorized, raped, impoverished, and displaced in large numbers.

Easy and Lasting Misery

Damage to civilians would be much less if conventional armies could easily and quickly rout opponents with fewer resources, for example rebel groups inside a country. Unfortunately, experience has amply demonstrated that they cannot, in large part because of the second shift in military practice, the increased ease of killing, both of opposing soldiers and of non-combatants whose death might advance the fighters’ political cause.

The basic pattern is simple enough. Few countries are so poor and few dissidents are so friendless that they cannot get automatic weapons and the simple raw materials for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). When there is a military contest between insurgents or rebels and internationally recognized governments, both sides can generally find foreigners willing to provide weapons and expertise in exchange for money or some sort of political influence. Because the armed dissidents tend to blend into the civilian population, they are difficult to neutralize, especially when the legitimate government is weak and corrupt.

Wars between low-technology rebels and either low-competence governments or well-armed outsiders (or in the case of Afghanistan both) can go on for years. On both sides, the killing is rarely limited to fighters. On the contrary, it is common for more non-fighters to be killed, whether accidentally, semi-accidentally, or intentionally. Long-lasting, low-intensity conflicts often lead to the displacement of numerous civilians, the degradation of infrastructure and the spread of disease and malnutrition. The leverage is terrifying. At a modest cost, in both money and lives, a small force can tear a country apart.

The political and economic goals of today’s interminable wars and quasi-wars are often hard to determine. After some time, the mix of anger, plunder, and bloodlust can be self-sustaining for insurgents. For western counterinsurgents, there is a similar dynamic in the need for industries to maintain their arms contracts. In time, also, rebel groups often take up often highly profitable criminal activities. These can produce earnings which makes them reluctant to accept peace, let alone search for it.

When the political goals of war are blurry and one side has safe-havens, as for example the Afghan Taliban do in neighboring Pakistan, war can be almost interminable. The combatants can minimize their losses, but that option is not available to the rest of the population. Many are killed, more die prematurely, almost all suffer in many dimensions of life, and all but a very few who have much to gain are deprived of prosperity and opportunity. The overlapping conflicts in Libya and the Sahel are typical. There is no obvious way to end the spiral of violence, since none of the armed participants, neither the well-armed domestic groups nor the allies of various more or less accepted national governments, have any real interest in making peace.

One largely modern extension of war, ethnic or political mass killings, was an unpleasant novelty of the twentieth century. The relationship between these wars against some of the people and more conventional inter-state and intra-state conflicts is controversial. One common pattern, though, is undeniable. Both involve killing large numbers of defenseless people, often for the sake of political, supposedly religious or social goals that make little objective sense. That pattern is supported by the modern cheapness of slaughter—even a country as poor as Rwanda could manage a massive killing in 1994, relying on modern communications and transport and a mix of pre-modern and inexpensive modern killing devices. This, in turn, gave rise to “Africa’s First World War” in the country now known as the “Democratic Republic of the Congo” where it is estimated that over 4 million people, overwhelmingly non-combatants, have died—a fact largely ignored in the global North.

The Right Response to the Newest Ways of War

Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (generally referred to as “Common Article 3”) deals with “The Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War”. The 196 states that have ratified it agree that, “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities…shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.” In particular, it bans “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.” While some signatories take their commitment seriously some of the time, in reality the destruction of civilian lives is increasingly a tactic of war and sometimes a political policy.

Part of the issue is psychological. Because modern war is so destructive, it is rarely undertaken without some combination of fury and desperation. Those emotions bring with them a strong feeling of necessity, a commitment to victory that pushes fighters and their governments to ignore the civilizing Geneva restraints. If the destruction of civilian lives is the only path to some form of success, as it so often is, then that destruction is easily judged to be both necessary and justified.

Besides, violence has its own psychological momentum, even its own romance, especially for the young men who still make up the bulk of armed forces—the attraction of killing for pure power or revenge, the mastery of life and death, the thrill of destruction, the power and cruel pleasure of sexual conquest. Only the most disciplined and motivated soldiers can hope to stay out of this evil vortex.

The dubious history of the military doctrine of “courageous restraint”, the willingness to accept military casualties rather than cause civilian deaths, shows the depth of the challenge. It turns out that soldiers find it very difficult to accept a higher risk of their own death in exchange for preventing non-combatant fatalities. Like the Geneva conventions, courageous restraint can rarely be effective enough to stop war from turning into a conflagration of civilian suffering.

Perhaps more armies and individuals will eventually follow the Geneva standards of just fighting, jus in bello. Some may even refuse to obey orders which they judge to be unjust. However, if the destruction of civilian lives is excused or commanded, as it so often is once a new or traditional enmity is judged sacred, then there will always be soldiers and commanders willing and able to destroy ever more of those lives. In short, while the Geneva Convention can and does help protect some civilians some of the time, the anti-civilian logic of technological warfare in an industrial and urbanized age is much stronger than the intentions of signatories making commitments in peacetime.

A Brief History of Non-War

The better way to avoid the war on non-combatants is not to fight wars. The idea that war can be avoided is actually quite new. As we argued above, until well into the nineteenth century, the glorious, dreary or dread inevitability of war, with more or less accompanying civilian misery, was taken for granted by almost all military commanders, political leaders, religious teachers, common soldiers, and political philosophers.

The relentless advance in the ease of killing eventually provoked a relatively small moral and political reaction which came to known as “pacifism.” The word was coined to describe this new idea, but the first generations of pacifists accepted that war was sometimes necessary. They merely recognized that wars had become so deadly that all efforts should be made to avoid them.

It all seemed so promising. There were two international conferences in the Hague, in 1899 and 1907. At them. most European governments promised to limit their development of weapons and to avoid war by submitting disputes to binding arbitration. However, a third planned conference had to be canceled, since the potential participants were mostly too busy breaking their earlier commitments in the First World War.

The cycle repeated itself in the decades before and after the Second World War. In the realm of ideas, a good example of pacifist argument is The Church and War, a 1924 book by the German Dominican Franziskus Stratmann that made a cogent case against all modern war. Stratmann joined several other then leading Catholic theologians in signing the anti-war Fribourg Conventus in 1931. The politicians also tried again. The 1928 Kellogg-Briand pact, ratified by all the leading military powers, renounced war “as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another.” Astonishingly, until then war was seen as a legitimate instrument of furthering national interests.

Then came the Second World War, followed by the United Nations Charter of 1945 with its general prohibition in Article 2.4 of the threat or use of force by nations and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 with their strictures against attacking non-combatants. The anti-modern-war argument of Russell and Stratmann became more widely accepted, especially in discussions of the new civilian-slaughtering ABC weapons (Atomic, Biological and Chemical, later renamed Weapons of Mass Destruction or WMD). Sanity, Pope Paul VI exclaimed to the United Nations in 1965, was the avoidance of war and its massive devastation: “never again war, never again war!” That was a plea and a hope.

Since then, various treaties have led to a more stable nuclear balance of terror. Also, the ever-clearer improbability of “victory” in large-scale conventional battles has probably encouraged the grudging adoption of a variety of a sort of war-avoidance by many military leaders. The conventional wisdom in much of Europe and in Japan is that the armed forces exist only to “exercise the right of self-defense,” as a 2015 Irish White Paper put it. When the more activist French and British armed forces intervene overseas, they invariably cast themselves as peacemakers who are pushing back against aggression, unjust violence, or terrorism. It is worth noting that Russia also claims its military interventions, which have sometimes included supporting governments that kill many non-combatants, aim only at preventing terrorism and disorder. The Chinese government also portrays itself as a force for peace, justice, and regional order.

Arguably, the world overall has become more peaceful in the last half-century. The statistics are disputed, but some experts see many decades of unsteady but real decline in war-related deaths, destruction and disruption. Stephen Pinker is particularly fond of marshaling that evidence. However, arms sales are booming, and also, the pace of technological development in military matters has remained rapid, especially in the sort of cyber-combat which will wreck lives and in the sort of basic weapon used in the guerrilla wars which increasingly come with huge tolls in non-combatant lives. In other words, the supply of tools for killing non-combatants is increasing around the world. It is a dubious kind of peace and a dark sort of globalization.

Avoiding the Worst

Whether or not “realist” pacifism as we would term this line of thinking is losing ground in global politics, the shift in the character of warfare described here strengthens the case for it. When wars are increasingly fought and can only be won by killing large numbers of non-combatants, destroying large parts of economies, and driving large portions of the population from their homes, there are ever fewer good reasons for fighting them. The cry for peace should be louder and clearer than ever.

This statement is not a policy prescription for absolute pacifism. Deterrence, the preparation for war that is supposed to dissuade enemies from actually attacking, may sometimes still be a valid strategy. Wars of national survival to ward off clearly aggressive neighbors might still sometimes be a lesser evil than the peace that follows capitulation. The founding military mission of the United Nations, to make fighting an international responsibility, currently looks like a forlorn dream, but it still makes sense. Carefully managed humanitarian interventions probably still have a place, if their objectives are clear and limited, they are commanded and executed by soldiers who cannot be suspected of ulterior motives, and their mandates to use violence only to restore or keep peace are strong enough to be effective. A strong commitment to ius post bellum, a just and sustainable peace helps.

However, those conditions are rarely met in warfare and have certainly not recently been met. Claims that a particular war or military intervention match the criteria for just war should be treated with great skepticism. The most likely result of all fighting, far more likely than victory or enduring peace, is the killing of large numbers of non-combatants. 

Words About Guns

One easy improvement could be quite important: in military language, the battle deaths of people who are not supposed to die in battle are often covered by the euphemism “collateral damage.” The innocuous-sounding phrase actually means, “unimaginable suffering to children and other people who ‘get in the way’ of those with the weapons, but worth it because . . . well, because we say it is.” One gloss on this truth should be inserted, international humanitarian law in its current form supports precisely this argument.

The words “collateral damage” should be banished from the military lexicon. The presumption of the killing of the innocent should be an explicitly acknowledged element of any political process leading to the initiation of large-scale “interventions.” With a more honest vocabulary, those who begin such operations or advocate them will need to express exactly what they mean. Then they might begin to recognize that Pope John XXIII’s words on nuclear weapons apply all too well to contemporary combat. Except in the most egregious and unequivocally clear instances, ‘it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: A version of this lecture was delivered by Frank Ledwidge for the Las Casas Institute of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University on June 3, 2020.

Featured Image: Maj. Loren Coulter exits an A-10C Thunderbolt II at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, on Jan. 11, 2011, Public Domain.


Edward Hadas & Frank Ledwidge

Edward Hadas has been a Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University since 2017. His book, Counsels of Imperfection: Thinking Through Catholic Social Teaching was published in 2020 by Catholic University of America.  

Frank Ledwidge is a British former Barrister and military intelligence officer who has served in most of the UK's recent conflicts.  He is the author of several books on contemporary conflict and is now a senior Lecturer at the Royal Air Force Academy.

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