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Innocents and War: Contemporary Reflections, Permanent Dilemmas

Innocents and War: Contemporary Reflections, Permanent Dilemmas Innocents and War: Contemporary Reflections, Permanent Dilemmas
Author: Adham al-Dayah. Description: “Al-Quds Brigades weapons exhibition/parade, Gaza Strip.” Date: 7 January 2022. Original source: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.
To cite this article: Cimbala, Stephen J., “Innocents and War: Contemporary Reflections, Permanent Dilemmas,” Military Strategy Magazine, Exclusive Article, March 2024.


The costs and risks of war for civilians and other noncombatants are not a new subject. But in the aftermath of ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, I found myself confronted by anxious students seeking more clarity than I could provide. In the following discussion, I offer a summary of some of my “thinking in progress” about aspects of these and other human rights issues, not pretending that any observations are definitive or even original. But try we must: a broken peace in Europe and a simultaneous hybrid war in the Middle East challenge our understandings of human predicaments in wartime and, as the pot boils, push political leaders and military planners into what Sun Tzu called deadlands.[i]

I. Who Are The Innocents?

The killing of civilians in wartime is described in various ways by writers of history, in fiction, and in personal accounts of wartime experience. Phrases such as “collateral damage” are used to mitigate the essential horror and existential dread of war for noncombatants. War is a violent phenomenon experienced by combatant soldiers and by civilians, albeit in different ways. The soldier has some military experience and training, but most civilians caught up in a war zone have neither. Their sense of anomie is as profound as is the danger of actual physical harm that may befall them. They are “victims” of carnage directed at some political or military objective, but this term too seems insufficient to capture the essence of their situation. Perhaps the term “martyr” better captures the death of civilians caught up in a war zone, as well as the hostages or prisoners of combatant forces who are used as human shields or bargaining chips prior to their demise.

II. “Precision” Weapons and Civilians in War

A great deal of writing about modern war emphasizes the development of precision weapons, enabling the pinpoint targeting of opponents and the reduction of incidental damage to bystanders and innocents. On the other hand, the “precision” of modern weapons can be overstated. Precision weapons, so-called, are not necessarily less destructive per se: but their destructive capacity is more focused in order to limit collateral damage. Drone strikes against terrorist cells are certainly “precise” compared to massive artillery bombardments, but nevertheless, many kill innocents who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Under some conditions, precision weapons are available to both sides but not dominant in the conduct of battle. If you are a civilian noncombatant in Israel, in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Russia, or in any conflict zone where mass fires are routine, you are experiencing the hell of innocence traduced by the rupture of civilization. Nevertheless, it makes sense for states capable of imposing restrictions on the scope of destruction, and who wish to enable a reputation for discriminate targeting, to avail themselves of up-to-date munitions with the appropriate characteristics. Sometimes a takedown of one or more key leaders of a country or military faction can accomplish as much, or more, than mass destruction undisciplined by restraint. The issue is whether decisions about the elimination of individuals or groups who are not members of fighting forces or other military formations are part of a disciplined process of review and strategy making or, on the other hand, represent impulsively motivated or feral attacks against “enemies” broadly and vaguely defined.

III. Just and Unjust Wars

Historians and philosophers have distinguished “just” from “unjust” wars according to the purposes for which wars are fought and the means by which combat operations are conducted.[ii] A just war is a war fought for a good cause, and by appropriate means. Appropriate means imply serious efforts to distinguish civilians from combatants and to avoid gratuitous loss of life and property among the former. However, the distinction between just and unjust wars is often marinated in the propaganda put out by all sides in a war zone. States at war tend to assume that their causes are righteous and those of their opponents are invidious. Sometimes a purportedly just cause excuses the use of any means to subdue the opponent, however excessive the costs to noncombatants.

It is also the case that, as wars become more prolonged and costly, the guardrails separating inexcusable and unacceptable means of fighting from more ethical and restrained methods tend to come down. Conquering armies, whose societies have undergone earlier massive hardships imposed by ruthless invaders, are often driven by revenge that takes its toll against helpless civilians in countless numbers. The Soviet army that took its revenge against German civilians in 1945 was following in the footsteps of the Roman legions that destroyed Carthage in its entirety.[iii] Sieges are often the scenes of mass atrocities. The German siege of Leningrad in World War II witnessed the death of millions of civilians by starvation and other means. Russia’s siege of Mariupol in 2022 reminded us of the devastating battles over Sebastopol during that same earlier war.

IV. War and Politics

The great Prussian theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz, averred that wars are fought for a political purpose: policy must be the governing agent that exercises control over military operations.[iv] Yet in practice, the relationship between policy and warfare is fluid. Success in battle encourages more ambitious policy objectives; military setbacks can impose constraints on political aspirations. The reciprocal relationship between war and policy, or politics, also helps to define what is considered legitimate in the way of military tactics, including attacks on noncombatants. As the late Professor Colin Gray noted, with respect to the relationship between war and policy, or politics:

“In principle, there is no question as to the proper relationship between politics and war, but historically, in practice, politics is often more an instrument of war than vice versa, at least temporarily.”[v]

For example, Hitler’s insistence on conducting a race war against Jews and other communities was responsible for war crimes and mass murder. The “final solution” also consumed many resources that might otherwise have been devoted to support of combat arms and delegitimized Germany’s entire war effort in the eyes of the civilized world.

Authoritarian leaders are given to absolutist aims in order to justify their grip on power and to create a myth that will enable followers to erase their own doubts about a leader’s atrocities. Joseph Stalin justified the starvation of millions of Ukrainians and others in the 1930s by calling for a campaign against “kulaks” (relatively more successful and productive farmers) and other presumably bourgeois enemies of the state. Soviet gulags were filled with political prisoners throughout the duration of Stalin’s dictatorship. These prisoners included erstwhile disgraced military commanders who were later released from prison in order to provide the leadership needed on the Eastern front in World War II. Orwellian doublethink marked the “show trials” of the 1930s in which prisoners’ coerced confessions were followed by their execution as victims shouted: “Long Live Stalin.”

V. Putin’s War

Vladimir Putin, another in a long line of autocratic Russian rulers, has set a tone in domestic politics that presaged his approach to the conduct of war. Putin’s war against Ukraine beginning in February 2022 has been conducted with little or no discrimination between “military” and “civilian” targets. The unexpectedly strong resistance by Ukrainian regulars and partisans against Russian invaders has prompted the latter toward brutal artillery barrages and air strikes against hospitals, residences, and other social infrastructure. The terroristic intimidation of civilians is clearly an established part of the Russian playbook in Ukraine: much as Germany’s aerial “blitz” against London in World War II was intended to discourage British citizens and melt their support for Britain’s war effort. In Putin’s case, the mass murder of civilians has undermined international support for Russia and, in the longer run, perhaps delegitimized Putin’s regime in the eyes of many. On the other hand, for Putin this is a war about civilizations, not state borders, and civilization wars do not lend themselves easily to moderation in ends and means. His willingness to rebuild Russian power has included a medieval ruthlessness against his domestic political opponents. He would prefer, following Machiavelli, to be feared rather than loved.

Notwithstanding Putin’s proclivities, some argue that, compared to Russia’s war against Ukraine, Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza has actually caused comparatively more (proportionate) deaths among children. According to one former officer of the Swedish Armed Forces/Air Defense and former defense politician:

“I have seen figures of 500 – 1000 dead children in Ukraine during two years of war. Compare that with nearly 15,000 killed children in Gaza in five months. The reason for this is that the Russian forces see civilians in eastern Ukraine as Russians and of course try to minimize the losses among “their” civilians. If Russians would have killed children in the same level as Israel and in comparison to the population and the duration of the war, 500,000 children would have been killed in Ukraine, not 500 – 1,000.”[vi]

This analysis does not take into account that children represent a much higher percentage of the population in Gaza than they do in Ukraine. In addition, children and others in Gaza are trapped in a very limited area of land relative to the large size of the population. Escape corridors for those civilians who wish to leave have been closed off. Then, too, the quality of medical services in Gaza is deficient relative to the needs of the general population, and the fighting has destroyed much of the prewar available medical infrastructure. Finally, many figures given for injuries or deaths to the general population in Gaza are unverified by objective sources. Nevertheless, the point is that, regardless of the relative comparisons between Ukraine and Gaza, large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries have taken place in both.

VI. Terrorism and Civilians

Terrorism is, in the largest sense, the deliberate murder of civilians in order to affect the policies set by authorities. Terrorists seek to demonstrate their commitment to some important cause, or their fearlessness in opposing what they regard as illegitimate regimes, or their ability to hide within the larger civilian population in one or more countries – or all of these. The “audiences” for terrorists are not only the governments of hostile countries, but also their non-governmental elites (media, corporate, academic) and citizens at large.[vii] Terrorist groups like Hamas, ISIS and al-Qaeda have used modern technology for recruitment and messaging, giving global reach to their ideology and appeal. As many cities in developing societies have grown into larger conglomerations with numerous young and frustrated people, terrorist activities have found fertile soil there. In some respects, insurgents share with terrorists the deliberate blurring of lines between “civilian” and “military” personnel. On the other hand, insurgents’ or guerrillas’ goals usually include the displacement of a regime and its replacement with one commanded by former revolutionaries.[viii]

The goals of insurgents, terrorists or other unconventional fighters who resort to violence are important in determining their willingness to tolerate atrocity. In some instances, atrocity is a deliberate form of communication of unmitigated hatred for targeted enemies as well as a message of absolute determination to persevere in a cause regardless of the consequences to third parties. Both ISIS and Hamas have in modern times combined demonstrative acts of cruelty against civilians with video messaging in support of their respective causes. For example, Hamas attackers against Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023 videotaped and broadcast their atrocities in real time, shocking public conscience and dominating the global news cycle. For Hamas and other terrorists, the taking of hostages provides a bargaining chip for future negotiations as well as a potential instrument of influence over policy debates in enemy countries. In responding to Hamas, Israel has found itself simultaneously seeking to eliminate the Hamas organization as an effective military fighting force while, at the same time, avoiding gratuitous death and destruction to civilians in Gaza. Iran and Hamas made Israel’s attempt to walk this fine line as difficult as possible by using civilians in Gaza as human shields and by concealing weapons and command centers in hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure. As well, Hamas and Iran devised a global campaign of anti-war demonstrations, against Israel’s response to Hamas’ attacks, that received widespread media coverage and increased American and other governments’ pressures on Israel for more discriminant military operations, for cease fires, and for humanitarian relief for civilians trapped in Gaza.

VII. Soldiers, Atrocity and War

Thus far I have emphasized civilian and noncombatant deaths and injuries or other suffering in war. However, there are some words to be said for a contrarian viewpoint that asks about the costs and lingering effects of war on soldiers. After all, soldiers were once civilians and will return to civilian status after having served under arms. They also have families, friends and others who are personally affected by the soldiers’ wartime experiences and postwar struggles. It can be argued that professional soldiers knowingly accept the dangers and risks of combat, including serious wounds or death. On the other hand, even soldiers who undergo combat without being killed or severely wounded often have to deal with postwar lasting effects on their psyches. The physical risks are clear enough: the lasting psychological effects are difficult to comprehend unless and until the war experience has become embedded in the memories of battle. In this sense, soldiers, too, are innocents: their prewar expectations about the immediate or lasting effects of combat are almost certainly different from their experiences under fire. Veterans who have fought in battles in the domains of land, sea or air have been documented with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological disorders, in addition to lasting wounds and physical disabilities.[ix] Even those who were not recognized by an official medical diagnosis of post-conflict damage to their psyches were imbued with memories of combat and its attendant horrors, creating what some have called moral injury.[x] Perhaps related to the previous points is the contradiction noted by military historian John Keegan, between the norms and expectations of modern Western societies for the treatment of their own civilians, on one hand, and their willingness to embrace ever more lethal weapons of war that have unprecedented collateral damage to noncombatants, on the other.[xi]


[i] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, edited and translated by Michael Nylan (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2022), p. 22.
[ii] For pertinent cases, see Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977).
[iii] Antony Beevor, The Second World War ( New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2012), p. 719 and passim.
[iv]Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 87-89.
[v] Colin S. Gray, The Future of Strategy (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, p. 28).
[vi] Mikael Valtersson, “Comment: Russian Soldiers Go to Ukraine to Kill Civilians,” X/Twitter, March 10, 2024, in Johnson’s Russia List 2024 - #60 – March 11, 2024,
[vii] A useful compendium appears in James J. F. Forest and Russell D. Howard, eds., Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism, Second Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2013).
[viii] For additional discussion on this point, see: Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Liveright – W.W. Norton, 2013, xxi-xxiii.
[ix] For example, see: Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Scribner, 1994); and Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Costs of Learning to Kill in War and Society (New York: Little, Brown, Revised Edition. 2009).
[x] Moral injury implies the battering of conscience that takes place when an individual observes or participates in an event that is morally ambivalent according to his or her prior expectations of right and wrong. See the special issue of Aether: A Journal of Strategic Airpower and Spacepower, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Fall 2023), Department of the Air Force, which is entirely devoted to the topic of moral injury.
[xi] John Keegan, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), pp. 321-331.