Modern War and
Civilian Casualties is pleased to announce the winners of its first-ever Student Essay Contest, held summer 2006. Today we present Hilary Worden of the United States, third place winner in the senior division.

Alexia Gilmore
Executive director,

“[T]he very nature of interstate war puts innocent civilians into great jeopardy, especially with modern technology.”
Murray Rothbard

Wars, despite numerous advancements in technology and society, have probably become more threatening to civilians over time. Ancient wars, while fought with the same thoughts in the minds of soldiers, leaders, and civilians, and often for the same reasons as modern wars, were nonetheless fought on a smaller scale, with less dangerous weapons. Wars in medieval times tended to involve fewer soldiers and deaths, and always involved less advanced technology than wars of today. Modern wars involve large numbers of soldiers put forth by large nations, as well as newer technology that is indisputably capable of killing more people. Often, those people are civilians, since the accuracy of older weapons such as swords is far greater than the accuracy of even a “smart bomb.” These “advancements” in the way society is structured and the methods it uses to fight its wars have resulted in modern wars that cause more civilian deaths than previous wars ever did.

Over time, many societies have become more united politically, and so they are able to create much larger armies and supply those armies with more resources. A war is no longer a war between city-states such as Athens and Sparta, or between neighboring feudal lords; it is now usually a war between two nations that each have populations in the millions. The largest military in the world (China’s) has 2,810,000 people in it, and there are currently eight countries that have at least half a million people in their militaries (“Armed Forces Personnel by Country”). The larger nations of today can also provide more resources, including more ammunition, to their militaries. Modern wars often last longer, involve a greater geographic area, and result in more deaths than previous wars, because they are fought on a much larger scale.

Interstate warfare also involves the idea that you are fighting a nation, not an army. Though ancient and medieval wars certainly included some amount of hatred for the enemy’s civilian population on the part of the soldiers, the creation of nations brought nationalism with it. Media sources in most nations have a tendency to underreport civilian deaths in opposing nations, and therefore sometimes civilians and soldiers alike have less concern for the civilians in enemy countries. This lack of concern could cause soldiers to make decisions differently, with more of a focus on accomplishing their task and less concern for who might also be hit by their weapons. A country’s civilian population, military, and leadership, are also more likely to accept civilian deaths if they are fighting the entire country instead of just its army. Imperialistic ideas are also often a factor, as people in a nation want to, for economic or other reasons, expand their power. Expansion therefore sometimes becomes a goal of a nation’s civilian population as well as its leaders.

Technological advancement has also resulted in many changes to warfare, as well as far more civilian casualties. Obviously, in ancient times, the primitive Stone Age weaponry was incapable of killing large numbers of civilians, especially accidentally. Ancient Greek and Roman weapons also usually did not kill civilians unless intended to. Later, when weapons like cannons and guns were developed, far more soldiers and far more civilians were killed in warfare. Modern weapons such as nuclear and chemical weapons are difficult or even impossible to use without harming civilians as well as enemy soldiers.

One development that dramatically changed warfare was the invention of gunpowder. Though crossbows and longbows were in use by around 1350, the Chinese development of gunpowder had a tremendous effect on the way Europeans fought wars. By the 1420s, Europeans had a kind of gunpowder that exploded almost instantly, and guns and cannons became common weapons. By 1500, there were longer barrels for increased accuracy, and the Spanish musket was even more accurate (Sherman). A foot soldier with a gun or a cannon was clearly able to kill far more people than was a knight. The sword, which did not kill civilians unless that was the specific intent of the owner, was rendered obsolete, to be replaced by gunpowder weapons, which killed civilians if aimed inaccurately. Guns also resulted in an increase in amputations, so even survivors were often permanently disabled by their injuries (Sherman).

World War I was the start of “total war,” as well as the start of many new kinds of weapons. World War I involved numerous large, technologically developed nations with the resources and military capacity to kill millions. In total, nearly 10 million civilians died in World War I. World War I involved a number of new technologies, including tanks, submarines, and airplanes. Many air raids were conducted with the purpose of harming the industry of an enemy: these raids usually killed many civilians and damaged cities but usually did not accomplish much militarily (“World War I”). Armies also used flame-throwers and poison gas for the first time, weapons that both create a danger that is difficult or impossible to contain (Sherman).

World War II, also fought between two alliances of large, modern nations, resulted in more civilians dying than soldiers. World War II caused the deaths of 35 million civilians, more than the number of military deaths (25 million). Many weapons of World War I were made more efficient, and air bombings were common (“World War II”). These weapons have continued to kill even after the war: in 2003, a mustard gas leak from World War II Japanese weapons killed one person and injured 42. It is estimated that 2,000 people have been killed by the weapons the Japanese military left behind (“Chinese Hurt”). The Holocaust also showed that a nation can think of some people, usually civilians, as less than human. World War II ended following the use of two nuclear bombs in Japan (“World War II”).

Nuclear weapons have been used only twice in war, but each one of those times clearly demonstrated the impact such weapons can have on civilians, as well as the practical impossibility of using them without harming civilians. In 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and another on Nagasaki (Aug. 9). The Hiroshima bomb killed 80,000 people and the Nagasaki bomb 50,000, most of them civilians. Tens of thousands of people also died later from the effects of the radiation (Sherman). Now at least eight countries around the world have nuclear weapons, and many others possibly have them or are developing them (“Nuclear Forces Guide”). The hydrogen bomb was first tested by the United States in 1952 and was estimated to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The test, which was conducted in Bikini, destroyed one of the islands completely and left a crater 175 feet deep. Three weeks later it became known that a Japanese fishing boat had been 80 miles away from the test zone, and its 23 crew members were among the 264 people exposed to radiation from the test (BBC News). If a test blast could not be conducted without harm to civilians, it is extremely unlikely that the weapon could ever possibly be used in warfare without killing many civilians also. The U.S. and the USSR, during the Cold War, also developed numerous methods of dropping their bombs, including the “Peacekeeper” missile, which carried up to 10 missiles at once (“LGM-118A Peacekeeper”). Certainly, if such a missile had been launched, it would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. Often though, it was the accuracy, and lack of accuracy, of bombs that killed civilians.

Another weapon first used in World War II was napalm, which was sometimes referred to as “jellied gasoline.” One of the first uses of napalm was on Royan, France, in April 1945, three weeks before Germany surrendered. Royan was a mostly civilian region with military garrisons outside the town, and the napalm bombs were dropped from 25,000 feet (Zinn). Later in WWII, the Allies bombed Dresden with weapons including napalm, killing an estimated 35,000 people, mostly civilians. Many of the military targets though remained unharmed, since the height at which the bombs were dropped made accuracy impossible, though the thousands of bombs destroyed much of the city (Jordan). Other explosives, especially land mines and cluster bombs, are also nearly impossible to stop from harming civilians. Even “smart bombs” kill civilians often, and some even say that such precision bombs statistically do not reduce civilian deaths at all: in the Gulf War 3 percent of bombs were precision-guided, in 1999 in Yugoslavia 30 percent were, and in an Afghanistan air campaign in 2001 it was 70 percent, but each time the ratio of civilians killed to bombs used is higher than the last time. In the 1991 Gulf War, a flawless smart bomb hit a bomb shelter and killed 408 civilians (Peterson).

Chemical weapons also have been and will continue to be a threat to civilians, due to the low likelihood of using them without harming civilians. Early chemical weapons, such as tipped arrows and poison wells, did not often spread and killed civilians only when that was the intent. Modern chemical warfare was first used in World War I, when tear gas, chlorine gas, mustard gas, and other chemicals were used in trench warfare. Chemicals can also have indirect effects on civilian populations, as is the case with Agent Orange, which can cause long-term problems for an area as well as harming those who come in contact with it (“Chemical and Biological Warfare”).

Biological warfare, which was also used occasionally in early times, is also difficult to engage in without harming or killing civilians. Some early colonizers, such as Europeans who came to the Americas, could be said to have used biological warfare by spreading smallpox to Native Americans (Sherman). Biological warfare fortunately remains mostly theoretical, but if it were used it would undoubtedly kill many civilians.

In conclusion, the development of new military technology, along with the growth of powerful and consolidated nations, has resulted in wars causing far more civilian deaths than wars had previously. Nations with larger populations and greater resources are able to build much larger armies than were city-states or early empires, and they can also better supply those armies. The inventions of new weapons, such as muskets and atomic bombs, resulted in a new kind of warfare that left far more civilians dead than swords and spears. Nations also resulted in nationalism, and modern wars are fought between nations, civilians included, instead of between armies. These factors have resulted in modern warfare, which far too often leaves innocent civilians dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though new technology may promise bloodless wars followed by peace, one man who lived nearby a bunker hit by a smart bomb, Hussein Abdallah, says this is impossible: “In every war there are civilian casualties, they will throw rockets, not stones. Always, innocent people will die.”

Works Cited

Armed Forces Personnel by Country.”

Chinese hurt by Japanese WWII poison gas demand compensation.” Sina English.

1954: U.S. tests hydrogen bomb in Bikini.” BBC.

Chemical and Biological Warfare.” History Channel.

Jordan, Rachel. “Dresden: An Allied Air Raid with Axis Tactics.”

LGM-118A Peacekeeper Missile.” Federation of American Scientists.

Nuclear Forces Guide.” Federation of American Scientists.

Sherman, Dennis, and Joyce Salisbury. The West in the World. 2nd ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004.

Peterson, Scott. “‘Smarter’ Bombs Still Hit Civilians.”

World War I.” History Channel.

World War II.” History Channel.

Zinn, Howard. “The Bombing of Royan.” Howard Zinn on War. Ed. Howard Zinn. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001.