Top Ways To Justify Civilian Casualties in War

Wars should be a tough sell, what with the fact that lots of people tend to die in them. Thankfully for warmongers, there are so many ways to downplay this uncomfortable reality. If you want to go to war, the resulting dead people bit can be downplayed with a few of the following helpful tips.

1) Ignore casualties, or prioritize "your" side’s body count How hard is that? Well, in terms of mainstream media reaction to the ongoing Palestinian deaths in Gaza, the biggest surprise might be that news outlets seem have been shamed into noticing the disparity at last. But Israeli soldiers’, (and always American soldiers’) lives remain, by certain telling, much more important than that of the civilians in the countries they invade or occupy. Some animals are definitely more equal than others.

2) Blame the other side’s government – as if that removes all moral issues from the action of yours. An easy way to do this is to make everyone from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin into Hitler. Being a power-gathering creep (what leader isn’t?), or even a violent dictator isn’t enough, the enemy of all that is good needs to be Hitler to make all actions of the good guys acceptable.

This is seen most prominently, well, in World War II. Nobody sane mourns the suicide of Hitler, they merely wish it has happened decades earlier. The fact of Nazi Germany losing a conflict is also a good for the world. But what was apparently required to win was the annihilation of entire cities by bombs – fire or atomic. It also involved the Allies including Joseph Stalin, arguable equal to Hitler in everything except a desire to eliminate one whole ethnic group from the earth (though Stalin was no fan of Jews, either). The good guys involved one of the top three dictators of all time, a tiny country with colonial dreams, and America, which was busy fighting Nazi Germany, while keeping American and resident alien Japanese citizens in concentration camps at home.

It never fails. Today supporters of Israel blame Hamas for cynically using dead Palestinians for their own propaganda. And when they do, that information is all war-apologists need to sleep peacefully, no matter if their soldiers or tax dollars did the killing.

3) Decide they are not innocent victims at all Neocons and the worst kind of objectivists do this most often. It’s similar to the idea that the other country or group shoulders all the moral responsibility for dead civilians, but it’s even more collectivist of an idea. If you failed to overthrow your rotten government, this logic goes, you are culpable for their crimes.

Some Gazans support Hamas, or voted for them in 2006. Some may support Hamas’ endeavors today. That fact, to folks like NYU’s Thane Rosenbaum, means that the innocent victims being hit by Israeli missiles are not so innocent. (He also seems to suggest that "conscripted soldiers" are not worthy of pity, or that they can never be called innocent.) The majority of Gaza’s 1.8 million citizens are under 25, 43 percent are under 15. Think how many of these non-innocents were grade school aged children when Hamas was elected.

The Platonic ideal of pretending that innocent people aren’t innocent at all is still the appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show of Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff. When contrasted with Peikoff’s bald-faced sociopathy, demonstrated by his saying things like, "I am absolutely not concerned with innocents in enemy territory," O’Reilly the blundering right-winger suddenly sounds like a gentle, cautious dove. It is darkly hilarious to watch.

4) Say this is what happens in war Yes it is, but this is supposed to be modern times. The British bombed rebelling villages in the Middle East between the wars. And Germany’s Zeppelin and air raids on London killed about 1200 people during World War I. But the acceptability of destroying whole cities reached its height during the savagery of the Second World War. If the good guys get to use nukes, or do what was done to Dresden, the line between good guys and bad guys is dangerously thin indeed.

A just war, if there was such an animal, might involve two volunteer armies marching towards each other in a field. The winners don’t get to subject civilians, or conscientious objectors to their government of choice. I’m not sure that such a war has ever been fought. But in general, saying life has always been full of horrible things is a subpar moral argument for something else vicious.

5) Declare the deaths overstated, or propaganda Propaganda certainly happens in war. And death counts are notoriously hard to pin down. Famously during World War I, there were stories of Belgium babies being bayoneted by German soldiers, among other horrors. This, by some accounts, lead to skepticism about the Holocaust during WWII. Once the extent of the Nazi’s brutality was known, sure it was almost too much to be believed, General Dwight Eisenhower "visited every nook and cranny of [the camp outside Gotha] because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things…" He demanded photographs be taken to further prove these horrors.

Generally speaking, though, battlefields and even leveled cities don’t have as much evidence. The Vietnam war became an exception. The US had TV news with surprising access, and photographs, such as Nick Ut’s "napalm girl" showed the real face of war. But to the pro-war crowd, showing the reality of war’s victims is dismissed as manipulative, or one-sided, or the reason why one side loses. Even flag-covered coffins were too much for the delicate American people to handle during the Iraq war. They certainly weren’t interested in seeing what hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis looked like.

Now, with Gaza, "too much" focus on 1300 victims, mostly civilians, hundred of whom are children, is suspicious, or ideological. So much so, in fact, that The Atlantic’s David Frum recently declared photographs of two devastated, bloody Palestinians in a hospital to be fake with no evidence at all to support this. He later apologized, sort of. But he still assumed the worst, and cast doubt on photojournalists from three of the biggest news organizations (Reuters, the AP, and The New York Times) because he didn’t want to see what war looked like.

Freelance journalist Justin Glawe recently wrote in VICE about the figurative and literal war on journalists covering the conflict. Glawe concluded, "stories of the destruction and loss of human life in Palestine shouldn’t be labeled as propaganda. Documenting the carnage there has another name: journalism." Indeed.

6) Compare war to self-defense Nothing proves your cluelessness about the meaning of self-defense quite like comparing war to self-defense. "Israel has a right to defend itself." The US got involved in various wars to defend itself. What, are you some kind of pacifist? What would you do if someone broke into your house….etc.

The world stage is not your home during a robbery at 3 am. And bombing cities to dust, or firing missiles at a densely-packed civilian area because some people have fired smaller, significantly less harmful rockets at your much better protected cities does not count as self-defense by any rational definition. Is 100,000 dead in Hiroshima still self-defense? Or 2 million dead Vietnamese during that war? If you had a good reason, or were on the right side, it is.

Imagine the logic of war scaled down to an individual basis. You threaten me, look at me cross-eyed, or have had a history of domestic abuse, so I go and burn your house down, killing your whole family, including your battered spouse. You throw rocks at me, so I throw a Molotov cocktail at your house, killing your whole family. You start a fire in my house, so I go to yours and kill your family, then kill your neighbors.

Why is this criminality moral on a grander scale, when that one family becomes hundreds of thousands? What incantation turns murder into self-defense, or noble war? Only the state’s magic word.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.