The following analyses appears in Volume 4, Issue 1 of the Peace Science Digest.
Citation: Johns, R., & Davies, G. A. (2019). Civilian casualties and public support for military action: Experimental evidence.Journal of Conflict Resolution, 63(1), 251–281.
Military intervention, war, casualties, civilian casualties, public opinion
Most discussions on the human costs of war focus on military casualties. Civilians—those living in the countries subject to military intervention—are the “forgotten casualties.” The changing nature of modern warfare (for example, the use of drones and aerial strikes) places a greater emphasis on the need to protect civilians. Within this context, this experimental study examines how information about civilian casualties influences Western public support for military action. The researchers ask whether reporting on civilian casualties reduces public support for military action or whether the public is more preoccupied with the well-being of their own soldiers. It aims to broaden our understanding of the conditions that influence public support for military action. In other words, how concerned are Western adults about civilian casualties?
The study was conducted with four surveys drawing on representative samplesof U.S. and British respondents. They were given hypothetical scenarios involving Western military action (aerial attacks) and different types of information on civilian casualties. Three scenarios measured the public’s support for U.S. and U.K. military air strikes. The fourth scenario tested support for a British intervention of ground troops.
In each case, the casualty numbers, surrounding factors, and so-called “moderators” were applied differently. Moderators are conditions that might activate or mitigate the public’s reactions to civilian casualties. The following moderators were used:
- Number of civilian casualties
- Perceived success of military action
- Perceived similarity of foreign civilians
- Mention of civilians’ innocence (with “women” and “children” used as innocence cues)
- Identifiability of civilians as individual humans
The survey revealed that the number of civilian casualties in multiple scenarios was the strongest variable influencing reduced war support. This was consistent in samples from the U.S and U.K. Whereas the number of civilian causalities clearly shaped the public’s support for military action, other moderators had no significant effect. In other words, using terms such as “Muslim civilians,” “ordinary Iranians,” and “women and children” or using pictures of identifiable victims did not influence the responses. This contradicted the researchers’ expectations about how empathy and humanization might influence responses. It does not suggest, however, that the respondents were unmoved by the descriptions of civilian victims. Rather, it clarifies a general aversion to civilian casualties that increases with larger numbers. Empathy and humanization operate regardless of who the civilians are or how they are portrayed.
While significant, the effects of civilian casualties on public support for military action were modest. Even when civilian casualties were projected in the thousands, support for war decreased but did not plummet. Additionally, one scenario showed that the stated purpose of war—humanitarian intervention (e.g., to protect civilians) versus “realist engagement” (e.g., to strike a nuclear facility)—did not make the public more or less tolerant of civilian casualties.
The nature of warfare has changed. As the authors note, traditionally most attention has been given to military deaths on one’s own side. Yet, as we are writing this issue of the Peace Science Digest, there is a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions in Yemen. The humanitarian and civilian aspect of this crisis and the growing discomfort with the Saudi Arabian government—with significant public work done by U.S. peace advocacy groups—ultimately led the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. support for the war in Yemen. The crisis is taking place in an internationalized civil war, where innocent civilians endure the most suffering. In this context, long-term trends and ongoing debates have become highly relevant. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, civilians have been the main victims in many of the armed conflicts since World War II. This finding is supported by numerous researchers and humanitarian organizations, while others argue that the civilian-to-military death ratio is overestimated. There are, of course, difficulties associated with finding and providing unambiguous statistical data on war casualties. However, downplaying the number of civilian casualties is a dangerous distraction from the long-lasting human costs of war. Addressing large civilian death tolls, as this research has done, better reflects the current nature of warfare. It is warfare where so-called “battlefield deaths” are decreasing—an incorrect interpretation of which, by losing sight of civilian casualties, could lead to overly optimistic conclusions about the human costs of war.
- People care about deaths in war, whether the killing of their own soldiers or the killing of foreign civilians, which affects their support for military action.
- People are less likely to support military strikes when civilian deaths increase.
- People are generally opposed to military strikes when the civilian death toll increases, regardless of who the victims are or how they are described (as innocent, for instance).
In discussing the human costs of the post-9/11 wars, Neta Crawford, Co-Director of the Costs of War Project, suggests that “too often legislators, NGOs, and the news media that try to track the consequences of the wars are inhibited by governments determined to paint a rosy picture of perfect execution and progress.” Increased transparency about the number of civilians killed and injured “would lead to greater accountability and could lead to better policy.”This “rosy picture” was painted when the U.S. Defense Department disputed a March 2019 Amnesty International report (see Continued Reading) on civilian casualties of airstrikes in Somalia. In a statement, the Pentagon asserted that 800 members of the designated terror group al-Shabab have been killed in 110 airstrikes since June 2017 without any civilian casualties.
Ultimately, public opinion should inform public policy. But the first step is for the public to be well informed about the reality of war and its consequences. For peace advocates, the challenge is to make sure civilian casualties remain in the public spotlight. Doing so is part of the broader work of developing a more integrative view of war casualties—not only recognizing civilian casualties but also the wider consequences of war including:
- Destruction of infrastructure
- Use of depleted uranium
- Refugees and internally displaced people
- Intra-state killings
- Victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence
- Social injustice
A thorough war casualty assessment must include direct and indirect war deaths as well as non-lethal consequences. This will counter the myth of “clean,” “surgical” warfare with declining numbers of deaths. Kathy Kelly, a peace advocate who has first-hand experience of life in war zones, repeatedly states, “the havoc wreaked upon civilians is unparalleled, intended and unmitigated.” The question for peace advocates remains: What further action can be taken for public support for war to plummet rather than modestly decline in response to civilian casualties?
Illusion 10: Suffering Is Minimizedin Today’s WarsBy Kathy Kelly. In American Wars:Illusions and Realities, edited by P. Buchheit, pages 89- 95. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press Inc., 2008.
WhyAre We AllowingYemen to Starve?By John P. Linstroth. Transcend Media Service, 2018. https://www.transcend.org/tms/2018/11/why-are-we-allowing-yemen-to-starve/
International Influence on U.S. Public Support for Drone StrikesPeace Science DigestAnalysis. https://peacesciencedigest.org/international-influence-on-u-s-public-support-for-drone-strikes/?highlight=public%20opinion
The Hidden US War in Somalia: Civilian Casualties from Air Strikes in Lower ShabelleBy Amnesty International, 2019, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AFR5299522019ENGLISH.PDF
Human Cost of the Post-9/11 Wars: Lethality and the Need for Transparency (https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2018/Human%20Costs%2C%20Nov%208%202018%20CoW.pdf)