William J. Astore
Review of Hugo Slim, Killing Civilians:
Method, Madness, and Morality in War. New York: Columbia
Univ. Press, 2008. Pp. viii, 319. ISBN 978-0-231-70036-8.
military planners or professional soldiers on campaign, civilians
are often an afterthought or a nuisance, "internally displaced"
refugees who get in the way and consume energy and resources; they
are unfortunates who live too close to enemy strongholds and thus
complicate efforts to kill that enemy while minimizing "collateral
damage." Indeed, the military's unease and even impatience with
civilians are captured by such euphemisms.
to their vulnerability, civilians, not professional soldiers,
usually suffer the most from war. They are, in fact, "the forgotten
victim[s]" of war.
Take today's war and occupation in Iraq: whereas the U.S. military
has lost about four thousand troops killed, the war and its
resulting social and political chaos have caused at least 100,000
Iraqi civilian deaths (some estimates are higher by a factor of five
The wide variance in estimates for Iraqi civilian deaths in itself
indicates the physical and moral messiness of modern wars (as well
as the political agendas of the estimators). And, naturally,
militaries count and commemorate their own dead more assiduously
than those of civilians caught in the crossfire of combat.
Slim's discerning and accessible study looks not only at wars where
the killing of civilians has been an unintended byproduct of
conflict, but more specifically those where such killing is the very
essence of the fighting. He first discusses philosophies of war,
contrasting limited versus limitless wars, as well as "no war"
philosophies (pacifism). He usefully defines limited war as "an
ideology of restraint and protection that is respectful of as much
human life as possible" (23). Here he asserts that "the moral
importance of winning" a necessary war "can excuse the killing and
hurting of civilians if all possible precautions to protect them
were taken and if safer ways of fighting were explored but found
Slim details the "seven spheres of civilian suffering" in war,
including genocide, massacre, torture, mass rape and sexual
violence, involuntary movement, impoverishment, famine, disease, and
emotional distress. His accounts are informed by historical examples
as well as his own experiences working in humanitarian relief
efforts in West and Central Africa. He reminds us that civilians
often suffer long after wars are over, whether from psychological
issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or such
detritus of war as unexploded munitions and mines.
civilians, Slim notes, "die from war rather than in battle"—with
loss of identity and livelihood ultimately proving more deadly in
the aggregate than bullets and bombs (91). His emphasis on loss of
identity is especially telling. In war, people "lose themselves.
Socially and personally, they are no longer the people they were ….
If destitution, personal injury or rape has humiliated them and
brought them very low, they may have lost that essential dignity and
self-esteem which was the anchor of their sense of self and gave
them the confidence with which to take their place in the world"
(109-10). They have become strangers to themselves, and estranged as
well from traditional communal networks of support.
describing civilian pain and suffering, Slim asks why militaries
kill civilians, whether purposely or almost in a fit of
absentmindedness, stressing the ambiguous and culturally contingent
nature of the term "civilian." Obviously, if warring militiamen
consider all people, armed or unarmed, male or female, old or young,
as in some sense "the enemy" or as a resource to be exploited, there
is little reason to extend mercy or compassion to "innocents"
because they literally see none.
devoting a full chapter to the ambiguity of "civilian" as a special
category in war, Slim turns to the ways soldiers are recruited and
trained to kill, even when those to be killed are unarmed women and
children. His analysis here is informed by works like Christopher
Browning's Ordinary Men,
on Nazi Einsatzgruppen in Poland and the USSR, and Barbara
Ehrenreich's Blood Rites,
on the human propensity for war and killing. He concludes with a
chapter that calls for a strengthening of our collective sense of
responsibility to protect civilians from the horrors of war.
ultimately calls for a reinvigorated idea of limited war (assuming
conflict to be unavoidable), one where the protection of innocent
civilians is the top priority. Seeking to change the mindset of
militaries, he asks us to think of civilians not in impersonal or
categorical terms (as enemy non-combatants or as refugees, for
example) but as individuals. That old lady could be your
grandmother; that young girl could be your baby sister. Such an
approach, he argues, is far more likely to generate compassion and
tolerance, and to limit violence to those capable of and intent upon
well recognizes that thinking in such personal and empathetic terms
poses a major challenge to militaries operating under stress and
often in culturally foreign lands. It is far easier to kill a person
without a name, family, or shared sense of humanity. Can the bonds
of affection linking a warrior "band of brothers" truly be extended
to include unfamiliar civilians in a hostile or alien environment?
Slim does not quite answer this question, but he does suggest that
only by extending our thinking about civilians beyond purely
instrumental or legalistic terms can we truly limit the atrocities
committed against them in war.
Pro-civilian advocates, Slim notes, must go beyond merely telling
transgressors that "Civilian suffering is wrong because it is
illegal and it is illegal because it is wrong" (259). Citing Harvard
psychologist Howard Gardner,
he suggests that "Telling and embodying a stronger and more resonant
story about civilians than anti-civilian ideologues is really the
major challenge in promoting the protection of civilians in war"
Slim knows we need more than a change in narrative. He insists that
appeals to self-interest, power, and authority are needed to protect
civilian lives. Those in power and those with the weapons must be
convinced that mercy and restraint are both more honorable and more
effective than ruthless exploitation of innocents. Here he echoes,
but does not cite, Michael Ignatieff's thesis in The Warrior's
A sense of humanity, proportion, and restraint must be instilled in
seemingly lawless militias, and perhaps the most direct way of doing
so is to appeal to self-interest, even when "self-interest" refers
to the very image and soul of the individual warrior.
Slim has practical advice to offer. Moments ripe for soul-searching
and change usually do not come during routine classroom lectures,
but rather "when an armed unit is relaxed and on its own, when some
particular atrocity comes to light and gives pause for thought, or
when a turn in military fortunes presents new options for a change
of strategy and tactics" (289). In promoting pro-civilian behavior,
timing is (almost) everything—that, and resiliency, sensitivity, and
persistence. And the burden for pro-civilian behavior does not fall
solely on warriors; civilians too must hold up their end--they
cannot claim protection as "civilians" and then renege on the
Killing Civilians is a
provocative primer on the subject and will reward careful study and
reflection. Slim's approach to this complex and agonistic topic is,
in a word, pragmatic. He respects pacifism while recognizing its
limitations. He understands that the legalities of international
agreements safeguarding civilians are observed more often in the
breach. He is alive to ambiguities, recognizing that it is easier to
kill at a distance, whether with artillery or air power, but that to
civilians on the receiving end, dead is dead, whether a missile is
launched hundreds of miles away or a bayonet is thrust from arm's
might have developed further the aspect of gender and war. He does
devote an especially strong and harrowing section of his study to
showing that rape "is often policy in war." Sexual violence
humiliates, violates, de-nationalizes, dishonors, and disempowers a
subject people. But here Slim misses a chance to explore in greater
detail the highly gendered nature of warfare--the fact that, in a
very powerful way, "The War against Women Never Ends," to quote the
sobering title of Ann Jones's article on organized rapine and sexual
violence against women in West Africa.
in the West, we like to think that disciplined, professional,
military forces do not routinely rape and kill the helpless. Yet a
significant part of military training is breaking down a recruit's
reluctance to commit violent acts. Basic training can be a degrading
and depersonalizing experience--a realm of ritualized abuse and
Such an approach may be effective in getting more soldiers to fire
their weapons in combat, but breaking down inhibitions to kill
carries a high psychological price.
Western soldiers want to admit contemplating, let alone actually
committing, acts of violence against women and children. A
contemporary American soldier, disillusioned by the war in Iraq,
recalls a barracks' ditty sung to the tune of "Jesus Loves the
Little Children": "napalm sticks to little children/ all the
children of the world/ red and yellow, black and white/ they all
scream when they ignite." An inside joke was to ask a recruit,
"What's the heel of the boot for?" Recruits quickly learned that
"crushing baby skulls" was the expected response.
are we to make of this? Is this harmless posturing, a type of
locker-room braggadocio associated with insecure males jockeying for
authority and respect? Or is it more than this? For the soldier, it
is not simply ribald humor but psychological conditioning, a
"constant barrage of songs, chants, and slogans about killing,
stabbing and firing at human-shaped targets, making a joke out of
killing babies, women and children—these are what make a trained
is not to deny that today's militaries often try very hard, through
restrictive rules of engagement (ROEs), to protect civilians from
the worst excesses of war in part because mistreatment of
civilians can create cycles of revenge, terrorism, and
violent retribution that are nearly impossible to break. Indeed, in
some cases, producing a Hobbesian state of brutality and violence is
precisely the goal of militias and terrorists that feed on chaos and
Encouraging mercy and tolerance toward civilians under such
conditions may seem futile, but Slim never loses hope. Killing
Civilians offers a hard-hitting, ultimately optimistic
consideration of one of the supreme challenges facing us in the
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