"War Has Gotten More Brutal for Civilians."
Hardly. In February 2010, a NATO airstrike hit a house in Afghanistan's Marja district, killing at least nine civilians inside. The tragedy drew condemnation and made the news, leading the top NATO commander in the country to apologize to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The response underscored just how much has changed in war. During World War II, Allied bombers killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in Dresden and Tokyo not by accident, but as a matter of tactics; Germany, of course, murdered civilians by the millions. And when today's civilians do end up in harm's way, more people are looking out for them. The humanitarian dollars spent per displaced person rose in real terms from $150 in the early 1990s to $300 in 2006. Total international humanitarian assistance has grown from $2 billion in 1990 to $6 billion in 2000 and (according to donor countries' claims) $18 billion in 2008. For those caught in the crossfire, war has actually gotten more humane.
Yet many people insist that the situation is otherwise. For example, authoritative works on peacekeeping in civil wars (Roland Paris's award-winning At War's End and Michael Doyle and Nicholas Sambanis's Making War and Building Peace), as well as gold-standard reports on conflict from the World Bank and the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, tell us that 90 percent of today's war deaths are civilian while just 10 percent are military -- the reverse of a century ago and "a grim indicator of the transformation of armed conflict" in the late 20th century, as political scientist Kalevi Holsti put it.
Grim indeed -- but, fortunately, untrue. The myth originates with the 1994 U.N. Human Development Report, which misread work that Swedish researcher Christer Ahlström had done in 1991 and accidentally conflated war fatalities in the early 20th century with the much larger number of dead, wounded, and displaced people in the late 20th century. A more careful analysis done in 1989 by peace researcher William Eckhardt shows that the ratio of military to civilian war deaths remains about 50-50, as it has for centuries (though it varies considerably from one war to the next). If you are unlucky enough to be a civilian in a war zone, of course, these statistics are little comfort. But on a worldwide scale, we are making progress in helping civilians afflicted by war.
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