Death Tolls and Moral Progress

There is no silver lining in the grim news that over 3,000 members of the U.S. armed forces have now died in the Iraq war. Iraq Body Count estimates that 55,000 Iraqi civilians have died and a Lancet/Johns Hopkins study that uses statistical sampling methods (and which has been roundly criticized but nowhere debunked) estimates excess civilian deaths at over half a million. These are horrifying numbers which no amount of historical perspective can diminish, certainly not for the individuals who experience the loss or for their loved ones. Nonetheless, it is instructive to compare and contrast them with other wars.

The most salient U.S. comparison is probably Vietnam. The Vietnam Memorial has over 58,000 names of Americans killed. Reliable estimates of Vietnamese casualties are hard to come by, but they are certainly in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. Perhaps more importantly for my purposes here is the shift in American targeting strategy. In World War II, the U.S. bombed civilian population centers for the express purpose of breaking the enemy's will: some of these targets also included heavy industry, but that was not always the primary objective of "strategic" bombing. The same was largely true of Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam, which, at some point, came to include, as part of its objective, destroying enemy morale by killing civilians.

In the current war, by contrast, it really is accurate to describe nearly all civilian casualties caused by American forces (as opposed to insurgents and militia) as "collateral." As Richard Dawkins notes in The God Delusion, by the standards of relatively recent history, Donald Rumsfeld was a soft-hearted liberal in his concern to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. That should count as moral progress, even if it leaves us in a place that is only less awful by comparison.

I shall have more to say about the idea of moral progress, and the role it plays in American jurisprudence, tomorrow, but I'll limit this post to the observations made thus far.