The Military Cost of Civilian War Casualties

Why Minimizing Harm During Conflict Is Also Good Strategy

A U.S. soldier walks past an overturned car in the Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk, August 23, 2003. Anatolian / Reuters

Although the ethical and legal issues surrounding civilian casualties committed by combatants during war have been widely debated, the consequences for military operations in harming civilians, even when inadvertent, are much less well understood. As the United States considers deploying more troops to Afghanistan and continues to use drones against suspected militants in countries such as Pakistan, this issue is all the more pertinent. 

In a forthcoming study of the Iraq war in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, we sought to inform the discussion on this topic by focusing specifically on the operational consequences of harming civilians. We examined how locals reacted to accidental civilian deaths caused by both multinational forces and Iraqi insurgents and found that both parties suffered very real consequences when they harmed civilians. We used newly declassified U.S. Defense Department data on the weekly number of tips that Iraqis supplied to British, Iraqi, and U.

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