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Civilian deaths in Ukraine
Morally repugnant, but how anomalous?
It is 2022. Russia has invaded Ukraine, for a second time, under preposterous pseudo-historical justifications. One of the more salient features of the war, for an observer like me, is the reporting on the civilian deaths. The killings in Bucha were an early indication of the Russian military’s brutality; the recent attacks on civilian targets in major Ukrainian cities are the latest confirmation.
Watching this news, I felt outrage. But I wondered, how is it that I know that I am right, to feel outrage?
In the early 1270s, Thomas Aquinas was teaching at the University of Paris and writing his Summa Theologica, or “Summary of Theology.” Aquinas was a Catholic religious philosopher and one of the most influential thinkers of medieval Europe, and the Summa is one of the most important books in Western philosophy. In that book, Aquinas asks, what makes a war “just?”
Aquinas certainly wasn’t the first person to ask this question. The idea that war should be fought with some limitations is common across many cultures and dates to the earliest recorded histories about war, and Aquinas’s predecessor Augustine originated the concept of “just war” nearly a thousand years before Aquinas. But Aquinas laid down three requirements for a war to be just, and these ring true to me now, even outside the context of Christian religion per se:
In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. [...]
Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says: “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”
Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says: “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” [And also:] “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”
Today, these principles are laid out in the four Geneva Conventions and their three protocols. (“Convention” and “protocol” here are actually diplomatic jargon. “Convention” means an international treaty, not a meeting, and “protocol” means an update or addendum to a convention.) The Fourth Geneva Convention, “relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War,” was first adopted in 1949, as the world reeled in reaction to the horrors perpetrated by Nazi Germany and by the Empire of Japan. Protocol I stipulates that military action should distinguish between military and civilian targets and should minimize civilian casualties. Russia withdrew from Protocol I, also prohibits attacks on nuclear power plants, in 2019.
So given that ideas about morality in war have been floating around since antiquity, and that most nations on Earth agree on the basic principles, it’s clear that outrage is warranted.
Now, what about surprise? I am morally shocked, but should I be intellectually shocked? Is what is happening in Ukraine out of the ordinary, in terms of other wars?
From the 1700s through the late 20th century, deaths in war were about evenly split between civilian and soldiers. About 6,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, compared to at least 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers and at least 20,000 Russian soldiers, although these latter numbers are more disputed. This means that, very roughly, there has been 1 civilian death per 5 soldier deaths during the Russian invasion. Thus, historically speaking, fewer Ukrainians are dying than we should expect based on wars in general.
Up to the 20th century, most civilian deaths were due to disease and famine. Why there are so many civilian deaths today, is a matter of scholarly debate. One view, in a 2006 article that I find eerily prescient, is that militaries actively target civilians to depopulate areas in anticipation of annexation, and also out out of desperation, in order to show the people back home that they are doing everything they can to win the war.
In sum, Russia’s actions have been illegal and immoral, and we should be prepared, based on patterns of other wars, for things to get worse.
Thanks to Evi Van Itallie for suggesting this topic.
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