Equalizing the Conflict Death Hierarchy
Apr 8, 2011

Equalizing the Conflict Death Hierarchy

When discussing deaths in a military conflicts in foreign states there is a distinct hierarchy of importance that seems to be nearly universally accepted: western soldiers > foreign civilians > foreign soldiers.

From a tactical standpoint this is of course the case and is more or less reasonable. One does everything one can to reduce deaths for our side. Civilian deaths are minimized, but not to the exclusion of risking ones own safety nor necessarily to the aim of getting the foreign combatants. This is partially why conflicts have such high civilian casualties. Foreign combatant deaths are of course a normative goal and sought for.

The amount of press attention is significantly and discretely higher in each case as well. Western soldier deaths will get widely reported headlines with names and perhaps mini biographies. Foreign civilian dead will be given a numerical total and perhaps identification as women or children. Militant deaths may be either entirely unreported or but a parenthetical in the story. Even pacifists will strongly talk about civilian casualties and the horrors of this with much greater emphasis than the deaths of foreign militants. All of this stems from a tacit assumption that is rarely addressed: the deaths of foreign militants is not that bad or lamentable a thing.

If two sides wage a seemingly symmetric battle, an unaffiliated third party cannot say the death of a soldier on one side is more or less tragic than that of the other. It is only when one is in some way attached to one side or the other that one claims that our sides death are more lamentable than their sides deaths. Now of course usually conflicts are not entirely symmetric and people argue that one side is somehow more just. While this is often debatable, this general idea of differing perspectives yielding such dramatically different valuations of combatants should give us pause.

In many ways the root motivations of soldiers on either side is similar. They may be fighting for the values they believe in (even if the values themselves are diametrically opposed), they may be simply following orders from higher ups, they have have joined the fight out of a desire for a basic job or a sense of purpose. When considered from these basic human motivations it is hard to see how we care so asymmetrically about one sides deaths and not the other. All those adjectives one gives to our side about the bravery and patriotism of soldiers are often just as true for the other side.

Looking back on WW2, people often remark on this wisdom that we should not hate the German people and most of their soldiers were doing their job much like a British solider. However, in the western wars in the Middle East this sense of xenophobia that Muslim insurgents are in some sense qualifiedly different remains and it is allowed to remain through the asymmetric attention to deaths of the various sides. Part of this comes from the fact that it isn't a state army that is being fought against but perhaps an insurgency. However this doesn't for a moment remove the fundamentally human motivations such as the ones listed above for joining wars; if anything, the nature of failed states puts more pressure on young men to join a fight given the desperate situations around them as they desire so poignantly a purpose in life, employment, food and perhaps most importantly the hope for a better future that they can fight for. While the societies we fight may be very removed from us, the human basis remains the same.

The difference between civilians and combatants is trickier. Since combatants on either side make the choice to fight they accept the risks but for a civilian the risks are forced upon them. So this asymmetry exists and the empathetic stance towards civilians is very natural. That said, when we think of combatants as human lives with families and loved ones who are fighting for a range of very natural human reasons, it is hard not to feel the same empathy to them. When we emphasize so heavily the civilian deaths over the foreign combatant deaths, the result is a dehumanization of the foreign combatants. This idea - rarely stated but quite implicit nonetheless - is that these lives are worth less and their deaths less tragic.

I believe we should focus more on casualties of all sides - combatant and civilian alike - because there is not and cannot be a prioritization of human life. Let us tell the stories of civilians, give their biographies besides that of the western dead. And tell the stories of the other side so we can see their motivations, their perspectives and see that they too are human. War and death is sometimes necessary and violence can lead to better outcomes. However, we must not let these cases erode our fundamental high regard for of all human life unqualified by the context of war. 

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