Targeting Civilians in War

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Accidental harm to civilians in warfare often becomes an occasion for public outrage, from citizens of both the victimized and the victimizing nation. In this vitally important book on a topic of acute concern for anyone interested in military strategy, international security, or human rights, Alexander B. Downes reminds readers that democratic and authoritarian governments alike will sometimes deliberately kill large numbers of civilians as a matter of military strategy. What leads governments to make such a choice?

Downes examines several historical cases: British counterinsurgency tactics during the Boer War, the starvation blockade used by the Allies against Germany in World War I, Axis and Allied bombing campaigns in World War II, and ethnic cleansing in the Palestine War. He concludes that governments decide to target civilian populations for two main reasons—desperation to reduce their own military casualties or avert defeat, or a desire to seize and annex enemy territory. When a state's military fortunes take a turn for the worse, he finds, civilians are more likely to be declared legitimate targets to coerce the enemy state to give up. When territorial conquest and annexation are the aims of warfare, the population of the disputed land is viewed as a threat and the aggressor state may target those civilians to remove them. Democracies historically have proven especially likely to target civilians in desperate circumstances.

In Targeting Civilians in War, Downes explores several major recent conflicts, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Civilian casualties occurred in each campaign, but they were not the aim of military action. In these cases, Downes maintains, the achievement of quick and decisive victories against overmatched foes allowed democracies to win without abandoning their normative beliefs by intentionally targeting civilians. Whether such "restraint" can be guaranteed in future conflicts against more powerful adversaries is, however, uncertain. During times of war, democratic societies suffer tension between norms of humane conduct and pressures to win at the lowest possible costs. The painful lesson of Targeting Civilians in War is that when these two concerns clash, the latter usually prevails.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is a magnificent work and towering achievement. With both innovative historical studies and comprehensive statistical analysis, Downes powerfully demonstrates an original and disturbing thesis—that democracies are just as likely as autocracies to target civilians in war, and even more so when they fear that they will lose. All scholars of international security and military history should read this book, and we would all benefit if policy advisors did also."—James Kurth, Claude Smith Professor of Political Science, Swarthmore College

"This is a powerful and disturbing study of the dark side of democracy. 'Democratic Peace Theory' has shown that democracies rarely fight each other. Alexander B. Downes demonstrates, however, that when democracies do go to war, they often fight with their gloves off, ignoring principles of noncombatant immunity."—Scott D. Sagan, Stanford University

"In twenty years, people wanting to understand the critically important subject of civilian victimization will turn to this book. Alexander B. Downes argues that the decision to victimize civilians depends primarily on the strategic incentives to do so, regardless of whether the countries involved are democratic. Downes also finds that factors relating to 'identity'—whether the enemy is a different race or culture—are also insignificant. Targeting Civilians in War will become a classic in the field of security studies."—Daryl G. Press, Dartmouth College, author of Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801446344
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 3/27/2008
  • Series: Cornell Studies in Security Affairs Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexander B. Downes, a winner of the Helen Dwight Reid Award, is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University.

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Table of Contents


1. Defining and Explaining Civilian Victimization

2. Statistical Tests: Civilian Victimization, Mass Killing, and Civilian Casualties in Interstate Wars

3. The Starvation Blockades of World War I: Britain and Germany

4. Strategic Bombing in World War II: The Firebombing of Japan and the Blitz

5. Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Civilian Victimization: The Second Anglo-Boer War

6. Territorial Annexation and Civilian Victimization: The Founding of the State of Israel, 1947–49

7. Negative Cases: Why Civilian Victimization Doesn't Happen



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