Civilian Casualties, Democracy & Wealthy Countries

Predator drone over Afghanistan. US Air Force photo by Lt Col Leslie Pratt, via Wikimedia.

By Will H. Moore

NYU Press has published a provocative book by Yagil Levy titled Israel’s Death Hierarchy: Casualty Aversion in a Militarized Democracy. The blurb on the NYU Press website states:

“In Israel’s Death Hierarchy, Yagil Levy uses Israel as a compelling case study to explore the global dynamics and security implications of casualty sensitivity. Israel, Levy argues, originally chose to risk soldiers mobilized from privileged classes, more than civilians and other soldiers. However, with the mounting of casualty sensitivity, the state gradually restructured what Levy calls its “death hierarchy” to favor privileged soldiers over soldiers drawn from lower classes and civilians, and later to place enemy civilians at the bottom of the hierarchy by the use of heavy firepower. The state thus shifted risk from soldiers to civilians.”

Levy makes use of testimonies from the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which collects testimonies of Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers about their experiences (he has also published a co-authored study using a subset of those testimonies by women of the IDF). Keep your eye out for reviews of the book: as of yet, I have been unable to find any.

I am interested in generalizing a bit, and then reflecting on the implications of such a generalization for US policy and, particularly, drones. I trust the reader will stipulate that capital-intensive militaries are better able to project force outside of the range of counter-fire than labor-intensive militaries (for example, flying a plane above the level of counter-fire that can drop ordinance from that safe distance). I further anticipate that the reader will stipulate that, all other things constant, the greater the distance at which ordinance is delivered, the greater the likelihood that (some of) it will strike civilians. Let’s set those two claims aside as background, and explore some other implications of wealth and democracy upon the likely incidence of war crimes: specifically, accepting that civilian casualties can be classified as “collateral damage.”

Consider, first, wealthy states versus poor states. Wealthy states tend to have considerably greater returns to capital than labor, and hence will invest, on average, in more capital-intensive militaries. Capital intensive militaries will place a greater value, on average, upon labor than will labor intensive militaries as each unit of labor in a capital-intensive military tends to produce more firepower than a unit of labor in a labor intensive military. This chain of points suggests that wealthy states should, on average, be more likely to deploy and use weapons systems consistent with the grisly calculus suggested by Levy: the lives of soldiers of the wealthy country will be weighted as more valuable than the lives of civilians living in the target zone, which is to say that “collateral damage” will be more acceptable to commanders and politicians in wealthy states than in poor ones.

Consider now the impact of elections upon the trade-off between a co-national soldier’s life and a foreign civilians life. Scott Gartner has shown in a series of studies that Americans’ approval of the President are sensitive to casualties (e.g., here, here and here). To the extent that a leader holds office as a consequence of elections they have a greater incentive to value the lives of the soldiers under their command relative to those of civilians in a foreign land — who, of course, cannot vote — than a leader who does not have to face an electorate.

The implications are unpleasant: the arguments jointly suggest that democratically elected leaders of wealthy states will approve military systems and tactics that produce greater levels of civilian casualties, and will increasingly label them “collateral damage”. That democracy and wealth, often heralded as producing “good things,” also produce perverse outcomes, is a point all too often ignored. We have good reason to suspect increasing use, among militaries of democratic, wealthy countries, of weapons systems and tactics that shift the risk from soldiers to civilians.

Predator drone over Afghanistan. US Air Force photo by Lt Col Leslie Pratt, via Wikimedia.

I close with a confession: I have not yet read Levy’s book, so I am not certain that he argues that the rise of religiously conservative Jews in the IDF officer corps plays a role in the changes over time in the IDF’s rules of engagement. I am, however, familiar with such arguments, and while I am too ignorant of the internal dynamics within the IDF to usefully weigh in on that discussion, it is important to note that one need not appeal to such social dynamics to explain what we are witnessing. Democracy and wealth produce perfectly sound accounts on their own.

PS: I suspect, but have no evidence to support the claim, that US presidents who are perceived as foreign policy hawks are less sensitive to this grisly calculus than those perceived as foreign policy doves (i.e., that Republican presidents are less likely to accept “collateral damage” than are Democrats). That expectation is consistent with the remarkable use of air power during the Clinton administration as well as Obama’s embrace and expansion of the drone program. But those two anecdotes do not provide sufficient evidence to draw any reasonable conclusions. The same dynamic likely plays out across male (perceived as more hawkish) and female (perceived as more dovish) leaders from the same party.


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