In my new book, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, I make the provocative assertion that the American public is essentially indifferent to the victims of wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The native populations that U.S. troops intervened on behalf of, or who were under the thumb of dictators we were trying to depose, suffered greatly in those wars, with millions dead and additional millions made homeless, impoverished, widowed, injured, or deprived of a normal life. This staggering human toll was and is not America’s responsibility alone, of course. But what is remarkable is how little the American public sympathizes with these victims, how little concern is registered.
Two pressing questions immediately come to mind: whether this is a uniquely American response, and whether this callous attitude has been evident in all American wars. To the first question, I would say “no”—the British, French, Russians and other big powers that wage major foreign wars likely showed little feeling for victims.
To the second question, I would say “sometimes,” not always. But the answer must be qualified depending on the kind of war.
Before the Civil War, the only conflict involving the United States abroad was the Mexican War, a short if gruesome affair (most U.S. casualties were from disease), and one that was quite popular. While there were surely civilian casualties in the war—the foreign press reported several atrocities involving U.S. soldiers—the way wars were fought then differs significantly from post-1945 conflicts.
Civilians were less often targeted as the fighting was between uniformed militaries. There were no bombers or long-range artillery to indiscriminately harm civilians. On the other hand, the press was shamelessly jingoistic, too, and accurate reporting of war damage was scarce. These conditions largely prevailed up through the First World War.
Earlier wars—the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812—observed even more formal distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, and were in any case fought on American soil, so foreign civilians were not at risk.
The Civil War was unique in many respects. An enormously bloody conflict, civilians still were largely spared the mayhem but were often affected—they were widowed, displaced, impoverished, and certainly had their lives disrupted. William Tecumseh Sherman took warfare to a new level of annihilation, burning Atlanta and ravaging Georgia during his march to the sea in 1864.
While it’s unlikely that Northerners felt much empathy for this human toll in the South, given the widespread animus toward the Confederacy, the two antagonists did eventually valorize and make common the sacrifices of the war, as Drew GilpinFaust so vividly describes in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. This empathy, however, was post-hoc (generated, for the most part, several years after the war ended) and it was feeling directed toward other Americans.
The wars of continental expansion were unique in many respects, too. They began within years of the English arrival in North America, and indeed set the pattern for the “errand into the wilderness” that resulted in so many savage wars over the coming centuries. Richard Slotkin, in his brilliant trilogy that began with Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, details how the European settlers, both before and after the founding of the United States, pushed into the wilderness of the American West and encountered, often violently, the indigenous tribes that variously resisted this encroachment. This formed a frontier myth that justified this violence as necessary and morally regenerative—a uniquely American mindset—which became ingrained in nearly all future U.S. wars abroad. The brutality of the “Indian wars” is well chronicled, and it’s fair to say that sympathy for the “civilians” was small and sporadic at best.
Just as the American frontier was closing, the Spanish-American War ushered in a new period of global expansion. In the Philippines, that war stretched out into a native insurrection that rose against U.S. occupation, as it had against the Spanish. Indeed, the war in the Philippines presaged Vietnam, with a popular guerrilla army fighting for independence from one colonial power after another.
Suppressing this rebellion was costly; an estimated 200,000 civilians perished. An “anti-imperialist” movement did form in those years in the United States, but much of their activism was rooted in racism. They didn’t want the conquered peoples being brought back to the American homeland—hardly a basis of empathy.
The two world wars followed. Both were quite unlike the post-1945 wars in that America had nothing to do with the onset of conflict, was part of a sizable coalition, and waged wars against deadly aggressors. The sympathy felt toward “enemy” populations was principally a sense of pity, but even that was not prominent. Many Americans were of German stock, and this linkage doubtlessly resulted in some feelings of solidarity, but in World War II at least the military was quite merciless in carrying out the strategic bombing of Germany.
An even more fierce bombing campaign was unleashed against Japan, targeting Japan’s wooden cities with incendiaries that sparked huge firestorms and killed hundreds of thousands of people. The atomic bombings in Japan were, like many of the fire bombings, greeted with relief in the United States under the belief that they shortened the war and saved American lives. In both cases, there were very few protests against strategic bombing in the United States (or for that matter in Great Britain, the other allied power which waged large-scale bombing campaigns against the Third Reich).
This is not to say, of course, that no one in America expressed concern for civilian casualties elsewhere. Mark Twain, for example, famously decried the carnage in the Philippines in his mordantly ironic style. (“I thought it would be a great thing to give a whole lot of freedom to the Filipinos, but I guess now that it’s better to let them give it to themselves.”) But the absence of sympathy in most of these wars is striking. What explains it?
The short answer is that the frontier myth—our strong sense of mission in the world—combined with a psychological distancing from the violence seems to be at work. It’s not simple racism, as many would have it, though this enters into the equation. The initial enthusiasm of engaging in savage wars often turns sour as the war goes badly, and then the hard reality of innocent suffering is all the more difficult to acknowledge. Hence, the growth of indifference. It is in some ways uniquely American, but in most ways a regrettably all-too-human reaction. But becoming aware of these indifferent attitudes may help us pay closer attention to the costs of war in the future.
John Tirman is Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist of the Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology