Is Everyone a Civilian or is it just Everyone who’s not a Military-Aged Male?

I’m already organizing my “Economics of Warfare” course for 2015-16 so I had another look at this incisive 13 minutes on drones from John Oliver.

The bit around minute 5:00 triggered a few bad memories that I would like to ….errr….share with my loyal readers. It shows Scott Shane of the New York Times decrying a CIA practice of presumptively classifying as militants all able bodied males the CIA kills in drone strikes.

That’s one way to make sure you hardly ever kill civilians.

In a similar vein, Michael Ballaban descends perilously close to the CIA’s moral universe in this article which manages to be simultaneously  offensive and useful.  Ballaban hopes to get a handle on the number of civilians killed by the Israelis in Operation Protective Edge.  Fine, but all he ends up doing is counting up the number of military-aged males killed.

To be fair, Ballaban does issue an appropriate caveat (albeit undercut in his next breadth):

In addition, one of the few things I can definitively say about the conclusions we draw is that being both male, and of military age, does not a fighter make. Just as well, Hamas fighters often are completely non-uniformed, battling in civilian clothing. And many of the fighters may not even be strict members of the Hamas hierarchy.

I agree with everything in the quote.  However, I regard the first point as terminal for the whole exercise.  The rest of the quote is largely irrelevant to the question of whether or not it’s OK to treat all dead military aged males as combatants..

Ballaban then paints his  exaggerated count as a conservative undercount:

Again, it is imperfect. Not all fighters in Gaza are males, nor are they all of military fighting age….

There is probably some truth here as well but I doubt these considerations come very close to offsetting the initial misclassification.

To be clear, gender and age breakdowns on people killed are welcome and useful. But these breakdowns do not help us figure out who is a combatant and who is a civilian.

In contrast to the above tendency to see combatants almost everywhere, the literature on the epidemiology of war often seems to pretend that everyone is a civilian.

Take this paper (Roberts et al.) and this paper (Burnham et al.).  (These are both bad papers, especially the second one, but for now I’m only interested in how they handle the concept of “civilian”.)  Feel free to pop open the links and search for the term “civilian”.

Both papers are based on sample surveys aimed at estimating the number of people killed in the Iraq war.  Neither survey attempts to separate civilians from combatants so the estimates are of  deaths of civilians plus combatants.

There is nothing wrong with mixing together civilians with combatants in an estimate. But it is a cardinal sin to interpret such an estimate as a civilians-only  one.

It would be fair to say that the Roberts et al. article pretty much commits the sin although the researchers allow themselves some degree of plausible deniability.  For example, the conclusion states:

This survey shows that with modest funds, 4 weeks and seven Iraqi team members willing to risk their lives a useful measure of civilian deaths could be obtained.

I suppose that, if pushed, the Roberts et al. team could say that, although they did not obtain a useful measure of civilian deaths themselves, they have demonstrated that it is possible to get one (for a team similarly able to bypass university IRB’s?).   Yet the much more reasonable interpretation is that they do claim to have estimated civilian deaths only.

The press office of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is totally direct about this.  For them it’s civilians, civilians, civilians, civilians all the way.

The Burnham et al. paper talks a fair amount about civilians but does not say that their estimate applies only to civilians.  Indeed, a publicity article in the Johns Hopkins magazine complains that:

Misleading headlines appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and The Times of London. The latter also reported that the deaths were civilian, though the Lancet article [i.e., Burnham et al.] makes clear the surveyors did not attempt to ascertain if the dead had been civilians or combatants.

OK, careful researchers, sloppy journalists (at least on the civilians question).

But what about this article by Burkle and Garfield (It’s free but you have to register on the Lancet site to get to it.)  Entitled “Civilian mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq”  (my emphasis), it strongly pushes the Burnham et al. and Roberts et al. surveys but never says that they mix together civilians with combatants.

Burkle and Garfield also maintain some level of plausible deniability; for example they only use the word “civilian” in their central table when describing studies that really do measure civilian deaths.  But the concluding paragraph gives the game away:

Arguably, although passive surveillance [they mean IBC] has great immediate usefulness in war, active surveillance [they mean Roberts et al. and Burnham et al.] must prevail if we are to have more complete information. In truth, because of the politicisation and perceived weaknesses of the methods of the Iraq studies [again, Roberts et al. and Burnham et al.], all the studies of civilian death have been discounted or dismissed, yet if half a million civilians have perished, that information should be known.

This looks like a clear claim that the two surveys distinguish civilians from combatants.  In fact, I’d wager that almost all readers of  “Civilian mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq” walked away thinking that the article was all about civilian deaths.

I can certainly understand the impulse to claim that you are measuring civilian deaths even if this is….well….false.  It feels good.  It builds self esteem.  People might like you more if they think you’re helping civilians.

But we’re talking about historical truth here so it is no more acceptable to pretend that everyone is a civilian than it is to pretend that all military-aged males are combatants.

Addendum: An alert reader sends in this editorial by Lancet editor Richard Horton very directly and repeatedly making the false claim that the Roberts et al. estimate was for civilians only.

Addendum 1a: Even though I do a lot of proof reading of these posts it seems that every time I put something up some other alert readers finds a few typos.  I fix these quietly.  When I make substantive errors (which I will definitely do in the future) I will flag the corrections very clearly.

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