What does "minimize civilian casualties" mean?

This is NOT a thread to discuss the rights and wrongs of the current conflicts in the Middle East. There are other active threads for that.

Over in another thread, WeirdDave said:

Googling the phrase reveals reference to such efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Indonesian province of Aceh and the current Israel/ Gaza/ Lebanon conflict.

To reiterate, in this thread I’m not interested in whether people think that various parties are acting to minimize civilian casualties, I’m interested in what - if anything - the term means. I’m pretty sure it’s not always used as a mere rhetorical flourish (and I’m not accusing WeirdDave of so using it) - I’m just struggling to pin the term down.

It’s fairly easy to set a range for the term: it must mean more than not wantonly killing/ wounding civilians and it clearly means less than “really” minimizing civilian casualties. A strict view of the latter would mean that a force would expend all its military resources including the lives of all its soldiers in order to achieve its objectives and kill one fewer civilian. Obviously, that’s not what’s meant.

A more practical view of the latter would be that the force would take the same steps to avoid killing foreign civilians as they would take in a middle class area of one of their own cities. Clearly - whatever the rights and wrongs of it - the Israeli military in Lebanon is not putting the same value on civilian casualities as they would were they looking to defeat a bunch of Hizzbollah types arrayed around the suburbs of Tel Aviv.

But where in between these two extremes does “minimize civilian casualties” lie? I don’t think it makes sense to talk of minimizing casualties subject to a military objective. Since a military values when things are achieved and how much they cost in terms of men and materiel, mimimizing civilian casualties subject to a military objective constraint is just the same as not engaging in wanton killing.

Other possibilities:[ul][]Not targetting civilians - this is just avoiding wanton killing again.[]Realising killing civilians is counterproductive because it stirs up the locals - this is just pursuing the military objective with brains. Avoiding civilian casualties is here just a means to a military end.Following “rules of engagement”. This might include the two above and also rules to comply with the Fourth Geneva Convention (these overlap). That’s not minimizing anything, except in the vaccuous sense that it’s not maximizing civilian casualties.[/ul]So, I’m finding this term a bit hard to pin down. What does it mean?

When you get that one sorted out, mayhaps you could go on to define “collateral damage.”

As far as I can tell it only means not making civilians the purposeful target of military action. For example, the RAF night bombing campaign in WWII targeted civilian areas in cities by design. The purpose was to destroy German workers’ houses, deprive them of sleep and in general destroy their effectiveness in production. That would not be a case of “minimizing civilian casualties.”

I guess I should also give an example of the RAF going out of its way to avoid civilian casualties. Near the end of the war an RAF Mosquito group was given the task of destroying Hitler’s establishment in Berchtesdaden. They set up a training area and spend hours practicing for the mission. As a result, the Reichskansleri was destroyed with virtually no damage outside its confines.

Thats what i’d consider “minimizing civilian casualties”.

Not making civilians the active targets doesn’t mean you’re minimizing the risk to them, only that you *don’t mind * the risk to them. It’s in the middle between terrorist acts which deliberately target civilians and acts such as your example where everything was done to avoid civilians being hurt.

Right. As another example, the Cologne Cathedral isn’t all that far from an important bridge across the Rhine River. The bridge was a bombing target. Given the state of the art of bombing in WWII it was impossible to put every bomb on the bridge and as a result of raids on that bridge and other military targets in the vicinity the Cathedral suffered considerable damage. That damage would be considered “collateral damage.” It was a result of the vagaries of the process. However, I think few at either the command or operational level spent much time worrying about such damage. If they did it was only because some of the bombs were wasted by not hitting the target and that’s inefficient.

By the way. The Cologne Cathedral was also damaged in RAF night, area-bombing raids.

I think the term means different things in difference contexts. If you’re looking for a scientific definition or one that is universally acceptable, good luck… For one thing, it depends on the technology available to the military. The US, for example, is capable of achieving military objectives while minimizing civilian casualties far more successfully than most countries. It also depends on the objective. There might be a higher level of acceptable civilain deaths when trying to destroy one’s enemy’s nuclear weapons facilities than when trying to destroy another militray target. Or, the calculus might be different if the enemy purposely places key military targets in heavily populated areas as opposed to a situation where they don’t. It all comes down to what one might consider to be “reasonable” steps to take to “minimize civilian casualites”, and that will depend on the situation.

Right, and the definition of who is a civilian and who is a legitimate target is a lot murkier as well, especially in a conflict like the war on terror.


Israel SAYS it is minimizing civilian casuakties as it bombs neighborhoods. Link tv is showing a lot of blown up homes. Internet blogs argue the stance too.
I do not believe Israel would have acted as it has without affirmtion from Bush and Blair. I have heard Bush does not want to leave Iran unfinished when he leaves.

How do Hiroshima and Nagasaki – or Vietnam for that matter – fit into that claim?

It’s a version of the Doctine of Double-Effect… first formulated by St Aquinas.

Oh, I don’t think it’s changed all that much. Churchill and Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference didn’t have any qualms about authorizing the RAF night bombing campaign the sole purpose of which was to attack German factory workers. They were considered to be part of the war effort and thus targets.

Sherman’s army on its march from Atlanta to the sea attacked little but what would normally have been considered civilians.

During the French Revolution the concept of “total war” meaning that everyone on the other side contributed their bit to the war effort and therefore was fair game got a big push forward.

The difference with this so-called war on terror is that there is no organized, uniformed. enemy force.

Given that the estimates of civilian casualties for Operations Olympic and Coronet were in the millions, and that the fire-bombing of Japanese cities was killing more than the A-bombs ever did…it is totally irrelevant to this thread. We were in a declared total war, and if Japanese civilians died, so what. Remember Halsey’s comment after Pearl Harbor? “When I get done, the only place the Japanese language will be spoken will be in Hell.”

“Minimizing civilian casualties” means you target an enemy headquarters after normal business hours, so as not to wipe out the clerical staff along with the building.

I guess it depends on what the meaning of “is” is! :slight_smile:

The guided air-to-ground weapons now available weren’t available then. When it comes to killing civilians in ordinary rifle, grenade and artillery warfare I don’t think we are all that much better than anone else in avoiding civilians even now.

In case of a nuclear attack today, massive civilian casualties are a given.

I’ve heard the Americans are single-handedly responsible for all of the atrocities of the Crusades as well…

The common definition is causing the least amount of civilian casualties while achieving your military goals. So you define your objective - say occupying a city - and then you consider the different plans that will achieve that goal and pick the one that causes the fewest casualties. Obviously, the casualty level will not be zero - that would only be achieved by abandoning the goal of occupying the city.

Beyond not deliberately targeting civiians, it seems to include choosing opportunities and weapons that kill the target precisely. In the US case it involves smart munitions. Before the recent flareup, you’ll recall that Israel was directly targeting the cars carrying terrorist leaders. I’m sure they could have bombed where they lived, or their offices, but this method minimized civilian casualties. As always, though, when you screw up civilians do get killed.

And I don’t think minimizing civilain casualties was a goal for either Hiroshima or Dresden - or the Blitz, for that matter.

In the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the goal wasn’t to ‘minimize civilian casualties’…but to win a total war. However, given some of the estimates I’ve seen for civilian casualities had the US actually attempted a full scale invasion (some estimates I’ve seen were over a million civilian dead), I suppose you could even make a case there that the end result was a minimization of civilian casualties over what they COULD have been. Again though, it was a different era with different standards of conduct in warfare…and different technology capabilities. All sides in that conflict were fighting a total war…and minimizing civilian casualties wasn’t remotely a goal by any side. Winning at all costs and by any means was the goal.

As for Vietnam, couple of things. First off, the US’s technical capabilities wrt percision bombing weren’t all that much better than they had been during WWII. We still used mostly unguided dumb bombs dropped from extremely high altitude. Also, the North Vietnamese put key military facilities withing high concentrations of civilians to shield them (somewhat). In fact this DID work on occation as the US really did try (somewhat) to minimize civilian casualties when possible (if for no other reason than the growing unrest here at home).
What does ‘minimize civilain casualties’ mean? Well, I answered this in the thread posted in the OP, but IMHO it means refraning from using total warfare methods and indiscriminant fire on military targets in civilian areas. It also means not purposely targetting civilians as the primary goal.

It doesnt mean there won’t be civilian casualites of course…not when militaries insist on using civilian laborers or putting military facilities in civilians areas. It means attempting, to the best of the ability of the technology available to the given nation state, civilian casualties. For instance, the Israeli’s could attempt to take out a known terrorist stronghold in a building by dropping percision munitions on that building…knowing that both the building and perhaps some of the surrounding buildings will be damaged and certainly some civilians killed. Or they could carpet bomb (or use a massive, prolonged artillary strike) the entire block that building resides in, killing a hell of a lot more civilians but still achieving their goal. See the difference?


I think it’s basically a doublespeak phrase which is used to rationalize collateral damage. If we tell oureselves we’re “minimalizing” how many innocent people we kill then it almost makes it sound ok to do it.