Civilians often bear war's brunt

Published Feb. 17, 1991|Updated Oct. 12, 2005

Over history, civilians have accounted for roughly half of all wartime deaths. That ratio swelled to three of four war deaths during the 1980s, and in 1990 the ratio grew to 91 percent. The Persian Gulf war isn't likely to buck that trend, according to Bill Eckhardt of the Lentz Peace Research Laboratory.

From his Dunedin condominium, Eckhardt compiles statistics on war casualties for the St. Louis think tank. He relies on published sources, including newspapers, for research that appeared to be his alone until recently. Then the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden's Uppsala University reported parallel findings.

Eckhardt defines a war as "any armed conflict, involving at least one government and produces at least 1,000 deaths per year, including deaths from war-related famine and disease."

Disease historically killed many bystanders before modern times, but the recent rise in civilian deaths can be traced to the rise in civil wars. Of the 16 wars going on in 1990, 14 were civil.

The Persian Gulf war is a rare war between a superpower and an underdeveloped country. The civilian death rate so far is familiar enough, though: Iraqi fatalities reported as of Thursday were 93 percent civilian.

Saddam Hussein's government may have been slow to report military casualties. But when it does Eckhardt, for one, will be surprised if they overtake civilian deaths.

Much may be made of the precision-guided bombs that are said to spare residential areas, and of the "relentless" bombing directed at Iraqi battlefield positions.

But Eckhardt, a veteran, remembers World War II boasts about new bombsights. As for battlefield deaths, "it's amazing, the bombing is just useless for killing people. It's nothing like the property damage."

U.S. Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly on Friday said of Iraqi casualties, "We think they've been substantial." But in Israel's 1969-70 "War of Attrition" against Egypt, eight tons of explosives were required for every soldier killed.

"Without even intending to kill civilians, we should expect that they will be about half of the people who will die," Eckhardt said.

"It's going to happen in effect. Admittedly, it's not by intention. But then again, it never was.

"War is war."

Wars and death

People die in wars, and most of those people aren't soldiers. A study by William Eckhart of the Lentz Peace Research Laboratory of St. Louis shows that civilians are killed more often than soldiers, and the rate is increasing.

By centuries

Deaths Civilian

in wars percentage

16th 1,613,000 45%

17th 6,108,000 50%

18th 7,001,000 43%

19th 19,423,000 50%

20th 107,759,000 58%

Total 141,904,000 56%

20th century, by decades

1900 824,000 78%

1910 28,456,000 50%

1920 530,000 50%

1930 4,029,000 57%

1940 54,384,000 60%

1950 4,658,000 53%

1960 6,424,000 56%

1970 2,868,000 67%

1980 5,586,000 74%

Total 107,759,000 58%

Wars going on in 1990

Compiled before the allies attacked Iraq

Year Deaths Civilian

started in wars percentage

Guatemala 1966 140,000 71%

Ethiopia 1974 570,000 88%

Angola 1975 341,000 94%

El Salvador 1979 73,000 70%

Mozambique 1981 1,050,000 95%

Lebanon 1982 63,000 65%

Peru 1983 20,000 50%

South Africa 1983 10,000 100%

India 1983 16,000 75%

Sudan 1984 506,000 99%

Sri Lanka 1984 30,000 60%

Colombia 1986 22,000 64%

Somalia 1988 55,000 91%

Liberia 1990 10,000 90%

Tibet 1990 2,000 100%

Kuwait 1990 1,000 100%

Total 2,909,000 91%

Wars are defined as any armed conflict, involving at least one government and resulting in at least 1,000 deaths a year, including deaths from war-related famine and disease.

Source: Lentz Peace Research Loaboratory