Civilians the “Unseen” Casualties of War

Ray Williams
9 min readFeb 28, 2022
Image: Getty Images

In the media coverage of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, much of the focus has been on various aspects of military action, with depictions of soldiers, tanks and bombs in combat. That scenario has been typical of previous wars, with an inordinate focus on military action.

Yet, in the war in the Ukraine as in all previous modern wars and military action, it is civilians who suffer the most, and Ukraine will be no exception.

Of the hundreds of casualties reported, at least of third of those were civilians killed in Ukraine according to the UN, but others sources say the figures are much higher. Russia made promises at the outset of the attack on Ukraine that it would safeguard the lives of civilians in its invasion, a promise that has already been broken with the deaths of many civilians.

Ukrainian government sources said Russia was lying about not shelling civilian infrastructure, claiming at least 40 such sites had been hit.

Hundreds of civilians, including women and children, have been killed so far by Russian forces attacking the pro-Western country, Ukraine’s Health Minister Viktor Lyashko said.

Human rights groups responded with alarm to Russia’s military assault on Ukraine and called for the protection of civilians and adherence to international law as the invading army’s far-flung bombing campaign wreaks havoc in multiple cities and forces refugees to flee for their lives.

“As rockets are falling on Ukrainian military bases, and the first reports are coming in of the use of indiscriminate weapons by the Russian army, Amnesty International reiterates its call on all parties to adhere strictly to international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” said Agnes Callamard, Secretary General of Amestry International: “Civilian lives, homes, and infrastructure must be protected; indiscriminate attacks and the use of prohibited weapons such as cluster munitions must not take place.”

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, condemned the “senseless war [that] has been unleashed in Ukraine.”

“The vulnerable civilian population along the frontlines will suffer decisions made in safe offices far away from the harm done,” said Egeland, who has drawn attention to the likelihood that thousands of families throughout Ukraine “will be separated indefinitely.”

The History of Civilian Casualties

In times of armed conflict, despite numerous advancements in technology, the European Union’s European Security Strategy, adopted by the European Council in Brussels in December 2003, stated that since 1990, almost 4 million people have died in wars, 90% of them civilians.

Although there is not agreement estimates of civilian casualties range from 500,000 in Iraq and 1 million in Vietnam and Korea, 7 million in WWI and between 35–50 million in WWII. After the war, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey reviewed the available casualty records in Germany, and concluded that official German statistics of casualties from air attack had been too low. The survey estimated that at a minimum 305,000 were killed in German cities due to bombing and estimated a minimum of 780,000 wounded. Roughly 7,500,000 German civilians were also rendered homeless. It is estimated in 2014 that in all about 353,000 civilians were killed by British and American bombing of German cities. It’s estimated that Germany killed over 7 million Russian civilians in WWII. It’s estimated that there may have been 15–20 million Chinese civilian casualties at the hands of the Japanese in WWII. Many of the numbers can be confusing, because some estimates include only those people killed by direct violence, whereas many died as a result of infrastructure destruction.

However, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that civilian fatalities have climbed from 5 per cent at the turn of the century to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s.

According to the study completed by the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University, The U.S. post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan have taken a tremendous human toll on those countries. As of September 2021, an estimated 387,072 civilians in these countries have died violent deaths as a result of the wars. Civilian deaths have also resulted from U.S. post-9/11 military operations in Somalia and other countries.

A Personal Experience

My heart goes out to the suffering Ukraine civilians. My family was also once a victim of the horrors of war. On December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, a massive Japanese force attacked a poorly defended British Hong Kong. The fighting lasted until the British surrender on December 25, 1941. My father, who was a member of the civilian government in Hong Kong, had joined the militia in the fight and was separated from us until much later. During the Japanese bombing a bomb fell on our home and totally destroyed it killing several people in the house. Miraculously, my mother, sister and brother, ages 3 and 1, escaped and hid in an air raid shelter with nothing but the clothes on their backs, until the Japanese captured them as they did most European civilians. When the British surrendered, my family was placed in an Internment Camp — Stanley Camp — where they stayed until August, 1945. The nearly four years in the camp was soul crushing for my family. I was born in that camp, with both my mother and I near death. That experience and the PTSD that followed left permanent scars for all of us.

Watching the Ukrainian civilians bravely resist the Russian invaders and seeing their lives fractured struck a deep cord of pain and compassion for them. They need our love and help, and the answer is not just weapons and violence.

Conventions to Protect Civilians

In 1977, Protocol I was adopted as an amendment to the Geneva Conventions, prohibiting the deliberate or indiscriminate attack of civilians and civilian objects in the war-zone and the attacking force must take precautions and steps to spare the lives of civilians and civilian objects as possible. Although ratified by 173 countries, the only countries that are currently not signatories to Protocol I are the United States, Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Turkey.

The Rome Statute defines that “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population” to be illegal, but only came into effect on 1 July 2002 and has not been ratified by every country.

The provisions of the Geneva Convention (IV), which specifically deals with the treatment of civilians in wartime, on belligerent occupation will be of high relevance as long as Russian forces exercise effective control over parts of Ukraine.

In particular, international humanitarian law is defined by a series of principles. Among them the principle of distinctionfrom the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, added in 1977, prescribes that: “ In order to ensure respect for and protection of the civilian population and civilian objects, the parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.

This fundamental principle is supplemented by another part of the 1977 protocol, which further defines that attacks should be limited to military objectives. This also prohibits indiscriminate attacks. Meanwhile the protocol also establishes the principle of proportionality, which bans attacks where civilian losses would be excessive in terms of the military objective, and the principle of precaution, which governs precautions that must be taken before an attack on a military objective.

The principle of humanity, which “forbids the infliction of all suffering, injury or destruction not necessary for achieving the legitimate purpose of a conflict”, permeates the whole body of contemporary international humanitarian law and responds to the 19th century and discredited German doctrine of Kriegraison.

That doctrine says that in times of war, military necessity negates all other considerations. Modern international humanitarian law utterly rejects this idea and sets limits on the conduct of hostilities and the means and methods of warfare.

So, based on these provisions of international humanitarian law, targeting civilians and civilian objects in the way we have seen during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a flagrant violation of the laws of armed conflict. In simple terms, it is a war crime.

The 1977 additional protocol also prohibits the starvation of civilians. It forbids attacks on objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as food supplies and drinking water installations, among others. This is also recognised as a war crime under the Rome Statute, which is the founding instrument of the International Criminal Court in 1998 and also under “customary” international law, which exists parallel to treaty law.

In light of the various rules of war in the Geneva Conventions and the additional protocols that updated it in 1977, it could be argued that the reports we have from various parts of Ukraine about Russian conduct of hostilities indicate alleged violations of international humanitarian law. The ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan QC, has already opened an investigationon into Russian actions in Ukraine. His team of investigators is on the ground collecting evidence of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, the German Federal Prosecutor has announced that his office will also investigate alleged war crimes based on the the principle of universal jurisdiction which enables it to prosecute even for crimes that take place outside its borders, even if neither the victim nor the perpetrator are German nationals.

Can There Be a Justification for War?

Russia has provided what it calls justifications for war against Ukraine by falsely citing at various times, Ukranian persecution of Russians, and an attempt to root out corruption and “Nazis.” Unfortunately there are precedents for the “just war” theory.

In my article in The Washington Post about civilians killed in wars, I said: “Nations’ justification for civilian casualties as ‘collateral damage’ is supported by what is known as the “just war theory.” Essentially, the theory is based on the notion that the ends justify the means — in this case, defeating the enemy justifies the killing of innocent civilians. Such an argument was used by Allied Forces when fire bombing a German city in World War II and by the United States for napalm bombs in Vietnam and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

The Costs of War Project

The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University has created their Costs of War resource which provides official and accurate data about the Costs of War in current times.

In addition to the terrible casualties and destruction being caused in Ukraine by the Russian invasion, other countries have also suffered devastating losses.

In a recent report by the Costs of War project, it stated: “The U.S. post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan have taken a tremendous human toll on those countries. As of September 2021, an estimated 387,072civilians in these countries have died violent deaths as a result of the wars. Civilian deaths have also resulted from U.S. post-9/11 military operations in Somalia and other countries.

People living in the war zones have been killed in their homes, in markets, and on roadways. They have been killed by bombs, bullets, fire, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and drones. Civilians die at checkpoints, as they are run off the road by military vehicles, when they step on mines or cluster bombs, as they collect wood or tend to their fields, and when they are kidnapped and executed for purposes of revenge or intimidation. They are killed by the United States, by its allies, and by insurgents and sectarians in the civil wars spawned by the invasions.

War can also lead to death weeks or months after battles. Many times more people in the warzones have died as a result of battered infrastructure and poor health conditions arising from the wars than directly from its violence. For example, war refugees often lose access to a stable food supply or to their jobs, resulting in increased malnutrition and vulnerability to disease.

  • 387,072 civilians have died violent deaths as a direct result of the U.S. post-9/11 wars.
  • War deaths from malnutrition and a damaged health system and environment likely far outnumber deaths from combat.

The Ongoing Impact on Civilians

War can impact civilians mentally in many different ways. It causes people, and especially children, to be stressed and anxious. They can often become anxious, depressed and withdrawn and withdrawn or rebellious and aggressive, the War Child Organization reports.

War has a catastrophic effect on the health and well-being of nations. Studies have shown that conflict situations cause more mortality and disability than any major disease. War destroys communities and families and often disrupts the development of the social and economic fabric of nations. The effects of war include long-term physical and psychological harm to children and adults, as well as reduction in material and human capital. Death as a result of wars is simply the “tip of the iceberg”. Other consequences, besides death, are not well documented. They include endemic poverty, malnutrition, disability, economic/ social decline and psycho-social illness, to mention only a few. Only through a greater understanding of conflicts and the myriad of mental health problems that arise from them, coherent and effective strategies for dealing with such problems can be developed.

Let us not forget that the ongoing tragedy that is befalling Ukraine currently will have its greatest damage on the civilian population, one that will last for years to come. Ukraine needs not only military assistance to fight the Russian invasion, but ongoing humanitarian assistance for the Ukrainian people, the kind of help that will last long after the last bomb falls.

Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others