Steven I. Levine & Michael H. Hunt: Civilian Casualties: Tactical Regrets and Strategic Hypocrisy

We welcome a guest post today from Steven I. Levine and Michael H. Hunt, co-authors of Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam. In the book, Hunt and Levine argue that although they are conventionally treated as separate, America’s four wars in Asia were actually phases in a sustained U.S. bid for regional dominance. If you missed it, be sure to catch their previous guest post in which they discuss Obama’s Asia policy. In this post, they address the history of civilian casualties in U.S. military engagements.


The recent publication by the Los Angeles Times of photographs from 2010 showing grinning American soldiers in Afghanistan posing with the severed limbs of Taliban suicide bombers has provoked more expressions of regret and condemnation by top Washington officials. Just one month ago the cold-blooded murder of sixteen Afghan civilians near Kandahar by an apparently deranged U.S. Army staff sergeant triggered a similar outpouring of shock, regrets, and apologies by top U.S. officials. President Barack Obama declared, “The killing of civilians is outrageous and it’s unacceptable. It’s not who we are as a country, and it does not represent our military.” It would be comforting to be able to believe this, but current military practice and historical facts deny us such moral balm.

These same officials ignore the routine killing via drone attacks, misguided bombing raids, and night-time raids gone wrong. In their view, the much larger numbers of civilians killed by American forces in Afghanistan and neighboring northwestern Pakistan are the regrettable byproducts of war. So it was in Iraq as well under the previous administration. The dead are, in the sterilized language of Pentagonese, “collateral damage.” Any moral qualms collapse under the weight of a conviction that our intentions are honorable, even though a majority of Afghans and Pakistanis may disagree. Such, at least, is the fairy tale that our leaders spin to suppress dissent and deaden any twinges of conscience that threaten to disturb the national narrative of America’s benign power.

The reality is that the large-scale targeted killing of civilians has been (as we show in Arc of Empire) an integral part of America’s military strategy for well over a century. It took root in the Indian wars of the nineteenth century within our own national borders when U.S. Army troops, in the course of conducting counterinsurgency campaigns, massacred the inhabitants of Native American villages and encampments.

It flowered during our colonial war in the Philippines (1899-1902). Where Filipinos fought stubbornly for their independence, American military leaders devised a policy of total destruction designed to turn the interior into a “howling wilderness.” In contested provinces, peasant families were herded into concentration camps where they wasted away from hunger and disease. Filipino guerrillas, or freedom fighters, to call them by their proper name, were hunted down and tortured to extract confessions and intelligence.

Our war with Japan for control of the Pacific brought even greater horror to civilians. In late 1944 and early 1945 U.S. forces gained control of air bases from which our strategic bombers could make round-trip bombing runs over Japan’s home islands. General Curtis LeMay commanded the U.S. Army Air Force to obliterate Japanese cities under a rain of incendiary bombs without distinction as to military and civilian targets. On the night of March 9-10, 1945, over 100,000 civilians burned to death in Tokyo in the firestorm ignited by LeMay’s bombers. The sustained conventional bombing conducted without discrimination was but prologue to the better known atomic bombings that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

During the Korean War, Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and every city and town in North Korea was similarly destroyed by massive U.S. air power, causing hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Meanwhile, on the ground, some American troops, frustrated by fighting in a war whose purpose seemed unfathomable, amused themselves by taking potshots at peasants tilling their fields as a veteran of that conflict recently confirmed for us. The toxic mixture of racism, contempt for Asians, and conviction of American superiority that had first manifested itself in the Philippines resurfaced in Korea as it had earlier among American troops fighting Japanese and as it would yet again in Vietnam soon after.

In Vietnam, the longest of our wars in Asia, and one that brought neither victory nor stalemate but an undisguised defeat, the full panoply of American strategic power was directed against civilians as well as the North Vietnamese military and their allies in the south. Under the rule “If it’s dead it’s a gook,” the quintessential expression of racism, American forces torched and burned villages not only in the marquee case of My Lai, but in many other nameless villages as well. In an army obsessed with body counts, the more corpses the better, whoever they were, armed or unarmed, men, women, or children. Our strategic bombers obliterated not only Hanoi and Haiphong, but cities and towns throughout North Vietnam.

In the four American wars in Asia our enemies collectively suffered roughly 9 million combatant and civilian deaths while U.S. military fatalities were a third of a million, a ratio of 27:1. For each of them as for more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaders offered grand rationales that persuaded the public. But the wars in Korea and Vietnam lost support and by the end a majority of Americans considered them a mistake, a judgment also visited on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yesterday’s strategic imperative becomes today’s strategic bubble.

Yet to judge from the talk of our political and military leaders our learning curve is flat despite repeated bitter experience over the last six decades. With well-calculated conviction, they express their shock at the murderous rampage of an individual soldier, and they invoke the nebulous notion of tragedy to convey the gravity of their feelings. But like their predecessors in power, they remain committed to strategies of warfare that, as in earlier wars, demonstrate the superfluity of American military technology and the dearth of moral sensibility.

This long record of U.S. military violence puts in doubt notions of global leadership and military prowess that have come to occupy so prominent, indeed so defining a place in American national identity. A close historical examination leaves us with the question of whether this is the best we as a people can do. Is this the historical legacy that we wish to leave? Our question transcends particular policies and administrations. It raises the more fundamental issue of reframing our nationalist self-conception so that it is less grandiose, more in line with past experience, and cognizant of the realities of a diverse world in which the United States cannot command others to do our bidding.

Steven I. Levine and Michael H. Hunt are co-authors of Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam.

Levine is research faculty associate in the Department of History at the University of Montana and author or editor of four books, including Anvil of Victory: The Communist Revolution in Manchuria, 1945-1948 and America’s Wars in Asia: A Cultural Approach to History and Memory.

Hunt is Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author or editor of eleven books, including The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. Read his other guest posts on this blog or visit his website.