Guest columnist Allen Woods: Remembering the civilians

Palestinians search for survivors after an Israeli airstrike on a residential building in Nuseirat Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip, Sunday, May 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah)

Palestinians search for survivors after an Israeli airstrike on a residential building in Nuseirat Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip, Sunday, May 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Ismael Abu Dayyah) Ismael Abu Dayyah

Palestinians mourn relatives killed in an Israeli airstrike in Nuseirat, at the Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on Sunday, May 19.

Palestinians mourn relatives killed in an Israeli airstrike in Nuseirat, at the Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, on Sunday, May 19. AP

The Israeli military said on May 17 its troops in Gaza found the bodies of three Israeli hostages killed by Hamas during its Oct. 7 attack: Itzik Gelernter, Shani Louk and Amit Buskila.

The Israeli military said on May 17 its troops in Gaza found the bodies of three Israeli hostages killed by Hamas during its Oct. 7 attack: Itzik Gelernter, Shani Louk and Amit Buskila. VIA AP

People inspect damage and remove items from their homes following Israeli airstrikes on Tuesday, April 9, 2024, in Khan Yunis, Gaza.

People inspect damage and remove items from their homes following Israeli airstrikes on Tuesday, April 9, 2024, in Khan Yunis, Gaza. TNS

By ALLEN WOODS

Published: 05-24-2024 2:39 PM

Earlier this year, my extended family met in Washington, D.C. to celebrate multiple anniversaries and accomplishments and marvel at the grandeur of our nation’s capital. The elders and young adults relived some memories with the two youngest boys and shared our wonder at the history of democracy, so rich with conflict and limited resolutions.

The cherry blossoms offered a brilliant blizzard of color surrounding the Tidal Basin and Washington Monument. We stood where MLK Jr. gave his momentous speech, just yards from where Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is inscribed in his memorial. I made a first visit to MLK Jr.’s own memorial, where “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope” rises to reveal a sculpture illustrating his indomitable visage and spirit.

With a veteran in our current family and others in the past, we included a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Previously, I’d marveled at the vast display of ramrod-straight rows of crosses, each symbolizing a life lost to the insanity of war or deeply affected by it, about 400,000 graves filling nearly a square mile.

But this year, my thoughts turned to the civilians who have suffered with no memorials and too little recognition. Maybe it was the photos from Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza provoking memories of powerful war images: scorched earth which was once fertile soil; mountains of rubble which had been sites of productivity and comforting homes; inconsolable civilians crushed and grieving over innocent children and family members; ghastly survivors of the Holocaust; the terrified, naked, screaming children fleeing a Vietnam napalm attack; etc., etc.

Civilian deaths in wars are hard to calculate, resulting in rough estimates rather than solid figures. But even the estimates are stupefying, ranging from at least one civilian death per military death, all the way up to nine civilians per soldier!

For example, World War I military deaths are estimated at about 20 million worldwide with about the same number of civilians killed; World War II estimates show about 25 million soldier deaths vs. 50 million civilians; the Vietnam War about 2 million civilians and 1.3 million soldiers. Even at the lowest rates, we would need at least one more cemetery the size of Arlington to memorialize the probable civilian deaths associated with that many military deaths.

Modern warfare, which includes carpet bombing, missile attacks on civilian areas, and programmed drones, may be creating even higher ratios of civilian casualties, since fewer troops are involved in attacks. Battles are often concentrated in densely populated urban areas as well. Military casualties decrease while those of helpless civilians increase.

Armed conflict has been a central feature of American (and world) history since opposable thumbs allowed our ancestors to pick up lethal stones, clubs and spears. People have written manuals for success (e.g. “The Art of War,” published about 2,500 years ago), and in recent centuries have suggested rules of war to make its insanity somehow more sane.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Hampshire Mall sells for fraction of assessed value at $7M
Hampshire College to cut benefits as enrollment for next school year comes in below projections
Child porn case against former state police captain from Amherst inches ahead
Overcoming addiction: Day treatment center opens in Northampton
Area property deed transfers, June 20
Northampton school spending advocates eye ‘mountain of cash’ in reserves; city officials warn of slippery slope

Worldwide groups have tried to establish acceptable and unacceptable practices since the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. (Ironically, the 1914 Convention was postponed because World War I consumed the world.) In 1929 and 1949, the Geneva Conventions again attempted to extend rational rules for war as the hope for the United Nations limiting and preventing wars shimmered ahead.

A common thread has been that targeting civilian noncombatants is “illegal.” A few actions against genocidal dictators and criminal soldiers succeeded over the years, but overall, the rules have been completely ineffective. As first stated in a novel of 1578, “All’s fair in love and war,” and every country, including the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, the Hamas regime, and Israel have been willing to consider huge numbers of civilian deaths as simply “collateral damage.”

It’s possible to oppose war and honor the warriors, a group that does not include those at the top who make the decisions about beginning wars or refusing to end them. Our country is one founded on, and defended by, wars and we are constantly involved in our own or that of others.

Since the Civil War, we have been lucky that our civilian population hasn’t been decimated by warfare, but I believe people should remember our contributions to the astounding number of associated civilian deaths in foreign wars. Too many soldiers have died, and too many families have been scarred by their deaths and casualties. But even more civilians have involuntarily suffered as well. They deserve to be remembered, and serve as an impetus to bring down the curtain on current and future wars.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on Saturdays. Comments are welcome here or at awoods2846@gmail.com.