Civilian casualty ratio

In armed conflicts, the civilian casualty ratio (also civilian death ratio, civilian-combatant ratio, etc.) is the ratio of civilian casualties to combatant casualties, or total casualties. The measurement can apply either to casualties inflicted by or to a particular belligerent, casualties inflicted in one aspect or arena of a conflict or to casualties in the conflict as a whole. Casualties usually refer to both dead and injured. In some calculations, deaths resulting from famine and epidemics are included.

Starting in the 1980s, it was often claimed that 90 percent of the victims of modern wars were civilians.[1][2][3][4] The claim was repeated on Wikipedia's Did You Know on 14 December 2010, and it has been repeated in academic publications as recently as 2014.[5] These claims, though widely believed, are not supported by detailed examination of the evidence, particularly that relating to wars (such as those in former Yugoslavia and in Afghanistan) that are central to the claims.[6] Some of the citations can be traced back to a 1991 monograph from Uppsala University[7] which includes refugees and internally displaced persons as casualties. Other authors cite Ruth Leger Sivard's 1991 monograph in which the author states “In the decade of the 1980s, the proportion of civilian deaths jumped to 74 percent of the total and in 1990 it appears to have been close to 90 percent.”[8]

The most comprehensive examination of civilian war deaths throughout history is by William Eckhardt,[9] in which Eckhardt states:

"On the average, half of the deaths caused by war happened to civilians, only some of whom were killed by famine associated with war...The civilian percentage share of war-related deaths remained at about 50% from century to century." (p. 97)

Mexican Revolution (1910–20)

Although it is estimated at least 1 million people died in the Mexican Revolution, most died from disease and hunger as an indirect result of the war. Combat deaths are generally agreed to have totaled about 250,000. According to Eckhardt, these included 125,000 civilian deaths and 125,000 combatant deaths, creating a civilian-combatant death ratio of 1:1 among combat deaths.[10][11]

World War I

Some 7 million combatants on both sides are estimated to have died during World War I, along with an estimated 10 million non-combatants, including 6.6 million civilians. The civilian casualty ratio in World War I is therefore approximately 2:3 or 40%. Most of the civilian fatalities were due to famine or Spanish flu rather than combat action. The relatively low ratio of civilian casualties in this war is due to the fact that the front lines on the main battlefront, the Western Front, were static for most of the war, so that civilians were able to avoid the combat zones.

Chemical weapons were widely used by all sides during the conflict and wind frequently carried poison gas into nearby towns where civilians did not have access to gas masks or warning systems. An estimated 100,000-260,000 civilian casualties were affected by the use of chemical weapons during the conflict and tens of thousands more died from the effects of such weapons in the years after the conflict ended.[12][13]

Germany suffered 750,000 civilian dead during and after the war due to famine caused by the Allied blockade. Russia and Turkey suffered civilian casualties in the millions in the Russian Civil War and invasion of Anatolia respectively.[14]

World War II

According to most sources, World War II was the most lethal war in world history, with some 70 million killed in six years. The civilian to combatant fatality ratio in World War II lies somewhere between 3:2 and 2:1, or from 60% to 67%.[15] The high ratio of civilian casualties in this war was due in part to the increasing effectiveness and lethality of strategic weapons which were used to target enemy industrial or population centers, and famines caused by economic disruption. A substantial number of civilians in this war were also deliberately killed by Axis Powers as a result of racial policies (for example, the Holocaust) or ethnic cleansing campaigns.[14]

Korean War

The median total estimated Korean civilian deaths in the Korean War is 2,730,000. The total estimated North Korean combatant deaths is 213,000 and the estimated Chinese combatant deaths is over 400,000. In addition to this the Republic of Korea combatant deaths is around 134,000 dead and the combatant deaths for the United Nations side is around 38,000. The estimated Korean war military dead is around 793,000 deaths. The civilian-combatant death ratio in the war is approximately 2:1 or 67%. One source estimates that 20% of the total population of North Korea perished in the war.[16]

Vietnam War

The Vietnamese government has estimated the number of Vietnamese civilians killed in the Vietnam War at two million, and the number of NVA and Viet Cong killed at 1.1 million — estimates which approximate those of a number of other sources.[17] This would give a civilian-combatant fatality ratio of approximately 2:1, or 67%. These figures do not include civilians killed in Cambodia and Laos. However, the lowest estimate of 411,000[18] civilians killed during the war (including civilians killed in Cambodia and Laos) would give a civilian-combatant fatality ratio of approximately 1:3, or 37%. Using the lowest estimate of Vietnamese military deaths, 400,000, the ratio is about 1:1.

Chechen wars

During the First Chechen War, 4,000 separatist fighters and 40,000 civilians are estimated to have died, giving a civilian-combatant ratio of 10:1. The numbers for the Second Chechen War are 3,000 fighters and 13,000 civilians, for a ratio of 43:10. The combined ratio for both wars is 76:10. Casualty numbers for the conflict are notoriously unreliable. The estimates of the civilian casualties during the First Chechen war range from 20,000 to 100,000, with remaining numbers being similarly unreliable.[19] The tactics employed by Russian forces in both wars were heavily criticized by human rights groups, which accused them of indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian areas and other crimes.[20][21]

NATO in Yugoslavia

In 1999, NATO intervened in the Kosovo War with a bombing campaign against Yugoslav forces, who were alleged to be conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The bombing lasted about 2½ months, until forcing the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army from Kosovo.

Estimates for the number of casualties caused by the bombing vary widely depending on the source. NATO unofficially claimed a toll of 5,000 enemy combatants killed by the bombardment; the Yugoslav government, on the other hand, gave a figure of 638 of its security forces killed in Kosovo.[22] Estimates for the civilian toll are similarly disparate. Human Rights Watch counted approximately 500 civilians killed by the bombing; the Yugoslav government estimated between 1,200 and 5,000.[23]

If the NATO figures are to be believed, the bombings achieved a civilian to combatant kill ratio of about 1:10, on the Yugoslav government's figures, conversely, the ratio would be between 4:1 and 10:1. If the most conservative estimates from the sources cited above are used, the ratio was around 1:1.

According to military historian and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, for every Serbian soldier killed by NATO in 1999 (the period in which Operation Allied Force took place), four civilians died, a civilian to combatant casualty ratio of 4:1. Oren cites this figure as evidence that "even the most moral army can make mistakes, especially in dense urban warfare".[24]

Afghanistan War

According to the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, as of January 2015 roughly 92,000 people had been killed in the Afghanistan war, of which over 26,000 were civilians, for a civilian to combatant ratio of 0.4:1.[25]

Iraq War

According to a 2010 assessment by John Sloboda of Iraq Body Count, a United Kingdom-based organization, American and Coalition forces had killed at least 28,736 combatants as well as 13,807 civilians in the Iraq War, indicating a civilian to combatant casualty ratio inflicted by coalition forces of 1:2.[26] However, overall, figures by the Iraq Body Count from 20 March 2003 to 14 March 2013 indicate that of 174,000 casualties only 39,900 were combatants, resulting in a civilian casualty rate of 77%.[27]

US drone strikes in Pakistan

The civilian casualty ratio for U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan is notoriously difficult to quantify. The U.S. itself puts the number of civilians killed from drone strikes in the last two years at no more than 20 to 30, a total that is far too low according to a spokesman for the NGO CIVIC.[28] At the other extreme, Daniel L. Byman of the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill "10 or so civilians" for every militant killed, which would represent a civilian to combatant casualty ratio of 10:1. Byman argues that civilian killings constitute a humanitarian tragedy and create dangerous political problems, including damage to the legitimacy of the Pakistani government and alienation of the Pakistani populace from America.[29] An ongoing study by the New America Foundation finds non-militant casualty rates started high but have declined steeply over time, from about 60% (3 out of 5) in 2004-2007 to less than 2% (1 out of 50) in 2012. The study puts the overall non-militant casualty rate since 2004 at 15-16%, or a 1:5 ratio, out of a total of between 1,908 and 3,225 people killed in Pakistan by drone strikes since 2004.[30] Research published by Reprieve in 2014 suggested that U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have had an unknown person to target casualty ratio of 28:1 with one attack in the study having a ratio of 128:1 with 13 children being killed.[31]

Israeli–Palestinian conflict

The head of the Shin Bet reported to the Israeli Cabinet that of the 810 Palestinians killed in Gaza in 2006 and 2007, 200 were civilians (a ratio of approximately 1:3). Haaretz assessed this to be an underestimation of civilian casualties. Using B'tselem's figures they calculated that 816 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza during the two-year period, 360 of whom were civilians.[32] 1,010 Israelis were killed between September 29, 2000 and January 1, 2005. Of these, 773 were civilians killed in Palestinian attacks, resulting in a ratio of approximately 5:1.[33]

Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip

Military journalist Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz that the ratio between killed terrorists and civilians was 1:1 in 2002-2003, when half the casualties in air assaults on the Gaza Strip were innocent bystander. He attributed this to an Israeli Air Force (IAF) practice of attacking militants even when they had deliberately located themselves in densely populated areas. The ratio improved to 1:28 ratio in late 2005, meaning one civilian killed for every 28 militants. It lowered, however, to 1:10 in 2006. In 2007, the ratio was at its lowest ever, more than 1:30.[34] Figures showing an improvement from 1:1 in 2002 to 1:30 in 2008 were also cited by Jerusalem Post journalist Yaakov Katz.[26]

According to B'Tselem, Israel counts the Hamas police force as a non-civilian when calculating the civilian casualty ratio, and states that such a definition is not compatible with the ICRC interpretation of international law.[35][36] The International Committee of the Red Cross regards persons as civilians if they do not fulfill a "continuous combat function" (for example, many police officers) and do not participate directly in hostilities.[35] Israel states that members of the Hamas police force participate in rocket attacks making them legitimate targets. Analysts state that in addition to their civilian roles such as policing traffic, Hamas police are active in counter-intelligence and fighting dissent.[36]

Professor Alan Dershowitz stated that the 2008 figure of 1:30 represents the lowest civilian to combatant casualty ratio in history in the setting of combating terrorism. He argued that even this figure may be misleading because not all civilians are innocent bystanders.[37] In October 2009, Dershowitz stated that the ratio for Israel's campaign of targeted assassinations stood at 1 civilian for every 28 terrorists. He asserted that "this is the best ratio of any country in the world that is fighting asymmetrical warfare against terrorists who hide behind civilians.[38]

On its web blog, the IDF stated that the IDF’s civilian-to-terrorist death ratio is the lowest in the world.[39] It says that civilian deaths are caused by the use of human shields by Gazan militant groups, such as Hamas. There are reports that Israel also used Palestinian civilians as human shields during the First and Second Intifadas, and on at least 14 UN-documented occasions between January 2010 and March 2013 alone, with pictures showing Palestinian minors tied up to the hoods of Israeli military vehicles or in other dangerous situations to prevent any attacks against them.[40] No proof was presented to support these claims what so ever.

The IDF blog lists various counter-terrorism methods used by the IDF to minimize civilian casualties and lower the civilian casualty ratio, and includes videos related to each method:[39]

Israel in the 2008–09 Gaza War

Several analysts have attempted to calculate the Israel Defense Forces's civilian casualty ratio in the 2008–09 Gaza War. All have noted that the ratio differs significantly depending on which figures are used regarding the total number of casualties and their identity. The main sets of figures are those published by the IDF, essentially corroborated by Hamas, the opposing belligerent in the conflict, on the one hand; and those published by B'Tselem on the other hand.[42][43] The final IDF report identified 709 militants out of a total of 1,161 Gaza fatalities, with another 162 whose status could not be confirmed (300 were ID'd as civilians).[44][45] B'Tselem say 1,391 Palestinians were killed, of whom 759 of them did not take part in the hostilities while 350 did take part in the hostilities, 248 were police officers who were killed inside police stations, and it is not known if 32 who were killed did take part in the hostilities.[46][47]

Journalist Yaakov Katz states in The Jerusalem Post that the ratio is 1:3 according to the Israeli figures and 60% civilians (3:2) according to B'Tselem's figures. Katz attributes the IDF's low ratio in the Gaza War and in the year preceding it to Israel's investment in special weapons systems, including small smart bombs that minimize collateral damage, and to an upscaled Israeli effort to warn civilians to flee areas and to divert missiles at the last moment if civilians entered a planned strike zone. Katz says that over 81 percent of the 5,000 missiles the IDF dropped in the Gaza Strip during the operation were smart bombs, a percentage which he states is unprecedented in modern warfare.[26]

Journalist and commentator Evelyn Gordon writes in Commentary that the civilian casualty ratio in the 2008–09 Gaza War was 39 percent (2:3), using however only the preliminary Israeli estimates, but that 56 or 74 percent were civilians according to B'Tselem's figures, depending on whether 248 Hamas policemen are considered combatants or civilians; and 65 or 83 percent according to the figures of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Gordon says that all of these ratios, even if the worse were correct, are lower than the normal civilian-to-combatant wartime fatality ratio in wars elsewhere, as given by the Red Cross, and states that the comparison shows that the IDF was unusually successful at minimizing civilian casualties. She concludes by charging that terrorists fight from among civilians because they know that the inevitable civilian casualties will result in opprobrium for their victims who dare to fight back, and that this norm will not change as long as this modus operandi remains profitable.[48]

Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan and adamant supporter of the IDF, spoke in 2011 about Israeli operations in the Gaza War. He said that a study published by the United Nations showed "that the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths in Gaza was by far the lowest in any asymmetric conflict in the history of warfare." He stated that this ratio was less than 1:1, and compared it favorably to the estimated ratios in NATO operations in Afghanistan (3:1), western campaigns in Iraq and Kosovo (believed to be 4:1), and the conflicts in Chechnya and Serbia (much higher than 4:1, according to anecdotal evidence).[49] Kemp argued that the low ratio was achieved through unprecedented measures by the IDF to minimize civilian casualties, which included providing warnings to the population via telephone calls, radio broadcasts and leaflets, as well as granting pilots the discretion to abort a strike if they perceived too great a risk of civilian casualties. He also stated that the civilian casualties that did occur could be seen in light of what he said was Hamas' tactical use of Gazan civilians "as human shields, to hide behind, to stand between Israeli forces and their own fighters" and strategic use of them for exploitation of their deaths in the media.[50]

1982 Lebanon War

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the stated aim of driving the PLO away from its northern borders.[51] The war culminated in a seven-week-long Israeli naval, air and artillery bombardment of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, where the PLO had retreated. The bombardment eventually came to an end with an internationally brokered settlement in which the PLO forces were given safe passage to evacuate the country.[52]

According to the International Red Cross, by the end of the first week of the war alone, some 10,000 people, including 2,000 combatants, had been killed, and 16,000 wounded—a civilian-combatant fatality ratio of 5:1.[53] Lebanese government sources later estimated that by the end of the siege of Beirut, a total of about 18,000 had been killed, an estimated 85% of whom were civilians.[54]<ref name="The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon: the casualties". race & Class 24(4):340-3. 1983. doi:10.1177/030639688302400404></ref> This gives a civilian to military casualty ratio of about 6:1.

According to Richard A. Gabriel between 1,000 and 3,000 civilians were killed in the southern campaign.[55] He states that an additional 4,000 to 5,000 civilians died from all actions of all sides during the siege of Beirut,[55] and that some 2,000 Syrian soldiers were killed during the Lebanon campaign and a further 2,400 PLO guerillas were also killed.[55] Of these, 1,000 PLO guerrillas were killed during the siege.[55] According to Gabriel the ratio of civilian deaths to combatants during the siege was about 6 to 1 but this ratio includes civilian deaths from all actions of all sides.[55]

See also


  1. Kahnert, M., D. Pitt, et al., Eds. (1983). Children and War: Proceedings of Symposium at Siuntio Baths, Finland, 1983. Geneva and Helsinki, Geneva International Peace Research Institute, IPB and Peace Union of Finland, p. 5, which states: “Of the human victims in the First World War only 5% were civilians, in the Second World War already 50%, in Vietnam War between 50 - 90 % and according to some information in Lebanon 97%. It has been appraised that in a conventional war in Europe up to 99% of the victims would be civilians.”
  2. Graça Machel, "The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, Report of the expert of the Secretary-General, 26 Aug 1996, p. 9.
  3. Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 107.
  4. Howard Zinn, Moises Samam, Gino Strada. Just war, Charta, 2005, p. 38.
  5. James, Paul (2014). "Faces of Globalization and the Borders of States: From Asylum Seekers to Citizens". Citizenship Studies. 18 (2): 219.
  6. Adam Roberts, "Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of War Victims Civilians?", Survival, London, vol. 52, no. 3, June–July 2010, pp. 115–35. Print edition ISSN 0039-6338. Online ISSN 1468-2699.
  7. Ahlstrom, C. and K.-A. Nordquist (1991). Casualties of conflict: report for the world campaign for the protection of victims of war. Uppsala, Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University.
  8. Sivard, R. L. (1991). World Military and Social Expenditures 1991. Washington DC, World Priorities, Inc. Vol. 14, pp 22-25.
  9. Eckhardt, W. "Civilian deaths in wartime." Security Dialogue 20(1): 89-98. Also at
  10. Twentieth Century Atlas – Death Tolls. Retrieved 2010-11-28.
  11. Missing Millions: The human cost of the Mexican Revolution, 1910–1930. Retrieved 2010-11-28.
  12. D. Hank Ellison (August 24, 2007). Handbook of Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents, Second Edition. CRC Press. pp. 567–570. ISBN 0-8493-1434-8.
  13. Max Boot (August 16, 2007). War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World. Gotham. pp. 245–250. ISBN 1-5924-0315-8.
  14. 1 2 Neiberg, Michael S. (2002): Warfare in World History, pp. 68-70, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-22954-8.
  15. Sadowski, p. 134. See the World War II casualties article for a detailed breakdown of casualties.
  16. Deane, p. 149.
  17. "20 Years After Victory", Philip Shenon, clipping from the Vietnam Center and Archive website.
  18. "Table 6.1A - Vietnam Democide Estimates Sources and Calculations". University of Hawaii. Retrieved 2014-01-05.
  19. Zürcher, Christoph. The post-Soviet wars: rebellion, ethnic conflict, and nationhood in the Caucasus. p. 100.
  20. "Russian Federation - Human Rights Developments", Human Rights Watch report, 1996.
  21. Russian Federation 2001 Report Archived June 16, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. Amnesty International
  22. Larson, p. 71.
  23. Larson, p. 65.
  24. Michael Oren, UN report a victory for terror, Boston Globe 24-09-2009
  25. "Afghan Civilians | Costs of War
  26. 1 2 3 Katz, Yaakov (2010-10-29). "Analysis: Lies, leaks, death tolls & statistics". The Jerusalem Post.
  27. "The War in Iraq: 10 years and counting". Iraq Body Count. Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  28. "Pakistanis protest civilian deaths in U.S. drone attacks", Saeed Shah,, 2010-12-10.
  29. Daniel L. Byman, Do Targeted Killings Work?, Brookings 14-07-2009
  30. "The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2012" Archived August 30, 2011, at the Wayback Machine., New America Foundation. Retrieved 2012-10-24.
  32. Barak Ravid (14 January 2008). "Haaretz probe: Shin Bet count of Gaza civilian deaths is too low". Haaretz.
  33. "ICT Middleastern Conflict Statistics Project" Archived July 3, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Short summary page with "Breakdown of Fatalities: September 27, 2000 through January 1, 2005." International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Full report: "An Engineered Tragedy" Archived September 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. Statistical Analysis of Casualties in the Palestinian – Israeli Conflict, September 2000 – September 2002. International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Article is here also.
  34. Pinpoint attacks on Gaza more precise. Amos Harel, Haaretz, 30 December 2007
  35. 1 2 B'Tselem, Explanation of statistics on fatalities. Accessed March 2014
  36. 1 2 Gaza conflict: Who is a civilian?. Heather Sharp, BBC, 5 January 2009
  37. Dershowitz, Alan (January 3, 2008). "Targeted Killing Is Working, So Why Is The Press Not Reporting It?". Huffington Post.
  38. Alan Dershowitz, The Hypocrisy of "Universal Jurisdiction", Hudson Institute 06-10-2009
  39. 1 2 "Israeli Air Force: Bombing Gaza or Pinpoint Strikes?". Israel Defense Forces. 2012-03-11. Retrieved 2014-01-05.
  41. Ginsburg, Mitch (2012-03-11). "Iron Dome - the newly beloved missile defense system that nobody wanted". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 2014-01-05.
  42. "Hamas admits 600-700 of its men were killed in Cast Lead Israel News". Haaretz. 2010-11-09. Retrieved 2014-01-05.
  43. "Hamas says 300 fighters killed in Gaza war". Yahoo News. 2010-11-02. Archived from the original on 2010-11-06.
  44. "Majority of Palestinians Killed in Operation Cast Lead: Terror Operatives," IDF Research Department
  45. Ben-Dror Yemini's article translated from Maariv, "How Many Civilians Were Killed in Gaza?"
  46. Operation Cast Lead, 27 Dec. '08 to 18 Jan. '09, B'Tselem
  47. Fatalities during Operation Cast Lead, B'Tselem
  48. Gordon, Evelyn (2010-10-25). "WikiLeaks and the Gaza War". Commentary.
  49. "'Hamas is Expert at Driving Media Agenda,' British Commander Tells U.N. Debate". UN Watch - YouTube. 2009-10-16. Retrieved 2014-01-05.
  50. Kemp, Richard (2011-06-15). "A salute to the IDF". The Jerusalem Post.
  51. Sorenson, David S. (2010). Global Security Watch--Lebanon: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-0-313-36578-2.
  52. Hartley et all, pp. 91-92.
  53. Layoun et al, p. 134.
  54. Washington Post, November 16, 1984
  55. 1 2 3 4 5 Gabriel, Richard , A, Operation Peace for Galilee, The Israeli-PLO War in Lebanon, New York: Hill & Wang. 1984, p. 164, 165, ISBN 0-8090-7454-0


  • Anstrom, Jan; Duyvesteyn, Isabelle (2004): Rethinking the Nature of War, pp. 72-80, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-35461-5.
  • Deane, Hugh (1999): The Korean War: 1945-1953, p. 149, China Books & Periodicals, ISBN 978-0-8351-2644-1.
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  • Larson, Eric V. (2007): Misfortunes of War: Press and Public Reactions to Civilian Deaths in Wartime, pp. 65, 71, RAND Corp., ISBN 978-0-8330-3897-5.
  • Layoun, Mary N. et al (2001): Wedded to the Land? Gender, Boundaries, & Nationalism in Crisis, p. 134, Duke University Press, ISBN 978-0-8223-2545-1.
  • Mattar, Philip: (2005): Encyclopedia Of The Palestinians, p. 47, Facts on File, ISBN 978-0-8160-5764-1.
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  • Snow, Donald M. (1996): Uncivil Wars: International Security and the New Internal Conflicts, pp. 64-66, Lynne Rienner Publishers, ISBN 978-1-55587-655-5.

Further reading

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