Thirty Years’ War
Once upon a time, there was a war that lasted thirty years. The causes of the conflict were complex, its conduct brutal, its outcome murky. Divisions continued long after the war’s end. A mass grave was found recently which was thought to date back to the thirty year conflict. There is no definitive account of how many were killed in those thirty years. Vast areas were denuded by the foraging armies. Famine and disease significantly decreased the population. So great was the devastation brought about by the war that estimates put the reduction of population from between 25% to 40%.
A distinguished historian still living today, Norman Davies, in his book Europe,[i] gives a figure of eight million. R.J. Rummel, who has invented his own discipline and called it democide studies, avers that there were 11.5 million total deaths in the war.[ii]
Notice the wide margin there between 25% or 40%. After all this time no-one is really sure how many died. In 1648, the Thirty Years War ended. In her brilliant book[iii] on the subject, CV Wedgwood wrote of those times: “The outlook even of the educated was harsh. Underneath a veneer of courtesy, manners were primitive; drunkenness and cruelty were common in all classes, judges were more often severe than just, civil authority more often brutal than effective, and charity came limping far behind the needs of the people. Discomfort was too natural to provoke comment; winter’s cold and summer’s heat found European man lamentably unprepared, his houses too damp and draughty for the one, too airless for the other. Prince and beggar alike were inured to the stink of decaying offal in the streets, of foul drainage about the houses, to the sight of carrion birds picking over public refuse dumps or rotting bodies swinging on the gibbets. On the road from Dresden to Prague a traveller counted ‘above seven score gallowses and wheels, where thieves were hanged, some fresh and some half rotten, and the carcasses of murderers broken limb after limb on the wheels’”.
Wedgewood was writing in 1938 before the World War Two conflagration:
“The old legend that the population dropped from sixteen to four million people, rests on imagination: both figures are incorrect. The German Empire, including Alsace but excluding the Netherlands and Bohemia, probably numbered about twenty-one millions in 1618, and rather less than thirteen and a half million in 1648. [A loss of 7½ million.] Certain authorities believe that the loss was less, but these are for the most part writers of a militaristic epoch, anxious to destroy the ugly scarecrow which throws so long a shadow over the glorious past.”
Genocide in Ireland?
While the Thirty Years’ War was still in full swing, Cromwell was killing rather a lot of Irish people. [iv] The fifty years from 1641 to 1691 saw two catastrophic periods of civil war in Ireland which killed hundreds of thousands of people and left others in permanent exile. The wars, which pitted Irish Catholics against British forces and Protestant settlers, ended in the almost complete dispossession of the Catholic landed elite. The Plantations had a profound impact on Ireland in several ways. The native ruling classes were destroyed and replaced by the Protestant Ascendancy.
Cromwell has his defenders among modern historians (Cromwell- An Honourable Enemy by Tom Reilly, Philip Graham McKeiver, A New History of Cromwell’s Irish Campaign; Rewriting Cromwell: A Case of Deafening Silences, by historian and President of the Cromwell Association, Professor John Morrill). God’s Executioner by Mícheál Ó Siochrú, is a forceful restatement of the case for the prosecution. The 1649-53 campaign remains notorious in Irish popular memory as it was responsible for a huge death toll among the Irish population (possibly 40%). The reason for this was the counter-guerrilla tactics used such as the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement (ethnic cleansing) and killing of civilians. In addition, the whole post-war Cromwellian settlement of Ireland has been characterized as “genocidal”, in that it sought to remove Irish Catholics from the eastern part of the country.
The repercussions of the Tudor and Cromwellian settlements can be seen in Northern Ireland. In that thirty year war “only” 3,000 were killed, the same number that died on one day, September 11 2001, in New York. Each individual who died in the Northern Ireland Troubles had a mother who mourned. A book[v] was published in 1999 which told the story of those individuals. Over a seven-year period, the authors examined every death which was directly caused by the Troubles. They interviewed witnesses, scoured published material, and drew on a range of investigative sources. All the casualties are remembered—the RUC officer, the young soldier, the IRA volunteer, the loyalist paramilitary, the Catholic mother, the Protestant worker, and the new-born baby. Peter Taylor, himself an authority on the Troubles, describes the book as “ painful, illuminating, desperately moving and sad”.
Some have seen the 19th century famine as genocide. Broadcaster and historian Robert Kee suggested that the Irish Famine of 1845 is “comparable” in its force on “popular national consciousness to that of the ‘final solution’ on the Jews,” and that it is not “infrequently” thought that the Famine was something very like, “a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people.” AJP Taylor, the English historian, said that the Famine made Ireland a Belsen.[vi] Other historians ridiculed him.
Ireland’s population fell by as much as 25%. One million people died of starvation and typhus. A million more emigrated. Millions emigrated over following decades. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses, where more than 200,000 people died.
The 1911 Census showed that the island of Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, about half of its peak population. The population of Ireland has never got back to pre-famine levels.
Liam Kennedy, emeritus professor of economic history at Queen’s University Belfast does not class the famine as genocide. [vii]
American Civil War
The American Civil War ended in 1865. The number of dead has never been definitively determined. J. David Hacker, [viii]a demographic historian, has recalculated the death toll of the conflict, and increased it by more than 20%. He estimates the number of dead as up to 850,000 – which Hacker says means the social impact is about 37,000 more widows, and 90,000 more orphans than previous estimates.
20th Century World Wars
What about those more recent wars started in Europe? Estimates of casualty numbers for World War One vary to a great extent; estimates of total deaths range from 9 million to over 15 million. Michael Clodfelter maintains that “The generally accepted figure of non-combatant deaths is 6.5 million”.[ix]
There is more certainty about the number who died in the firebombing of Dresden by the Allies. Most of the dead succumbed to suffocation; in only four places were recovered remains so badly burned that it proved impossible to ascertain the number of victims. Seeking to establish a definitive casualty figure—in part to address exploitation of the bombing by far-right groups—an independent investigation conducted in 2010 on behalf of the Dresden city council stated that a maximum of 25,000 people were killed, of which 20,100 are known by name. According to an official German report Tagesbefehl (Order of the Day) no. 47 (“TB47”) issued on 22 March 1945, the number of dead recovered by that date was 20,204, including 6,865 who were cremated on the Altmarkt square, and the total number of deaths was expected to be about 25,000. Another report on 3 April put the number of corpses recovered at 22,096. Three municipal and 17 rural cemeteries outside Dresden recorded up to 30 April 1945 a total of at least 21,895 buried bodies of the Dresden raids, including those cremated on the Altmarkt.
World War Two fatality statistics vary, with estimates of total dead ranging from 50 million to over 70 million. Some nations suffered disproportionally more casualties than others. This is especially true regarding civilian casualties. The debate among historians continues today, 68 years after the end of the war. Civilian casualties include deaths caused by bombing, the Holocaust, war crimes, population transfers and deaths due to war-related famine and disease. Conflict epidemiology, estimating the numbers of deaths during violent conflicts, is a controversial subject.
The USA is the only nation to unleash atomic bombs. It dropped them on civilian populations. The real death toll will never be known. The destruction and overwhelming chaos made orderly counting impossible. The number of total casualties has been estimated at various times since the bombings with wide discrepancies. The Manhattan Engineer District’s best available figures for Hiroshima and Nagasaki together are 199,000.[x]
How many Vietnamese civilians were killed during the American war? The Twentieth Century Atlas gives a lengthy list of different views on this. [xi]The government of Vietnam has officially estimated the dead at three million, including two million civilians.
Investigative reporter Nick Turse recently published Kill Anything That Moves, a history of U.S. atrocities during the Vietnam War[xii] . His title comes from the orders issued by Captain Ernest Medina before an attack in March 1968 on a Vietnamese village known as My Lai.
“Are we supposed to kill women and children?” one of his men asked.
“Kill everything that moves,” the captain replied.
The US Army made no attempt to keep a running tally but after the war the Pentagon guessed the total might be 195,000. A Senate committee in 1975 suggested 415,000. A study in 2008 by health professionals at Harvard and the University of Washington thought the number of Vietnamese dead, soldiers and civilians alike, was around 3.8 million.
Success in battle was measured by a high body count, which helped officers get promoted and soldiers get leave. Turse recounts the spread of a body-count culture that accepted any body for the count—if it’s Vietnamese and it’s dead, the saying went, it’s a Vietcong. One six-month-long operation called Speedy Express resulted in tens of thousands of confirmed kills in the Mekong Delta, many in “battles” where the kill ratio climbed steadily—twenty-four to one in December 1968, sixty-eight to one in March 1969, 134 to one in April—sure sign the dead were mainly unarmed, which meant they were mainly civilian
Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies range from 1.7 to 2.5 million out of a 1975 population of roughly 8 million.
Once again, different people give different figures. Craig Etcheson[xiii] of the Documentation Center of Cambodia who spent five years researching 20,000 grave sites, suggests a “most likely” figure of 2.2 million. A UN investigation reported two to three million dead, while UNICEF estimated three million had been killed. Demographic analysis by Patrick Heuveline[xiv] suggests that between 1.17 and 3.42 million Cambodians were killed, while Marek Sliwinski suggests that 1.8 million is a conservative figure. Even the Khmer Rouge acknowledged that 2 million had been killed—though they attributed those deaths to a subsequent Vietnamese invasion.
In his book Sideshow, William Shawcross maintains that Nixon and Kissinger’s secret bombing of Cambodia not only spread the conflict, but led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent massacre of a third of Cambodia’s population.[xv]
Possible estimates of the number of people killed in the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq vary widely,and are highly disputed. [xvi] As of December 2012, the Iraq Body Count has recorded 110,937-121,227 civilian deaths. The IBC has a media-centred approach to counting and documenting the deaths. Other sources have provided differing estimates of deaths, some much higher. The Lancet did a cluster survey in 2004[xvii] which was not popular in the USA as its results were published just before a presidential election. “Making conservative assumptions, we think that about 100,000 excess deaths, or more have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths. We have shown that collection of public-health information is possible even during periods of extreme violence. Our results need further verification and should lead to changes to reduce non-combatant deaths from air strikes.” Writing in the Lancet, in March 2013, Frederick Burkle and Richard Garfield said: “lost opportunities, plus the burgeoning insurgency and the scarcity of security services, directly contributed to the chaotic conditions that helped plunge Iraq into an acute-on-chronic public health emergency, which it still remains in today”. [xviii]
“A historical view of the war in Iraq is essential to the understanding of the internecine controversies that arose about the validity of mortality studies, and the political pressures that influenced their interpretation to the world”.
“You know we don’t do body counts.” General Tommy Franks was quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle, 23 March 2002.[xix]
Simon Rogers in The Guardian tries to collate the information available.[xx] Rogers comments: “Obviously, collecting accurate statistics in one of the most dangerous countries in the world is difficult. But the paucity of reliable data on this means that one of the key measures of the war has been missing from almost all reporting”.
UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) investigates reports of civilian casualties by conducting on-site investigations wherever possible and consulting a broad range of sources and types of information that are evaluated for their credibility and reliability.[xxi]UNAMA estimates that Over the past six years, 14, 728 Afghan civilians have lost their lives in the armed conflict.
Pakistan: Total US strikes: 368
Obama strikes: 316
Total reported killed: 2,545-3,533
Civilians reported killed: 411-884
Children reported killed: 168-197
Total reported injured: 1,176-1,472
Yemen: Confirmed US drone strikes: 43-53
Total reported killed: 228-328
Civilians reported killed: 12-45
Children reported killed: 2
Reported injured: 62-144
Possible extra US drone strikes: 77-95
Total reported killed: 277-443
Civilians reported killed: 23-49
Children reported killed: 9-10
Reported injured: 73-94
All other US covert operations: 12-76
Total reported killed: 148-366
Civilians reported killed: 60-87
Children reported killed: 25
Reported injured: 22-111
Somalia: US drone strikes: 3-9
Total reported killed: 7-27
Civilians reported killed: 0-15
Children reported killed: 0
All other US covert operations: 7-14
Total reported killed: 51-143
Civilians reported killed: 11-42
Children reported killed: 1-3
Reported injured: 15-20 [xxii]
Tamil Eelam War IV
I have been reading a discussion paper which deals with the matter of calculating how many civilians died at the end of Eelam War IV.
While reading the paper, a number of thoughts came to my mind:
· The war was undoubtedly brutal, but wars generally are;
· The Sri Lankan government would be in a better PR position if it could have its own figure with which to enter discussions. However, it is not so unreasonable to be lacking such a figure four years after the events when figures for older conflicts are still a matter of dispute;
· The Sri Lankan government was rightly ridiculed for saying there were zero civilian casualties. This seems less ridiculous when the USA refuses point blank to give casualty figures;
· The “international community”, led by USA and UK, are accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes, seemingly blasé about what they did themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Vietnam, Cambodia, Ireland, Cyprus, Kenya etc.)
Coincidentally, while I was preparing my review of the discussion paper I got involved in a conversation with Dr Dayan Jayatilleke, former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN in Geneva and subsequently to France, about the concept of “ethical violence”.
[iii] The Thirty Years War (1938; new edition 1957) Now available in paperback from New York Review of Books Classics
[v] Lost Lives by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeley and Chris Thornton
[vi] Politics in Wartime and Other Essays by A.J.P. Taylor Athenaeum, 1965 207 pp., $5.00
[xii] Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse Metropolitan, 370 pp., $30.00
[xiv] Heuveline, Patrick (2001). “The Demographic Analysis of Mortality in Cambodia.” In Forced Migration and Mortality, eds. Holly E. Reed and Charles B. Keely. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
[xv] Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia, William Shawcross.