Journal Article - Quarterly Journal: International Security

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures: The Causes of Civilian Victimization in War

| Spring 2006

Abstract

Despite normative and legal injunctions against targeting civilians in war, as well as doubts regarding the effectiveness of such strategies, belligerents have frequently turned their guns on noncombatants. Two variables—desperation to win and to save lives on one’s own side in protracted wars of attrition, and the intention to conquer and annex enemy territory—explain this repeated resort to civilian targeting. According to the desperation logic, costly and prolonged wars of attrition cause states to become increasingly anxious to prevail and to reduce their losses. Adopting a policy of civilian victimization permits states to continue the war while managing their losses and hopefully coercing the adversary to quit. In the appetite for conquest model, by contrast, belligerents specifically intend to seize and annex territory. Attackers in this model employ civilian victimization to eliminate enemy civilians, who can threaten the aggressor’s immediate military position and present a future threat of rebellion. Multivariate analysis of interstate wars between 1816 and 2003 corroborates the importance of these factors, and a case study of the British starvation blockade of Germany in World War I supports the plausibility of the desperation mechanism.

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For Academic Citation: Downes, Alexander B.. Desperate Times, Desperate Measures: The Causes of Civilian Victimization in War.” Quarterly Journal: International Security, vol. 30. no. 4. (Spring 2006):
152-195
.