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War casualties are usually inflicted by the other side
Modern war propaganda demands a false agnosticism that's defied by history and common sense.
Until about a century ago, deaths in war usually didn’t come from warfare itself. It came from the diseases like typhus and dyssentary that inevitably accompanied large groups on men living in close quarters under unsanitary conditions. In the US Civil War, for example, about 225k soldiers died from disease — as opposed to only 110k from combat. If you were a betting man in those days and learned that someone had died in war, you would’ve done quite well to guess it was from some kind of illness.
Then around World War I there was a remarkable shift coinciding with two crucial historical developments. On one hand, the advent of modern medicine, including things like vaccines and basic sanitation practices, meant that deaths of disease plummeted dramatically. On the other hand, the advent of modern war — in particular, the emergence of high-yield explosives and automatic weapons — meant that casualty counts skyrocketed. In the 1902 war in the Philippines, 2.7 Americans died of disease for every 1 American who died in combat; 50 years later in the Korean war, 2.7 Americans died of disease for every 135 who died in combat.
You do not, it turns out, need to know the particulars of any given death in war in order to be able to make some pretty safe guesses about what happened. There a lot of persisting trends in war, some imposed by historical developments like the invention of vaccines and machine guns, and others simply imposed by the logic of war itself. As an example of the latter, I’d like to spend this post talking about another common trend in war: the fact that most combat deaths take place as a result of your opponent trying to kill you.
A tale of two hospitals
Over two years we’ve seen two remarkably incidents play out in the wars against Ukraine and Palestine. First, in March 2022, news broke that a hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine had been demolished by an airstrike during the country’s war with Russia. Then, just two days ago, another airstrike destroyed another hospital in Gaza during Palestine’s war with Israel.
I describe both of these incidents in the passive voice simply to acknowledge the facts over which there was no serious dispute, but the logic of war seems to invite some further conclusions. In war the basic goal is to inflict so much damage on your opponent that they are forced to submit to you politically, and to prevent your opponent from doing this to you. For this reason, whenever people and infrastructure on one side is damage, the mostly likely explanation is that the other side did it. This is true even though people at war sometimes try to do “false flag” operations and have accidents, because obviously if you are taking more damage from those than from actual attacks from the enemy you’ve defeated the purpose of fighting back at all.
This logic is plainly affirmed by even a cursory glance at military history, which shows us that since World War I “hostile” deaths have far outweighed “non-hostile” deaths. In his extensive study of hostile non-hostile casualties during the Iraq War, for example, historian Hugh William Henry reports that between March 2003 and February 2008, the US incurred 3,458 hostile casualties and 793 non-hostile casualties — a ratio of 1 to .02.
This ratio is plainly governed by factors that have little to do with any particular incident. Prior to WW1, for example, one might have expected a much higher non-hostile death toll because of disease; but in his reporting, Hugh notes that only 69 US soldiers died of illness in Iraq. The US’s overwhelming military superiority in Iraq likely pushed its hostile-death toll down as well; on the Iraqi side, at least 98,059 civilians died hostile deaths in the same time period.
For these reasons, if you learned that a US soldier died in Iraq during the height of the war and blindly guessed that it was because of an enemy attack, knowing absolutely nothing else about the incident, you would still have a roughly 50 to 1 chance of being right. Similar odds hold in all modern conflicts, again, simply because of the logic of war and the historical conditions in which modern wars are fought.
And that’s why, even though the perpetrator of the hospital attacks in Ukraine and Gaza had not somehow been “proven” beyond dispute (nothing ever is), it was still made perfect sense to arrive at the preliminary conclusion that Russia and Israel were responsible. This are not assumptions — they are conclusions based the analysis and evidence I’ve given, which most people of course understand as a matter of intuition and common sense.
This is not, of course, how the discourse actually responded. First in Ukraine, after news of the hospital attack broke, pro-Kremlin pundits immediately attempted to sow doubt and call for agnosticism about who did it. Perhaps the most high-profile incident came from a viral news segment by Pearson Sharp for the right-wing One America News. Sharp, after laying out some historical examples of false flag attacks, asked:
So what’s the most recent story cooked up by the American Pravda? Well, it turns out that the Russians, Democrats’ favorite adversary, blew up a hospital…it used to be a hallmark of good journalism to ask questions, to wait before definitively telling people what happened…Perhaps war crimes are being committed, perhaps civilians are being murdered, but perhaps they aren't. So before you rush to conclusions and believe whatever the TV and social media tells you, think.
Today there is little doubt that it was Russia who carried out the airstrike; and in fact, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had already confirmed this a few days before.
Even if Lavrov hadn’t claimed responsibility for the attack, however, Sharp’s argument still does not make sense. That’s because even if we grant that every false flag incident he recounts was indeed a false flag, this still would mean that false flags are extremely rare. Not even the most radical conspiracy theorists, as far as I can tell, actually pretend that the majority of attacks in war are false flag attacks. Fringe perspectives usually just argue that the most sensational attacks were false flags; mainstream analysts acknowledge that they happen, but not very often; but absolutely no one has make a serious attempt to argue that they are just as likely to happen as ordinary attacks.
In that light, Sharp’s seemingly reasonable calls for agnosticism are directly at odds with insistance that we reflect on history. There is a very narrow logical sense in which “either side might have done it” is indeed the null hypothesis of any given attack, but only in the same way that “either side might have shot the ball at a given basket” is the null hypothesis in a basketball game. Once we account for the logic of war, we can usually come up with a very good guess about who was responsible for a given attack, much like we can guess which team shot at a given basket once we understand how basketball works.
The discourse in Israel’s war against Palestine, unfortunately, has proceeded in a very similar way. Ever since the destruction of the hospital in Gaza there have been plenty of attempts to parse the evidence with varying levels of good faith; but we have also seen rhetoric like this from Twitter personality Will Stancil:
I just do this thing called “thinking critically about which information is confirmed and uncomfirmed instead of trying to impress my friends by saying I know things I don’t”…maybe the fact that “let’s please wait” induced hundreds of people to say I should die or kill myself is part of why people are having so much trouble navigating this stuff…
Here, Will is running a victory lap over his initial skepticism of accusations that Israel attacked the hospital, which he seems to think has been vindicated by subsequent claims that the explosion actually came from a failed Hamas rocket launch. I think there’s still good reason to question that narrative, but for the sake of argument let’s suppose that this was indeed a “non-hostile” accident, as the literature would classify it.
Does this mean that anti-imperialists were acting irrationally by attributing the attack to Israel? Of course not, because in war incidents like this are usually caused by hostile attacks! This is born out in the kind of studies we’ve already mentioned, and it’s also just the common-sense conclusion of how wars work. Nothing about that conclusion is changed even if it turns out that the hospital explosion was a freak accident by Hamas. Will pretending otherwise is the equivalent of scolding people who refuse to play the lottery by pointing out that someone won.
I have written myself on the need to exercise caution and forebearance when speculating about certain particulars in war, but on this matter at least it would be absurd to mistake agnosticism with rationality or prudence. When one side experiences a loss in the middle of a war one can sensibly conclude that the other side is probably responsible. Conclusions like this are always provisional of course, but if you follow this rule you’ll get it right more often than not.
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