A Century’s Legacy: War Against Civilians

I spent the last days of the old century reading about the time and place where it all began, it being the now departed 1900’s. Academics and those who wish they were (and even a few who are glad they aren’t) are fond of saying that the 20th century didn’t really begin until a Serbian nationalist walking down a narrow lane in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914 found himself staring at a car carrying the heir-apparent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his wife. The driver was lost; the royal couple paid for a wrong turn with their lives, and so did the millions of Germans, Poles, Russians, Frenchmen, Englishmen and Austrians who were dispatched to the abattoir that came to be known as World War I.

The slaughter was of a scale unsurpassed in human history, until, of course, the next war. But what earned World War I its place as the beginning of something new was the introduction of a thoroughly modern, utterly 20th-century idea: that all is fair in war-even the mass killing of the old and infirm, of women and children. While civilian deaths in war were hardly unknown to history before 1914, mankind had deluded itself into thinking that it had escaped the clutches of barbarism, that the 19th century had shown that great military powers could conduct their wretched, though sometimes necessary, business without slaughtering noncombatants. The most famous 19th-century battle in North America, Gettysburg, saw thousands of young men consigned to early graves, but there was only one civilian casualty, and that one was an accident. In Europe, Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 without killing children for the crime of sharing Bonaparte’s nationality.

The 20th century made Gettysburg and Waterloo seem almost quaint. As British historians Martin Gilbert and John Keegan note in their respective chronicles of World War I (both called The First World War ), once Germans began killing Belgian civilians in the war’s first few weeks, all the old rules were relegated to history’s dustbin. From Belgium in 1914 to Kosovo in 1999, nations calling themselves civilized freely, even wantonly, made war on defenseless civilians-not by accident, but as part of a deliberate strategy known as total war.

So many dates, people, inventions and attitudes can be, and will be, associated with the 20th century. Surely our casual attitude toward civilian deaths in wartime will be listed among the era’s defining characteristics. We may have put funny little artifacts in a thousand time capsules, but what history will remember about us are places and dates we seem to have forgotten: Belgium, 1914; Armenia, 1918; Nanjing, 1932; London, 1940; Dresden, 1945; Hiroshima, 1945; Cambodia, 1975; Rwanda, 1996; East Timor, 1999. Add to that dreadful roster three more expressions of 20th-century barbarity-the Holocaust; ethnic cleansing and international terrorism-and three mass murderers-Hitler, Stalin and Mao-and it becomes clear that only fools would dare to judge the tyrants and standards of the past.

Historians one day will note that even as the century came to an end, the corrosive effects of total war, the legacy of Belgium, 1914, were very much in evidence. Terrorists were holding a planeload of civilians hostage in Afghanistan. Ordnance that failed to explode during the NATO war against Serbia, including the evil weapons known as cluster bombs, were killing civilians in the Balkans. Land mines in Africa and Asia were adding to the century’s body count. And, in America, millions of people spent the New Year’s holiday in fear of a spectacular terrorist attack designed to kill as many civilians as possible. We may have celebrated the end of the century, but our fears and the daily realities of life in war-torn nations remind us that the 20th century hasn’t really gone away at all.

Those who intend to leave a mark on the 21st century no doubt have a great many plans to achieve what they regard as progress, but if they fail to rid the planet of wars against civilians, any other achievements may seem beside the point. As long as politicians and nations believe that war may be made on the defenseless, even the cybercitizens of the third millennium will be condemned as mere barbarians, as ignorant and amoral as the most bloodthirsty savages of the Dark Ages. Or of the 20th century, for that matter.

As Mr. Gilbert notes in his study of World War I, the power elites of the early 20th century thought that free trade, international travel and the intermarriage of global aristocracy made war unthinkable. Today’s Fabians no doubt would make a similar argument, with similarly discouraging results. But while war may be inevitable, war against civilians-strategic bombing, genocide, terrorism-ought to be regarded once again as a global taboo.

That, of course, would require genuine moral leadership. And there is none in sight.