With all of our advancements in science, communication, technology, the humanities and politics, the modern-era could be considered the peak of human civilization. And yet, the barbaric practice of warfare continues to plague us. Have we become better at managing the horrific theater of bloodshed over territorial and idealogical disputes, or are we more like our ancestors than we’d like to admit? Have we really learned anything from history?

Was war ever more "civilized"? . Image 1.

Daniel Kolitz


Was war ever more "civilized"? . Image 2.

Leonard Peng


The word “civilized,” refers to “a stage of social, cultural, and moral development considered to be more advanced.” It’s hard to discuss warfare in those terms, if for no other reason than the practices involved are if not immoral, amoral. When discussing how war can be "civilized" at all, it’s an ironic paradox to find that the only time in history that it’s believed war didn’t really exist was before civilization really existed. That is to say, organized warfare wasn’t a thing until there were organized societies to make it possible.

However, humanity has identified various criteria that can give war structure and mitigate some of its fundamental insanity. Concerns about the treatment of civilians, prisoners of war and the targeting of medical facilities have come to dictate how we view a more reasonable way of waging war. Using criteria we’ve pulled from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we asked historians who specialize in specific periods of human conflict to discuss the differences between our modern protocols of war and those of the previous eras.


for "civilized" warfare


 Civilian casualties

 Treatment of P.O.W.’S


 Number of military casualties

 How widespread

 Attacks on humanitarian workers

 Intentional attacks on schools, hospitals and food supplies

Corporal punishment





Early humanity


Was war ever more "civilized"? . Image 3.

R. Brian Ferguson

Anthropologist who has written extensively on war across the ethnographic and archaeological record, with findings summarized in “Ten Points on War”. He is the director Director of the Rutgers University-Newark’s Master’s Program in Peace and Conflict Studies. His upcoming book “Chimpanzees, ‘War,’ and History: Are Men Born to Kill?” The next book will be on the origins of gangsters in New York City).

What we see around the world is that globally, when you go back to the very early archeological records, there are no signs of war, even when you have a lot of skeletons, and when you have good settlement material. And then along comes a point when you find a change. And the change is more signs of war and settlements and skeletons, and from that point on, war usually never goes away.

In the archaeological record, war became a lot more common as you get closer to the present. In other words, in 1500 AD—before Columbus or anything like that—there was a lot of war among tribal people around the world, much more than there was in zero. And then when Europeans came into areas where native people lived, it very frequently got a lot worse before it got better.

Numbers are very difficult to estimate, but you can see some transitions. For example, there was a group in Northern Europe that went from basically Eastern Europe all the way to Belgium, and that's known as the LBK culture. In the beginning, of the LBK culture, there are no signs of war—no fortifications, no bloody deaths. And then in one area of the LBK, around 5,000 BC, suddenly you see what appear to be entire villages massacred. In other parts of Europe, it's less dramatic and it's later. If you want to come up with a general date for when war became common across Europe, it's about 3500 BC. In terms of things like treatment of captives—we can't see captives in the archaeological record. There's no way to tell. In most tribal societies that we do know of, there's not a lot of captive-taking.

There's often a tendency—and this has been very widespread—to take those places that have the highest level of violent deaths and write about them as if they are representative, and they're not. Look at the different kinds of evidence for war: one is signs of death from some kind of trauma. Other kinds of evidence of war, the most commonly found are different sorts of evidence relating to settlement patterns. Is it fortified, is it in a defendable location, things like that.





Alexander the Great


Was war ever more "civilized"? . Image 4.

James Romm

Author, reviewer, and the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College in Annandale, NY. He specializes in ancient Greek and Roman history. His reviews and essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, the Daily Beast, and other venues.

Alexander's era was kind of a transitional one, because prior to his time, all warfare was done between citizen-armies that would disband when the fighting stopped and go back to their farms. His armies were a professionalized standing army that was in service for their entire lives. The level of callousness to violence, the acculturation to violence, was much greater. His armies became capable of much greater destructive force than previous ones, and were also much better-trained and much more effective on the battlefield.

Luckily, he didn't often have to face the kind of situations that armies in the field face today, with collateral damage and civilian casualties. Most of his battles took place in open field situations, where two armies agreed to meet in a fairly uninhabited location—an open plane—and duke it out, and the only casualties were soldiers on one side or the other. Sometimes there were fantastic numbers of fatalities, but they were all, at least, soldier-casualties, not civilians. There were a couple of cases—and the most famous one is the city of Thebes—in which after a city had been taken, its inhabitants were put to the sword or massacred in a kind of free-for-all situation where Alexander's soldiers were just set loose to kill as they wanted and plunder as much loot as they wanted.

The example of Thebes was always considered an atrocity by the Greeks —there were reasons why Alexander acted as he did that had to do with the need to maintain a stable political order in Europe, not unlike what the US decided to do when it dropped the nuclear bomb on Japan. It was felt a demonstration of overwhelming force was needed or the whole order that had been established in Europe would come apart. That was his greatest war crime, as we would now call it, and the Greeks knew it was a war crime, and he probably knew it himself. He was capable of doing savage things when he felt that it was necessary to do so. He certainly didn't do so out of sport or cruelty; it was politically expedient and it was, maybe necessary.





The Middle Ages


Clifford J. Rogers

Professor of History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, where he teaches medieval history and the full chronological range of military history, his research specialty is medieval warfare, and he has written two books on the subject.

Warfare in the middle ages was pretty brutal. Slavery was still common, and that was a major motivation for soldiers. Attacks on civilians—or what we would now consider civilians—were very common and, in fact, a basic form of strategy. It was a way to overcome the dominance of the defensive in siege warfare. Because there were so many fortified positions that were very difficult to capture, that made it difficult for someone on the offensive to apply pressure against an enemy who had the benefit of strong fortifications.

One way to do so was to go after the people who weren't in the fortresses—which would basically be the people of the countryside and their property. Henry V once said that "war without fire is as worthless as sausages without mustard." What that meant was in the practical conduct of war, a lot of it was done by attacking the subjects of your enemy as a way to put pressure on him to either come out and fight you in battle or to just submit to your will. In the early middle ages, and into the high middle ages (when there weren't so many fortresses) there was a similar dynamic at work, in that you could attack someone like the Slavs or the Saxons on the borders of the so-called civilized areas—that is to say areas where there were cities and the remnants of the Roman infrastructure— and they could just leave. It was a little bit like the American army in the Western frontier, where coming to grips with your enemy was a big problem.

The idea that was common in the ancient world in the medieval period and into the early modern period [was] that when you captured a city by assault (or a castle for that matter) you could give no quarter to the people inside, and that meant killing any man who resisted you, and often it meant a fair amount of rape of women. And that was a way basically to discourage people from holding out too long behind their walls and to force them to negotiate, by saying: If you don't surrender now, then I'm going to keep going until I break your walls and get inside, and then it's gonna be really terrible, so you're much better off surrendering now. And that is in fact what usually happened—they surrendered, or the siege just failed—but if the attackers did get in then often they had three days to plunder and kill and rape.

By the late middle ages, there was a developing idea that certain classes of people ideally ought to be spared from violence. And that included women, farmers, and priests, for example. But that was really largely in theory, because in practice, what happened was each side made the argument that, 'well, we wanted to keep this between the soldiers, but the other side didn't go along with that,' or something like that. And so the theorists of the time, who were writing about this, came to the conclusion that the population actually did usually support the government—just as we came to the same conclusion when it came to strategic bombing in World War II—and that, therefore, although regrettable, it was justified to attack the civilian population and their property. The metaphor that was used was that the commons, meaning the common people, were the mast of the ship of state so that they really enabled a kind to make war, and that therefore within the context of a just war it could be permissible to attack them.

Current wars in the world based on more than 1000 battlefield deaths a year







South Sudan







The French Revolution


Was war ever more "civilized"? . Image 5.

Peter McPhee

Australian historian and academic who specialises in French history. McPhee is a recognised expert in the French Revolution, having researched and written about it since the early 1990s. He is the author of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life (2012), among other books.

A major shift in warfare at the time of the French Revolution was the sheer scale of conscription, compared to earlier mercenary and conscript armies. By early 1794 the French Republic had all young men 18-25 in the armies, in all 750,000 men. As Clausewitz later commented, the zeal of many soldiers in the 'people's armies' was unprecedented and a key reason for French successes in that year. With the technological developments of the nineteenth century, however, mass conscript armies prepared the way for the industrial-scale warfare of World War I.

Historians sometimes argue that the smaller-scale warfare before the French Revolutionary wars was less destructive and even constrained by codes of military honour, but to my mind, that view would be a great surprise to the civilians who had experienced the brutality of war in all societies at all times.





World War I


Was war ever more "civilized"? . Image 6.

Stephen Badsey

Professor of Conflict Studies in the Department of History, Politics and War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He is an internationally acknowledged specialist on military-media issues since the middle 19th Century, including the uses of propaganda.

It is commonplace among military historians that World War I represents a crossover point in warfare, generated chiefly by the long-term impact of industrialisation on human civilisation and the way that we make war. Up to that point, the chief problem had been how to generate enough physical force to do as much damage to an enemy as possible. By the middle 19th century it was recognised that modern, organised, industrialized, major powers with empires and access to the world's resources had destructive capabilities far in excess of anything in prior human history and that the problem was going to be to somehow restrict and control that capacity for destructive violence; hence various attempts to moderate or control war through e.g. the Red Cross, or the Geneva Conventions. By the start of the 20th century, this was a very widely held view, to the point that some people thought warfare had become so destructive as to be impossible.

The Western Front in World War I was, for example, the first time in history that the number of soldiers killed on all sides by the enemy exceeded the number killed by the lethal epidemic diseases that were commonplace in most previous wars. The most advanced states were sufficiently organised to keep literally millions of armed men clothed, fed and free from death by disease 24/365 so that they could fight each other. A fundamental related point, which has also been wrestled with since the middle 19th century, is the extent to which wars can and should be restricted to clearly designated (and uniformed) armies, navies and (from World War I onwards) Air Forces, both as practitioners and as targets, and how much they should involve the mass of the civilian population.  

The first page of Winston Churchill's memoirs of World War I The World Crisis 1911-1918 (volume 1 published 1923) puts this rather well: "The Great War [World War 1] differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought." He added, "When it was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilised, scientific, Christian states had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility." In World War II torture was used on a large scale by the Germans, Soviets, and Japanese and also sometimes the Americans and British; cannibalism was used only on rare occasions by the Japanese.

By the middle 20th century after two world wars and the invention first of atomic and then thermonuclear weapons, the point was beyond dispute: war is potentially too destructive for any purpose. Since then wars by major powers have been planned and fought on the basis of how to restrict and control the amount of destructive force used while still achieving the desired result. This has been accompanied by repeated breakdowns in any principles that civilians can or should be treated separately from soldiers either as practitioners of war or as targets.





World War II


Was war ever more "civilized"? . Image 7.

Gerhard L. Weinberg

Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is an authority on Nazi Germany and the origins and course of World War II. He is the author, most recently, of Hitler's Foreign Policy, 1933-1939: The Road to World War II.

The first people killed in World War Two were civilians. The Polish town of Wieluń is bombed completely undefended, in peacetime, early in the morning of September 1st, 1939.

When they attack in the West in 1940, there is the more deliberate bombing of cities. They also begin to machine-gun civilians who are fleeing. This practice of bombing cities is then extended to England, as well as Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg and France.

In several significant incidents, German soldiers massacre prisoners of war. Thousands  of French-African soldiers are slaughtered deliberately by German soldiers, who are so directed in a number of instances by their officers.

In [the invasion of the Soviet Union], not only are millions of civilians killed, there is also a quite deliberate slaughter of prisoners of war. And when they are not slaughtered, they are simply surrounded by barbed wire and left to die. In the spring of 1942, the Germans reckon that, in the first seven months of the campaign in the east 2,100,000 Soviet prisoners of war were killed or died in German army captivity. This means ten thousand dead prisoners of war per day, seven days a week, for seven months, There is no precedent in world history for such a horror.

The British and French are, to begin with, very, very careful in their bombing. They drop leaflets on cities, but are very carefully restricted to the bombing, or trying to bomb, industrial facilities, warships and other military targets. Given the hopeless inaccuracy of bombing in World War Two, some German civilians are killed in this process, but that is collateral damage. Thereafter, you have quite deliberate area bombing of cities by the Royal Air Force, in addition to a certain amount of tactical support and targeted support. The United States, when it gets into the war in Europe, sticks to its intended targeted bombing and does not deviate from targeted bombing on industrial transportation and other military targets, given the inaccuracy of most bombing. That doesn't mean there aren't lots of civilians killed in the process.

The ground fighting by the Russians is, at least in general, according to rules. Lots of German prisoners are killed, and many died because they are weak when they are captured, and the rations in the camps are low, but more than two-thirds of German prisoners captured by the Russians returned to Germany alive, in many instances after quite a few years of slave labor in the Soviet Union. The overwhelming majority -- more than two-thirds -- of Red Army prisoners captured by the Germans are either killed or die in captivity.

The Japanese paid attention to no rules except their preference for horror from day one. In Malaya, they use British prisoners of war for bayonet practice. When they take Singapore in February of '42, the troops are allowed to run wild for days on end; they slaughter thousands of civilians, and go to the hospitals and slaughter patients, etc. In the Philippines, there is the notorious death march, in which Japanese are slaughtering and torturing prisoners of war who are either Americans from the US or Filipinos serving in the Philippines army, and there are massive killings of civilians. The Japanese, in other words, are killing prisoners of war from day one, and mistreating both civilians and prisoners horrendously. [They] kidnapped thousands of civilian women in the Philippines, in Malaya, in Burma, in Korea, and used them as sex slaves for their soldiers -- the so-called comfort women. Furthermore, in the last part of the war, the Japanese issue orders that all prisoners of war -- Chinese, British, American, Dutch, whatever -- are all to be killed before they can be liberated.

On the Allied side, there are very, very few Japanese soldiers who surrender. There are undoubtedly incidents where some of the Japanese POWs are killed, but basically, most of them survive, and ironically a very high proportion of them are captured because they are wounded and cannot kill themselves. Of the Allied POWs captured by the Japanese, somewhere between 28% and 30% die in Japanese custody. Of the Japanese captured by the Allies, somewhere around 3 or 4 or 5 percent die, mostly because they're so badly wounded. When it comes to the air, the US adhered to its targeting policy until February of 1945. In the latter part of the war in the Pacific, the American air force is deliberately setting fire to cities. The biggest of those air raids is in early march of 1945, on Tokyo.

The Atomic Bomb

On August 6 the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Within two-four months of that attack 90,000–146,000 people were dead from related causes. Half of those who died were killed on the first day.

On August 9, the U.S. dropped a plutonium implosion-type bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Within the same two-four month period, 39,000–80,000 people in Nagasaki were dead due to causes related to the bombing.

The total number of people to have died from these two bombings is estimated to be somewhere between 129,000 and 246,000.





Vietnam and the present


Was war ever more "civilized"? . Image 8.

Ben Kiernan

Author of Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur (2007),  How Pol Pot Came to Power (1985), and The Pol Pot Regime (1996). He is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University, where he founded the Cambodian Genocide Program and the Genocide Studies Program.

It seems that the number of civilians killed in Vietnam -- both North and South, by both sides -- is probably between 1 and 3 million, which is a high proportion of the Vietnamese population. The United States [had] higher weaponry, more advanced firepower and larger quantities of weapons -- including virtual control of the air, with bombing and helicopters and fighter planes. The Vietnamese communists really didn't have an air-force that could contest the United States, or the South Vietnamese government. So, therefore, most of the air war was really one sided, but heavily industrialized: Large amounts of local and even regional carpet bombing, which spread to Cambodia.

In Cambodia, the number of civilians killed by US bombs alone in a four-year period from 1969 to 1973 was more than 100,000 Cambodian peasants. The communist guerrillas were also killed by the bombs, which were mostly targeted at them, but because of a carpet-bombing campaign lots of civilians were killed: Weddings were hit, funerals, marches were hit. So the civilian casualties are quite high in Cambodia over a short period.

In the actual face-to-face fighting in south Vietnam, that was where most of the casualties were inflicted on civilians by both sides. Ambushes, attacks on villages, burning of villages [were common practice] as well as conventional military units. The civilian population was sparsely scattered and tended to be ethnic minorities who would get out of the way of the fighting, but there were vast casualties between the armies of the North Vietnamese and the US in the highland areas. In the lowland plains, where the ethnic Vietnamese peasants lived, there were huge messes of conventional American ground troops marching through highly populated areas and using very advanced firepower. The civilian toll was very high -- 5,000 killed in one operation alone.

The specific nature of the ground war in Vietnam meant that American troops were facing people they couldn't communicate with, people who lived in the areas they were patrolling. These people, in many cases, were at least somewhat sympathetic to the communist guerrillas. There were certainly some American units that did commit major atrocities against civilians.

The way ISIL is targeting civilians as if they were soldiers--just talking about going around the world and killing unbelievers who are obviously non-combatants, and in fact targeted because they're non-combatants -- I think that's a new development. It's maybe not right to call it a war. But it's certainly an armed activity that specifically targets civilians, and in most cases only civilians. That's something we haven't seen all that often -- where out of the context of battles, in a theater where no fighting is taking place, civilians are being targeted by armed devotees of the Islamic State and murdered -- as in Paris -- totally apart from the context of war, with no military objective discernible. I think that's new; being targeted where no soldiers are present is really new I think. [It's part of] the development of that long process of more and more civilians being caught up in war. But now it's got to the point where civilians are caught up even when there's no theater of war.