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All Carnage Is Not Created Equal

A proposed 'dirty war index' measures each side's atrocities and collateral damage in hopes of tamping them down.

War is ugly no matter how it progresses, but some aspects that accompany it — such as rape, killing civilians and torture — lie beyond the pale of acceptable actions. Except they don’t.

Every war has, to a greater or lesser extent, included a share of barbarity apart from combat itself. As General Sherman said in preface to his famed “War is hell” maxim, “War is at best barbarism.”

So given the scientific credo that if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist, two academics in England have developed a “dirty war index” to log accounts of such incidents as rape, using human shields, executing prisoners, planting landmines and destroying infrastructure needed for civilian survival. A description of the index appears online in the latest edition of the journal PLoS Medicine.

Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks, an honorary lecturer with Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, and Michael Spagat, a professor in the economics department at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College, depict their index as “a data-driven public health tool based on laws of war that systematically identifies rates of particularly undesirable or prohibited, i.e. ‘dirty,’ war outcomes.”

The suggested index is a ratio of “dirty” cases in specific areas divided by the total number of cases, with the number multiplied by 100. As a ratio, comparisons across actors can be made more easily. For example, the authors looked at the three-cornered bloodletting in Colombia, where leftist guerillas fight rightist paramilitaries who in turn alternate between siding with the government and fighting it. The paramilitaries come out dirtiest with a DWI value of 99, derived from their penchant for killing civilians, while the guerillas and government forces come in with (hardly clean) values of 46 and 45, respectively.

“This finding,” the authors write, “combined with the paramilitaries’ methods (execution by close-range gunfire in massacres), suggests intentional targeting of civilians that requires recognition in Colombia’s paramilitary demobilization, disarmament and reintegration process.” In short, the DWI finds that some people are worse than others and should be treated as such.

That it’s data driven provides cover to those who would invoke the index, since picking out one side as “dirtier” or “cleaner” inevitably will generate howls.

“Data,” of course, is no guarantor of impartiality. “As for any conflict analysis, DWI selection, application, and interpretation must recognize the potential, varied biases of data sources and of particular DWIs. Conflicts are highly politicized, and combatants, supporters and detractors have always tried to manipulate reports of war outcomes.”

Nathan Taback, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, noted some of these difficulties in a discussion (also appearing in PLoS Medicine) of the index’s practicality. A figure might be tainted by selection bias, missing data or partial data, suggested Taback, who has studied sexual violence in the simmering civil war in the Congo.

Such shortfalls are part of the reason the index is a ratio instead of an absolute number, since incomplete or underreported figures are likely to afflict all sides, the authors postulate.

The utility of such an index, beyond Stalin-esque bragging rights, lies in its basis on international law. By relying on the codification of accountability (which is what law boils down to), Hicks and Spagat write that the index, or DWI, can promote deterrence or justify intervention.

Likening the DWI to so-called “clean government” surveys used to alternately tease or bludgeon states into better rule, the authors see a genuine benefit from their exercise. “Increased accountability can have a deterrent effect in armed conflict and encourages adherence to international humanitarian law; an important element in preventing violence towards noncombatants. DWIs increase scrutiny and accountability specifically for dirty war methods.”

On first blush, the index seems draped in politics, which the authors acknowledge but disavow. “DWIs measure outcomes,” reads one of their paper’s sections, “not justifications or intentions.”

“Dirty outcomes,” they write, “can result from malicious intent, beneficent intent, or recklessness. … DWIs therefore only recognize the crucial matter of outcomes: the killings, injury or abuse of individuals and populations who should be protected from war.” Of course, even divorcing outcomes from intentions has overtones — a sheer numerical index makes the strategic bombing campaign against Nazi Germany, the Soviet push for Berlin and the Nazis’ own horrors from Rotterdam to Auschwitz mere data points on a spectrum.

In a sense, that may be the point.

In a line that could be directed at the United States’ global war on terror, in which the terrorists’ efforts are almost by definition “dirty” — killing civilians, executing prisoners, assassinating civilian leaders, use of indiscriminate weapons, attacks on medical or religious personnel — the good guys don’t get a pass: “Another group may have low DWIs generally, and a very low DWI for torturing prisoners, but torture breaches the precepts of humanity utterly so that to have a measurable rate at all is deplorable.”

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