U.S. soldiers look over the remains of a home in My Lai, South Vietnam, Jan. 8, 1970
"Restraint or Propellant? Democracy and Civilian Fatalities in Interstate Wars"
Journal Article, Journal of Conflict Resolution, volume 51, issue 6, pages 872-904
Author: Alexander B. Downes, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2007–2008
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
This article investigates the effect of regime type on the number of civilian fatalities that states inflicted in interstate wars between 1900 and 2003. As opposed to several previous studies, the author finds little support for normative arguments positing that democracies kill fewer civilians in war. In fact, the author finds that democracies are significantly more likely than nondemocracies to kill more than fifty thousand noncombatants. Democracies also kill more civilians when they are involved in wars of attrition and kill about as many (and perhaps more) noncombatants than autocracies in such wars. These findings provide qualified support for institutional arguments about democratic accountability. Other implications of the institutional view, however, are not upheld, such as the argument that democracies select easy wars that should result in few civilian casualties because they are won quickly and decisively. Finally, democracies do not appear to kill fewer civilians in more recent wars.
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