Why the Civilian Toll After D-Day Is Different From That in Afghanistan

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It’s an underappreciated, almost ignored fact in the grand narrative of World War II that the Allied invasion of Normandy caused something on the order of 19,890 civilian deaths in the five French departments that saw most of the fighting.

These deaths took place in the two and a half months between June 6, 1944, and Aug. 25, when, as the historian William I. Hitchcock has put it, “Normandy would be chewed into a bloody, unrecognizable mess.” It is important to stress that these civilian casualties were among the allied and friendly French citizens who, as Mr. Hitchcock writes, “yearned for liberation.”

Probably not many current-day Afghans, suffering from a war of liberation of their own, have read Mr. Hitchcock’s remarkable book, “The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe,” which, though largely neglected by reviewers, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year. But in these days of close and detailed reporting on civilian casualties in Afghanistan, and the angry reaction of Afghan villagers to the use of American air power, a reading of Mr. Hitchcock’s book might provide some salutary perspective.

His thesis is that even in a morally clear, entirely just and necessary conflict like World War II, civilian suffering was tremendous, much greater than our standard heroic narratives of the war tend to indicate. Mr. Hitchcock, who teaches history at Temple University, in Philadelphia, doesn’t doubt the justness of the war. His purpose is rather “to offer an alternative way of looking at the events of 1944-45,” and it is a way that demonstrates the “grim realities of liberation,” death, massive destruction, dislocation and mistreatment at the hands of the presumed liberators.

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