Civilian casualties, leaks and the ancient view
By and large, Greek and Roman military command had it relatively easy when it came to leaks, civilian casualties and the PR side of warfare. To put it at its crudest, the imperial Roman legions would go off to conquer some bit of foreign territory, they would do it any way they could and come back home and boast about it. Not many people in Rome knew or cared about war crimes. It was winning that mattered.
Of course, it looked different from the barbarian point of view, but the barbarians got very little chance to put their point of view at Rome.
But even in the ancient world, it wasnt quite so simple. Many modern observers of the column of Marcus Aurelius (the 'other', less famous column still standing in the centre of the city) have wondered just how 'subversive' were the scenes of Roman violence depicted. The theme is Marcus Aurelius' campaigns against the Germans. There is much more here than on Trajan's column of (for example) women and children getting abducted or slaughtered. (There's a typical case at the top of this post.) Was this all celebratory? Or was there at least a strand here of displaying (even if not directly questioning) the very nasty side of Roman conquest?
And as for leaks, the problems of communication in the ancient world, meant that there were leaks and rumours aplenty. This is one of the things that struck me most when I was researching The Roman Triumph, I discovered that the senate often said to a general returning home and wanting a triumphal procession that they would wait and interview some of the (Roman) eye-witnesses before deciding on whether the victory deserved such an honour. The most extraordinary rumour I came across concerned a victory scored by Cassius Longinus (who went on to be one of the assassins of Julius Caesar). He claimed to have repelled an invasion of Parthians into Syria. Had he? One rumour circulating in Rome was that they weren't Parthians at all but Arabs dressed up as Parthians. (A bit like us saying that they weren't the Taliban but a load of Kurds dressed up as Taliban.)
And civilian losses could be controversial too.
Of course, what counted as "civilians" could rather different in antiquity. In a sense, given the nature of ancient military service, all adult males counted as soldiers -- so civilians were the women and children. Which of these, and exactly how many, should be a casualty of war was famously debated by the Athenians in the middle of the Peloponnesian War. After they had put down a revolt in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, they at first decided to kill all the male citizens and enslave all the women and children. But the next day they debated the question again and took a different view (admittedly on grounds of expediency rather than compassion) and decided to execute only the ringleaders of the revolt.
All the same, the ancient military machine didn't have to face leaks on the scale we have just seen about Afghanistan. And a depressing set of documents it seems to be. Never mind the big things that will come out of this new material, most of us who have ever raised issues about civilian casualties and read all those blanket denials will feel pretty angry to discover that at least some of those denials appear to have been lies. And in this country, whenever you question the behaviour of the NATO troops in Afghanistan, you get the "Wootton Bassett" card thrown at you . . .the "how could you insult our boys".
Well it turns out that some of our boys' bullets (and other NATO nations' boys' bullets) have killed more civilians than was ever let on.
But it is more complicated than that, and certainly not a question of deploring the behaviour of individual soldiers. The real culprits are those political leaders who convinced us that you could fight an Afghan guerrilla war without hurting the innocent as well as the "guilty"; those who strongly implied (even if they didn't quite say) that modern warfare could be surgical and indeed, successfully conducted, could win the hearts and minds of the decent Afghan people.
Dream on. The Romans were at least more realistic about war always being very nasty indeed.