Interpreting Conflict in the Past: Applying the Dirty War Index to a Bioarchaeological Setting

Petra Banks

More and more, researchers are beginning to appreciate the importance of studying the effects of conflict on population health. As physical anthropologists  looking for ways to assess violence against non-combatant civilians, we discovered the “Dirty War Index” (DWI), first introduced by Hicks and Spagat (2008). Used to determine the ‘dirtiness’ of combat, the DWI is generally considered a modern public health tool. However, we also found it effective in looking at past conflict, when paired with bioarchaeological methods and historic research. Recently, we have conducted a couple of case studies using the DWI, including one on the twenty-first century Syrian Civil War, and another on the mid-nineteenth century Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah. The DWI is a simple ratio that empirically assesses “dirty” acts. This allows us to compare trends across different combatant groups, combat events, and armed conflicts. The denominator is the total potential times a certain undesirable action COULD occur, and the numerator is how many times it DID occur. For example, to assess the number of prisoners tortured, one would place the total number of prisoners taken in the denominator, and the total number of prisoners tortured in the numerator. A DWI of 100 would be extremely […]

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