This is a companion piece to the previous post, What War Is, in which we considered the hypothetical case of inflicting civilian casualties in order to destroy a threat to national security. Most readers undoubtedly react with horror at the thought of intentionally killing civilians even in the pursuit of legitimate military operations.
When it comes to war,
bends over backwards and then some to avoid civilian
casualties and collateral damage to civilian structures. Well, of course we do - is your initial
reaction - we’re the good guys and that’s what good guys do. We fight the evil enemy soldiers but we bear
no ill will towards the enemy’s civilians who are wonderful, innocent people,
just like us, who, through sheer bad luck, find themselves trapped in the
physical space occupied by the enemy.
Why, were it not for the presence of the evil enemy soldiers, the
enemy’s civilians would be shining beacons of freedom, friendliness, good will,
prosperity, and openness just waiting for the sunshine of democracy and the
American way of life to shine on their eager, upraised arms as they reach out
to embrace us in a hug of brotherhood. America
For this obvious reason the American military tends to make avoidance of civilian casualties one of the main objectives, often the overriding objective, of any military action even to the detriment of mission accomplishment and often at the risk of American lives. For example, how many American soldiers have been killed and wounded conducting house to house clearance operations instead of simply blowing up the suspect house and moving on with no
We do it to avoid civilian deaths and collateral damage but we pay a
So, we’re all in agreement, then, that civilian lives are sacrosanct and nothing has a higher priority than preserving civilian lives and avoiding collateral damage? Well, before I wrap this up, let’s take a moment and dig just a little deeper into the concept of “civilian”.
What is a civilian? We all know the answer to that one, right? A civilian is, in addition to the description above, anyone who is not in uniform and a member of the military. So, the mother raising her children is a civilian, right? The farmer working his field is a civilian, right? What about the civilian who works in the enemy’s headquarters assisting in the organization of the logistical effort that directly supports the enemy army? Is he a civilian or just a non-uniformed enemy combatant? How about the civilian who works in the factory that manufactures fighter jets for the enemy air force? Is he a civilian or just a non-uniformed enemy combatant?
You can see where this is going, right?
Let’s reconsider that farmer working his field. If his crop is going to support the enemy army, either directly or indirectly, is he a civilian or just a non-uniformed enemy combatant?
Look at our own history. Take WWII, for example. Were the women who took over the factory jobs so that the men could go fight, civilians or just non-uniformed combatants? Were the millions of people who grew
civilians or just non-uniformed combatants? I’m not going to belabor this. It was clear that the entire country, whether
uniformed or not, acted together as a single military force. There were no civilians. Everyone was involved in the war effort. Everyone was at war with the Axis
nations. Had the enemy bombed our
cities, they would have hit no civilians – there weren’t any! Victory Gardens
The enemy’s civilians aren’t really civilians. They’re non-uniformed combatants. Of course, one may legitimately question the degree of willingness of those non-uniformed combatants, in some cases, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re supporting the enemy’s military effort and, therefore, part of that military effort.
There is certainly historical precedent for the involvement of civilians in the war effort and the subsequent inclusion of civilians in attacks. Recall the wholesale bombing of German cities or the use of atomic bombs on Japanese cities. Even the targeted bombing of enemy factories acknowledges that civilians are part of the legitimate target.
disbursed military related manufacturing among small
homes and villages. Terrorists routinely
co-locate themselves and their weapons among the civilian population. Japan
Consider the “civilians” in the
Middle East. How many of
them are providing food, shelter, information, and various other forms of
support for the terrorist groups we’re fighting? The number of true civilians begins to drop
drastically when that kind of support is taken into account.
Even the Geneva Conventions and other international laws recognize the involvement of civilians and acknowledge the lawfulness of attacks on civilians and civilian structures under appropriate circumstances. For example, the customary protection afforded hospitals can be violated if the hospital is used to execute acts harmful to the opposing force.
Convention (I), Article 21
“The protection to which fixed establishments and mobile medical units of the Medical Service are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after a due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded.”
This convention merely codifies common sense. If an enemy is shooting at you, you have the right to return fire regardless of the location of the enemy or the presence of civilians and civilian structures. The onus is on the enemy not to create situations that put their own civilians at risk. Failure of the enemy to thus protect and shield its own civilian population is not the fault of the opposing party and not a reason to grant a de facto immunity to the enemy.
The question becomes, at what point does the work of civilians become an act of enemy activity? Is the farmer growing food to support the enemy army a part of the enemy’s military effort. All common sense says that the answer is yes and that the farmer forfeits any immunity to attack that he might otherwise have.
Is a hospital that is caring for enemy wounded who will then be returned to the fight a legitimate target? It’s certainly an active supporter of the enemy’s military effort and is engaged in an activity that will produce a result harmful to the opposing force.
These are not easy questions but the
’ refusal to even consider the involvement of
“civilians” suggests that we have forgotten what war is, how an enemy military
“army” operates, and how to wage war. US
Before we wrap up this discussion, let’s consider the possible effect of failing to kill civilians in the pursuit of legitimate military targets. The most recent example is the fight against
ISIS. The has repeatedly and systematically passed up
opportunities to inflict significant destruction against US ISIS due to the co-mingling of civilians.
For example, the has refused to attack US ISIS oil convoys despite the immense damage that would have done to ISIS’ financial capability out of reluctance to kill the civilian drivers of
the convoy trucks. For starters, and
referring to earlier paragraphs, are drivers of enemy convoys really
civilians? Setting that aside, the
refusal to attack resulted in the continued operation and, indeed, expansion of
ISIS activities which, in turn, resulted in thousands
more deaths at the hands of the terrorists.
By sparing a handful of “civilians” and not attacking the convoys, the condemned thousands to death in the future. As a point of interest to this example, the US has very recently begun attacking these convoys in a
limited way. US
In summary, civilians are not quite what we believe them to be. In a war, it is highly questionable whether true civilians even exist. Thus, as we consider whether to bomb that grid square to remove the threat of Hezbollah missiles, we need to consider whether there are actually any civilians there or whether the “civilians” are actually just non-uniformed combatants. It makes a difference and we need to begin remembering the distinction and the implications of that distinction.
Note: This should not need saying but, inevitably, there are idiot readers who can’t distinguish what’s actually being said from what they think is being said. This post does not call for, nor advocate, the indiscriminate killing of civilians. The post merely notes that our popular conception of the term “civilian” and how it applies to war is faulty and that a true understanding of the term has implications for our military planning and operations. Again, this is not a blanket call for mass killing of civilians.