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Modern conflict blurs the line between soldiers and civilians

Peace Brigade may be a somewhat misleading name for this militia. EPA/Ali Abbas

As I write this, the people of Gaza hopes for an end to the week-long Israeli bombardment which has killed more than 180 Palestinians – many of them civilians have been dashed after Hamas rejected the Egypt-brokered deal. This will almost inevitably mean more innocent people are killed as collateral to this seemingly endless conflict.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Shia militias are gathering to take up arms against the army of an imagined Caliphate in support of a slightly more real (but precarious) Iraqi state.

But it’s not just the Middle East that is riven by conflict – further north in Ukraine, army personnel are in and on-again, off-again combat situation with an obscure mix of armed men – the “troops” of various people’s republics which lack borders and are recognised by nobody.

In all these conflicts, people are fleeing to avoid stray bullets, plundering, abuse, even beheadings. Civilians are at war. They are targeted and victimised. They are also transforming themselves into combatants. They may flee – but they are just as likely to cry for vengeance and salute “their” men.

Both these conflicts show us how difficult it can be to limit our understanding of armed conflict to combatants fighting within certain “rules”. Particularly as conflict, of one kind or another – but particularly armed conflict – appears to be part of the human condition. Because humans live in communities, communities can engage in struggles with each other and will be transformed by the struggle.

Most individuals experience war as a destructive force beyond their control. Over the past century, considerable effort has been put into endeavours to limit the involvement in war to active fighters – the military – on one side and, on the other hand, civilians – who are non-combatants. So being a civilian is the default status, and the line between civilians and military is of crucial importance.

But the dichotomy that divides civilian and military status is increasingly deceptive. The conflicts in Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza all show how rapidly and frequently people can cross it in both directions.

‘Civilian’: a recent idea

Words for fighters, warriors or soldiers are found everywhere throughout history. But the use of a single word for those who are not fighting is not that old – even within those western societies where the terminology first appeared. Calling non-military people “civilians” appears in the 17th century in contexts such as “civilian administration” or “civilian law”.

It seems to have spread first in societies like Sweden – which has one of the oldest professional standing armies in the world, founded in 1521. The use of the word “civilian” as a noun is only found around 1800. As late as 1830, Thomas de Quincey denounced the “fashionable and most childish use of this word now current” because it clashed with the word’s older meaning – an expert in civil law.

So this clear division between civilians and combatants is only about two centuries old, despite the uncounted millennia of warfare. It is a product of the Western organisation of war appearing with the standing armies, consolidating with the decline of other forms of armament in the face of a trained, uniformed, paid military.

OSCE personnel turned away from checkpoint in Ukraine by pro-Russian militia. EPA/OSCE handout

The concept has had a great career since the 17th century. It is expressed in a rich language of dress, symbols and ceremony. During the 20th century, civilian status has become fundamental in international law and the everyday description of war. Even bystanders at a shootout between criminals can now be described as “civilians”. Despite this, the division between soldier and civilian continues to be fluid and fragile in practice.

Crossing the line

But it has been clear for a while that the formal delineation that breaks society down between military and civilian status has been blurring. War, after all, is no longer as organised as it once was – and the division between military and civilians no longer imposes a discipline on to violence as we would like.

For a start, the distinction between military and civilian must be recognised by both sides of a conflict – and, further, it must be perceived, which is not always easy these days. That line must be respected despite any number of practical difficulties – especially in conflicts where one side or another may not be organised into formal military but may be living among wider society (for example, the Viet Cong in the Vietnam war or the Irish Republican Army). Most difficult, the notion of recognising a civilian competes with our perception that “the enemy” is one body.

But, more optimistically, it is still clear that at any given moment there is a detectable border zone dividing active warriors from those who are not (or hope they are not, or are said not to be) part of the activities of war. This borderline does always make at least some difference.

We will never be fully rid of war, but we can sometimes reduce the suffering by working with this line, both when communities face each other and when individuals cross the line, becoming a soldier or ceasing to be one. Recognising that the line is fluid by nature will make this a more realistic goal.

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