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There's no such thing as a "civilian"

Stardate 20010913

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings, I see again and again people becoming irate about the fact that "civilians" were targeted. I see comments which say that any US response which involved harming "civilians" in other nations would be wrong.

There's no longer any such thing as a "civilian". This idea is actually a quite modern one, and it is now obsolete. It was born out of a historical accident, lived for about 300 years because of a temporary technological situation, and then died about sixty years ago as the technology of war advanced further. It survives in people's minds because of wishful thinking, the idea that war is a horrible thing but all the horrors and pain of it ought to be suffered by the officially designated victims (that we call "soldiers" and "sailors") and that if everyone would just play by the rules then all we "civilians" could miss out on the bad part and keep living our lives. Students of military theory know better.

Study the histories of the Roman campaigns, and you'll find no indication whatever that they felt that civilians should avoid the fate of their armies. When the Romans finally won the Punic wars, they put Carthage to the sword and killed everyone in the city. (And then, by tradition, pulled all the stones down and sowed the fields with salt, and otherwise did their best to obliterate the place.) The only times that they captured a city and didn't slaughter all the people in it was when they wanted those people for economic reasons, as slaves or as taxpayers. It wasn't out of any feeling that a civilian as such was immune to the horrors of war. It was rather a pragmatic recognition that civilians were valuable.

Fast forward to the Norman invasion of Europe. Harold, then King of England, had an army made up mainly of infantry at the Battle of Hastings. Most of his army was made up of levies, which is to say that he collected together all the local farmers he could find. And in fact, the majority of the men on the Norman side were equally levies. The only participants on either side which even remotely resembled what we think of now as "professional soldiers" were the nobles. Armies then were a catch-as-catch-can business; men would be collected together (often by force) when a war was about to start and would march away and often not return. The weapons and tactics used were not very difficult to learn; what was mainly needed was warm bodies. You find the most trained men using special weapons like slings and bows, but often even those were civilians when there was no war on.

All through the middle ages you find the same thing. Analyze the armies which fought in Europe and you find that most of them were a rabble, collected for purposes of the war, given minimal training, and then taken out to serve as sword-fodder.

One of the early armies which was truly professional was the Mongol Horde, which name is something of a slander. In fact it was a superbly trained and disciplined force which used its superior weapons, tactics and training to conquer all of Asia and establish the largest empire the world has ever known. But the Europeans didn't learn from this and continued to use their armies of untrained farmers.

The big change happened in the Thirty Years War, which extended from 1615 to 1645. Begun mainly by Gustavus Adophus of Sweden it is in a sense the coming out party for organized professional European armies. The arms and tactics needed to prevail had become too complicated for levies. The primary infantry weapons of the era were the pike and the matchlock musket. The pike was the necessary defense against enemy cavalry; it was a spear perhaps 25 feet long (it varied) and could also be used against enemy infantry. However, it was a melee weapon and the men who carried them didn't carry anything else. To project power you needed muskets, but the musket couldn't be used close up. The bayonet hadn't been invented yet; when musketeers fought in melee they would invert their firearms and swung them as clubs. Against cavalry that was nearly completely useless, and usually the musketeers would get butchered if they managed to get rode down.

The solution was combined arms. An infantry regiment would consist of a "body" of pikemen, along with two "shot sleeves" which deployed to right and left of the main body. (When a regiment was deployed for combat, it looked like a shirt laid on the ground because the pikes worked with far more ranks than did the musketeers. Hence the names.) When no-one was nearby, the musketeers would fire at distant enemies. "Distant" is a relative term; the weapons had an effective range of maybe fifty yards. When an enemy came close, the shot sleeves would retire behind the main body and let the pikemen defend them. This was a very effective tactic which was rapidly adopted by all participants in the Thirty Years War. The same tactics were used later in the English revolution.

But the use of muskets this way was non-trivial since musketeers had to reload their weapons according to a drill in order to fire in volleys. This was done in ranks, to create a pipeline. On an order, the front rank would aim and fire and then retire to the rear of the formation. Each rank behind that would accomplish a certain number of steps in the process of reloading their weapons and then advance one rank. The rearmost rank would perform the first steps, and then move forward. Each rank always did the same thing, and the second rank always filled the blowhole with gunpowder and then blew their match to life, for instance. Thus when they advanced to the front rank they were ready to fire their volley.

It also required discipline to hold your position in the face of an enemy charge (knowing full well that if the charge went home that you were doomed) and to continue firing until you were ordered to withdraw. And the tactics of the pike main body were also non-trivial to learn, for it only survived as long as it maintained unit cohesion. Moving and turning to face threats took a great deal of training and discipline. These were not things that could be taught to levies in a few days or even weeks.

After the Thirty Years War, you see the rise of the professional armies, where "soldier" actually became a career. (Incidentally, this is also when armies began to wear uniforms.) During the following 250 years, generally speaking the only time that a civilian was subjected to combat was when he signed up and became a soldier, or was in a city being subjected to a siege. And gradually this came to be accepted as how things should be, as if it were the natural order of things rather than as a side effect of weapons technology.

But weapons technology continued to improve and by World War I you start seeing the end of the "civilian". It was never really the case that civilians were somehow sacred, it was just that there wasn't any reason to fight them -- waste of good powder, in an era where powder was expensive. Civilians were no threat to soldiers in any case because they didn't know how to fight.

That was really no longer true by the end of the 19th century, though, when you enter the era where warfare becomes intensely mechanized and begins to use enormous amounts of materiel. There was a time when an army could carry with it supplies that would last it weeks, in wagons, augmented by foraging (i.e. "looting") of foodstuffs from the countryside it passed through. Napoleonic armies only expected to be resupplied every few weeks. By World War I, you have armies which have to be resupplied every couple of days or they'd grind to a halt and begin to starve. War had ceased to be about strategy and maneuver and tactics and started to be about logistics.

The Germans in WWI created an immense artillery piece which, from the front lines, had the ability to actually hit Paris -- and they used it. But the real beginning of the end for the concept of a "civilian" was unrestricted submarine warfare. Kaiser Wilhelm was very leery of the concept but as the war went bad and the importance of logistics became clear, his advisors told him that the only way to defeat the British and French on the Western Front was to starve them out by blocking their supplies from the US and Canada. Finally he gave in and ordered his submarines to sink every ship heading towards Great Britain -- and it nearly worked. The submarines were primitive but so were the surface ships they opposed, and the slaughter was immense. And nearly everyone who died in a sunken ship was a civilian, because the merchant marine was not military. It wasn't so much that the Germans wanted civilian sailors to die as that it wanted the ships to be sunk and the cargoes they carried to be lost; the sailors were just in the way. But it wasn't practical to sink a ship without killing many of the sailors on it; if a submarine surfaced and "fired a shot across the bow" it gave away all its advantages.

There was a growing realization after World War I that civilians were a military asset. War is immensely expensive and consumes supplies in huge quantities and that money and those supplies have to come from someplace. Civilians pay the taxes and civilians work in the factories that make planes and tanks and guns and rifles and ammunition; they mine the ore, they work in the power plants, they grow the food, they weave the cloth, everything used by the soldiers was created by a civilian somewhere.

When World War II started, Germany didn't hesitate for a moment; they began unrestricted submarine warfare against England's supply lines nearly immediately. In many ways, the Battle of the Atlantic was the single most critical battle of the war, because if the UK had lost it then it would have had to capitulate. The only reason the UK didn't lose in 1940 was that Germany hadn't built enough U-boats before the war. If in 1940 it had had the number it had in 1942, the UK would have lost.

But with the rise of powerful aircraft with great range and ability to carry a lot of ordnance, you also see enemy cities being bombed. The first case where enemy cities were directly targeted for no reason other than because civilians were there was during the Battle of Britain, when the Germans switched from bombing airfields to deliberately bombing London. (There are numerous reasons why this happened; and it is generally considered now to have been a blunder.) And London remained a target for the remainder of the war, subject to the ability of the Germans to reach it. Such weapons as the V1 buzz-bomb and the V2 ballistic missile were not accurate enough to hit specific targets, and in any case their purpose was to remove the will of the people of the UK to resist.

For that is the third function that "civilians" perform: they support the government politically in its efforts to fight a war. When they lose their will to fight, it becomes very difficult for a government to continue.

Thus, for political and for military reasons, it became recognized that civilians were a military asset and thus a legitimate military target. The RAF primarily targeted German cities for most of the remainder of the war because attacking in daylight was considered to be too perilous, and at night it wasn't possible to hit anything small. There was a certain process as the war continued of desensitization to this concept, leading to greater and greater horrors being inflicted almost routinely on civilian populations. The ultimate manifestation of this was the firebombing of Tokyo and the other Japanese cities, which may have killed upwards of a quarter of a million people (about half of those in Tokyo alone during two major raids). By comparison to these attacks, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki actually stand as relatively small events, surprisingly, killing fewer people and destroying smaller areas -- even taking into account deaths after the war. (These two attacks loom larger in the minds of modern people than do the firebombings mostly because of the events of the Cold War. Within the context of WWII, they were not seen as extraordinary.)

The development of nuclear weapons forever consigned the concept of a "civilian" to the scrapheap of history. We are now in the era of total war. That's because such weapons obliterate everyone in a large area, and it is impossible to use them without taking out some "innocent civilians" along the way. No-one wanted to use them, and we made it through the Cold War without a nuclear exchange. But that was because of the development of the concept of "mutually assured destruction", or the "second strike". In essence, it took the concept of a deterrent to its logical extreme: if you attack me, I will turn your nation into a parking lot, and I know that if I attack you you'll do the same to me. If either of us attacks, we'll both be utterly destroyed. Thus neither of us has anything to gain from a direct war, and we will stay at peace. This was something completely new in warfare, because before the development of thermonuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and long range bombers it wasn't actually possible to do that.

But it only worked, and prevented a nuclear exchange, because each side knew the other would really carry out its threat, civilians be damned. The only way the US (or USSR) could protect its own civilians and those of its allies was by being willing to kill everyone in the USSR (or US) down to the last newborn baby.

And it worked. But only because both sides recognized that it wasn't possible to avoid killing civilians in a real war.

There are no longer any "civilians". There haven't really been any since the mid 1930's. In the era of total war, everyone is a combatant and anyone can be a casualty. We're all on the front line now. We have been ever since the first ballistic missile was deployed.

War is immoral, but when someone starts a war it's because they're evil (i.e. Hitler) or because they're trying to prevent something even more evil (Chamberlain). Good and conscientious men can begin a war if the consequences of not doing so are intolerable, even knowing the amount of death and suffering it will cause.

But attacking civilians in a war is no more or less immoral than attacking soldiers. A soldier who dies is just as important as a civilian. A soldier who is wounded feels just as much pain. And often civilians are more valuable than soldiers are. Had the Germans known the significance of Bletchley Park and had bombed it, they probably would have won WWII. They could then have won the Battle of the Atlantic, choked off supplies to the USSR and taken the UK out of the war, and then thrown their full might east which might have been enough to defeat the weakened USSR. And all by killing a few thousand critical "civilians".

That is that nature of modern war. But many people (civilian people) still nostalgically believe that somehow it should be possible to fight a war without they themselves becoming involved, and that targeting civilians is somehow a greater evil than targeting soldiers. Let's put that concept to rest right now. The idea of a "civilian" is a historical accident, not a fact of nature.

In modern warfare, even when you're not using nuclear weapons, it is not possible to fight only an enemy's army and defeat it. You don't defeat armies, you defeat their logistics, and the only way to do that is to attack the civilians who provide those logistics by attacking factories and warehouses and ports, and to attack supply lines and accept the fact that civilians in the area will be killed. You attack the merchant shipping and kill the civilian sailors on those ships. The military refers to this as "collateral damage" but it's a fact of life: it isn't possible to spare civilians in a modern war. In the Gulf War, the weeks of bombing in preparation for the ground advance mainly concentrated on the rear, to break command and control and supply lines. With those things gone, the front line troops hardly put up a fight.

To accept the stricture that enemy civilians will not be harmed is to concede defeat. It binds the hands of your military and will prevent them from winning. A nation which does this will be remembered by history as decent -- and stupid  -- and historical, for it won't survive. It's not that you should actively seek to slaughter as many civilians as possible, but it is impossible to completely avoid killing them, and avoiding doing so can't be a consideration.

I find this attitude most prevalent among young people who grew up after the end of the Cold War. None of us who lived through the Cold War harbored any illusions about missing the violence if it had turned hot; every city I ever lived in was the pre-aimed target of a Soviet missile and I knew it. You just had to accept it and keep on living. With the end of the Cold War, it somehow seems as if the idea of a military-only war has revived because it will only be fought with "conventional" weapons which somehow should be capable of avoiding civilians. That's not true.

Modern conventional weapons are enormously destructive. While great strides have been made, in particular by the US, in creating "smart weapons" which are much more accurate, it is still inevitable that civilians will be killed. For one thing, it isn't practical to use such weapons exclusively. For another, even if they were there are going to be some civilians in the way. Third, the enemy will sometimes deliberately use civilians as a shield. (Iraq did this at least once.) Fourth and most important, civilians are a target.

Everyone is now a soldier, and anyone can become a casualty. The attack on the World Trade Center was not wrong because it attacked civilians, but because it attacked Americans -- and that is why the United States will respond to it. If an equally destructive attack had been made on our military, our response would be no less vigorous.

Update 20010914: There's been considerable confusion about what I mean by this essay. Let's see if I can't clear it up: I'm not saying it's OK to kill civilians. I'm saying it's not OK to kill soldiers. I'm not devaluing the lives of civilians, I'm trying to point out that they are exactly as valuable as are the lives of military people. The fact that civilians died in this attack does not make it more horrible than it would be if it were an attack on a military installation.

The problem with the attitude I'm criticizing isn't that it values civilian lives, it is that it devalues the lives of soldiers by assuming that it is somehow less bad to kill them.

In a war, part of what happens is that you kill people on the enemy's side. They try to do the same to you. Some of those who will die will be civilians, and that can't be avoided. It's not that you set out to deliberately slaughter as many civilians as possible, but rather that you cannot be hog-tied by the requirement that none at all be harmed.

Footnote: Bletchley Park was the center of British code-breaking. They managed to read most of the German Enigma traffic during the war. The Enigma was used, among other things, to control the U-boats and because the British could read those communications they were able to move destroyers to attack the U-boats, and to route convoys around them. This was a vital contribution to winning the Battle of the Atlantic, and this is just one of the many critical things Bletchley Park did. They didn't win the war -- that was done by people carrying weapons -- but it's no exaggeration to say that person for person the folks who worked at Bletchley Park made more of a contribution to winning the war than anyone else in the UK. Note that the majority of the staff there were civilian women.

Update 20010917: I received the following email about this essay, reprinted with permission:

Subject: RE No such thing as a civie.
Date: Mon, 17 Sep 2001 04:16:31 EDT

Herr Steven,

I enjoyed your essay.  However being a military historian I'd like to correct several points.

To Wit: "The big change happened in the Thirty Years War, which extended from 1615 to 1645. begun mainly by Gustavus Adophus of Sweden..."

Actually the change was began by the Hapsburgs and Bohemia. The War ran from 1618 "Defenestration of Prague" to 1648. The causes were simple. Embroiled in a war against the Protestant Dutch the allying Holy Roman Emperor Mathias placed his eventual successor Spanish prince Ferdinand on the Bohemian throne in 1617 to insure succession. The problem was that Fredy was a zealot for Catholicism and 80% of the Bohemians were Protestants. Bohemia, Hungry and Transylvania all revolted in protest in 1618. When Mathais died in 1619, and Fredinand assumed the throne, while Fredrick elector of the Palatinate and a Protestant, agreed to stand as King of Bohemia. Emperor Ferdinand could not allow this. At White Mountain, Bohemia, 1620, Fredrick's army was crushed by the Hapsburgs, and revolted Bohemia was bloodly returned to the Empire. Since it was a religious war, the civilian Protestants were the ones to suffer.

While the Imperialists had things in hand, the Protestant German princes, supported with money from France (traditional Hapsburg enemy) formed a league of allies consisting of German principalities, England and Holland then the Danes joined in 1626. Their purpose was to insure the survival of Protestantism in Germany which the Imperialists seemed determine to eliminate, again by ravaging the populace.  The elimination of the Danes from the war caused the Swedes to intervene in 1630, ten years after the war started.

"It is in a sense the coming out party for organized professional European armies. The arms and tactics needed to prevail had become too complicated for levies."

Actually this started during the rise of the Swiss pikeman in the 1400s and saw the use of truly professional in the Italian Wars (1494-1529).

"After the Thirty Years War, you see the rise of the professional armies, where "soldier" actually became a career. (Incidentally, this is also when armies began to wear uniforms.) "

You could argue the Macedonians and the Romans wore uniforms. Nevertheless armies were moving into the direction of uniforms and espirit de corps during the later part of the Italian wars, and by the war of the league of Ausburg, (1670s) countries had started to pick national colors for uniforms.

"During the following 250 years, generally speaking the only time that a civilian was subjected to combat was when he signed up and became a soldier, or was in a city being subjected to a siege. And gradually this came to be accepted as how things should be, as if it were the natural order of things rather than as a side effect of weapons technology."

This not true. After the Thirty Years War, the princes were upset at the loss of civilian life, over 4 million civilians died in that war. Large areas of Germany, especially the Palatinate was depopulated. Grotius had published "De jure belli ac pacis." This argued that civilians deserved protection against the ravages of the Princes' war, since they had little say in the matter of going to war. One of the war's legacies was a desire by rulers to make war less destructive.

From "De Jure Belli" came the quote that war was the sport of kings. The next wars, Spanish Succession, Austrian Succession, Seven Years War, AWI and War of the French Revolution would be fought in that matter. As sport, not destruction, with the use of magazines for supply, not foraging. This would remain until the 19th century when the French "Levee en Masse" re-involved the civilian because of foraging once again. Any time an army forages, the civilian becomes involved.

As for Americans upset at being under attack Tuesday, Americans do not like being a target. That was the soldiers' job up to now. MADD assured that no one would attack the other in total war, it reinvented the 18 century's limited war once more among the superpowers, look at the way we fought in Korea and Vietnam. By Kuwait we were feeling less constrained, and collateral damage increased accordingly.

Now we have to face the fact, that with MADD out of the picture, we can lose 5000 casualties in the US. The States have become a potential battle ground, and this is what Americans, used to isolation from two oceans, cannot accept. And these facts are why terrorist attacks in the US has assumed such an importance the scheme of things militarily, among our avowed enemies.

Stephen F. Phenow
Editor, The Strategikon

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