‘Civilians’–the Politics of the Word

I am writing this review during the Israeli attacks on Gaza of December 2008/January 2009, a war in which civilians are being used as punch-balls in the propaganda war, as surely as they are victims of the physical one. Both sides claim their actions have the purpose of protecting civilians. Both disclaim responsibility for the immense harm that is being done to civilians, and claim instead that it is the provocations of the other side that are to blame. Both sides cloak their ultimately political goals in pro-civilian rhetoric. The carnage, however, is palpable, and the manner of it may have put peace in the Middle East out of reach for decades, if not centuries, to come.

Would you understand the tragedy of Gaza better if you had read Hugo Slim’s book Killing Civilians: Method, Madness and Morality in War? Yes and no, would be my answer. Yes, because the book is a compendium, of extraordinarily wide sweep, of the different ways that warmongers have ever attempted to visit suffering on their opponents, whether armed or not, and clearly puts Gaza alongside other historical catastrophes. Yes, because in these pages you will find a full and well-documented account of the philosophies and twists of rhetoric that have attempted, over several centuries, to justify or condone the mindless violence of war, including some that will be familiar from recent newscasts. The book is the outcome of years of research, teaching and discussion, and brings together, in a coherent narrative, the main trends in thinking about the subject. It argues in a powerful, yet grounded way, that compassion and self-discipline in war must form an integral part of the next stage of human moral evolution. There can be little doubt where you would stand on Gaza if you read this book.

No, because this affair goes beyond anything the book documents. Chapter 1 (‘Limited Warfare and its Rivals’), detailing the many reasons that have been advanced in history for attacks on civilians, may need revising earlier than anyone was probably expecting. The new factor here is not the numbers of casualties, which after all are not huge when compared to, for example, the bombing of Dresden (upwards of 70,000 killed in one day), nor the bestiality of the violence (think of the extraordinary brutality of some acts of sexual violence in Liberia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo), but rather the sheer cynicism of the Israeli logic. Right now, there is an Israeli government spokesman on my television screen, claiming that it is the Palestinians’ own fault that civilians are being shelled and their homes and communities destroyed. And that, far from being disproportionately aggressive, the Israeli response to shelling of southern Israel is actually for the Palestinians’ own good, because it pre-empts the even worse consequences of an ‘unsustainable ceasefire’ which will simply explode again more violently in a few weeks time.

Indeed, the attacks on Gaza illustrate how the concept of ‘the civilian’ has itself become a weapon in the propaganda war between Israel and Palestine: a population reduced to catastrophe can hardly be expected to sit round negotiating tables on an equal basis with their destroyers. Professor Avi Shlaim, writing in The Guardian, on 7 January 2009, expressed it thus: ‘The declared aim of the war is to weaken Hamas and to intensify the pressure until its leaders agree to a new ceasefire on Israel’s terms. The undeclared aim is to ensure that the Palestinians in Gaza are seen by the world simply as a humanitarian problem and thus to derail their struggle for independence and statehood.’

Threading through Hugo Slim’s book is a plea for ‘limited war’, i.e. warfare which is conducted in a regulated and disciplined way by professional soldiers who have been taught to respect the Geneva Conventions or similar rules of engagement, and who abhor the effect of war on the innocent. The book promotes ‘limited war’ as a sort of middle way, less harmful for ‘innocent civilians’ than unbridled war, but at the same time more feasible than the pacifist idealistic dream of no war at all. Despite the cogency and thoroughness of the argument, and despite its evident humanity, there are some blind spots. I had half hoped (and I admit that you can’t expect everything – the book is a tour de force by any standards) to find, but saw only brief allusions to, an exploration of the discourse around the civilian status, about the uses and abuses of the concept. ‘Innocent’ and ‘civilian’ are words that seem to be frequently used in conjunction, both often coterminous with ‘women and children’, yet a bit of unpacking suggests that this collocation often conceals assumptions and stereotypes which may not be helpful. A ‘civilian’ may be defined as a person who is not associated with a formal military organization, but the way we commonly use the word often invests it with additional qualities such as victimhood, vulnerability, and ‘innocence’. There is a major caution to sound here – civilians can support war efforts as effectively, outside military machines, as soldiers can inside; moreover, civilians can be perpetrators as well as victims.

My own realization of the complexities of this argument has arisen through studying the area of gender and conflict studies. Assumptions and stereotypes around the concepts of vulnerability and agency run riot in this field. Some of the classic ones are: women are the main victims of war, sexual violence is a weapon of war, women are natural peacemakers. All of these statements contain strong elements of truth, but there is also plenty of evidence to contradict them. Used indiscriminately as campaign slogans, ungrounded in contextualized empiricism, such statements obscure the real dynamics of war situations.

One example: a colleague working on sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo recently wrote to me in despair at being unable to explain what she described as the ‘new phenomenon of civilian rape’. Meaning, she was surprised to discover that levels of sexual violence did not go down after the war had ended. So deeply rooted is the assumption amongst humanitarian workers that sexual violence in war is a military strategy, perpetrated deliberately by members of armed groups as a weapon of war, that they now find it hard to conceive of ‘civilian men’ raping. Yet the phenomenon of sexual violence continuing after the end of war is not at all uncommon, and has been explained in an uncomfortable variety of ways – demobilized ex-soldiers continuing to behave as if they were soldiers, the negative influence of war on cultural values, the possibility that rape had always been going on but had not been documented. Either way, the notion of ‘civilian’ looks different if you are thinking of civilians as being capable of violence rather than suffering it.

True, Hugo Slim’s book is not about civilians as perpetrators, it is about civilians as victims. The point is, however, that the word itself is a cultural signifier, and has a capacity to capture some of the subtle nuances of power relations. ‘Civilian’ is not an apolitical concept. The use of the word in current contexts goes hand in hand with the rise of humanitarianism, and indeed with the rise of the nation state – with its military machinery – as protector, defender and monopolistic aggressor, at least in rhetoric. This is how we have now arrived at a juncture where the word can be used to such powerful political effect in Gaza. Gaza exemplifies not only the direct, physical abuse of actual civilians, but also how the idea of civilians becomes a political tool, sustaining politicians and militaries across the globe, in this case all the way from Hamas and Fatah through Israel and up to the European Union, the United States of America, and the United Nations. If this is the consequence of adopting the notion of ‘limited war’, count me out. Maybe out-and-out pacifism is the only option after all.

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One thought on “‘Civilians’–the Politics of the Word

  1. Regarding framing responsibility for civilian causalities–or lack thereof–I watched a pro Israeli TV news report today that put forth the notion that Hamas is accountable for Gazan casualties because Hamas fighters co-locate with civilians, even holding them hostage. These quick and simple explanations can create mental images that “provide answers” to complex situations. For many, the response will be, “Oh, I see. It’s really not the Israeli’s fault. They’re just protecting themselves, trying to root out terrorists. It’s Hamas who is endangering innocents. Israel is doing the best they can, but some collateral damage is inevitable in war.” Situation understood, case closed.

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