Who is a civilian?


During the Afghan and Iraq wars, stories would occasionally move on the wires announcing the deaths of “contractors.” The stories usually went to pains to point out that the deceased were “civilian contractors.”

What was often missing from these stories was any mention of the circumstances of their deaths or of what the contractors had been hired to do.

That was because their mission generally did not involve digging wells or installing sewer lines.

The “contractor’s” business was security — or more plainly war. They worked for companies like Blackwater security and, among other things, served as armed guards for U.S. civilian personnel like American civil administrator Paul Bremer and scores of State Department operatives who negotiated with tribal leaders. They were frequently involved in combat. Much of what they did would have been done by Army or Marine troops if the Pentagon hadn’t “contracted” for their services.

They were well-paid; some of them made more than $100,000 a year. They were very skilled at what they did. Many had served in the special forces before returning to civilian life and joining Blackwater.

So were they really civilians? 

They were not members of the U.S. military or any other military fighting in Iraq or Afganistan, so yes, strictly speaking they were civilians.

But they were not innocent civilian bystanders. The proper way to describe them would be “civilian combatants.”

There is nothing particularly unusual about civilians fighting in wars alongside full-time militaries. Such civilian participation can take a host of different forms, and it has been going on for centuries. It is particularly common in wars of national liberation.

Take the American Revolution, for example. Shortly after the war began, the Continental Congress created a national army, but much of the fighting during the war was done by militias, who took up arms only when there was an immediate local threat. They were called “Minute Men.” The first shots for American independence were fired by them at Lexington and Concord.

So were the Minute Men civilians? 

Most of the time they were. But when they took up arms they were not members of the Continental Army. They were civilian combatants.

Partisans in occupied countries would be another example. They aren’t fighting as members of a national army, but they are nonetheless fighters. They too are civilian combatants.

There are other catagories of civilians who participate in wars: Civilians working in defense plants, for example, or on-military members of a revolutionary movement who serve as community organizers and provide judicial and social services.

Are they civilians? Yes. Are they civilian combatants? No. Are they innocent civilians? No. The proper way to characterize them is complicit civilians.

Civilian combatants and complicit civilians differ from innocent civilians — civilians who have no connection to the war effort — in that they can expect to be targeted if the other side has the ability to do so. They don’t have the immunity from attack that innocent civilians are entitled to.

Which brings us to Gaza and Hamas.

Hamas has about 15,000 full-time fighters, police and security service members who can plausibly be described as military combatants. It also has thousands of part-time militia members who can be quickly mobilized to serve as civilian combatants.

And it has tens of thousands of civilian cadre who serve as a civil service, make weapons and dig tunnels — complicit civilians, in other words.

Hamas claims that most of the casualties in the latest Gaza war are civilians. It’s indisputable that there are a large number of civilian casualties in Gaza. That can’t be helped, given Hamas’ strategy of implanting its military infrastructure like a tumor in civilian areas. 

But it doesn’t mean that all civilian casualties in Gaza are innocents. There are plenty, probably hundreds, of dead who were civilian participants in the war.

This is particularly likely in the city of Rafah on the Gaza-Egyptian border, where there have been several reports of “whole families” being killed when buildings were bombed. Rafah is the Gaza terminus of many of the smuggling tunnels from Egypt. These tunnels were often private businesses that were dug and operated by extended families with the entrances under their homes. The owners of those homes may have been civilians, but they weren’t innocent bystanders.

Hamas makes no such distinctions when reporting civilian casualties, because its best chance for victory is by using them to fan international outrage against Israel in the hope that it will force Israel to discontinue its campaign.

The international press reporting from Gaza rarely makes such a distinction either — not necessarily because it is anti-Israel, although some of it clearly is, but because reporters who reported it would run a real risk of being expelled or even killed by Hamas. Hamas doesn’t have much use for “fair and balanced.”

If the reporters for international news organizations cannot report candidly from Gaza, and they can’t, those organizations should at least have the integrity to reveal to their readers and viewers the limitations under which their correspondents are working. Failure to do so constitutes serious bias.

It is interesting, and damning, that in reporting from Syria news organizations like the BBC, CNN and other TV news outlets routinely report that video shot by Syrian rebels showing attacks on civilians “cannot be verified,” which is true enough, but which essentially discredits evidence of the war crimes of the Assad regime. But the same networks include no such disclaimers on reports from Gaza. Everything Hamas says is reported as holy writ.

The question for Hamas, which is rarely asked and never answered, is who is a civilian and who is what sort of a civilian.”

The question for the press, which is also rarely asked and never answered, is who is an anti-Semite?

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.