Small Wars Journal

Civilians on the Battlefield

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From the siege of Troy, to the great battles of Alexander the Great, through the conquests of the Roman and British Empires to the battlefields of World War Two, the nature of war has remained almost without any changes. Three main characteristics of the traditional or 'old' style of war were: 1) participants were states or other legitimate authorities; 2) the disputes were generally over property, defined primarily in terms of land, population or natural sources; and 3) wars were fought by 'combatants' only[i].

Despite the third characteristic of the traditional war, non-combatants or civilians were always a part of war; not only as a part of the armies, but also as the raison d'etre. This always turned them, even within the traditional war, into collateral damage. Some of the more obvious examples, even if just from modern history, include the siege of Leningrad and the bombings of Dresden, London, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, waging war has always been the duty of combatants, and therefore the prevalent behavior of civilians was either to escape or to take cover, but definitely not to fight back. One, who decided to fight, could take a weapon, put on a uniform and join the lines of combatants, whose duty was to defend the innocent non-combatants.

In the last several decades, we are witnessing cardinal changes in the nature of war. The traditional characteristics do not exist any more: 1) participants are not necessarily legitimate authorities, but mostly non-state actors; 2) the disputes are more over religion and ideology and less about property or territory; and 3) the distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants is not as clear as it was in the past. The experience of modern wars proves that the definition of traditional war is no longer suitable. Throughout the years, academic and military scholars suggested different definitions for the so called 'new war', such as 'asymmetrical war', 'hybrid warfare', 'war on terror', etc. All of them argued that the   traditional dichotomous distinction between combatants and civilians in a war zone, which is based on the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Two Additional Protocols of 1977, is no longer suitable and has to be more flexible.

This flexibility in distinguishing between combatants and not-combatants was and is still necessary, especially in cases where civilians participate in hostilities without being awarded the status of combatant.

Therefore, in the 'new' war the distinguishing is not between combatants and not-combatants, but rather between different levels of participating in the war. The best two examples for such types of distinction are the U.S. Army Field Manual and the Israeli High Court of Justice. The first one lists four types of participants: 'leaders and combatants', 'political cadre' or 'militants of the party', 'active sympathizers' and 'supporting populace'[ii]. The second one suggests a more general division between direct and indirect participation in hostilities; direct participation, which includes: transporting militants, operating weapons or supervising the operations; and indirect participation, which includes: providing food, medicine and shelter to combatants, monetary aid, logistical support and distributing propaganda[iii].

Throughout the history of war, there had always been civilian participation. For example, during a siege of city, everyone – combatants as well as civilians – took a part in the defense of the city, directly or indirectly. The most interesting fact is that the phenomenon of civilian participation in war is as old as war itself, but only now, in the twenty-first century, humanity found itself facing the problem of its definition. The understanding of this requires research of the changes that had happened in causes and conditions for civilian participation: why civilians decide to participate in a war and what enables this participation.

The first part, the causes, is understandable and it has never changed– civilians want to defend themselves from the enemy and try to help, in any possible way, combatants with the burden of waging a war. Therefore, the change had to happen in the conditions that allow civilian participation. The search for the condition that allowed this change leads back to city' sieges. The attempt to find the explanation for civilian participation during such sieges and not in other occurrences, points at the reason that something there facilitated their participation. The Research of the conditions for the phenomena of civilian resistance (like the Welsh fighting England, the Russians fighting Napoleon and later the Germans) provides additional explanation for the most important condition for civilian participation a war – they must be organized.

Organization plays an important role in the turning of the non-combatant to a combatant or a direct, or indirect participant. In the past, every man had a weapon in his house (axe, sword or bow), but only militaries were able to provide the necessary organization that turned laymen into combatants. Civilians that desired to participate in the war were able to do this only where the necessary organization was offered. Therefore, the more organized the populace, the more possibilities arise for their participation in the war.  


In the last few decades significant change has happened in the ability to organize civilians. In the past, only authorities or very powerful and charismatic leaders were able to organize the civilian population around a mutual purpose and to cause them to act, especially in life threatening events, such as war. In the 'new' wars, which are waged against non-state actors, modern armies face the ability of said actors to organize civilians to participate in their fight. The accessibility of organizing civilian is the main reason for the need to find new definitions for distinguishing between combatants, non-combatants and all those who fall in between.

Social Networks – A Tool for Civilian Self-Organization

The ability of non-state actors to organize civilians to participate in their plans has risen significantly in the last fifty years. Researchers of terrorism connect this rise to the development of the media. They point to the direct connection between terror organizations and their use of the media to influence the public. The media's development from live broadcast, through the appearance of the Internet, to the online flow of information, not just enhances the ability of the people to be organized by persuading bodies (e.g. terror organizations), but also speeds up the organization process itself.[iv]  While countries around the world have tried to face this reality and to adjust their ways of war accordingly, a new challenge has come a knocking.

Social Internet Networks are not a new phenomenon. The first social networks had started in the late nineties. However, in the last few years 'Facebook' and 'Twiter' dominate this field with hundreds of millions of users each. Despite the fact that the Social Network's theme has attracted many researchers, no one could have predicted that these networks could provide civilians the ability of self-organization, nor the speed and the success of this process with no visible or apparent leader.

This phenomenon was first to appear in the Middle East, with a chain-reaction of civilian demonstrations, which ignited the whole area. The first country to face this phenomenon and failed to deal with it, was Tunisia, the second one to fail was Egypt. After them came Syria, Yemen, Libya and others – part of them collapsed and others are still fighting their own citizens. Today we call this domino effect the "Arab Spring", however the first name given was the "Facebook Revolution". "Thanks to the People! Thanks Facebook!"[v]-a message captured on a Tunis street in January 2011 articulates succinctly the entity that organized the revolution.

The first stage of any organization process is unification. Before the appearance of the social networks people needed leadership to be unified, but the "Arab Spring" events proved that people can be unified by themselves. One Egyptian blogger published one of best descriptions of the social networks' power:

Before this social media revolution, everyone was very individual, very single, very isolated and oppressed in islands. But social media has created bridges, has created channels between individuals, between activists, between even ordinary men, to speak out, to know that there are other men who think like me. We can work together, we can make something together.[vi]


The second stage of the organization process is the coordination of activities. In that, also, social networks allow people to act by themselves. Tunisian Internet activist, whose pseudonym was 'Foetus', explained Facebook's role in this process:

Facebook is pretty much the GPS for this revolution. Without the street there's no revolution, but add Facebook to the street and you get real potential[vii].     


Today it is obvious that Social Internet Networks provide civilians everything needed to be organized. In fact, this is not just secluded to autocratic states. Social media was one of main causes that facilitated the expansion of the London Riots in August 2011[viii]. Today, even ordinary civilians need no one to be organized to participate in dangerous activities in order to achieve their mutual goals. Accordingly, if they are able to withstand their own governments and law enforcement agencies, then it is reasonable to surmise that they would be able to withstand a foreign attacker. This raises the question of the nature of future warfare and the feasibility of an on coming change.

Contending with the Threat of Self-Organized Civilians on the Battlefield

As discussed, civilians can participate in war only if they are organized for this purpose. Modern armies that waged or had waged wars in the past ten years had to invent systems to distinguish between combatants; participators on different levels, who were organized by non-state actors; and innocent non-combatants. The reality of the Social Internet Networks presents a new challenge: self-organized civilians on the battlefield, who answer to no existing definition. Not combatants, nor direct – or indirect – participants, the self-organized civilians pose a modern army with the problem of facing a new undefined force.

"After four hours of battle with well equipped enemy, the battalion accomplishes its mission and conquers the town. The battalion's commander raises his binoculars to his eyes and sees two thousands civilians (men, women, children and the elderly) march in his direction. He recognizes a well organized, unarmed demonstration against his army that marches directly onto his new fortifications." – this could well be a prevalent scenario in a future war, and the commanders of the modern armies should be prepared for it. The outcomes of any decisions taken by such commanders, involved in this kind of a scenario, would be posted and reposted hundreds of times on YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere, and the consequences of these decisions will determine the future of the whole campaign.            

This is a complete new threat on the future battlefield. Although the fact that modern militants had already participated in similar situations, it was never done during actual fighting operations. Successfully contending with this threat on a real battlefield demands serious and meticulous preparations at the all three tiers of military planning: strategic, operational and tactical.  

At the strategic level, there is a battle for the hearts and minds of the enemy civilian population. The purpose of this battle is to influence the emotions and motives of civilians and cause them to support the goals and objectives of the army. The definition of such a kind of activity is Psychological Operations (PSYOPs). According to the   U.S. Army Field Manual, one of the roles of PSYOPs is to "Influence foreign populations by expressing information subjectively to influence attitudes and behavior, and to obtain compliance, noninterference, or other desired behavioral changes."[ix] PSYOPs, at the strategic level, before the starting of war can minimize the possibility of the enemy's civilians to act against an oncoming army. However, even the most successful PSYOPs can not guarantee the full convincing of the entirety of the other side's population. The influence of PSYOPs, at the operational or tactical levels, toward the threat of an enemy's civilian self-organization is almost non-purposeful. If the initial strategic battle for the hearts of those civilians failed, they will meet the oncoming force in front of their town, and not, possibly, after it was conquered. In such a case, the military force will have to use completely different means to contend with such a situation.

At the operational level, there is an Informational Warfare. The main purpose of the army at this level is destroying the civilians' ability to use the Internet for self-organization. Two main methods can be applied to achieve this goal – cyber and physical. The cyber method means getting control of the servers and communication infrastructure across the country by technological tools (cyber attacks, viruses, etc.). The second method, the physical one, is easer to apply, as it means the actual physical destruction of the Internet and/or communication infrastructures by military tools (aerial bombings, missile attacks, etc.). It seems that successful activity at this level would be able to neutralize civilian self-organization by the Internet. However, the experience of the 'Arab Spring' proves that it is impossible to block the Internet completely. Therefore, the military has to be ready to face self-organized civilians on the battlefield.     

At the tactical level, there is the actual friction between the military and self-organized civilians during the fightings (unarmed men, women, children and the elderly protesting against the military). The military commander in that situation has three possible options of reacting. Yet, whatever his decision, it will be posted online. Therefore, the options of retreating or indiscriminatingly shooting civilians are unacceptable, as they will have crucial negative outcome to the whole campaign. At the tactical level, the only option possible is using military tools (weapons) that enable facing civilians without causing death - Non-Lethal Weapons (NLW).  

The Readiness of Modern Armies to Contend with the Threat of Self-Organized Civilians

The examination of the readiness of the armies to contend with the new threat of self-organized civilians has to take into consideration the fact that no matter how successful the strategic or the operational activities would be, the armies have to be ready to content with this threat on the battlefield.

At the beginning of second decade of twenty-first century, Modern Armies and their governments have gotten a lot of experience in the delivering of PSYOPs. In modern, politically-correct terminology, there are no more 'declarations of war' or 'conquests', but 'operations for freedom' and 'peacekeeping'. The attempt to influence everyone, especially the local population, to support the goals and objectives of the oncoming army already has a significant part in strategy making. Nonetheless, the experience of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proves that PSYOPs have limited outcomes and their influence wanes over time.

Although the fact that today the modern world manages itself mostly by the Internet, the offensive cyber warfare has many juridical problems. Probably, it would be easier to justify the bombing of communication infrastructures, than to gain virtual control of local servers. One way or the other, modern armies definitely have the ability to harm civilians' accessibility to the Internet. However, the 'Arab Spring' proves that no matter how much the authorities will try to prevent the usage of the Internet - videos, pictures and 'statuses' will always find a way to be posted.    

Non-Lethal or Less-Lethal Weapons (NLW or LLW) are weapons intended to incapacitate people without causing death or permanent injury. In the last twenty years, many countries have invested a lot of money in the developing of NLW. Despite the increased research, only few NLWs have been deployed on a large scale.[x] Most part of contemporary NLWs were developed for law-enforcement units and they are designated for crowd-control missions.  Despite the fact that modern technological solutions are able to provide a very large spectrum of NLWs – such as kinetic, chemical, electrical, optical, acoustic and laser – the military use of available NLWs has been limited.[xi] No army has organized a training program, not for NLWs, nor for the tactics of facing self-organized civilians on the battlefield.


Self-organized civilians' activities against the military in war are not a theoretical assumption. It is a concrete threat that modern armies will face in the next war. No matter how successful strategic and operational efforts will be, the armies will have to contend with the phenomena of self-organized civilians on the battlefield. Any adaption of new weapons and abilities by any army is a long and difficult process. The current NLW's technologies demand more development and their adapting to usage not only by the infantry, but also by tanks, artillery and aircrafts. An operating system has to be developed too: an instilling of non-lethal abilities to the existing forces or establishing new units. Historically, the next war never looks like the previous one, as warfare continually develops. The 'Arab Spring' offers a peek into the nature of the future battlefield, and it must not be dismissed.

[i] Eric Patterson, Just War Thinking: Morality and Pragmatism in the Struggle against Contemporary Threats, (Lanham, MD : Lexington Books, 2007),  p. 4.

[ii] US Army and Marine Corps Field Manual No. 3-24: Counterinsurgency,, accessed 26 October 2011..

[iii] Public Committee against Torture in Israel and Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment vs. The Government of Israel (High Court of Justice 769/02, December 11, 2005), paragraph 34-37.

[iv] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, Revised and Expanded Edition, (New-York: Columbia Press, 2006), Chapters 6-7.

[v]  John Pollock, 'Streetbook: How Egyptian and Tunisian youth hacked the Arab Spring', Technology Review, September/October 2011, , accessed 26 October 2011

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii]  James Lyons, 'UK riots: ministers climb down over threats to curb use of social network websites', Daily Mirror, 26 August 2011,, , accessed 26 October 2011.

[ix] US Army and Marine Corps Field Manual No. 3-05.30: Psychological Operations,, accessed 26 October 2011.

[x] Neil Davison, 'Non-Lethal' Weapons, (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p.1-11.

[xi] Ibid., p. 86-90.


About the Author(s)

Ofer Fridman, MA thesis student in the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, Israel.  



Mon, 01/09/2012 - 4:36pm

Perhaps the problem isn't the emergence of "...cardinal changes in the nature of war..." as much as the emergence of a realization that the post-enlightenment western conception of what war was not up to snuff. That this conception is itself ahistorical and aspirational doesn't seem to see the light of day. Instead, we seem content to think it is WE who are living in different times rather than it is our intellectual forebearers who were just plain wrong.

I also wonder when and where legitmacy (a completely subjective idea) figures in an objective definition of violent power struggles. Violent power struggles are violent power struggles. If they are between two tribes that mobilize idle young men to go teach their neighbor a lesson or an industrialized world-power mobilizing its idle young men to give their neighbor some corrective action.

Basically, the idea that wars were always or even often concieved of in past literature as "fought by combatants only" doesn't mean that wars have been "fought by combatants only."
More specifically:
1) participants are not necessarily legitimate authorities, but mostly non-state actors;---
----legitimacy is not a state of being, but is an agreed-upon state. That country A is fighting "illegitimate actors" is fundamentally irrelevant except as a matter of psyops and political maneuvering. It has nothing to do with the objective reality of violent power struggle.

2) the disputes are more over religion and ideology and less about property or territory;----
----While modern (632 AD to Present) ideological wars are something arguably different in kind than purely resource wars, the vast majority of them are, likewise arguably, proxies for resource wars. The entire non-petroleum export product of all of north africa is equivalent to that of Switzerland. Economics would be the first place I would look for an explanation to some conflicts before ideologies. Also, neither Saddam nor Qaddafi ever fought an ideological war. Yet they fought big ones in recent history.

3) the distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants is not as clear as it was in the past-----
-----Rome didn't bother distinguishing between Halvetii to wipe them out. The Mongol hordes weren't all that particular either. This brings me back to the earlier point of "fought by combatants only." If combatants are those that pick a fight back then anyone is a decision-point away from being one. It isn't some sort of natural state of being or a caste. Conversely, if you as a combatant choose to only violently coerce combatants then you have made a very specific choice that is again, not reflective of some objective reality, but is in fact, a choice of preference and technique. Violently coercing "non-combatants" may well have a desireable effect in accomplishing military goals. That you come from a culture that does not practice that particular methodology anymore does not mean much to the objective study of violent power struggle dynamics. For example, that the citizens of Dresden were not defined as combatants was not relevant to the American firestorm that consummed them. It wasn't collateral damage, it was intentional; and that intent served the CHOSEN purposes of violent coercion.

I like the train of thought in this article on civilian self-organization. But it would gain much from dumping the deceptive ideas of newness and specialness of the 21st Century. Scale is the new part. No one part is. Understanding the effects of scale on complex social systems is the important part.

dos pesos grandes

Don Bacon

Mon, 01/09/2012 - 5:10pm

In reply to by Scott Kinner

Legitimacy, mostly, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder, my point being that it's wrong to assume that an army is legitimate and civilians aren't. By golly, if the Chinese army comes into my community and claims legitimacy, and I take pot shots at them because I think that I'm legitimate, who's right?

And that's gone on -- forever, so the following, on which the entire article is based, is incorrect.
<blockquote>However, waging war has always been the duty of combatants, and therefore the prevalent behavior of civilians was either to escape or to take cover, but <strong>definitely not to fight back. </strong>One, who decided to fight, could take a weapon, put on a uniform and join the lines of combatants, whose duty was to defend the innocent non-combatants.</blockquote>
The "embattled farmers" like the the colonial, un-uniformed minutemen have been a mainstay of history. Civilians didn't have to be organized to fire a rifle or set an IED..

Organized (legitimate?) military forces have regularly attacked civilians. Armies (and air forces and navies) regularly combated civilians which is why civilians fought back, when they could. This too has gone for a long time, especially with the advent of aerial carpet bombing and now with drone-launched rocket attacks on civilians.

Scott Kinner

Mon, 01/09/2012 - 4:34pm

In reply to by Don Bacon

Don - think there is a certain historical relevancy to those three statements. Per my comments there is a transition occurring, I just don't see it as cardinal or unique.

On a point-by-point basis, I agree that legitimacy is conferred, not necessarily defined by position. Gang members confer legitimacy upon their leaders. Despite their pretensions to the contrary, the Occupy movement has conferred legitimacy upon certain leaders, speakers, and governing bodies. I would point out that part of the problem with non-state actors is that they possess legitimacy outside of what we are used to seeing (recently in the historic sense) which is what makes them a non-state actor - the fact that they have an effect.

So, if a corporation is a non-state actor, has legitimacy been bestowed upon it? I would argue in the affirmative in terms of its value to the business community, the loyalty of its customers, and the actions of its employees. It has been shown that employees will often identify themselves by their nationality, but in their roles as corporate employees make decisions that are in the best interest of the corporation and against the interests of their nation. The simple example is the French executive who ships French jobs overseas. It is good for the corporation, not necessarily good for France. But if you ask that executive about loyalties, he is likely to identify himself as French first and an employee second.

On the second point, I am unconvinced that religion and ideology have eclipsed property or territory as much as we'd like to think. I think religion, ideology, and ethnicity are merely the most readily apparent causes of conflict that often involve power, resources, etc. And, referencing my comments about "innocent non-combatants," how much more are civilians weaponized and militarized if the war is actually about belief systems and cultural survival? How does one go about defeating a belief system or a culture? If history is any example, it involves violence.

On the third point, I think the apparent "ease" with which combatants and non-combatants are distinguished is a historically local phenomena. They are distinguishable only because we have made the effort to distinguish them in a very narrow cultural since - in terms of time and philosophy. If one starts using metrics such as influence, manpower, resources, and political power, then I believe it distinguishing between the two becomes much more murky.

I'd send you another set of German authors to read...but I don't have any more.


Don Bacon

Mon, 01/09/2012 - 2:44pm

<blockquote>1) participants are not necessarily legitimate authorities, but mostly non-state actors; 2) the disputes are more over religion and ideology and less about property or territory; and 3) the distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants is not as clear as it was in the past. </blockquote>
Wrong. Civilian defenders can be legitimate, civilians don't like foreigners occupying their land and this situation has persisted forever. People are people.

Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed. --Mao Tse-Tung

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

So if war is politics with bloodshed and might include both armies and civilians, what is the basis for the supposition that armies are legitimate authorities and civilians are not?

How is the foreign U.S. Army which bombed, invaded and overthrew the Taliban government more legitimate than the native Taliban resistance to the U.S. occupation?

The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea. --Mao Tse-Tung

“Most of us — me included — had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years.” -- Stanley McChrystal

So much for psyops.

Scott Kinner

Mon, 01/09/2012 - 11:50am

At the root, dealing with self-organizing civilians on the battlefield is a philosophy issue. Civilians have always been viewed as a resource, the question of any given time was, how valuable was that resource, how was it best used, and who got to do the using?

We need only turn back the clock to the Wars of Reformation to see that the treatment of civilians in conflict is, like so many things, cyclical. The classic "sack, rape, and pillage" of that time had less to do with barbarity and more to do with the means of resourcing, paying, and fielding armies. In simple terms, plundering and rape were the payday for the soldiery of the time, as was the phenomena of civilians "self-organizing" to waylay small bands of foraging soldiers. Civilians saw soldiers of all armies as the enemy, and civilians of all stripes were seen by soldiers as resources to be consumed.

The era of "limited war" arose in the 18th and 19th centuries as civilians, the resource, began to be viewed as more valuable alive and productive then dead and used. Put another way, monarchs and governments recognized that capturing functioning enemy territory with a healthy populace was better for the bottom line. Not surprisingly, this time is also associated with the rise of standing armies, the means to pay for them, and the beginning of a relationship between the people and "their" national army. As an additional note, one need not go to far to read of the "repugnance" of the notion of civilians taking up arms against formal militaries. This attitude came directly from the concept of civilians as a resource to fought over, not fought with.

However, "total war" returned in the late 19th century as the view of civilians as a resource changed. Now seen as a valuable commodity upon which an enemy's war effort was based in terms of manpower and industrial capacity, "influencing" civilians in a violent way became an unfortunate, if acceptable process. Sherman and Grant did not peg the Southern population as a COG for no reason other than barbarity - they recognized the source of military power and political will residing with the populace...that actually sounds familiar, does it not?

As the 20th Century closes and the 21st Century opens, the real question is, where do we stand in viewing the civilian as a resource and how are we prepared to deal with and use that resource? Is it to be harbored and husbanded carefully for further growth and profit? It is to be attacked and destroyed as a means to an end? Certainly, recent history demonstrates that the US and its allies are not overly squeamish about inflicting civilian casualties, if as nothing else but collateral damage.

In sum, I think Mr. Fridman is spot on in raising the issue of "self-organizing civilians" - especially the speed at which they can do so. But I would posit that the solutions rest with how we, at this time in history, are going to answer the age old question of handling civilians as a resource. Is this a continuing age of "limited war" - civilians are to be harbored for exploitation (they are better off used as a wealth producing asset), or are we witnessing a transition back to "total war" (the civilian populace is a resource to be mitigated, neutralized, or destroyed due to its conflict and warmaking potential).

People being people, and history being history, it is not hard to see the efficiency with which civilians can self-organize as actually reintroducing and militarizing the civilian sector...and so it goes...

Outlaw 09

Mon, 01/09/2012 - 9:48am

Do self-organizing civilians on the battlefield equal a conflict ecosystem?