Against bringing civilians into war zones



In putting a case against the involvement of civilians in military operations at an event hosted by the Asia-Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence is bit like placing Christians before lions and then having a debate as to whether the lions are hungry, and I can hear the rumbling stomachs from here. We will assume, to clarify the discussion, that the involvement of civilians in military matters does not include emergency relief efforts, in which the military is involved in an engineering and logistical capacity, rather than in a military capacity.

In such roles, soldiers act as an extension of the government’s aid program, not as a military force. Beyond this, the idea of combining aid programs and military action represents a confusion of categories. The purpose of one is not just different to the other but, in effect, its opposite. The purpose of aid is to develop communities. The purpose of war is to obtain military victory over them by the use of armed force. By their nature, civilians do not have military training, do not exhibit military discipline and are not part of a military command structure. Having them in a conflict environment only creates for the enemy new, usually slow moving targets who can’t shoot back while providing no necessary military capacity. Similarly, environments which require civilians, such as development and aid specialists, doctors, educators, agriculturalists, do not need a military capacity. Where the environment is about aid or development, militaries are inappropriate to the environment they operate in and create more problems than they solve.

We have seen militaries alienate local people from the international community more generally in East Timor and we have seen militaries misunderstand and compromise peace processes in Mindanao. The effect of deploying soldiers to what amounts to an aid environment is that it simply turns the people we are trying to help against us. They want to be assisted. They do not want to be militarily occupied. We have seen this is virtually every emergency and humanitarian relief aid program where, once the moment of crisis has passed, soldiers are not wanted and their presence breeds resentment. If, in an aid environment, there is an element of risk of volent behaviour, what they need is police, not soldiers. In this, the blunt effect of military force does not equate to the precision of rule of law. The range of skills that are employed by police occupy a different end of the security spectrum to that of soldiers.

We know the military are not wanted in nor are they appropriate to civilian programs, so why do we have civilians working in military programs? In short, the advent of asymmetric warfare has confounded militaries that are structured for more conventional warfare.

This raises the following issues: 1. Asymmetric wars are usually wards of interest, rather than direct national defence and national survival. ‘Interest’ is an inconsistent and value-laden variable, in which short-term political expediencies compromise clear military objectives. 2. Asymmetric warfare is invariably against an ‘enemy’ that is part of the people, and attacking one inevitably attacks the other. The enemy cannot leave and can only oppose the invader. 3. Adding civilians to asymmetric wars has a political function but does not improve their outcomes. 4. Where the battle is for an ill-defined ‘national interest’ – we are never quite sure whose interest we are referring to. As a consequence, the idea of victory becomes vague and, ultimately, compromised. Adding civilians does not make the objective any more clear. In order to understand an idea, we need to trace its origins.

The idea of bringing civilians into military environments was developed by the late US Defence Secretary, Robert Macnamara, during the Vietnam War. The intent was, in the late 1960s, to include humanitarian programs alongside a war fighting capacity in order to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of deeply sceptical Vietnamese. As with subsequent grasping at tactical straws in misunderstood strategic environments, such an approach inevitably fails. So, we are left with the very clear options; if we need to fight a necessary war we use the military; if we wish to aid a people we use aid agencies. We should not mix the two. We do no good for ourselves, or the people we are claiming to help, but pretending that by including civilians in military operations we somehow take the sting out of visiting war upon them.