Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The perils of being a civilian

1 Comment


Except for the frontier wars and some raids in the 1940s, Australians – unlike the people of most countries – have had the luxury of regarding war as something that happens elsewhere. Consequently, we might not think much about civilian casualties. But the nature of warfare is not as the romantic image suggests. There are no rules or nobility in military operations. The notion of being a civilian is a convenient myth for those claiming they fight a ‘just’ war.

Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant warned Lebanon to stay out of the war in Gaza, stating that Israel could do the same to Hezbollah in Lebanon what it is doing to Hamas in Gaza. ‘What we are doing in Gaza, we can do in Beirut,’ Gallant said in a recent visit to IDF troops. ‘If we will be dragged into a violent conflict, a war, [Hezbollah] will pay a heavy price.’ With predictably similar human costs, one might assume. 

Perhaps once upon a time some ethics attached to military operations. Rhetorically any business between the armies of states in disagreement should be confined to professionals. Battles resembled extended duels between individual champions and they were supposedly based on rules and respect, except that you were trying to kill opponents. Apart from problems which might arise following defeat, the main disadvantage for non-combatants was that the exclusively male military became a ravaging elite disdainful of outsiders.

The valiant military myth broke down because of the actions of various forces historically. The military have used mercenaries and conscripts, lived off the land, destroying crops and livestock and have raped local women. They have used press gangs and conscription and even legitimate recruiting programs have targeted social dregs. So perhaps atrocities should be expected.

The illusion of warfare as a contest between professionals should have disappeared forever as the twentieth century brought numerous examples of barbarous armies butchering civilians. The invasion of China, the genocide in Armenia and the ‘civil’ war in Spain supplied patterns for the way Japan and Germany enslaved ‘conquered’ populations during the 1930s and 1940s. The bombings of Hiroshima and Dresden showed that even those states regarded as being relatively peaceful could adopt murderous means when pursuing their ends. Militias in Rwanda showed that any group possessing arms behaves like their ‘professional’ counterparts.

The use of defoliants and other biocidal agents in Vietnam, of chemical weapons across the Middle East and of land mines in many places continues despite being banned by treaties and conventions – to say nothing of humanitarian sentiment. The environment is threatened by military operations.


'Civilians pay to buy armaments and employ personnel. Then they pay when the military fails to protect them. It is a poor investment and a devil’s bargain. Being a civilian is a thankless role when it does not guarantee being non-combatant.'


Perhaps not every member of the military is ‘militarist’, but the forces harbour people with pathological tendencies. Those in the officer class have been prepared to execute non-conformists in the ranks and have indoctrinated soldiers with the need to suicide if they ‘failed’ in their campaigns. Such values must be abhorrent to any rational person.

Unfortunately, the pattern now is that some 90 per cent war casualties are civilians.  There are several explanations. First those with the guns, bombers and other weapons target civilians because they see this as tactically advantageous, creating panic and sapping morale. It is an easy option. A Proportionality Equation calculates the number of civilian casualties or collateral damage which is acceptable. The proportion is not accidental but cynically calculated. Doubtless ‘unguided bombs’ – used to terrorise civilians - render the calculation meaningless.

Secondly military personnel can better defend themselves and are protected because they are seen as important to the war. In Australia because the Anzac legend makes military service sacrosanct, this importance continues after wars so that we prefer to persecute whistleblowers rather than to prosecute war crimes.

Thirdly lines between the military and civilians are blurring. Terrorism has long been regarded as the way in which weaker forces attack the stronger. In Palestine Israel justifies civilian casualties by asserting that Hamas fighters shelter among the people and even in institutions such as hospitals and schools.

While we Australians think our military is highly professional and possibly the most responsible in the world, the paradigm is changing. Our military is being integrated into foreign forces in ways which must create ethical dilemmas. When will we next rush in ignorance to support the nationalistic aims of the USA? The ability of Australia’s military to make independent decisions is constrained too by the way our forces are becoming a subsidiary of unethical weapons manufacturers.

As long as we insist on our own right to have a military force, we can hardly ask other nation-states to abandon their armies because we think them unprofessional.

Maintaining military forces is highly expensive. While arms companies grow richer, every economy is impoverished in some way. The existence of a military force is no guarantee that potential enemies are deterred. Indeed, the contrary is true – the more we arm, the more certain we can be that wars are inevitable. And when wars occur, it is clear that the military now uses terrorist tactics.

Civilians pay to buy armaments and employ personnel. Then they pay when the military fails to protect them. It is a poor investment and a devil’s bargain. Being a civilian is a thankless role when it does not guarantee being non-combatant. Is reform possible? The only way the situation might improve is if current realities were recognised and the military-civilian distinction abolished. And there is but one way this can happen. In an ideal world, humankind would abolish the military before their actions destroy us. Unfortunately, our world is far from ideal. Beating swords into ploughshares, as Daniel Berrigan SJ – paraphrasing the prophet Isaiah – advised remains a difficult but urgent task.





Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and ethics. Recent writings have appeared at Pearls and Irritations, Green Left and The Cud.

Main image: A man tends to a fire for his family outside of their damaged home in Jenin following a muilti-day raid in the city by members of the IDF that left over 10 residents dead and wounded on December 14, 2023 in Jenin, Palestine. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Tony Smith, Gaza, Civilians, Military



submit a comment

Existing comments

War casts a shadow and as soon as it is declared it is impossible for ethics to hold sway. The outrage we are experiencing because of the number of civilian casualties in the Israel-Hamas conflict is a sign that we continue to lament the atrocity of war. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to this atrocity however anyone involved in a conflict of this scale and depth is involved in an obscenity. Beating swords into ploughshares: perhaps our most challenging and, as stated, urgent act on behalf of humanity.

Pam | 22 February 2024  

Similar Articles

In praise of Ercolina

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 19 February 2024

The heroine of last week’s most diverting news story was a cow when she and her minders were refused entrance into St Peter’s Square in Rome. Ercolina’s mission was to protest against the low prices and excessive regulation of farming In Italy, highlighting how economically more efficient production has come at a cost to a way of life.   


The love of a good convent

  • Gerard Windsor
  • 16 February 2024

Casamari, my destination for the night, was fifteen kilometres more walking. The signs pointed off the road, but I must have missed one. By this time, I had wandered too far to simply retrace my steps. I was lost. To be on this walk is to convince you that Italy is composed entirely of mountains.