Using civilians as shields in war

A widespread tactics in war consists in using civilians as shields, eg by taking the fight into densely populated areas, or by more or less forcibly placing civilians in the line of fire – in the hope that the enemy will hold fire, take fewer risks, etc. Most people believe that resorting to such tactics is morally wrong (as well as unlawful as per the Geneva Conventions.) Yet, there are some other, widely held intuitions which seem to conflict with that view – in particular the intuition that military conscription is permissible.


In one-to-one cases, forcibly using someone as a shield in self-defence clearly is impermissible. The same applies in war, one might think.

But perhaps this is too quick. Take the case where B uses its own non-combatants. However, S’s case might be thought to differ in one crucial respect from the case of human shields, to wit, that non-combatants(B) are asked to incur high risks of harm, not for the sake of other persons, but for the sake of prosecuting a war in the success of which they, as members of B, have a strong interest. And in some cases, one might argue, conscripting individuals into the army to fight such a war is permissible. Might that also apply to shields?

A standard case for conscription appeals to the principle of fairness. As a rough sketch, here is how the argument might go: In so far as a just war is one which is fought for a just cause such as blocking serious rights violations, the benefits it confers are such that one is under an enforceable duty to contribute to it, whether or not one has consented to having those rights secured for oneself, and provided that one stands a higher chance than not, not merely of surviving the war, but of enjoying a minimally flourishing life after the war.

If there is an enforceable duty to contribute to the war effort, as the case for war-time military conscription suggests, then is there not an enforceable duty to contribute as a shield? There is a further twist here. For quite often, B will use non-combatants as shields in the expectation that its enemy will, as a result, desist from shooting, or at least exercise greater caution than if they were not faced with human shields. It might well be, then, that the risks incurred by shields would be lower than the risks incurred by conscripts on the battlefield. If individuals are under a duty to incur a given risk R whilst fulfilling combating roles, it seems hard to object to holding them under a duty to incur R-n, which would thus help justify conscripting them into ‘shielding’.

This is all speculative as yet…Three loose ends need tying (at the very least.) First, I would say that not everyone should be used as a shield: infants, the very elderly, etc. But I am not sure how I can support this intuition.Second, more work would need to be done on penalties for dereliction of duty (a conscript who absconds is usually sent to jail; what of a shield?) Finally, there is the problem of intervening agency: suppose that B's enemy do not desist from shooting, as a result of which shields incur a greater risk of harm than they are under a duty to incur. To what extent does this affect the moral status of B's resort to the tactics?

7 Replies to “Using civilians as shields in war

  1. With my Kantian hat on, I’d really want to object to this. Allowing yourself to be used as a shield would amount to letting the humanity in you to be used as a mere means rather than as an end in itself. You’d not be thinking that your humanity or rational nature is worth preserving as such. Rather, you would use it as a means for possibly getting the other side to chicken out so that something important to the state would not be destroyed. In the case of letting yourself to be used as a shield for a military target this would borderline absurd. So, yeah, I think there is a categorical imperative not to be let yourself to be used as a shield.

  2. > In so far as a just war is one which is fought for a just cause such as blocking serious rights violations, the benefits it confers are such that one is under an enforceable duty to contribute to it, whether or not one has consented to having those rights secured for oneself, and provided that one stands a higher chance than not, not merely of surviving the war, but of enjoying a minimally flourishing life after the war.
    Hold on. Doesn’t this mean that frontline units bearing the brunt of combat do not have an obligation and their conscription is immoral? They may well not have a better-than-even chance of survival, to say nothing of survivors may be vegetables or quadriplegics etc.
    > For quite often, B will use non-combatants as shields in the expectation that its enemy will, as a result, desist from shooting, or at least exercise greater caution than if they were not faced with human shields. It might well be, then, that the risks incurred by shields would be lower than the risks incurred by conscripts on the battlefield.
    But a human shield is vastly less useful than a soldier. A shield *may* make the enemy hold their fire; but a soldier *will* fight the enemy directly. (Reductio: an army made entirely of human shields. Who could it possibly win against?)
    So if defeating the enemy is obligatory, anyone who can be a soldier ought to be a soldier rather than a human shield. Human shields would be what you do with the useless ‘leftover’ bits of your population – the infants & elderly you say would make bad human shields. Further, aren’t those groups the ones that enemies would be most loathe to attack and would bring down global condemnation?
    Both of these considerations suggest the opposite of ‘not everyone should be used as a shield: infants, the very elderly, etc.’
    Then there’s the issue of fairness.
    A soldier has armor, his unit, medkits, rations, weapons, combined arms supports, etc. A shield may have none of that. (If a shield gets shot in the leg, where’s the medic? Does she have comrades? Do they know first-aid – like soldiers would – to get her to a field hospital? Can she defend herself against followup attacks?)
    So, human shields are less useful from a utilitarian perspective; they are unfair from a Kantian view (?); and from a cynical viewpoint, modern warfare is such that human shields only drive up body counts and are thus immoral by anyone’s view.

  3. “I would say that not everyone should be used as a shield: infants, the very elderly, etc. But I am not sure how I can support this intuition.”
    Idea that *fairness* might require that non-combatants be forced by their own (“just”) side to get blown up (for how likely is it that the unjust aggressors will respect their putative right to life when their own “just” side is conspicuously (otherwise there’s no point) ignoring it?) = basis for a serious moral argument.
    Idea that babies, old people and the infirm shouldn’t deliberately be put in harm’s way (or worse) = shaky “moral intuition.”

  4. Cecile,
    You say that in one-to-one cases forcibly using someone as a shield in self-defense is clearly impermissible. But the one-to-one analogue of the sort of in bello cases that you’re considering would seem to be a case in which it is at least reasonably likely that using someone as a shield will prevent the attacker from shooting altogether, and it seems to me that if this is the case then using someone as a shield is not obviously impermissible. It may be true that you would be using the shield’s humanity as a mere means to the end of saving your life (although I’m not entirely sure about this), but this does not seem to me to be a decisive reason to think that doing so is impermissible in this case. If using someone as a shield in this sort of one-to-one case is permissible, then we have at least some reason to think that it’s permissible to use noncombatants as shields in a just war, at least so long as doing so is reasonably likely to deter the aggression of the unjust side.
    In this sort of case I’m not sure why we should think that infants or the elderly should be exempt from being used as shields. As Andy points out, they would presumably be the sorts of shields that would have the greatest deterrent effect. And if they wouldn’t have a deterrent effect, then surely others wouldn’t either, and so using anyone as a shield would be impermissible. I suppose one reason for exempting them from facing the risks associated with being used as a shield might derive from the thought that it would be impermissible to conscript them for combat service. Perhaps it is only justifiable to subject someone to risk R-n if it would also be permissible to subject them to risk R. But I see no obvious reason to think this.

  5. Cecile, Jussi and Andy
    Interesting question. I think that rejection of the permissibility of using civilians as shields on the basis of the means principle is too quick. Here’s what I take to be Cecile’s thought.
    Suppose that A, a villain, is hunting down B, an innocent, with a rocket launcher. There is a 90% chance that A will succeed. However, if B gets into a car with C, an innocent stranger, without C’s consent, A might be deterred from firing the launcher. Suppose that if B does this there is a 40% chance of both B and C being killed. In that case, I think, it would be wrong for B to get into the car. B would be exposed to a greater risk of harm than he has a duty to bear as a means to avert the threat to B.
    Suppose, however, that C has a duty to protect B. If C has an obligation to take on a 40% risk to his life in order to reduce the risk that B faces from 90% to 40% I think that it would be permissilbe for B to get into the car with C even if C does not consent. C would be harmed as a means, but he would only be harmed to the degree that he has a duty to bear, and it is urgent that he bears this harm now in order to protect B.
    If civilians have protective duties to their comrades we might think it permissible to use them as shields. And that could be justified on the grounds of fairness: in the war scenario, B is acting for the protection of B and C and C can be expected to bear a fair share of the cost of protection. A scheme of conscription of soldiers but not shields puts a great deal of the costs of protection on conscripted soldiers and much less on non-conscripts. A scheme that equalised these costs would be just. A scheme of conscripting soldiers and shields would distribute the costs of protection more equally for the same benefit.
    There are reasons to doubt that this has powerful implications for war though. Firstly, a practice of using civilian shields is unlikely systematically to have strong deterrence effects on the acts of the unjust side in the longer term. Rather the practice is likely to lead to bloodier wars.
    Secondly, these deterrence effects are much more likely to influence the just side rather than the unjust side. A law permitting the use of civilian shields would for that reason do much more harm than good. It would tend to lead to the unjust side winning wars. So we have good reason to punish the use of civilian shields.
    Thirdly, whilst it is also true that conscripts on the just side are harmed as a means, they have more control over their fate. They may actively do their duty and so on. Many people would prefer to be a conscript than a shield given the same degree of risk to life and limb.
    There are different ways of harming a person as a means and I suspect that they are not all equal. A system where people could be conscripted only as soldiers is likely to be preferable, for this reason, to a system where people can be conscripted either as soldiers or as shields.

  6. Shields
    A. Reply to Andy, Jimmy Brian, Victor Feb 3 2010
    Andy, Jimmy Brian and Victor made a number of useful points which show the dangers inherent in articulating a controversial thought in short post, as opposed to a long paper. I do have a few replies.
    Andy writes (and some of his concerns are shared by Brian):
    1. ‘Doesn’t this mean that frontline units bearing the brunt of combat do not have an obligation and their conscription is immoral? They may well not have a better-than-even chance of survival, to say nothing of survivors may be vegetables or quadriplegics etc.’
    To which I reply: Yes, it may well mean that. I believe that there are very serious problems to conscripting soldiers into fighting a war the tactics are such as to expose them to a very high risk of incurring such harms. And if that means the war is not fought at all because of a lack of willing soldiers, then, so be it.
    2. ‘But a human shield is vastly less useful than a soldier. A shield *may* make the enemy hold their fire; but a soldier *will* fight the enemy directly. (Reductio: an army made entirely of human shields. Who could it possibly win against?) So if defeating the enemy is obligatory, anyone who can be a soldier ought to be a soldier rather than a human shield. Human shields would be what you do with the useless ‘leftover’ bits of your population – the infants & elderly you say would make bad human shields. . Further, aren’t those groups the ones that enemies would be most loathe to attack and would bring down global condemnation?’
    To which I reply: First, a soldier will be deployed on the battlefield, but it does not mean that he will actually fight, let alone fight efficiently. Second, I do not argue that defeating an enemy is obligatory all things considered (see earlier point re conscription.) Supposing it is obligatory, it is not the case that whoever can be a soldier ought to be a soldier: a community simply cannot survive – indeed, cannot hope to win the war – if all its members are deployed to the front. There are in short different ways in which to contribute to a war. Fighting is one such way. Deflecting the enemy’s threats by helping to deter them to fight is another. That is what I mean, by shielding. I am grateful to Andy for pressing me on this, as it helps clarify the point. Third, there is a reason for resisting the thought that the ‘useless leftovers’ bits (not my terminology) of your population ought to contribute, namely: those individuals are often already very vulnerable, and fairness dictates that they be left alone; or they are not the kind of individuals who can, generally, be held under moral (contributory) duties (infants, the very severely disabled, etc.). And this would be so, even if using them would indeed (as Andy suggest) be very efficient since the enemy would be loathed to (be seen to) attack them. (The fact that a tactic is successful does not entail that we may use it.) So here, I am in agreement with Jimmy, whose fairness argument against using those individuals as shields is very similar to the point I made here. Brian’s point towards the end of his post seems to be germane to this as well. I am not sure however that the argument is as robust as it might seem. Hence my tentative claim ‘I am not sure how to justify it’ in the original post.
    3. ‘A soldier has armor, his unit, medkits, rations, weapons, combined arms supports, etc. A shield may have none of that. (If a shield gets shot in the leg, where’s the medic? Does she have comrades? Do they know first-aid – like soldiers would – to get her to a field hospital? Can she defend herself against follow-up attacks?)’
    To which I reply: Yes, if there is a duty to act as a shield (subjects to costs and risks-related considerations) then there is a corresponding duty of care on the part of the belligerent to provide those individuals with the required care, etc. I like the question ‘Can she defend herself against follow up attack’. My argument does not commit me to the view that individuals ought to offer themselves up as defenseless shields (indeed, that view would constitute the point at which the analogy with conscription into combating really breaks down.) And in fact, we should resist that view – we simply cannot expect someone to deny himself the means of self-defense. But the considerations which support a contributory duty to fight may well support (it seems to me) support a duty to contribute by way of one’s deterring presence, as it were, as a civilian, with the added point that, if the enemy does not desist, one is clearly permitted to defend oneself.
    That last point might be thought to make the whole issue moot. For why not, more straightforwardly, say that all agents on whom it is generally appropriate to impose contributory duties are under a duty to serve in the army? To which the answer lies in my second reply to Andy at 2 above.
    4. On Brian’s point re individual cases. The individual case I start with, to get me thinking about these issues, is when where I forcibly grab someone and place them in front of me. And that, I think, is impermissible, for the following reason: even if the shield – call him S – is under an enforceable moral obligation to serve as such, it does not follow that we may forcibly extract from them the performance of that service, should they be derelict in their moral duty. (In other words, there are good reasons against insisting on a requirement of specific performance. And that in fact does apply to conscripts as well. If a conscript refuses to serve he will usually be sent to jail, not forced to remain on the battlefield.)
    5. On Victor’s point: I like it. I’ll have to think more about it. A couple of observations. First, even if V is right that in practice using civilians as shields will lead to bloodier wars, note that this is a morally-directed pragmatic reason against the tactics, not a fully principled objection. And I think that this matters, because if that were the only really solid objection, then in principle the door would remain open for the use of shields against an enemy which would be deterred. Second, on people preferring to be conscripts than shields, etc: that might well be true. But on the plausible assumption that not every possible duty bearer can, at any one time, serve in the army (for reasons outlined above), and that there is a need for shields as well as soldiers, the issue then is of fairly distributing the different burdens attendant on fighting the war. Please bear in mind that all of this is subject to burden-related considerations.

  7. Hang on now, I don’t believe it’s fair to compare shields with conscripts, as conscripts always have the choice to go to prison in place of being used as soldiers. Even if it’s an unfair choice to have to make, it is one. Shields get no chance to make such a choice. Civil disobedience isn’t really an option for a shield.

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