I just finished reading an Iraqi report concerning the deaths of civilians who were acting as human shields. When does a person cease to be a civilian and become a soldier? Is a man in military attire with no weapon a civilian or is he a soldier? Is a man in civilian clothes holding a weapon a soldier or a civilian? Is an unarmed "civilian" who is willfully guarding a strategic target during wartime give up his rights as an "innocent civilian"? Is laying siege to a city, including cutting off its water and food supply, creating a communications blackout, cutting all power possible, etc. an ethical or just wartime act if the non-military occupants are given fair warning as to what is intended? The military are always given the option of surrender and will be cared for as POW's. How do civilians who choose to stay fit into this scheme? These are just some initial questions. What do you think?


Briefly, the distinction between "civilian" and "military" is not made in Scripture itself. It is a distinction that we have made to honor the general biblical principle of the sanctity of life. That is to say, even in war we seek to minimize the loss of life, and the best way to do that while achieving the war's objective is to try to identify those in the enemy country who can be left alive without endangering the war effort. So a "civilian" is someone who is not likely to kill members of the invading army and should therefore ordinarily be spared.

But this distinction is only a rough and ready one. In Viet Nam, children "welcomed" American soldiers and then threw grenades at them. In Israel, teenage girls have been suicide bombers. So coalition soldiers must be wary of "civilians." In many cases they will have no suspicions of civilians and will let them get on with their lives. But in some other cases they should be suspicious. Criteria for those decisions (i.e. of what should create suspicion) are best developed by the military, not by theologians.

When Saddam uses civilians as human shields we have a choice: (1) avoid the encounter and try to achieve the objective by other means, (2) seek by precision targeting to eliminate the military contingent while minimizing civilian deaths, (3) where necessary, carry out a broad based attack, knowing that many civilians will die. I think that we should be biased against (3). But there is no absolute principle (in Scripture or even against just war theory) prohibiting the killing of any civilians. In Israel's wars, many civilians were killed, sometimes by divine order.

There is a corporate principle that people die for the sins of their representatives. There is something tragic about this, but it's inevitable. When a father sins, he endangers his family. When a ruler sins, he endangers his people. Further, the Iraqi civilian population is not entirely blameless, for it has in large measure supported Saddam's rise to power and his aggressive actions.

Siege warfare was well known in the ancient world. Deut. 20 describes a siege war in which Israel is the aggressor. God tells them to spare the fruit trees: i.e., no "scorched earth" policy. But withholding means of life to encourage surrender is not excluded. For our standpoint, it may be more humane than to march in with guns blazing.

It is a humane gesture to give soldiers an opportunity to surrender, to encourage civilians to rise against the regime, to give civilians an opportunity to escape from impending attack (as the British have done in southern Iraq). But those who choose to stay, even for morally good reasons, must accept the consequences.

The Bible recognizes that war is a terrible thing, stemming from lusts and anger. In wars, people die who do not personally deserve death. In contrast with just war theory, Scripture does not try to micromanage humanitarianism in time of war. Rather, it justifies doing whatever is needed to achieve a legitimate military objective. There are opportunities during war to minimize killing, and it's good to take advantage of them when we can. But the military objective comes first.

Answer by Dr. John M. Frame

Dr. John M. Frame is Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.