The Politics of Humane Violence

By Craig JonesJuly 26, 2021

The Politics of Humane Violence

Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire by Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini

WHILE MISSILES rained down on Gaza in May, the shields went up again. “Hamas is using children as human shields,” reported the Israel Defense Forces on its Twitter feed, a claim hotly disputed by the other side, whose military character is inherently civilian and geographically inseparable from schools, hospitals, and the ordinary flow of Palestinian life. As with so much else in Palestine-Israel, the discourse on human shields is toxic and has been for some time.

Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini’s new book, Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire, provides a welcome way out of this rhetorical spiral. The book offers a forensic documentation and genealogical deconstruction of the concepts of “the human” and “the shield,” forwarding a novel analysis that situates the discourse of human shields as war’s very operation.

The human shield is what the British philosopher of language J. L. Austin would have called a “speech act.” The human shield faces us; we are its audience. The key contribution of this timely book is to elucidate that speech acts about human shielding authorize some forms of action and enable particular constellations of actors while delegitimizing and disabling others. 

Although we hear a lot about human shields in the news on Gaza, it is a perennial issue that has significance far beyond the besieged territory. To this end, Gordon and Perugini provide a framework for making sense of the many times and places where practices and discourses of human shields have been deployed. Some daily realities produced by the human shield might look unrecognizable from the apparently exceptional space of Gaza. We saw a powerful demonstration of the emancipatory potential of human shielding in the city of Glasgow in May, where approximately 200 locals formed a shield around a UK Immigration Enforcement van that had detained two men. Chanting “These are our neighbors; let them go” and “Refugees are welcome here,” the collective action that saw one activist lodge himself under the van for eight hours to prevent it from moving succeeded in securing the two men’s release.

The history of human shields has its heroines and heroes. Tiananmen had the “Tank Man,” who famously stood in front of a column of tanks. His act of defiance came the day after the Chinese military suppressed protestors in the square, but for those few iconic moments, he brought the tanks to a standstill. More recently, Black Lives Matter had Ieshia Evans, who stood tall in front of a line of heavily armed police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, following the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in 2016. Her striking and nonviolent approach drew immediate attention to the vulnerability of Black people against police violence. Then, there is Rachel Corrie, an American pro-Palestinian activist who was killed by an Israeli military armored bulldozer in Rafah City in 2003 while shielding a Gazan home from demolition.

Individuals like these stand in for broad political and social movements. Human Shields documents many examples of collectives that have put their bodies on the line to intervene against violence done to others. Chapters on pacifist politics include thoughtful engagements with a wide cast of radical characters and organizations, from Agnes Maude Royden’s interwar Peace Army and Ghandi’s “living wall” to the Human Shield Action Group in Iraq and its harbinger, the 1990 Gulf Peace Team. These campaigns had mixed effects, and while they rarely succeeded in preventing violence, they amplified important pacifist movements and fed into wider articulations of antiwar politics.

Volunteers have opted to shield not only other humans but other beings as well. In fact, human shielding first emerged as a form of resistance in environmental struggle. Eco-shielding has become synonymous with international groups like Greenpeace and tree-hugger environmentalists, but green activism expands beyond these more well-known examples. In 1958, a group of activists concerned about ocean life set sail from Hawaiian shores, bound for the Marshall Islands to prevent a nuclear test from being carried out. In 1971, another group tried something similar, headed to Amchitka, one of the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, where the United States was planning to test a new, even more powerful nuclear bomb. Both teams were quickly apprehended and never reached their destinations, but testing on Amchitka was later stopped because of the growing grassroots activism that originated from the protests.

There is, however, nothing intrinsically emancipatory about even the most aspirational forms of shielding. Building on the works of political theorist Banu Bargu and critical race theorist Gada Mahrouse, Gordon and Perugini have written elsewhere, “only certain, mostly privileged, groups of people can act as voluntary shields and become ‘weapons of peace.’” The point is not only about the differential value ascribed to different lives: for a shielding action to be effective, those who shield must be less expendable (because their lives matter more) than those they protect. Volunteer shields can be recognized as an act of legitimate resistance, as opposed to an act of violence. Perhaps this explains why Rachel Corrie as an “innocent” white young American woman can be immortalized where countless other less privileged activists have been forgotten, indeed were never known. By throwing privileged white bodies in front of others to protect the notion that Black, Palestinian, and minority lives matter, voluntary human shields risk reinscribing the very hierarchies of humanity that their actions seek to abolish.


Race and racism are weaved like a red thread through the history of human shielding. Gordon and Perugini pull at this thread to unravel an ethics of violence that discriminates structurally against nonwhite societies. They also expose a precariously constructed political geography of violence in which the violence of colonial and settler societies is constantly shored up, enabled, and legitimized by reference to hordes of infrahuman Others whose lives are found in one way or another to be unworthy of protection.

The authors trace this thread back to the American Civil War, when both Confederate and Union forces used high-ranking white prisoners of war as shields in cities to deter enemy attacks. Rather than protecting military instillations, human shields were instead used as evidence of the enemy’s barbarity. In ways that parallel what is happening in Gaza today, human shields functioned as a justification for renewed military violence.

European history too includes surplus examples of human shields. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 is particularly illuminating. With Napoleon captured and the Second French Empire on the back foot, French citizens took up arms against the occupation, sabotaging supply lines, blowing up bridges, and vexing German advances by adopting “guerrilla tactics.” The francs-tireurs (free-shooters) wore no official uniforms and blended in with the civilian population. Outraged at such perfidy, German forces responded by laying waste to entire villages. If the irregulars were going to hide among civilians, the civilian population would pay the price. As part of the counterinsurgency efforts, German commanders used prominent members of civil society — individuals well known to the francs-tireurs — to shield trains carrying German troops. This time, the strategy worked.

The early use of shields agitated prevailing sensibilities and war laws that tried to maintain some distinction between combatants and civilians. But while massacring civilians and systematically using them as human shields might not have lived up to the day’s highest ethical and legal codes, the German military justified its actions much as countries do today. The Franco-Prussian War marks one of the first instances in which the actions of irregular non-state forces acted as a pretext for indiscriminate violence and a justification for the state’s own use of human shields. Law and morality are violated in order to preserve ideas about law and morality. The question, Gordon and Perugini argue, is not who violated first, but whose crime shall be recognized as such.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it did not think twice about using mustard gas, executing prisoners, and bombing civilian targets — all crimes that violated the laws of war. While historians have pored over Italy’s notorious use of mustard gas, less well known is that the Fascist forces also targeted hospitals and medical facilities operated by the Red Cross. This violated the 1907 Hague Convention, which provided for certain protections of “hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected.” But the Italians exploited the Hague provisions in much the same way that some military powers today exploit the indeterminacy of international law. The enemy used hospitals for “military purposes,” making them fair game. Today, we are witnessing the systematic and deliberate targeting of health and health-care infrastructures across the Middle East — much of it under the same flimsy pretext. For this reason, Gordon and Perugini have elsewhere called for an absolute ban on the targeting of “hospital shields.”

We have seen, then, that the emancipatory potential of human shielding is often turned on its fragile head. But Gordon and Perugini punch hardest in their explanations of how human shielding turns entire racialized populations into expansive death worlds. They do so first by showing how the human shield negates the presumed innocence of racialized bodies and, second, by tracing how the definition of what constitutes a human shield has become so engorged that it now encompasses not so much individuals as nameless, racialized masses.

First, innocence. As the feminist international legal scholar Helen M. Kinsella has argued, the figure of the civilian has long been reproduced through discourses of gender, innocence, and civilization. Her genealogy shows how the civilian is defined in international law as constitutively passive. Today, the “ideal” civilian is female, childlike, preferably white, and does not involve themselves in any way with the conduct of hostilities. Such icons of innocence are of course difficult to live up to — especially if one is a “MAM” (military-aged male — a description that frames all men of military age as targetable), an Arab, or a human shield. Yet such framings continue to animate not only contemporary international law but also our cultural, political, and moral imaginings of war and who counts among its victims.

The problem with framing civilians as impossibly innocent and constitutively passive is that any claimed deviation casts doubt on the civilianness of civilians. The voluntary human shield especially challenges prevailing conceptions of the mute civilian. For this reason, Gordon and Perugini observe that the voluntary human shield “was and remains inconceivable in international law.” Much of this has to do with questions of agency. The actors of war are combatants: soldiers who shoot, pilots who drop missiles, paramilitary forces who fight — they have the power to take life or spare it. Civilians, on the other hand, are supposed to do none of these things; instead, they are acted upon — they are injured, killed, or saved. Under this rubric, to volunteer is an automatic transgression, one that blurs the distinction between civilians and combatants and throws the very essence of war and law into a potential death spiral.

Involuntary shields suffer the same fate, only on a much larger scale, which brings us to the second point: the engorgement of the human shield. In recent decades, we have witnessed what human rights attorney and legal scholar Noura Erakat has called the “shrinking civilian.” This process has “diminished the category of the civilian and expanded the scope of legitimate targets,” with the effect of “permitting the killing of greater numbers of Palestinians [and others] in the language of law.” My own work on United States and Israeli military lawyers confirms Erakat’s important observation and argues that military powers have no shortage of legal options when it comes to selecting from an expansive array of “targets.”

“Dual use” infrastructures and civilians who are said to be “DPH” (directly participating in hostilities) fall into the flexible category of “targets.” Each of these legal formulae is, like the human shield, a double-edged sword. If civilian infrastructures are used for “military purposes” (hence “dual use”), they lose some of their legal protections from attack. If a civilian partakes in any activities that could be construed as supporting military efforts, then they similarly stand to lose their protection. And to be labeled a human shield by an attacking military is to be given a death sentence with no due process or right of appeal. This brings the end of innocence for their civilians, or so our masters of war claim.

In the 20th century, the discourses on human shielding shifted from individual deterrents to entire groups of people. The shift first came into view over the course of World War I and II, where POWs were deployed as shields in significant numbers, but it was in the United States’s war in Vietnam where something altogether grander in scale took place. The Vietnam War was an asymmetric conflict: low-tech rebel fighters of the National Liberation Front (NLF) faced the might of the United States military and Saigon. Outmatched in firepower and technology, the NLF employed the Maoist idea of a people’s war, mobilizing the Vietnamese population against the US invasion and occupation. The civilian population supported the foot soldiers such that the fighters became indistinguishable from the rural population. In response, the United States began a long and ill-fated counterinsurgency program — one marked by mass detention and industrial-scale assassination — that ultimately failed to win over the “hearts and minds” of the people of North Vietnam. Instead, they did as they would years later in Iraq and Afghanistan: they took to the skies and dropped bombs, making very little attempt to distinguish between combatants and civilians and certainly not worrying much about “collateral damage.”

If populations were going to aid the enemy, they were not really civilians, or so the Department of Defense claimed. With juridical sleight of hand, the entire people’s war was reduced to an act of human shielding. The United States did not even spare the jungle, for the canopies too were constituted as shields. The use of napalm against civilians was banned in 1980, but the Vietnam War left an indelible mark not only on the civilian population but on the history of human shields as well.

In recent decades, there has been much talk of risk-transfer war — the idea that Western militaries fatigued by waning public support can no longer sustain large numbers of “boots on the ground,” instead relying on airpower and local partners. But concomitant with these palpable developments in “remote warfare” has been an acceleration of what might be called responsibility-transfer war. Warring parties have always blamed their enemy for the inevitable death and destruction sown by war, but the framing of entire populations as involuntary shields achieves something particularly important in our contemporary era. It allows state militaries who have become increasingly sensitive about how global audiences perceive their actions to not only deny allegations of criminality and wrongdoing but to provide these audiences with a highly compelling criminal figure: the irregular fighter.

Enabled by the framing of civilians as human shields, the transfer of responsibility onto irregular fighters has become the norm in the 21st century. Gordon and Perugini present us with examples from computer games, social media, and drone warfare, but their analysis of the scope and scale of human shielding in the contemporary period strengthens with their writing on the killing fields of Sri Lanka, Mosul, and Gaza.

During the final days of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, government forces cast over 300,000 civilians trapped in the midst of the conflict as human shields. The backstory is complex, but in basic terms, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were on the brink of defeat and retreated into an ever-smaller swath of land that the government called the “Tiger cage.” Within this area, the government created “no-fire” zones, urging the civilian population to gather there. When they did, the LTTE joined and hid among them. The government then unleashed a full military bombardment of the area, turning the no-fire zones into kill boxes — between 10,000 and 40,000 caged-in civilians were killed and many more injured. Accusations of ethnic cleansing inevitably arose, but the government knew how to respond (fascinatingly bolstered with legal advice from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada): the LTTE had used some 330,000 civilians as human shields and, though regrettable, the deaths were ultimately not the government’s fault. What we witness in Sri Lanka is not only the radical expansion of shielding’s scale, but also a shift in the method by which civilians become cast as shields. Whereas in the past specific individuals or groups were coerced into becoming shields, in Sri Lanka, large numbers of civilians became shields “due to the space they occupied and its proximity to the fighting.”

Proximity shielding represents a particularly egregious threat to anyone and everyone who might be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Today, literally millions of people across entire continents and regions are being framed as proximate human shields. In the 2016 war on Mosul, a cacophony of actors from Donald Trump to Pope Francis and from the United Nations to Newsweek spoke of ISIS using tens and even hundreds of thousands of civilians as shields. No doubt ISIS did use human shields, but before the liberation of Mosul even began, the rules of engagement had been written: any civilian deaths — and there would be many — would be the responsibility of ISIS, not the coalition dropping bombs from above. A year after the siege of Mosul was over, I had dinner with a senior investigator from Human Rights Watch. They had over 20 years’ experience traveling to warzones to assess damage, but nothing could prepare them for what they saw in Mosul. With the exception of a few brave journalists, what happened in Mosul has barely been reported. So many of us — actively or otherwise — imagined Mosul not as a city full of human beings, restaurants, and libraries, but as a shield that hid ISIS, Western irregular enemy number one.

Proximity shielding threatens the distinction between voluntary and involuntary shielding (and between the civilian and the human shield more broadly) because it has little to do with volition. Where these traditional conceptions involve a shield via coercion or choice, acting as a buffer between two sides, a person or group of people becomes a proximity shield merely because of their closeness to the fighting. In fact, proximity shielding inverts the shield’s relation to agency, requiring a person to leave the area or the city in order to not become a shield. Inaction (remaining in the city) converts a civilian — even one with issues of mobility — into a shield, thus rendering them killable. This shifts the onus and obligation from the attacking forces to civilians, who must now prove they are not human shields by fleeing their homes and displacing their families. In other words, a great act of self-harm is required to avoid an even greater act of self-harm: leave everyone and everything behind or risk being killed.

By these means, entire populations and vast cities are reduced to war space. Prevailing hierarchies of humanity ensure that some places and some people are far more likely to find themselves expendable through the twisted logics and framings of the human shield. These are colonial geographies recast, rewritten, and reinvigorated for the present. All of this has an especially cruel irony in Gaza today. Most of the population are refugees of al-Nakba, told to leave as civilians, told to stay as colonial subjects. Sealed in, no escape is possible. All the while, the Israel Defense Forces drop leaflets and issue threats instructing Gazans to evacuate and leave their homes once again. And to where, exactly?


Dr. Craig Jones is the author of The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and Juridical Warfare and lecturer in political geography at Newcastle University. He writes about warfare in the contemporary Middle East and is currently working on a project that examines traumatic injury and regimes of rehabilitation among civilian populations in Palestine, Iraq, and Syria. He lives in the Northeast of England.

LARB Contributor

Dr. Craig Jones is the author of The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and Juridical Warfare and lecturer in political geography at Newcastle University. He writes about warfare in the contemporary Middle East and is currently working on a project that examines traumatic injury and regimes of rehabilitation among civilian populations in Palestine, Iraq, and Syria. He lives in the Northeast of England.


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