The Image before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction between Combatant and Civilian

By Carpenter, Charli | Ethics & International Affairs, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The Image before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction between Combatant and Civilian


Carpenter, Charli, Ethics & International Affairs


The Image before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction between Combatant and Civilian, Helen M. Kinsella (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2011), 264 pp., $34.95 cloth.

In the "human security" era (since approximately the end of the cold war), a burgeoning literature in political science has debated both the effects of the civilian immunity norm and the tensions in the concept, ostensibly to better understand how to protect civilians in armed conflict. Yet as Helen Kinsella rightly tells us, there has been too little critical attention to the concept of the civilian itself. Her sweeping historical genealogy of the "civilian" not only debunks various myths about the concept but also exposes certain problems and tensions that may be at the root of the current crisis in the civilian immunity norm itself.

The Image before the Weapon makes two key contributions to scholarship on the laws of war. The first is its stunningly comprehensive historical breadth. Kinsella traces the concept of the civilian from medieval times through the colonial era and up to its eventual, gradual, and deeply politicized codification in the formal laws of war only a few decades ago. In each epoch she demonstrates in detail how notions of civilian immunity and their semantic and conceptual underpinnings were connected to broader sociohistorical processes by which diplomats, theorists, and statesmen reconceived world orders-and by which weapons-bearers enacted these orders on civilians. Her analysis demonstrates that, as she puts it, "the laws of war might be best characterized as a strategic expression of morals and a moral expression of strategies" (p. 188). This is a helpful rearticulation of the existing consensus among even constructivist international relations theorists of the law of war: that the law reflects power structures even as it regulates behavior within those structures. For Kinsella, the relevant structures include not just power differentials between states but between categories of states, social orders, and gender, race, and class hierarchies.

The value of Kinsella's contribution is in its depth as well as breadth. Her discussion of the codification of humanitarian law at the Geneva conferences in 1949 and the later revising of the law in 1977 to fit postcolonial realities is one of the best, and hers is the only critical treatment of these events as they pertain to the concept of the "civilian." In particular, she exposes the political causes and consequences of the choice not to define "civilian" in the 1977 Additional Protocols. Her chapters are full of new insights even for specialists in the area, such as her discussion of the Soviet position on Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which provides a minimum standard of humanitarian conduct even in conflicts not covered by the rest of the treaties; and of the pernicious effects of the new language on civilian immunity in the 1977 Additional Protocols, which many at the time--including the International Committee of the Red Cross--assumed would be a strengthened standard for civilian protection. She also provides three new case studies on civilian protection as it pertained to frontier warfare in the United States, the behavior of the French in Algeria, and the civil wars of Guatemala and El Salvador. Each expands the corpus of case studies on the topic within a field dominated by treatments of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, and each examines the nexus between discourses of "civilization" and the treatment of civilians by weapons-bearers. As a work of history, then, Kinsella's analysis makes a substantial contribution.

As a work of international relations theory, however, The Image before the Weapon leaves open some room for critique by scholars of international norms. While Kinsella provides an incisive analysis of classic texts, she avoids engaging with much recent literature on the relationship between gender and the civilian immunity norm: indeed, she explicitly states that "the role of gender in determining combatant and civilian . …

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