Identifying who is a noncombatant is a difficult task in modern warfare. The old way of doing it was to assume that anyone not either armed or wearing a military
a few medic
s and clergymen
), was a "noncombatant." This approach doesn't work anymore
, and probably never reliably did
The reason one might want to make a distinction between a combatant and a noncombatant could result from a desire to comply with the Rules of War, or Jus in Bello. Ethicists have varying views on what should be done with this distinction once it is made, but it seems well-accepted that the distinction will come in handy at some point in the ethical analysis of warfare and the rules of combat.
The intentional killing of civilians is not condemned universally, and in fact, it seems that casualties are inevitable under some circumstances. Using a version of the doctrine of double effect, one might conclude that so long as a military action has the primary effect of destroying a military target, the collateral civilian deaths may be morally acceptable. Or maybe not. The subject is a difficult one to grapple with. But regardless of what we 'do' with the distinction between combatants and noncombatants, the task of distinguishing them remains important.
Seperating civilians from soldiers is obviously insufficient. A non-uniformed, civilian munitions factory worker, for example, is certainly assisting in military combat, and can rightly be viewed as a combatant. By working in the munitions plant, (s)he is engaged in military activity; engaged in some part of the 'combat'. Fair game for a military attack, according to jus in bello. And yet, (s)he is a 'civilian', and unarmed.
Other dichotomies considered by ethicists have included:
- "Guilty vs. Innocent", dismissed because it implies that anyone involved in warfare is "guilty", even the 'good guys', and that all civilians are 'innocent', also untrue
- threat vs. non-threat, dismissed because it merely renames, rather than defining, the term in question, (i.e., OK. So if we know that a combatant is someone who is a "threat" . . . then what's a "threat"?)
- causally involved vs. non-causally involved (in war). This one is a little bit better, but we need clarity on what "causal" involvement is. Basically, involvement is causal when the activities of a person are expressly for the purpose of warfare, and not just incidental support of warfare. That is, feeding an enemy soldier doesn't make you 'causally involved' because you could prepare food during peacetime and it would be an innocuous activity. But repairing fighter jets is expressly for the purpose of warfare, and so a person engaged in repairing military planes, even if (s)he is a civilian, is a kind of 'combatant' of sorts.
The matter of who is a noncombatant is complicated indeed, and no perfect formula has been devised or universally accepted. But the progress ethicists have made reveals that any formula will need to take into account at some point the degree to which one is personally involved in the warfare in order to determine his combatant or noncombatant status.