The practice of arming civilians en masse and seeing how things play out is a hallmark of the barbaric and decivilizing nature of democracy that we are currently watching play out in Ukraine.
Hoppe made this case to cite the comparative advantage of a monarchy over a democracy (though an anarchist society has the best incentive structures to avoid and minimize war) in Democracy: The God that Failed, and the theme repeats in thinkers from Tolstoy to Friedman and Rothbard through their analysis of the incentive structures that lead to wars.
Historically, only a small cadre of people were involved in fighting any war. Further, at least in the West, there was an understanding that wars happened between people. A king going to war could only count on those he hired, and the same applied all the ways down the social ladder.
Democracy changed this because wars stopped being the practice of a handful of feudal lords, whose responsibility was explicitly to protect their people (and therefore would face natural repercussions if they conscripted them into losing fights) and became the domain of a nation-state. There was some expansion of war’s impact during the era of absolutist monarchs, perhaps, but even then this tracks with the loss of traditional monarchies and their replacement with increasingly socialized and expansive state apparatuses.
A Brief History of War Crimes
We can draw distinctions between war crimes by delineating those which are coincidental with objectives (we often justify these via proportionality, but this isn’t a good defense), those which are requisites for waging war (such as looting civilian food supplies to keep an army in the field) and those which are a product of ideological movements (e.g. pogroms and deliberate persecution of ethnic and religious groups).
As an anarchist, I do not consider any of these acceptable under any circumstances. Any violence against an innocent bystander is aggression and legally intolerable.
However, the modern just war theory often excuses the former examples of violence against civilians, while denouncing the second two.
The second two need a distinction drawn between them because they are fundamentally different in intent, though both are still aggression.
In the first case, we have crimes necessary to carry out a war. For instance, an occupying force putting a city under martial law and a curfew still aggresses against those restricted by the curfew, even if the damage is simply the loss of opportunities to do things during curfew.
Looting and expropriation that occurs during war is basically universal with rare exceptions, and seems to have been a fact of life before modern logistics and production (and during various theater conditions in modern warfare). For the sake of war crimes, we only consider those actions which come from the chain of command or are necessities of war, and not personal theft and plunder, which is the aggression of one soldier against civilian victims outside the deliberate practices of war.
Here, the soldier is acting as a bandit and modern armies will often execute or incarcerate soldiers who do this.
The deliberate extermination of civilians, as we have seen across various times in history, is an especially egregious crime because it is targeted for the sake of maximizing damage to non-combatants and combatants alike. We’ve seen this historically as part of human existence, but it’s still remembered most for 20th century outcomes.
War in the Medieval Era
The first category, which some write off (obscenely) as “collateral damage” involves those acts that are not deliberate on behalf of belligerent forces but are a natural result of war.
Modern warfare has made collateral damage a lot more common through the use of explosives, but we have seen the effects of war lead to famines and plagues across history as populations strained by the loss of productive labor had more difficulties making ends meet.
In medieval warfare, we still see this as sieges and a variety of war tactics, but it’s a lot easier to spare civilians when you’re trying to have them work for you (with peasants and serfs whose lords were fighting over land), and in Europe there were codes of behavior that governed the treatment of fellow Christians, though these rules were not as strict as to be truly humanitarian and sometimes wound up ignored.
Again, however, earlier wars were smaller in scale and fought between nobles with hired or conscripted mercenaries. Past the ancient era, with the Romans and their professional soldiers, it is really quite rare to see any significant forces emerge. The reasons for this have to do with feudalism’s nature, which was a far cry from the republican nature of Rome and its later autocrats.
Ironically, what historians like to deride as the dark ages moved away from the genocidal wars of conquest or annihilation waged by the Greeks (see Troy) and Romans (most clear in Gaul from Julius Caesar’s account, but also Carthage, Judea, etc.) as Christianity and culture developed.
The Civilian as a Legal Concept
Hugo Grotius set the groundwork for our modern concept of war with his “Of the Law of War and Peace” (De jure belli ac pacis), which formally codified much of the ideals we still adhere to in war.
This was a humanizing development that had become the norm by Renaissance times in Europe. I don’t know of any equivalent developments in other parts of the world, but this is a consequence of my ignorance and I would expect to find examples of similar developments elsewhere, though they don’t seem to have become as predominant.
This was part of the code of war, similar to what we have with the Geneva Conventions, and there were examples of it occurring earlier and later.
A key change that happened around this time is that civilians gained official recognition as a class. We can trace some of this to merchant cities and the bourgeoisie, and some to the cultural and jurisprudential changes taking place.
Why Does Democracy Deserve the Blame?
The reason I consider Hoppe to be correct about the decivilizing nature of democracy is that, from a historical perspective, democracy undid a progressive movement away from the legitimacy of violence to achieve strategic ends.
Unfortunately for all of us, Grotius and the Renaissance period marked the high-water point of respect for civilians in war.
Even by the time of the American Revolution, the belligerent factions were targeting civilians of rival factions for attacks and expropriation. This was much less than we see in the modern democratic wars, and marks a connection between the mercantile states and their future development into democratic (and eventually fascist) regimes.
The Napoleonic Era was a step backward as well, since the French Revolution had ushered in the abstract cause of the nation-state to build a basis for war. This is one reason I do not blame the monarchies of Europe for having their ultimate downfall. Except for perhaps Austria-Hungary, they had become enthralled by the democratic ideas of Europe.
Prussia transitioned from being a true monarchy to a Bonapartist regime under Bismarck, even if a hereditary monarch was still in charge, and Russia was so lost in its court intrigues that it was not really classifiable as a traditional monarchy during the collapse of the Tsarist regime. Russia was also peculiarly removed from the humanitarian developments in Europe, though it played at adopting them from time to time.
The Civil War was one of the best examples of democracy stripping away the protection of the civilian when Lincoln and the Union engaged in deliberate targeting of civilian populations in the Confederacy (such as in the Shenandoah Valley).
This was directly in contrast to Confederate doctrine. Operating under a Jeffersonian democratic ideal, which was much more akin to old aristocratic thought (in fact, my anarchism comes from the same wellsprings as Jefferson, though it has also adopted later influences), they refused to undertake actions that they viewed as aggressive.
This meant that they expected the Southern generals to treat civilians much better than Union generals, who often gained notoriety for their crimes, and never attacked the Union capital at Washington D.C. despite having the ability to do so in the early part of the war.
This is a controversial point, since just war theorists will argue that this ended the war earlier, but anyone who wants to look into it can also look at the Union generals’ much less controversial crimes of genocide against indigenous populations during and after the Civil War.
The 20th Century
Under the Geneva Conventions, we had a movement toward open cities (similar to the neutral merchant cities of olden days) and explicit distinctions between military and civilian populations.
An open city is not militarily defended, and the responsibility is on an occupying force to use restraint against civilian centers.
In the Second World War, it was typical practice to declare open cities, with these cities being explicitly demilitarized.
This did not guarantee their safety. Every major power, including the Allies, attacked cities that were otherwise neutral, so open cities have had a questionable history of effectiveness. Japan was notorious for attacking open cities during WWII, and obviously it didn’t prevent war crimes by the Germans or Russians.
And civilian populations often produced partisans, though this does not justify any reprisal against innocents. One distinction here, however, is that a partisan has chosen to fight and killing a partisan is not a war crime.
But the theory behind open cities is that it is morally responsible to minimize civilian harm. This is a solution that works so long as combatants adhere to it, and while it may be naïve to permit an enemy to take and occupy a city, it at least prevents any justification for crimes against its populace. Further, open cities in WWII prevented the worst privations against their inhabitants, except with crimes deliberately carried out against their inhabitants for ideological reasons.
Open cities prevent effectively prevent their inhabitants from becoming collateral damage. They may still suffer some looting, but they would also face many of the same predations from war-time rationing, conscription, and damage to infrastructure.
The one time when an open city is not helpful is when the belligerents target their populations for extermination.
Japan, Germany, and Russia were the most noteworthy offenders for deliberately targeting civilian populations, but perhaps this is because they did not have open cities for their opponents to run roughshod over.
Events in Ukraine
The Ukrainian decision to issue weapons to civilians is essentially the antithesis of the open city theory. Of course, it’s not alone in civilian weapons ownership, since places like Switzerland and the United States have similar considerations in their defense arrangements.
However, one notable point here is that Ukraine has compulsory military service, so these aren’t going into the hands of solely untrained novices (since many will be reservists or veterans), though propaganda suggests that basically anyone can get a weapon (see photographs of women and even children posing and drilling with AKs).
Despite this, deliberately arming civilian populations has the effect of maximizing civilian casualties.
It is easy to count irregulars with guns as civilian casualties, and it sounds like the intended strategy is not partisanship and stealth attacks against occupying forces but overt direct action against Russian forces, with the added confusion of combatants out of uniform.
A natural consequence of this is that the Russians, if they do commit war crimes, can simply say that their victims had guns, so the Ukrainian government has essentially written them a blank check for barbarism.
This makes everyone a potential target for violence as the lines of battle become blurred.
A Potential Benefit
The potential good outcome is that Russian forces will face such heavy opposition that Putin will withdraw and concede defeat.
It’s not clear what this looks like, and I doubt there could be a “white peace” return to status quo satisfying to everyone involved.
Putin is unlikely to make significant concessions, and his only concession would likely be giving up any claim to the separatist regions, which would prolong an existing civil war in the region.
There are many negative consequences of this last-minute arming of civilians, which is one reason I consider it morally objectionable.
First, it justifies military attacks against civilian centers where weapons are being distributed to prevent their distribution. The Russians could fire a cruise missile at a police station and justify it as a gathering place for combatants, and they’d be technically correct by the standards we set for ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This has the direct impact of massively increasing the casualty rate of non-combatants, as it becomes necessary to attack aggressively to prevent the proliferation of weapons throughout the populace.
It may also take resources away from efforts to evacuate non-combatants. I don’t know if the caches these weapons are coming from were already in place prior to the hostilities, but it’s possible that they are drawing away resources and clogging arteries that could evacuate women, children, and the infirm.
Of course, men are being forbidden from leaving the country, which is itself probably a war crime, though no state will recognize the illegitimacy of the draft because they recognize they may need it for their own purposes some day.
Second, it will cause more casualties as armed civilians face off against military forces with command-and-control systems and modernized equipment.
The talk is that people can get automatic weapons and Javelin missile systems, but I do not know how much training they are receiving and it is likely that these people are merely being armed to throw themselves into a meat-grinder.
Russia has compulsory military service, so it’s likely that this would be a case of ill-trained irregulars going up against green conscripts, which is not so terrible a match-up, but these irregulars do not have tanks and air support of their own.
Of course, people could choose not to fight and avoid this, but since Ukraine seems to be drafting men, this is not an option for all would-be civilians.
Third, a concentrated presence of armed civilians makes it more likely that attacks against civilians occur.
Consider Iraq and Afghanistan where civilians were often killed in drone strikes, at checkpoints, or during routine daily life because we considered them valid targets.
While civilian firearms ownership obviously correlates to this, even if it’s not government-sponsored, it means that a Russian force moving through a city has an incentive to shoot first and ask questions later. Since civilians will probably need to gather supplies and leave shelters, this will mean an increased risk for them, since anyone could have received a weapon (and, since the government is giving out anti-tank weapons, it’s not like the Russians need to worry about goat-herders with bolt-action rifles like we did in Afghanistan).
Fourth, the move to armed civilian defenses means a lot more chaos and confusion, and since civilians don’t have the command and control to identify friend and foe, there’s an issue where Ukrainian forces and civilians may wind up fighting each other.
Remember that a major issue we had in Afghanistan and Iraq was people engaging civilians when they expected a terrorist. Ukraine is setting themselves up for this situation on a massive scale, because civilians without military training are being hyped up to serve as front-line soldiers, instead of the more traditional partisan operations that we would expect from irregular resistance forces.
Fifth, a major concern is looting and other acts of aggression by armed partisans against civilians because of suspicion of collaboration, the necessity of acquiring supplies, or ideological motives.
This is more of a potential thing than a guarantee, but we could see armed bands press-gang non-combatants into service, which would be another violation of the rules of war and is no better than the conscription of the draft.
These sorts of irregular fighting forces are also historically associated with war crimes during WWII, but it’s not clear if that’s inherent to them. If rumors about, say, the Azov Battalion, are true, it could bode ill for the well-being of ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities within Ukraine to have irregular militants who might pursue factional interests instead of strictly fighting to defend Ukraine.
Further, an advantage of the modern fighting force is to have internal systems for preventing the worst abuses. This is voluntary and often comes second during desperate struggles, but military courts have tribunals to deal with breaches of discipline.
I am not so naïve as to assume that these work well, but unless there is tacit support for war crimes (Russians are, in part, claiming war crimes against separatists as their casus belli, so they are unlikely to have vocalized support for illegal actions down the chain of command) the presence of such structures offers restraint that irregular partisans may not show.
This all has the potential to lead us toward an escalated international conflict with Ukraine at the center, which makes things much worse for everyone involved and threatens more harm to non-combatants in and outside Ukraine.
The Game Going Forward
Whether as an act of desperation or a ploy for international attention as a propaganda campaign, the Ukrainian move to arm its civilian population with the express intention of sending them into conflict against a regular military force is going to be bloody and chaotic.
When we get images of the aftermath beamed to our television sets and social media feeds, we need to remember that both parties sought this bloodshed. There is no innocent party here, and we should not jump to the defense of the Ukrainians just because they were attacked when they have engaged in a course of action that is going to make things worse and bloodier.
The adage that taxation is theft, conscription is slavery, and war is murder has roots in the Rothbardian tradition, and it’s important for us to think about when we enter Ukraine.
Both sides are frankly barbarous, with the Russians being overt territorial aggressors and the Ukrainians being far from an innocent victim.