The concept of a non-combatant is one that really did not arise until feudal times in Europe and Japan (I dont know enough about Chinese, African, or MesoAmerican history to comment on their history). Before that, wars had most likely looked Homeric, as community fought community and alliance fought alliance. The able-bodied men of one community fought the able-bodied men of another, with their lives, the freedom of their women and children (this was in times when they spoke of their women) and all the assets of the community at stake.
(I havent unboxed the Homer and Hesiod yet, so cant provide a quote; but Im sure there are a number of them about the sad-eyed women being led away from the burning city, etc. etc.)
The increasing depth of the economies (partly driven by consolidation due to conquest) began to generate larger and larger surpluses
both of labor, so that a class of landowners and retainers began to grow up whose daily labor was not needed
and of technology and wealth so that more elaborate fortifications, larger food surpluses to feed armies for longer periods of time, and most of all, more sophisticated weapons and armor were available.
Using these weapons and defeating the more-sophisticated defenses required more and more training, which consumed the time of the landowners and their retainers, and began to define them as a military class, distinct from the agrarian and mercantile classes.
Eventually, laws were passed (both in Europe and Japan) prohibiting non-members of these classes from owning weapons, or being trained in their use. (Of course there were substantial exceptions; in England, young men were required to train in the use of the longbow
The styles of warfighting changed as well; from the melee to the set battle and the siege, and as the practice of fighting began to become formalized, so too grew up riles designed both to define honorable military practice, which meant both defining how to behave toward other combatants, and toward this new class of people who were to be left alone
in part because devastating a large economy meant that the wealth necessary to support armies would be destroyed.
This professionalization progressed in both cases through the Industrial Age.
It was the American Civil War which showed the impact of industrialization on warfighting. The North may have been outgeneraled, but it outmanufactured and outtransported the South. And as industrialization and the economy that supported it became the key to Northern success, their efforts to weaken the Southern economy
first through blockades, then as Sherman headed to Atlanta, through devastation of the local economies
were a key part of their military effort. Note that Sherman evacuated Atlanta before he burned it, and his orders were not to slaughter the farmers whose corn he burned and whose livestock he slaughtered. His goal was economic devastation and collapse, not massacre. And, to a large extent, it worked. It was strategic warfare
war fought against the strategic (economic) assets of the enemy, rather than the tactical (military) assets. Note that this wasnt the first time this had been done; just one of the more successful.
The industrialization of warfare meant both that it was integrated backwards into the economy in some unprecedented ways (i.e. the factories that made the weapons and the railroads that shipped them were a part of the weapons system), and that warfighting itself was changed, as the industrial skill of Krupp and the Germans made the difference in the second Franco-Prussian war, and the invention of accurate, transportable, rapid-firing artillery, the rapid-firing infantry rifle and then the self-loading machine gun changed the way in which war itself was fought.
World War I was the last purely tactical (as Im defining it
meaning a war defined by maneuver and tactics addressing the opposing forces) major war.
After this war, the English led the way in refocusing their efforts on strategic warfare, as they refocused production on large bombers. Trenchard led the effort to arm the UK with a fleet of heavy bombers, with the deliberate intent of attacking an enemys economy, thereby collapsing the industrial supply train that supported their army.
When World War II began, the UK attacked German cities with night bombing; the techniques of precision daylight bombing would have to await the Norden bombsight. But until the German defenses were degraded, the level of losses remained unacceptable high, so the allies continued high-altitude bombing aimed at generally weakening the German economy
by destroying its infrastructure, killing its participants, and straining its resources (forcing them to deal with the damage done through bombing).
In effect, we had returned to the tribal warfare of Homer; the women and children of the combatants on the front lines were now directly hostage to the fortunes of the war.
And with Hiroshima, and the ensuing decades in which we concentrated on strategic warfare
meaning the demolition of enemy civilian infrastructure and the associated civilians, it sure looks like we have returned to the notion of tribal, total warfare.
So, in effect, it looks like we have effectively blurred the distinction between combatants and non-combatants in todays warfare.
Ironically, as that distinction has been blurred by the emphasis on strategic warfare at the top and on terrorism and intergroup violence (former Yugoslavia, Rwanda) at the bottom, we have worked diligently to bureaucratize and formalize the conduct of war, creating ever more complex rules of engagement, and using modern communications to have military attorneys review orders in real time.
So if we have passed the traditional values which separate legitimate targets (opposing military) from illegitimate targets (opposing civilians), how do we judge the appropriateness of attacks in which civilians are killed?
And to take it further, as warfare becomes increasingly economic, how do we judge the appropriateness of attacks in which civilians are indirectly killed, through famine, disease, or other indirect effect?
These questions cut to the heart of not only the Israel/ Palestinian conflict, but to the conduct of the United States in the near future as we try and deal with the aftermath of 9/11. It is obvious to me that there both is and must be some appropriate basis for judgement. It is equally obvious that different interest groups – supporters of Israel or Palestine, of immediate invasion and normalization of relationships – most likely are applying different grounds for judgement.
Next, some suggestions on sorting this mess out.