Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini, Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire (University of California Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini (NG & NP): While working on our previous book, The Human Right to Dominate, we repeatedly encountered Israel’s accusation that Palestinians use human shields as a warfare strategy in the Gaza Strip. Israel’s argument was straightforward: Since Palestinian armed groups deploy civilians as human shields, placing them in front of legitimate military targets, Israel is not responsible for civilian casualties. We also realized that this line of reasoning was common in other theaters of political violence, from the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, to the wars in Yemen and Syria. The fact that hundreds of thousands of civilians across the globe were suddenly being cast as human shields seemed odd and prompted us to ask a series of questions: Why has the figure of the human shield become so prominent in contemporary war zones throughout the Middle East? What does this figure tell us about the broader global history of political violence? And why are some people used as human shields while others are not?

We quickly understood that the human shield is a peculiar figure that is simultaneously both a human and a weapon, and as such it destabilizes fundamental legal and ethical categories and assumptions. Indeed, as we began reading about the history of human shielding, from the American Civil War until today, we were intrigued by how a relatively marginal and controversial figure produces a series of moral and legal quandaries and how these quandaries provide insight into who is considered fully human, how the laws of war operate, and how the ethics of violence have developed over time. We thought that grappling with these issues would be fascinating, and so we decided to write a second book.

J: We noticed that the book adopts an uncommon style and format. Can you say a few words about how you wrote it?

NG & NP: Shortly after we began working on the book, we made the decision to abandon the standard format of academic writing, with ten-thousand-word chapters that are often written for an expert audience. We were convinced that an analysis of human shielding sheds light on a number of urgent issues, and we thus wanted to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. We then adopted a number of general guidelines. We would begin each chapter with a vignette of human shielding, refrain from using jargon, and limit the length of each chapter to about 3,500 words. Our goal was that the chapters would read almost like magazine articles. Overall, the book has twenty-two chapters, covering over 150 years of wars, environmental struggles, political protests, and even computer games.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NG & NP: Human shielding is essentially a politics of vulnerability, where human frailty is weaponized and then used to achieve a range of political, military, and legal goals. Yet, deterrence is successful only when the attacking party values the shield’s humanity and feels morally compelled to stop the attack in order not to harm the person who is serving as a shield. Therefore, the story of human shields is also the story of those who have been included as well as those who have been excluded from the fold of humanity, revealing that humanity is politically variable rather than a universal and neutral category. We noticed, for instance, that “women-and-children” could not serve as shields during the American Civil War but have over time become the primary protagonists in shielding accusations, especially since the Vietnam War. In a similar vein, non-white people also could not serve as human shields in colonial wars, but are currently cast as shields in numerous Middle East conflicts. A different kind of puzzle emerged when we began examining eco-shielding. We found, for example, that environmental activists who use their bodies to protect whales or stop nuclear testing have been more effective than human shields in war zones.

In order to make sense of these and other historical changes, while also trying to understand their significance, we naturally read the work of our colleagues working on colonialism and post-colonialism as well as those who have contributed to critical race, legal, and war studies. But we were also interested in other literatures. For the chapter on shielding during the Italian attempt to colonize Ethiopia in the mid-1930s, we read, for example, the memoir of Benito Mussolini’s son, Vittorio, who served as a pilot during the war. His memoir helped us better understand how the Italian fascists rationalized and justified the bombing of civilian sites in Ethiopia. Reading pamphlets and sermons written in the 1920s and 1930s by Maude Royden, the first female preacher in the United Kingdom and a leading pacifist activist, helped us trace the emergence of voluntary shielding as a strategy to prevent war. Along similar lines, we read Mao Tse-tung and the Vietnamese General Giap, alongside military policymakers in the United States, to understand why and how the latter framed people’s wars waged by the Viet Cong as a form of terrorist use of human shields. We read the diaries of members from the 2003 Iraq Human Shield Action group and Rachel Corrie in order to understand how they conceived the deployment of their privilege in the midst of war. It was an exhausting but extremely fascinating process.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NG & NP: Without The Human Right to Dominate it is difficult to imagine Human Shields. In our first book, we showed and analyzed how the discourse of human rights, which is commonly perceived as emancipatory, is frequently used to enhance domination. Focusing on Israel’s settler colonial project, we outlined how acts of domination and dispossession are often framed by Israel and its international allies as protecting the human rights of Jews who had been subjected to egregious abuse in Europe. In Human Shields we engage with another paradox, this time related to what we refer to as the ethics of humane violence. We interrogate how international law, specifically the laws of war that aim to protect civilians during armed conflict and military occupation, are being used to justify the deployment of violence against civilian populations and how this violence gets cast as humane.

Israel-Palestine remained important for Human Shields, and the 2014 Gaza war was a revelatory moment for both of us. But in this book, we zoom out and dramatically expand our purview both historically and geographically. As mentioned, we begin the book with the American Civil War and we end it in Gaza, 2020. This is a 150-year history. We examine several other conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond, chronicling the role human shields have come to play in numerous conflicts. We were also interested in the way activists have adopted human shielding as a form of resistance and were intrigued by the ways they differ from human rights practitioners, not least because they willingly use their own body to protect the lives of others.

As the research advanced, we increasingly felt that the figure of the human shield allowed us to grapple with a broader set of questions than the ones we examined in The Human Right to DominateHuman Shields is in this sense more ambitious methodologically, theoretically, historically, and geographically.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NG & NP: Niels Hooper, our editor at the University of California Press, thinks everybody should read this book! Given the different lines of investigation and the stories that emerge, people interested in political violence and resistance, ethics, the laws of war, military studies and, more generally, in global histories will, we hope, find the book interesting. We also believe that policy-oriented think-tanks, military officers, and everyone working for international humanitarian and human rights organizations will find it useful. Since we tried to “de-academicize” the book, we really hope it reaches as broad an audience as possible.

As to impact, we are a bit suspicious of the term not least due to the way it is currently used in certain academic circles. We obviously hope that we have written a rigorous and compelling history. And good history is always also a history of the present. It is, however, important to keep in mind that even though human shields are the book’s main protagonists, the production of humane violence is its plot. So, broadly speaking, if people interested in the different ways violence has been produced as humane in numerous historical events, as well as in a variety of contemporary sites—from the “war on terror” and Black Lives Matter protests to computer games—find this book useful, then we will be extremely pleased!

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NG & NP: We are both taking our time to think carefully about future projects.

Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 11, pp. 109-113)


Antimilitary Activism in Iraq and Palestine

[…] Following the First Gulf War, the United Nations Security Council imposed a series of harsh economic sanctions on Iraq with the aim of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The measures remained in place for over a decade, and, in spite of numerous claims that the sanctions did not affect key humanitarian supplies, a leading medical journal characterized them as a “weapon of mass destruction” that caused the death of about 1.5 million people. In 2002, the United States finally admitted that the sanctions had not undermined Saddam Hussein’s regime and decided to launch a new military campaign. The attack was justified as part of the war on terror by highlighting Iraq’s presumed links with the 9/11 terrorist attacks alongside the accusation that the regime was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Concerned about the terrible humanitarian and political repercussions such a war would likely have for the entire region, citizens across the globe organized popular protests in an attempt to prevent the imminent invasion of a country already devastated by years of economic sanctions. Moreover, as it became clear that the United States intended to attack without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, international solidarity activists concluded that any attempt to resist the war on terror necessitated direct action rather than traditional forms of democratic mobilization.

At the end of 2002, US military veteran Kenneth O’Keefe implored various activist groups to join forces in an effort to stop the war through pacifist intervention “from below.” Scores of people heeded his call and formed the Human Shield Action group. They bought three double-decker buses in London and drove across Europe and through Turkey and Syria all the way to Baghdad. Meanwhile, groups ready to join the movement and serve as voluntary human shields in Iraq began mushrooming in Australia, India, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, New Zealand, Korea, and Japan. At its peak, the movement numbered five hundred activists.

Two of the buses transporting voluntary human shields from London to Baghdad, 2002. Credit: Ali Kabas, Alamy.

Among those who reached Iraq was the former director of Greenpeace Turkey, who in her memoir recounts that the volunteers came from different walks of life and included Buddhists, Islamists, Christian socialists, anarchists, social democrats, monarchists, and conscientious objectors. Their commitment to human life united them, as well as their willingness to act in solidarity with those who were being put in danger’s way. Ultimately, they believed that risking their lives was the best way to prevent the Western aerial bombing campaign and predictable civilian deaths. Thus, resistance through human shielding became the glue uniting activists from radically different political, ideological, and spiritual backgrounds.

Humanitarian shielding action

Determined to reach the battlefield, the Human Shield Action group coordinated their entry into Iraq with Saddam Hussein’s government—they had no other option if they wanted to enter the country—while simultaneously trying to preserve their political autonomy. Although they did not want to be manipulated by the Iraqi regime, they followed this route because they believed that their action could actually have a tangible impact on the impending war.

On the eve of the US attack, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released a report entitled Putting Noncombatants at Risk: Saddam’s Use of “Human Shields,” which denounced Saddam Hussein’s use of involuntary shields—Iraqi and foreign civilians, as well as prisoners of war—to protect strategic installations during the 1990–1991 First Gulf War. The CIA then went on to analyze the current crisis, claiming that “Baghdad is encouraging international peace groups to send members to Iraq to serve as voluntary human shields, and the Iraqi military continues its longstanding policy of placing military assets near civilian facilities and in densely populated areas.” Two months later, General Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that all forms of shielding of military targets are illegal, even when civilians “volunteer for this purpose.” Legally speaking, there was, in his eyes, no difference between involuntary and voluntary shields.

Things on the ground were, however, more complicated than the CIA and General Meyers claimed. The shields repeatedly stressed their independence from Saddam Hussein’s regime both in their press releases and in official exchanges with the Iraqi government. Donna Mulhearn—an Australian human shield in charge of media relations—explained the group’s position in a journal entry from Baghdad: “The human shields value life, all life. We opposed the Iraqi regime and its crimes before it was trendy to do so. . . . To say that opponents to war are automatically Hussein supporters is just childish and implicates millions of people around the world who have expressed their opposition.”

In a letter to President George W. Bush, the activists further reiterated their autonomy from the Iraqi government and underscored that the locations they had selected for shielding were not military targets. “You,” they wrote the president, “should be aware that each of these human shields has voluntarily installed him or herself on these sites in an effort to deter the aerial bombing of vital infrastructure without which normal civilian life cannot exist.”

Since their action was prompted by a nonviolent ethic of care by civilians for civilians, their aim was not to protect Iraqi military installations; they situated themselves, instead, at power plants, water treatment stations, and food silos that sustained millions of civilians, as well as in oil refineries located close to civilian areas, hospitals, and communication centers. Their intervention represented a specific form of nongovernmental solidarity that could be characterized as a humanitarian shielding action—a form of human shielding driven by a sense of humanity and compassion for vulnerable civilians trapped in a war zone.

This type of direct action differs, however, from classical forms of humanitarian aid. Both humanitarian aid and humanitarian shielding actions are responses to real or potential humanitarian crises affecting civilian populations, yet humanitarian aid organizations like Oxfam or CARE rely on sophisticated bureaucratic mechanisms that aim to alleviate suffering while, at least ostensibly, excluding politics and political activists. By contrast, humanitarian shielding is political through and through and sets out to prevent the horrors of war rather than mitigate its devastating effects. If humanitarian organizations aspire to ease and relieve the suffering caused by war, humanitarian shields attempt to avert or stop it altogether.

Just as important, guaranteeing the staff’s protection within the conflict zone is a key imperative that informs the way humanitarian aid organizations operate, while, for humanitarian shields, risk is the essential means for averting a humanitarian catastrophe. They understand that resisting violence and shielding innocent lives might entail taking the ultimate risk, the risk of dying.

Active civilians

Contrary to their hopes, the Human Shield Action group did not manage to stop the war. Nonetheless, they did demonstrate that civilians willing to risk their lives in an effort to protect other civilians trapped in a war zone can, in fact, create a peaceful obstacle against the use of lethal violence. Significantly, none of the sites they occupied were hit by aerial strikes, except for a telecommunication building that was bombed the day after the human shields had abandoned it. Those in the United States who supported the invasion argued that this clearly demonstrated the surgical and proportionate nature of the military’s use of force and that the troops had never intended to target civilian sites. From another perspective, this observation suggests that the shielding had actually worked. Precisely because human shielding altered the military and legal calculations in the battlefield, it served as a successful form of deterrence and resistance.

Irrespective of the reasons why the civilian sites were not bombed, the voluntary human shields in Iraq did present a legal challenge to the attacking forces. This became obvious when the US government decided to charge citizens who had served as human shields after they returned home. The activists were sued for up to $1 million on the grounds that their travel to Iraq was “unauthorized” and that their shielding actions comprised an “exportation of services” that violated the sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime. They were also accused of “shielding a Government of Iraq (GOI) infrastructure from possible U.S. military action.”

The courts, however, were unable to convict the citizens because the locations they stayed in were not legitimate military targets. While military and legal experts have continued to frame voluntary human shielding as a form of direct participation in hostilities—which means that civilians who serve as shields lose the protections bestowed upon them by international law—civilian sites tend to be illegitimate targets. Therefore, it is difficult legally to characterize people protecting them as human shields and thus as participants in hostilities.

Simultaneously, the voluntary shields challenged the laws of armed conflict because the legal articles dealing with human shielding are restricted to situations where civilians or prisoners of war are forced to become shields and do not, as one report stated, “cover an event where individuals acted knowingly and on their own initiative.” This, as we have seen, is due to the way international law construes civilians as passive actors. Thus, when civilians become active in a nonviolent and protective way, they challenge existing legal assumptions. Precisely because voluntary human shields in the case of Iraq were active civilians protecting civilian sites, the question of how to treat them remained unresolved. Accordingly, such shielding activities elude the law….