In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Civilians

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Ancient and Medieval Warfare
  • Early Modern Period, 1500–1789
  • Early 19th Century, 1790–1860
  • American Civil War
  • Late 19th Century
  • World War I
  • World War II (Europe)
  • World War II (The Pacific)
  • Post-1945 Conflicts
  • Genocide
  • Strategic Bombing
  • International Humanitarian Law

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Military History Civilians
Adam R. Seipp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0033


The concept of the civilian in wartime as a legal category is fairly new, but the problem is far older. Noncombatants have been a target of organized violence throughout history, with records of mass killing and the systematic destruction of infrastructure dating to the earliest written descriptions of armed conflict. In medieval and early modern warfare, noncombatants were targets of military violence as well as crucial to the supply and operation of armies. The relationship among civilians, military conflict, and the state began to change with the creation of national states after the revolutionary wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This process accelerated dramatically during the one hundred years that followed the middle of the 19th century, an age characterized by the rise of “total war.” The boundaries that separated civilians from soldiers, combatants from noncombatants, and frontline from home front blurred and sometimes all but vanished. A host of reasons account for this, including technological advances that extended combat far into the enemy’s rear area, mass mobilization, the close relationship between war and industrial production, and totalizing ideologies that sanctioned violence against civilians. At the same time, the early 20th century also saw systematic international efforts to protect noncombatants in wartime and to legally classify them as civilians. The period since the end of World War II has witnessed an international effort to formally define and shield civilians from state-sanctioned violence and targeting by nonstate actors. Global events since the fall of Communism have not been particularly encouraging in this regard. This bibliography intends to introduce readers to major works that examine this problem throughout history, with a particular focus on the period from 1800 to 2000. It will also provide guidance for those seeking to learn more about specific aspects of the civilian experience of war, such as strategic bombing, international humanitarian law, and genocide.

General Overviews

This section covers both theoretical literature on civilians in wartime and synthetic works that examine the phenomenon across conventional geographic and historical boundaries. The works listed in this section come from a variety of disciplines, reflecting the range of academic interest in the problem of civilians and war. Most (Conway-Lanz 2006, Downes 2008, Grimsley and Rogers 2002, Slim 2008) are particularly interested in the real or perceived military utility of targeting civilians. Walzer 2000 offers a philosopher’s perspective on justice, war, and the role of civilians in warfare in the modern world. Others (Larson and Savych 2007) explore the relationship between public opinion and civilian casualties, while the rest focus on the lingering effects of trauma emerging from conflicts in which civilians are extensively targeted (Heineman 2011, Krippner and McIntyre 2003).

  • Conway-Lanz, Sahr. Collateral Damage: Americans, Noncombat Immunity, and Atrocity after World War II. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    NNNThis book examines debates in the United States over balancing military expediency with the protection of noncombatants. In this interesting study, likely to inspire discussion, Conway-Lanz makes a strong case for open dialogue about the limits of war and military power.

  • Downes, Alexander. Targeting Civilians at War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.

    NNNUsing a variety of historical examples, Downes explores the conditions under which regimes pursue strategies of “civilian victimization.” In a highly readable text, Downes asks questions about how actors in conflicts decide to target civilians, even if such a strategy does not seem directly relevant to ending the conflict.

  • Grimsley, Mark, and Clifford Rogers, eds. Civilians in the Path of War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

    NNNCollection of essays by leading historians, detailing cases of violence against civilians through history. The volume raises issues of the perceived utility of anticivilian violence and the effect that such violence has on populations compelled to endure it.

  • Heineman, Elizabeth, ed. Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

    NNNThis collection covers a wide range of historical examples and is based on an expansive definition of sexual violence. It is a very good example of productive dialogue between historical and human rights literature and offers insights for students and conflict intervention practitioners alike.

  • Krippner, Stanley, and Teresa McIntyre, eds. The Psychological Impact of War Trauma on Civilians: An International Perspective. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

    NNNAn international study of the effects of war on mental health, with a particular interest in innovative approaches to treating the psychological wounds of war. Useful in its entirety for graduate courses or as individual chapters for undergraduate coursework on modern war.

  • Larson, Eric V., and Bogdan Savych. Misfortunes of War: Press and Public Reactions to Civilian Deaths in Wartime. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2007.

    NNNBased on a series of high-profile incidents involving American forces and civilian casualties, this study seeks to assess media coverage and public reactions in the United States. The volume explores the perceptions of Americans as well as the belief among enemies of the United States that Americans are sensitive to civilian casualties.

  • Slim, Hugo. Killing Civilians: Method, Madness, and Morality at War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

    NNNSlim’s passionate work presents an overview of the targeting of civilians through history and a closely argued meditation on the rise and persistence of “anti-civilian ideologies” that allow and encourage such violence.

  • Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. 3d ed. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

    NNNIn one of the most important studies of morality in warfare, Walzer gives considerable attention to the role of civilians in wartime and the question of responsibility for protecting civilians in times of conflict.

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