In their new book, Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire, scholars Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini chronicle the chilling global history of human shields. From Syrian civilians locked in iron cages to veterans joining peaceful indigenous water protectors at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, from Sri Lanka to Iraq and from Yemen to the United States, human beings have been used as shields for protection, coercion, or deterrence. Over the past decade, human shields have also appeared with increasing frequency in antinuclear struggles, civil and environmental protests, and even computer games.
As the authors have written, we also saw this phenomenon during this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, where organizers called for a “white shield” to stand between black protestors and the police. This trend, however, is by no means a new one.
In this interview with Jadaliyya, Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini explain their motivations for writing the book, why the figure of the human shield has become to crucial to understanding conflict in the Middle East and beyond, and how it represents a unique “weapon” that is used for political, legal, and military goals.
This interview was originally published on Jadaliyya, and is reposted here with permission.
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 10,000-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 a hundred and fifty 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 Dominate. Human 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!
What other projects are you working on now?
We are both taking our time to think carefully about future projects.