War in Civilian Areas

War in civilian areas is complicated by the need to avoid non-combatant casualties, which result in increasing resistance.

General Sir Rupert Smith has argued, in his book The Utility of Force, that recent wars have been complicated by being conducted where civilians are living.  A Times review of the book summarised his thesis:[1]

‘“Industrial war”, the all-out sort of struggle that disfigured the 20th century, is dead. Instead, we fight “among the people”.’

There are several such scenarios:

●  during insurgencies, as described in the previous sub-section (;

●  when non-state actors such as international terrorists are involved (7.3.3);

●  in a civil war (7.2.6);

●  and when a country has been invaded.

These situations inevitably lead to war in civilian areas, where it is difficult to avoid non-combatant casualties and serious consequences:

●  Some weapons used by armies are designed to kill a lot of people on a battlefield, so ‘collateral damage’ to property and civilian casualties are inevitable, no matter how much care is taken to protect the population.

●  The resentment of people whose families have suffered losses has the effect of increasing support for the resistance and intensifying the conflict.  For each terrorist or guerrilla killed, several others spring up as replacements when friends and family members seek to avenge the deaths.

●  Soldiers might not be trained to deal with keeping order in a civilian context, where the people confronting them are not ‘enemies’ but the population of the country they are meant to serve.  As noted in the review of Rupert Smith’s book:

“Probably we need less armour and artillery and more infantry, more intelligence, more deployable police, even more linguists and anthropologists. If you fight among the people you had better understand them.”

To summarise: military force is of limited use in a war “among the people”.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/7413.htm.

[1] The Sunday Times review of Rupert Smith’s book, The Utility of Force, was published on September 18, 2005.  It was still available to subscribers in December 2023 at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-utility-of-force-by-general-sir-rupert-smith-69rhf3x0qs9.