What Is a Civilian?

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A civilian is someone who is not in the military or otherwise taking part in hostilities. One ceases to be a civilian by joining the military, in which case they are subject to the laws of war, or by taking part in hostilities on their own initiative, in which case they become an illegal combatant. Civilians are protected by international humanitarian law, which requires that they not be attacked, and that their homes and places of refuge be respected and protected. In addition, civilians must not be used to shield military objectives or operations.

Civilians are also guaranteed a right to fair trial and due process in the event that they are captured during hostilities. However, this principle does not apply to members of armed groups who participate directly in hostilities, even though their participation does not disqualify them from prisoner-of-war status under national law. In practice, however, this distinction tends to be less straightforward in internal armed conflicts.

The civilian population has long been recognized as the primary victim of armed conflict and must therefore be protected at all times. As conflicts continue to erupt across the globe, finding better ways to protect civilians remains an urgent challenge. Civilian crises may be exacerbated by increasing levels of globalization, rising populations, and climate change, which threatens food security, water supplies, governance capacity, and human rights.

Although there is no one definition of a civilian, in the United States, people who are not members of the armed forces are called civilians. The term is often confused with non-military people, but the difference is that civilians are people who live and work outside of the armed forces. Military personnel, by contrast, are called soldiers or service members.

There are many aspects of civilian life that can be difficult to adjust to after transitioning out of the military. It is important to remember that these adjustments can be tough at times, but with patience and time they will become easier. Some of the most important changes include learning how to communicate with civilian friends and family, as well as finding ways to fit into established relationships that have been around for a longer period of time.

Civilians may be found at the highest level of policymaking, where they occupy certain roles in the administration and guidance of, and the budgeting for, military services and the defense enterprise. These positions may involve considerable responsibility and authority, as well as significant risks. Those with careers that prepare them for this sort of public work know a great deal about balancing diverse interests, political and social power, and the way in which government institutions are structured and resourced. This experience is valuable when it comes to advising the military on the best way to carry out its responsibilities and meet its challenges. But it is also necessary to recognize that senior military leaders have the right and duty to disagree with civilian policy guidance that they feel is unwise in their professional judgment.