Human shield is a euphemism for a hostage placed between an attacking force and legitimate military targets. Saddam Hussein employed them. Many of Saddam's human shields were European volunteers who came to Iraq to handcuff themselves to buildings so that Americans wouldn't bomb them. Saddam got propaganda mileage from these "useful idiots" (to use the Cold War phrase), as they spewed peacenik slogans to story-hungry reporters.
Outfits like Hamas and Hezbollah also deploy human shields, though their hostages are not volunteers. "Involuntary martyrdom" describes the fate of the hostages Hezbollah uses to screen its rocket-launching sites in Lebanon from Israeli attack. When the Israelis hit the sites -- to stop the rockets from blasting Israeli towns -- photos of dead Arab civilians appear on websites accusing the Israelis of war crimes. Using human shields is the real war crime. Hezbollah and Hamas are essentially taking their own civilian populations hostage.
That may be what we are witnessing in Libya, except it's likely many of Gadhafi's hostage-takers are foreign mercenaries taking Libyan citizens hostage, so Gadhafi may not get the propaganda victory Hamas and Hezbollah cynically reap.
NATO officers, however, state categorically that when NATO aircraft identify any civilians in a target zone, they abort their mission and do not attack. For Gadhafi's gangsters and hired guns, that's victory enough.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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