Armed civilians fighting in a war = name?

What is the legal/dictionary term for armed civilians who fight in a war for their country independent of a military structure?

“Insurgent” carries connotations of a resistance after the war has “officially” ended - i.e., post-2003 insurgency in Iraq - but what would be a term for civilians who fight while the “major” war itself (i.e., U.S. invasion into Iraq) itself were still in its hot phase?

Also, does a military have any legal control over what armed civilians do when they’re both fighting against a common foe?

Unlawful combatant, perhaps.

There is also the term “militia”.

“Insurgent” doesn’t necessarily imply actions after a war. You can have an insurgency against an existing government, for example.

The term “freedom fighter” has also been used in the past. Sometimes whether someone is a noble freedom fighter or a dirty insurgent who needs to be destroyed depends solely on whose side you are on.

Whether they’re considered privileged combatants or unprivileged combatants would depend on additional details. Sometimes, the bulk of the answer to one’s question is about finding the right wikipage which may not be obvious to find so here it is:

Paramilitary? Partisan?

Militia has (at least for me) the connotation of civilians volunteering for a temporary pseudo-military or partially-military structure. Part of this is simply that terms such as “captain” or “sergeant” have been around for so long that as soon as you have a large enough amount of people that you want to be able to point in the same direction it makes sense to start using them: people may be confused by whether a 1st Lt is higher or lower than a 2nd Lt, but anybody who doesn’t live under a rock knows a general is higher than a colonel, who is higher than a captain, who is higher than a sergeant, who if you’re a mere private is God.

How about Partisan or Resistance?

I’ve seen the term irregulars used.

For the record, an insurgent has nothing to do with whether a war has or has not happened. An insurgent is simply a person who has risen up against the civil authorities (related to the word ‘insurrection’.) It’s essentially the same word as ‘rebel’ and closely related to ‘revloutionary.’

We tend to use insurgent now to refer to the various groups in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting against US troops and/or allies. It makes it seem to us that it’s a post-war phenomenon because in our mind the war was won when we accomplished our primary goals of toppling the governments of those countries. Unfortunately, war in the modern era is rarely so neat and clean, so when we installed new governments to our liking, people rebelled against those governments and became ‘insurgents.’ In some ways, it might be helpful to look at those conflicts as two different wars. The first was the war to topple the government which was won very quickly and very easily especially in the case of Iraq (“Mission Accomplished,” a much bally-hooed, but likely true statement.) and the second is the war to crush the rebellion, i.e. the insurgents which has proven to be a much more intractable problem.


I’d use “irregulars” too. From the cited Wikipedia article:

Irregulars are still “part of the armed forces,” which means they are not civilians.

Francs-tireurs, if you want to sound like a 19th century Prussian military officer.

In the modern parlance paid civilains carrying weapons and fighting in war zones are “security contractors” or “private military contractors” (PMCs). They were previously referred to as mercenaries or “soldiers of fortune” but those terms have a sour connotation.

It depends who they are working for. In Iraq and Afghanistan, PMCs are employed directly by the Department of Defense, by the CIA as paramilitary operators working with the Special Activities Division, or as private security to other construction, intelligence, or logistics contractors. PMCs are not supposed to engage in offensive operations per US and international law (specifically Military Commissions Act of 2006 and the Geneva Conventions) but they often do, especially in the case of special operations that lack official sanction. PMCs are not part of military command structure but may be integrated for certain purposes such as intelligence or logistical support and given a simulated rank (for the purpose of heirarchy, although no civilian below the Secretary of Defense can give orders to military personnel), and could be subject to arrest as unlawful combatants if they are performing illegal operations in an area of operation that the military controls. Generally speaking, PMCs have few legal protections and often operate in a legal grey zone.

Armed private civilians not operating under contract are by definition illegal or unlawful combatants and may be subject to laws in both the country they are operating in as well as their native company. You can’t just waltz into a war zone and start shooting people or looting because that would be murder and rapine. You have to get Uncle Sam’s stamp of approval first.


But they aren’t, typically. The term just defines combatants that aren’t part of the official military or paramilitary forces of a nation.

For example, the Soviet partisans in WWII, the Viet Cong in Vietnam, and the insurgents in Afghanistan, etc… are all irregulars. So would the Wolverines in “Red Dawn”, for example.

Pretty sure mercenaries fall outside the definition of irregulars though; they’re their own special third case I believe.

Guerrilla, in most modern contexts, suggests a type of asymmetrical warfare. A guerrilla army may or may not represent an established state, but one would be hard-pressed to regard such an organized unit as civilian. There could (and should, if they know what they are about) be civilian support for the guerrilleros, but it’s not like regular militaries get no support from the population and their industry.

Looking at article 4 of the 1949 conventions they could be protected by the laws of war governing POWs, if the conditions have been met. Specifically 4A(6), not for when you waltz into a war zone, but when the war zone has waltzed into you. This leads me to belive in many instances they would not be unlawful, but simply combatants. Especially if identifiable, organized and openly bearing arms.

Technically, a levve en masse, pardon my French. All perfectly on the up and up as long as they obey the laws & customs and fight under command.

not sure if this is what the OP is looking for:
The phrase “Resistance fighter” is commonly used when discussing World War II. But I don’t see it used in other contexts.

bump mentioned the Wolverines from “Red Dawn”–basically civilians who take it upon themselves to deliver the occasional black eye to the occupation forces. Assuming a Red Dawn type situation, if I were to use my deer rifle to reach out and touch the intruders in my neighborhood, would I be subject to USA laws regarding murder? Obviously, the occupation forces would be well within their rights to deal with me, but let’s say I manage to slay a decent number of them before the US Cavalry arrives and finishes the job. When the dust settles, am I subject to criminal charges? Or can what I did be considered supportive of the US Military?