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Would Not Shoot a Civilian
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
Article 3(1) of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 12 August 1949

A military Sub-Trope of Never Hurt an Innocent: only combatants are proper targets—which does not include The Medic, or The Chaplain. May encompass Wouldn't Hit a Girl when women are not in the armed forces and usually does include Wouldn't Hurt a Child. Those who violate this are generally portrayed as not good combatants. Indeed, good combatants will try to minimize even accidental civilian deaths. The Anti-Hero combatant, however, may not care; considerable conflict can arise from these clashing moralities.

Sink The Life Boats is particularly vicious for civilian ships.

Proud Warrior Race Guy or Blood Knight may get at this trope in a sideways manner, rejecting civilians as unworthy opponents because they are weak and cowardly, unworthy of fighting. Pragmatic Villainy may also be a factor; bullets cost money, after all.

Truth in Television, at least in theory. Under The Laws and Customs of War, targeting civilians is a war crime — a principle that goes back as far as the Knight in Shining Armor and chivalry. On the other, to encourage combatants to comply, civilians must also not attack combatants lest they be labeled as the enemy, and combatants must not dress as civilians; both are war crimes for which the offenders can be shot if caught and convicted. In addition, if civilians are accidentally or incidentally but unavoidably killed in the process of attacking a legitimate military target, it's (usually) not considered an offense. Obligatory War Crime Scene exploits this trope for its punch.

More cynical works may display characters (good or bad, depending on just how cynical the work gets) taking advantage of this rule, either by taking human shields or attacking out of uniform. Alternatively, there is nothing stopping the good guys from accidentally killing civilians due to anything from incompetence to misinformation, the latter of which might even have been a setup.

Can also apply to other situations where there is a stark division with Guys With Guns and Guys Without Guns.

See Would Not Shoot a Good Guy for when characters do not shoot back at (some) of those actually shooting at them.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Gundam 00, this is one of the main things that sets the main group of Celestial Being apart from the Trinities: while Celestial Being targets military, criminal, or mercenary groups trying to promote conflict, they do not attack civilians if they can help it. One early episode shows Lockon deliberately missing some civilian workers at a mine he was trying to destroy, in order to scare them off instead of killing them. The Trinities, however, have no qualms about attacking civilian targets if they're connected in some way to conflict. They also show no real problem with one of their own slaughtering a wedding because she was bored.
  • In Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, Arrow of the Blue Team, a group of African freedom fighters working with Neo-Zeon, kills some of his own comrades for firing on someone who appeared to be a civilian running from the fight. Unfortunately, that "civilian" was actually the pilot of the ZZ Gundam.
  • Said almost word for word by Suzaku in Code Geass, when he is ordered to shoot Lelouch. He's promptly shot for refusing, although he does survive.

    Fan Works 

    Film 
  • A key premise of many post-WWII military action movies like Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor, and is the central conflict in Rules of Engagement. This trope often manifests as one side using this rule against the other side—typically by deliberately using a human shield as a strategic advantage. Obeying this rule often leads to many casualties and/or a no-win situation because "we can't fire back; they're using civilians." The characters are often portrayed as evil (e.g. in many Vietnam war movies) when they do not follow this rule.
  • The Predator, very much in the Proud Warrior Race Guy subtrope mentioned in the description. This is perhaps best highlighted in Alien vs. Predator, where a Predator (initially) refuses to kill an assailant because he has a bad heart. Also, across all of the films Predators rarely kill anyone who is unarmed (at least in the case of humans; their other staple prey, Xenomorphs, are non-sentient and don't use weapons). In Predator 2, a Predator refrains from killing an armed female police officer when he sees that she is pregnant.
  • In Reservoir Dogs, the crooks are outraged that Mr. Blonde would start shooting bystanders for no reason. When asking if Mr. White had shot anyone, Mr. Pink is quick to distinguish between "cops" and "real people."
  • Tony Montana in Scarface refuses to carry out a hit that would also kill the target's wife and kids. Tony's moral code allows him to kill only in defense or retaliation (in his words "I ain't never fucked nobody that didn't try to fuck me first"). His willingness to take part in that hit in the first place (the target being an activist who'd done nothing to him) showed that his principles were on the decline. His fellow mobsters don't share the same moral views which results in his downfall.
  • This is what lands Ben Richards in prison at the start of The Running Man, although it's done on principle, since he refused when ordered to fire upon hungry, protesting civilians.
  • The unwillingness of Chow-Yun Fat's hitman character to kill a child is the catalyst for the hiring of The Replacement Killers in the John Woo film of the same name.
  • Captain von Schoenvorts in The Land That Time Forgot refuses to allow the killing of civilian survivors of a ship his U-Boat just torpedoed.

    Literature 
  • In The Lost Fleet, John Geary refuses to allow any ship in his fleet to bombard civilian targets. After a while, this actually gives him a sizable advantage because people and even on several occasions entire planets offer to surrender because they know that they will be safe in doing so.
  • In James Swallow's Warhammer 40,000 Blood Angels novel Deus Encarmine, Rafen is horrified to see Blood Angels shooting down civilians. When he appeals to Arkio on these grounds, Arkio is clearly shaken by the charge.
  • In Graham McNeill's Warhammer 40,000 Horus Heresy novel False Gods, when Horus is felled by his injuries, the Space Marines bringing him slaughter the civilians who are pressing in — blocking the way. (In Ben Counter's Galaxy In Flames, Loken deduced that Varkasus, who wanted the killers court-martialed, was murdered for that.)
  • In G. K. Chesterton's Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, a Prussian officer is not quite telling a subordinate to murder another soldier by shooting him In the Back, and explains he chose him for two reasons: one was his shooting ability, and the other was the time he had shot an old woman for not giving him information. The officer explains that he exerted influence to avoid the soldier's being charged.
  • In Nick Kyme's Warhammer 40,000 novel Salamander, the Back Story between the Salamander and the Marines Malevolent revolves about a time where the Marines Malevolent fired on civilian camps.
  • In Dan Abnett's Brothers of the Snake, when they locate civilians, they bring them to safety, and Priad promises to protect them. When they reveal themselves as cultists, he slaughters them with the rest.
    • Of course they don't really count as civilians then.
  • In John C. Wright's The Phoenix Exultant, Atkins is glad that Daphne and Phaethon survived so that he can report no civilian casualities — at least, he says it's his motive.
  • In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "Beyond the Black River", after all the slaughter he sees the Picts inflict, it is the sight of two mutilated civilians — one a woman — that enrages Balthus.
  • In A Night in the Lonesome October it's not even limited to humans. The canine narrator accepts that before the end some Players (and maybe even familiars) will kill each other, though deems it less than necessary, but really doesn't like involvement of others, warned normal animals away from the site of ritual and twice actually referred to them as "civilians".
  • In Jasper Fforde's One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing, the massacre of the clown army is noted as an atrocity because medical personnel and other civilians were massacred.
  • Parodied in Discworld, natch. Detritus offers to shoot a bull in a crowded street (long story) with his siege engine-turned-crossbow (with six foot long bolts). Vimes says no.
    Vimes: "It might hit an innocent person, even in Ankh-Morpork."
  • In Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet, Geary insists on not killing prisoners. In Valiant, one Alliance prisoner is hauled out to be asked if it was true, and when he confirms it, the Syndics decide not to carry out their orders.
  • In Michael Flynn's The January Dancer, when a hit takes out a man's mistress as well as himself, disapproval is strong.
  • In John Hemry's Paul Sinclair novel A Just Determination, Paul think it would be much easier if they could face a warship rather than a ship that may be one in civilian disguise, because they would be entitled to fight then.
  • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, there aren't really clear signs of if a civilian is a Rebel or Imperial or sympathizes with either cause—it's not a matter of country or planet or species—so this trope is wrestled with on several occasions.
    • Daric LaRone, one of the stormtroopers of Choices of One, got in trouble when it was discovered that, on a mission to wipe out suspected Rebel insurgents—i.e. kill everyone in a town—he aimed to miss the unarmed civilians. Later he discovered he was the unofficial leader of his band of defecting stormtroopers because he had a position of moral superiority—the one other who looked like a leadership prospect refused the position because he had followed his orders.
    • In the X-Wing Series, the Rogues once attack a spaceport. Rogue Leader, Wedge Antilles, is aware that it was tactically necessary, so he went through with it, but gave orders to try to limit civilian casualties, and later set up funds to help the families of those who were killed there, remembering that his own family was similar collateral.
    • I, Jedi has Corran Horn become furious when he sees a pirate gunning for a civilian landspeeder. Even later, when he's terrorizing a town full of mostly pirates, he does his right best to not kill civilians and those pirates who aren't so nasty.
    • In Death Star the fact that the titular superweapon can, well, can destroy an entire planet doesn't sit easy with a number of the people working on it for this reason. They comfort themselves by saying it will never actually be used on an inhabited world, just moons and large ships and so on, and this will scare people into behaving. After it's tested on a prison world there are some excuses, but even claiming that all those prisoners were vicious scum who'd never be allowed to leave could only go so far; there had been guards, too, who hadn't been evacuated. Later, the gunner states that he can't believe for an instant that all of the people on Alderaan were Rebels.
  • In Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga novel Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Ivan, mindful of his uncle's stern lectures about treating prisoners of war, has them wake up the stunned goons for necessities.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Omar Little of The Wire is a Robin Hood-type who robs (and sometimes wounds or even kills) drug dealers for a living, but he only targets those involved in "the game". One of the Barksdale crew killing an ordinary guy is what first motivates him to give the police information.
    Detective "Bunk" Moreland: So, why'd you step up on this?
    Omar: Bird triflin', basically. Kill an everyday workin' man an' all. I mean, don't get it twisted, I do some dirt, too, but I ain't never put my gun on nobody who wasn't in the game.
    Bunk: [with some but not wholehearted approval] A man must have a code.
    Omar: Oh, no doubt.
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, after Worf is accused and then exonerated of blowing up a civilian transport during a skirmish with the Klingons, Captain Sisko makes it clear that he got lucky this time. Starfleet officers make sure who they are shooting at is a legitimate target before opening fire, even if that hesitation risks their own deaths.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • Flash Gordon objects to the Lion Men's going to shoot Aura on the grounds she is unarmed; they argue that her evil justifies them.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Some depictions of Warhammer 40,000's Chaos god Khorne once hinted at this, having him only interested in warrior blood and warrior skulls. Rarely evoked in these Grimdark days.
    • Some Khornite berserkers — including World-Eaters — sought out "worthy foes" and ignored those who could not fight.
      • That said, most don't. Hey, Khorne doesn't care who's blood is spilt, only that someone's is.
      • He also doesn't like dishonourable pansies and cowardice. So running away will get you targeted anyway. And if you're unable to fight due to injuries? Mercy Kill.
      • Also extends to his followers, too. Presenting the skull of a defenseless victim to the blood god is a surefire way to get yourself killed by him for the cowardice of choosing a defenseless victim over a worthy opponent. At least his positive traits show sometimes...
    • Varies with Space Marines from Chapter to Chapter. Chapters like the Ultramarines, Salamanders, Blood Angels, Raven Guard, and Space Wolves will not fire on targets that would result in collateral civilian deaths unless they absolutely have to. The Space Wolves are in fact notable for trying to prevent the Inquisition from declaring Exterminatus if they can. Other chapters such as the Iron Hands, Marines Malevolent, Flesh Tearers and several others simply regard civilians as weak and worthless. The Flesh Tearers especially are infamous for their tendency to butcher civilians and their allied forces alongside the enemy, and the Marines Malevolent are basically just a bunch of Jerks who view civilians, as well as Imperial Guard and even other Space Marines, as simple Cannon Fodder.
    • And then there's the Grey Knights, who will mercilessly butcher civilians if there is a risk they are tainted. Not out of malice, but because they know that a moment's mercy can and likely will doom an entire world when it comes to daemonic invasions.
    • The Tau Empire avoids targeting civilians of the worlds they conquer, by logical extension that they are one of the few races that seek to subjugate other peoples rather than annihilate them.
    • Worth noting that the above are exceptions, not the rule. This trope is usually as averted as it gets. Even by the so-called "Good" factions aren't above this most of the time. And the evil races like the Forces of Chaos, the Orks and the Dark Eldar... They do a lot worse things to civilians than shoot them; you really don't want to know. It's that kind of universe.
  • Witch Hunter: The Invisible World. Baykok spirits will not attack non-combatant opponents. Innocent bystanders, children, and other civilians who don't attack them have nothing to fear from them.
  • In Pathfinder, the god Gorum is more or less the embodiment of the Blood Knight, reveling in battlefor its own sake, with little concern for morality. What keeps him Chaotic Neutral instead of Chaotic Evil is that he considers the wholesale slaughter of defenseless civilians beneath a true warrior—an enemy who cannot fight back is no proof of one's combat prowess. (Although, it's also noted that there's a distinct difference in his mind between those who can't fight, and the cowards who simply won't.)

    Video Games 
  • According to the manual, the hero of Doom was ordered by his superior to fire upon civilians, and the marine responded by assaulting his superior instead. The marine is reassigned to the UAC facilities on Phobos, and then all Hell breaks loose...
  • In Scarface: The World is Yours, trying to kill a civilian will be refused by Tony, who explains to the player that it goes against his code. Managing to bypass it only makes them get back up and flee the scene.
  • Whether a Merc follows orders to shoot civilians (a bad idea for the penalties it gives) is the quickest way to tell if any given merc in Jagged Alliance 2 falls under the Psycho for Hire label.
  • Enforced in the German and Japanese versions of Modern Warfare 2: the whole point of the "No Russian" mission is to shoot the civilians. However, the local Moral Guardians made that impossible by giving you a Non-Standard Game Over when you do as much as graze a civilian with a stray bullet.
    • In the other versions the player can choose to do this anyway (the outcome's the same either way).
    • Disturbingly averted by the players who tested that level. Reportedly, every single player opened fire on the civilians despite no prompt to do so being given.
      • In the release version of the game, the player is instructed to shoot the civilians, though not explicitly ("Follow Makarov's lead" rather than "Shoot the civilians".)
    • Enforced throughout the rest of the game, though, as killing a civilian in any other level will give you a Non-Standard Game Over, though the game is at least kind enough to notice if it's an accident.
  • There is an inter-party argument at the end of your first visit to Onderon in Knights of the Old Republic 2 about whether throwing grenades into a crowded bar is an acceptable tactical option.
  • It's up to the player to decide whether or not Shepard is this type of officer in Mass Effect. Generally you can't anyway. Even the most bastardous of Renegade characters won't get that many opportunities, with exceptions like Feros. Even the Council is only willing to put up with so much from you, after all. You don't want to do anything that gets you put on the SPECTRE hit-list.
    • Paragon Shepard never would hurt an innocent, something Tela Vasir mocks them for in Lair of the Shadow Broker as she holds a woman hostage. Shepard mentions some of the things they've done that have caused hundreds of people to die over the course of the preceding games, questioning if Vasir's entire escape plan hinges on Shepard hesitating to shoot just one person to stop her. This bluff sufficiently freaks Vasir out, allowing your squadmate Liara to telekinetically throw a table at her, while she lets her guard down.
    • On the NPC side, this is one of the reasons why several people dislike Saren, because to him unarmed civilians are "potential diversionary tactics" at the best of times. He's tolerated as a SPECTRE because he gets the job done, even if that occasionally means the destruction of a massive industrial installation and thousands of deaths. Though, nobody likes him after it's undeniably proven that he's now an agent of the Reapers.
    • Wholly averted by the Turians. Being a Proud Warrior Race in the extreme, all Turians serve in the military for a while after they hit adulthood. Therefore, they consider any and all population centres with adults to be military installations. They are reluctant to abandon this mindset when facing other races.
  • Shirou blows an ambush at one point in Fate/stay night with his insistence of asking Kuzuki if he really knows what he's getting involved in. He's also outraged at Archer's rather pragmatic view of civilian casualties.
    • Indeed, the technical "rules" of the Grail War call for the Masters and Servants to avoid civilian casualties, for the pragmatic reason of not drawing attention to themselves (this is also policy among magi in general). How strictly this is followed depends on the Master in question; Ilya and Rin, for instance, refuse to attack Shirou near witnesses, while Caster is perfectly willing to (covertly) drain civilians for power, and Ryuunosuke and Zero Caster openly flout the rule by kidnapping and torturing people.
    • Oh, and summoning Cthulhu in the middle of the city. That too.
      • It's not the Grail's rules, but the Mages' Association and the Holy Church's to avoid involving civilians as part of maintaining The Masquerade, and they will enforce their rules on non-members taking part in the War. However, if damage control measures call for extremes, both the MA and HC will kill as many civilians as it takes to preserve their secrecy. For example, Lancer's Master is a member of both, and as little as he liked it, he was obligated to dispose of Shirou after witnessing a Grail battle.
  • A variant of this is enforced in the Pokémon series; while Pokemon-on-Pokemon violence is acceptable and a part of everyday life and human-to-Pokemon violence is considered either Bullying a Dragon (Pokemon is wild) or abuse (Pokemon belongs to abusing trainer), commanding an attack on a trainer or other human is either in bad form or outright illegal, unless used as a criminal suppression tactic (e.g. Lance in Mahogany), and if other options remain nonviable. While it may be implied that villainous teams can do this on a whim, not even Team Plasma goes that far in the game continuity. On the other hand, the Donphan goes on a rampage throughout Pokémon Special due to its Darker and Edgier nature, and Cipher will attack or even kill humans who obstruct its operations in any continuity.
    • An animated trailer for Black 2 shows Team Plasma ordering a Seviper to use Bite, after which it clearly attacks the protagonist rather than his Pokemon. His Arcanine has to come in from the side and Bite the Seviper. Since this was impossible to show in the games, one can assume whenever you're up against villainous teams they're trying to attack you specifically and you're only using your Pokémon in self defense.
  • In Lost Horizon, the protagonist's Dark and Troubled Past revolves around his court-martial and discharge for ordering his unit to fire into a crowd of civilian protesters. In fact, he didn't give any such order, with the shooting having begun when he rushed forward to help a friend without thinking how either the crowd or his jittery troops would interpret it. He regards his actions as a terrible mistake, but the army chose to pretend that the killings were his deliberate order — that way, they had a clear villain to punish, assuaging public opinion better than saying "it was an accident!" would. The protagonist is therefore conflicted — he doesn't like what he did, but also feels that he's been made a scapegoat.
  • This trope is enforced in most Light Gun Games: shooting innocent civilians will, in most cases, result in the loss of a life.
  • This is how Billy Coen in Resident Evil 0 got where he is at the start of the game - he's a former Marine whose squad was sent in to take out a guerrilla complex, only to instead stumble upon a civilian village. The rest of the squad, at this point going crazy from the conditions, decide to attack the village anyway; it's implied that Billy reacts much like the Doomguy above and attacked his squad members over it, hence why he's a military prisoner who was being taken to his execution before he and his escort found out first-hand that there are bigger problems out there.

    Webcomics 

    Western Animation 
  • The main reason that the Gaang doesn't like Jet in Avatar: The Last Airbender . While they both oppose the Fire Nation, the Gaang follows this trope and Jet doesn't, much to the Gaang's horror when they find out about his plan to flood a village to kill some Fire Nation soldiers, even though civilians would be caught in it as well.


Would Hurt a ChildMorality TropesWould Not Shoot a Good Guy
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