When is someone a soldier?

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Should someone be considered a soldier merely because they wear a uniform, carry an assault rifle, or get paid by something pretending to be a national government?

To my mind the title “soldier” should be earned and meet a minimum standard, or it devalues the currency: think of the thugs who recently raped some 121 women in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo for example. Defenders of democracy – or anything – they are not.

The wikipedia notes the word “soldier” entered modern English in the 14th century, from the equivalent Middle English word “soudeour”, from Anglo-French “soudeer” or “soudeour”, meaning “mercenary”, from “soudee”, meaning “shilling’s worth” or wage, from “sou” or “soud”, shilling. The word is also related to the Medieval Latin “soldarius”, meaning soldier (literally, “one having pay”). These words were ultimately derived from the Late Latin word “solidus”, referring to an Ancient Roman coin used in the Byzantine Empire.

While interesting, this sets no threshold. More useful, to me is article four of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949. While relating to the treatment of prisoners of war (PoW) and their definition, it suggests a very useful minimum standard: Someone is entitled to PoW status, and in my mind to the title “soldier” if he/she fulfills all of the following conditions:

  • that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
  • that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognisable at a distance;
  • that of carrying arms openly;
  • that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

Let’s be more selective in our use of nomenclature.