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In news stories about ISIS or the Syrian civil war, the armed, organized people fighting are often called "fighters". That seems strange to me, as I would assume that "soldiers" is accurate and sounds more natural.

Why do they use "fighter" instead of "soldier"?


EDIT: The dictionary doesn't seem to disagree with me here.

Dictionary definitions (from google):

Soldier

  1. a person who serves in an army.

so we need to know what an army is:

Army

an organized military force equipped for fighting on land.

vs.

Fighter

  1. a person or animal that fights, especially as a soldier or a boxer.

By these definitions of these words, it seems like soldier is appropriate: they have fighting groups with commanders, and they coordinate with foreign militaries for support, which to me sounds like they are clearly "an organized military force", and they are fighting on land with equipment, so that seems like they're clearly "equipped for fighting on land."

So what am I missing here?

Is it really as simple as k1eran's comment?

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Likewise, one man’s fighter is another man’s soldier.

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    One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Likewise, one man’s fighter is another man’s soldier.
    – k1eran
    May 28, 2018 at 0:18
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    They probably mean to imply that ISIS does not have sufficient organizational structure to support the term "soldier" in any legitimate context.
    – Robusto
    May 28, 2018 at 0:40
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    Usually we would refer to a person on military service with an established government, and subject to military discipline, as a "soldier". The word "fighter" would be used for combatants who are not in a government's service and/or not subject to formal military discipline. In the US Civil War, the Confederate armies were made up of soldiers, not mere "fighters", and treated as soldiers according to the laws of war by the Union even though the Union did not recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government.
    – tautophile
    May 28, 2018 at 1:22
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    @Robusto Yes, the term 'soldier' implies that there is some form of more or less legitimate political control over their actions, even if that political control is weak or morally reprehensible. Calling ISIS fighters 'soldiers' would be to accept the claims of ISIS to be a state (or at least a proper caliphate). When it comes to the Syrian rebel groups then they have very little in the way of political structure behind them, they are more like guerrillas.
    – BoldBen
    May 28, 2018 at 5:17
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    But first, look up the two words in a good dictionary.
    – Kris
    May 28, 2018 at 7:36

3 Answers 3

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What makes a fighter a soldier is the legitimacy of the organization that the fighter serves.

tautophile wrote:

Usually we would refer to a person on military service with an established government, and subject to military discipline, as a "soldier". The word "fighter" would be used for combatants who are not in a government's service and/or not subject to formal military discipline. In the US Civil War, the Confederate armies were made up of soldiers, not mere "fighters", and treated as soldiers according to the laws of war by the Union even though the Union did not recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government.

{Note that the soldiers of the Confederate armies (for there were more than one) fought under recognized generals and other officers who formerly had served as equivalent military officers in the US Army before the secession of the rebellious states from the Union.}

and BoldBen wrote:

Yes, the term 'soldier' implies that there is some form of more or less legitimate political control over their actions, even if that political control is weak or morally reprehensible. Calling ISIS fighters 'soldiers' would be to accept the claims of ISIS to be a state (or at least a proper caliphate). When it comes to the Syrian rebel groups then they have very little in the way of political structure behind them, they are more like guerrillas.

Some of this has been codified, in the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war. From Convention IV:

REGULATIONS RESPECTING THE LAWS AND CUSTOMS OF WAR ON LAND

SECTION I
ON BELLIGERENTS

CHAPTER I
The qualifications of belligerents

Article 1. The laws, rights, and duties of war apply not only to armies, but also to militia and volunteer corps fulfilling the following conditions:

  1. To be commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
  2. To have a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance;
  3. To carry arms openly; and
  4. To conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

In countries where militia or volunteer corps constitute the army, or form part of it, they are included under the denomination "army."

Thus if a fighting force is not operating on behalf of (and subject to discipline by) a Geneva Conventions signatory, and does not meet all of the conditions above, then the international community will not recognize them as an "army" and will not recognize individual fighters as commanding the protections of the Conventions.

In this case, not being a signatory and condition 4, "conduct[ing] their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war", is probably the condition most at issue. By this reasoning, the terms "soldier" vs "fighter" can be seen as a casual proxy for the more formal "lawful combatant" vs "unlawful combatant".

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  • So would it be correct to say that what makes a fighter a soldier is the legitimacy of the organization that the fighter serves? May 29, 2018 at 18:52
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    That is what this answer states. Of course, who decides the "legitimacy" of said organisation is another question. That brings us back to @K1eran's comment: "One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Likewise, one man’s fighter is another man’s soldier." May 29, 2018 at 18:55
  • An exemplary community wiki post, a joint effort by several users where egos are left at the door. Bravi!
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 29, 2018 at 19:40
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According to Merriam-Webster a soldier is

one engaged in military service and especially in the army

Fighting is one aspect of military service and fundamental to the training of a soldier. Military operations sometimes do not involve fighting, though. Celebrated military campaigns have been carried out with little fighting involved. A soldier may fight, but his principle job is to follow orders. Macmillan Dictionary defines the verb "to soldier on":

to continue to do something even though it is difficult or unpleasant

Fighters come in a lot of flavors. A fighter may be a soldier, but could be just a fighter. Not many of us in the West understand the organization of ISIS in Syria. In fact, there is no obvious tight organization. I would not call ISIS fighters soldiers unless there was evidence of a discipline and organization that controls operations. Street fighters fight but I would not call them soldiers. There may be soldiers serving in ISIS but the evidence for that is currently thin.

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fighter v. soldier

Definitions provided in question.

Is it really as simple as k1eran's comment?

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Likewise, one man’s fighter is another man’s soldier.

I believe this to be the case. In the American Revolution, fighters/soldiers claimed no government and frequently no uniforms. I do have a sense that soldier implies 'legitimacy' more so than fighter.

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  • I wonder if the fact that all combatants of the American Revolution are referred to as "soldiers" is because this use of "fighter" is more modern. May 29, 2018 at 22:51

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