Political entities have never been free of interior strife, from disputes to riots, insurrections and full-blown civil wars. But rarely have they dominated international conflict to the extent they do now. We are so used to the phenomenon that we rarely pause any longer to consider the oxymoron-like nature of the term, even though “civil” has positive connotations in every other use. Thank the Romans—ancient inventors of much of our political terminology—for the concept, says Harvard history department chair David Armitage: civil wars were between cives, fellow citizens who brought “the most widespread, the most destructive and the most characteristic form of organized human violence” into the “zone of co-operation and peace” represented by the city-state.
The economic and nuclear stakes of traditional state-against-state war, hedged about with rules more often followed than not—even the Nazis maintained POW camps—have made such conflicts vanishingly rare. The modern world’s constant backdrop of mass violence is almost entirely made up of civil wars between parties often backed, openly or covertly, by outside forces. Yet political leaders, jurists and philosophers, as Armitage details, have struggled for centuries to define such struggles and when they justify intervention, humanitarian or otherwise. Paralyzed by Great Power politics and conceptual wrangling, the international community often allows internal conflicts, with all their human tragedy—including the waves of refugees now washing about the world—to continue to fester. Armitage spoke to senior writer Brian Bethune about his 2017 book, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas.
Q: You open by talking about what you call the Long Peace, the virtual absence of international war since 1945. This is unprecedented between nations, is it not?
A: It is. It’s the longest period of uninterrupted peace among states in the world in the last two centuries at least. It may, of course, be soon to come to an end with changes in the recent United States administration. But for the moment, at least, it has lasted for 70 years.
Q: That makes the civil war definition, or getting a grip on civil war, even more important—people conscious of war as a backdrop to modern life don’t always realize that it’s almost all internal.
A: That’s correct. If we think of the world as being at peace because we only look at a definition of war that encompasses war between states, we’re going to miss almost all of the violence in the world today. There are about 40 conflicts going on around the world, from Afghanistan to Yemen. And with the exception of the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, all the remaining major conflicts in the world are what we would call internal conflicts or civil wars.
Q: And it’s very hard to pin down a definition that works for all of them.
A: That’s correct, and that’s the substance of my book, to show the ways in which the term civil war has been fought over itself, that it’s often a source of contestation because the term civil war can lend legitimacy to both parties in an internal conflict and, especially in the period of the long peace since 1945, the battle for the term civil war has been often fought as ferociously as regular forms of struggle and battle have been. So it’s a political battle over language, which swirls around the term and has become particularly charged in recent conflicts such as the second Gulf War in Iraq and indeed in relation to the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Q: This matters in terms of humanitarian aid, international intervention. You’ve got to get some definition you can work with.
A: The problem is that any definition anybody has come up with has either holes in it or turns out to be quite politicized once you dig down into it, and there’s not often agreement on whether or not the term civil war can be legitimately applied to particular conflicts. Think back to the war in Iraq. There was a big debate around 2006, 2007 about whether what was going on there was an insurgency, a rebellion or a civil war. A clear definition of civil war was available. In fact, two or three clear definitions of civil war were available at that point and were debated in the press and even in the U.S. Congress, but those definitions became sources of ridicule because they could be used to show that Iraq had suffered 50 civil wars since 1945 or that Iraq was not in a civil war at all because—by one strict definition—there’d only been four civil wars since the 17th century. So the boundaries of those definitions matter a great deal. And they don’t end the controversy; they often start the controversy about what the nature of a particular conflict is.
Q: Part of the problem is much of what took place after 1945 was also decolonialization. And yet in a place like Algeria, there were settler families who had been there for generations, so the violence took on civil war aspects.
A: Yes, that was certainly the way the French state imagined the Algerian war in the early 1960s, as a war taking place within, as they would have said, the metropole, since Algeria was seen as part of France itself. Maybe not directly continuous with France, obviously, because there was a little thing called the Mediterranean in between, but part of the state. As something happening within France, the implication was that any attempt to suppress violence within Algeria was a police action. The war was a matter of domestic law, not international law. For insurgent forces like the FLN, the battle was precisely to gain international recognition for their cause so that the conflict could be upgraded to a war, an anti-colonial war, a war of decolonization, rather than an internal police action.
Q: Many commentators find the American Civil War to be a classic example of indisputable civil war, a kind of paradigm-setter. Yet it and the American Revolution, on the contrary, can both be seen as problematic, although maybe only to a Canadian like me who’s descended from the losers of the Revolution. And the Revolution, for me, was a true civil war, whereas the upper-case Civil War of 1861 to 1865, maybe not. If you use one of the more strict definitions—two parties vying to control a single state—it is not. The South never sought to take over the entire United States. That war seems less of a civil war than the Revolution does.
A: That’s absolutely right, and that’s one of the great paradoxes that became clear to me as I was writing the book. One of the impulses to work on the subject at all was I’d been working precisely on the set of events we call the American Revolution and found a very large number of people calling it at the time a civil war. I think indeed the first use of the term American Civil War comes in 1774 or 1775, not in 1861, but that’s in relation to that conflict in North America, and others were talking about a civil war encompassing both Britain and the North American colonies in that period. For contemporaries, what we now call retrospectively the Revolution was a civil war in that sense. And one of the claims I document in the book is that often a successful civil war gets rebranded retrospectively as a revolution.
And what’s interesting, again, as you point out, about what we now call the U.S. Civil War is that, for many of its participants at the time and for long afterwards, it was usually called the War of the Rebellion. Even Abraham Lincoln, in his speeches during the war between, calls it rebellion six times more often than he calls it civil war, partly for the reason that you point out, that the definition of civil war created in the middle of the conflict itself by Francis Lieber, a lawyer, producing the first code of the laws of war for the Union Army, defined a civil war exactly as an attempt by two parties to take over control of a state.
I’ve never seen anyone else deny the fact that the Confederacy was not trying to take over all of the United States; it was trying to secede, to create its own state, and it conceived of the conflict as a war between states, or a War Between the States, as it’s sometimes still known today.
Q: It would have been called a war of independence if they’d won.
A: Indeed. That was the way in which many of the Confederates conceived of it. They saw it as a second American Revolution, a new war of independence. They saw themselves as going back behind the now-broken agreement of the Constitution, as they saw it, to the founding principles of the Declaration of Independence, and issued their own secession documents, which were often modelled on the 1776 Declaration of Independence,. They were saying we’re doing the same thing that the oppressed colonists did in 1776, but here we are now in 1861 working against a corrupt government on the North American mainland, not across the Atlantic in Great Britain.
Q: And how and why did Americans come to the “civil war” designation for the conflict. It took 10 or 15 years, if I recall. Did they think it was a neutral term?
A: Actually, it was not until 1907 that the U.S. Congress definitively ruled that the conflict should be called the Civil War. And even at that point there was a great deal of pushback, especially from Southern members of Congress, who still wanted to call it the War Between the States, to dignify it as an interstate war, an international war, rather than an internal conflict. By that point, rebellion still seemed too charged, especially in the context of attempts to smooth over and relieve the still-lasting wounds of the Civil War. So that’s 40 years and two generations after the conflict, and Civil War at that point had been settled on—not to everyone’s satisfaction, but to the majority’s satisfaction as a more morally neutral description. But if you go to some parts of the former Confederacy today, you can still get in trouble for calling it the Civil War rather than Mr. Lincoln’s War, the War of Northern Aggression or the War Between the States. So even that supposedly neutral designation is still very much up for grabs and contestable even today.
Q: So, there’s always politics in this choice?
A: Always politicized. Always has been for the 2,000-plus years since the Romans invented the term civil war to describe their own internal conflicts. Their fundamental definition of war was a conflict fought against hostile external others, the very people who were not like citizens. And so when they coined the term civil war—a war between cives, a bellum civile in Latin, it was deliberately an oxymoron to express the horror of having to fight fellow citizens.
Q: What would the international community call what’s going on in Eastern Ukraine?
A: That’s a very good question. It’s not been determined to be a civil war or “a non-international armed conflict,” which is the term of art that tends to be used in international law and international humanitarian law these days. I think most of the international community would still say that it’s an illegal interference by the Russian Federation in the affairs of another sovereign state—outside support of an internal insurgency, absolutely, yes, but not yet a civil war.
Q: In the end, I guess, civil war is something like pornography. You know it when you see it. No, not so much see it as feel it. You write that survivors recognize a civil war when they’ve been in one.
A: Well, we do think we know it when we see it. But as is so often the case, appearances can be very deceiving. What I’ve tried to do in the book is to make people, especially policy-makers, humanitarian lawyers and others, pause a little before using terms like civil war or non-international armed conflict, to be aware of the political and ideological baggage that those terms carry with them, with the political work that they do in legititimating various parties to a conflict. So, don’t just take things at face value, be much more scrupulous and careful, know some of the history of these contested terms when using them in the present.
Q: I imagine the fight over terminology is always more intense and bitter after a civil war than an international one because you’re living in the same state, and speaking the same language, as the people who are throwing up other labels.
A: It’s sometimes said that truth is the first casualty of war. I think language is sometimes the first casualty of civil war as by definition everyone is a member of the same community, they speak the same language and they’re battling over different understandings of the same terms, the same meanings, the same very freighted words. What to a ruler can look like a rebellion or an insurrection or an insurgency may look to the other side to be a legitimate revolution, and to the international community like a civil war. It’s exactly the same facts on the ground, but the terms used betray very different world views and very different ideas of what’s actually happening.
Q: In his book Nothing Ever Dies, about what’s called in one country the American War and in the other the Vietnam War, Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote how all wars are fought twice: once in actuality and once in memory. Would you agree?
A: I would say that’s doubly true of civil wars. In Spain the battle for memory of the Spanish Civil War still swirls around the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) monument; you could say the same about monuments to the Confederate dead in parts of the U.S. South. Even 150 years later, there are still aspects of the American Civil War that are being fought out in battles over the Confederate battle flag. One thing the Romans discovered in their own wars and that has been reiterated in most civil wars since, up to the present, is that the wounds of civil war are deeper and worse than the wounds in conventional, interstate wars, not least because of that familial, familiar dimension that you’ve already mentioned. And civil wars tend to flare up again much more frequently. They recur more often than other forms of warfare. And so they are often not just fought twice over, but sometimes three times, four times, five times over, in open, armed conflict, and as battles over historical memory. Their wounds take a very long time to heal, if they heal at all.