David Armitage: War historian discusses civil wars

Historians in the News

There are about 30 civil wars being fought around the world, from Afghanistan to Uganda.

And there's a lot of debate about whether Iraq is on the grip of civil war.

An authority on civil wars from ancient to modern times is the Harvard University Professor of History, David Armitage.

He says the cost of the wars currently being waged is about $100-billion a year.

Professor Armitage is visiting Australia and next week is due to speak at the University of Sydney.

His lecture is titled "Civil War from Rome to Iraq".

I spoke to Professor Armitage earlier and asked him why study civil wars?

DAVID ARMITAGE: Because civil wars have been the most frequent and also the most ferocious form of collective human conflict since almost time immemorial. They're also the only kind of conflict that we have going on around us at the moment.

In 2003 George Bush said mission accomplished in Iraq; that was the end of the last formal war in the states. All the other wars going on the world, more than 20 or 30 of them, they're all civil wars now and we need to understand them.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: The definition can be controversial. George W. Bush was denying there was a civil war in Iraq. How do you define a civil war?

DAVID ARMITAGE: I wouldn't go out on a limb and define it myself. I'm interested in the way it does become a bone of contention in particular conflicts as well. To call a war a civil war looked at from the outside is to say that it's somebody else's business, we shouldn't be there. That was very much the case in relation to Iraq.

To call a war a civil war has implications, for instance, about whether the laws of war apply, and which laws of war apply. So a lot hangs on the definition. I'm not in a position to come up with one myself and I'm interested to see the consequences of what happens when other people try to.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: You're talking about civil wars in the current world and in the ancient world. Now in the current world, of course, we've talked about Iraq, whether or not that's in a civil war. But what would you draw out of the Iraq experience regardless of whether it's a civil war or not?

DAVID ARMITAGE: Out of the Iraq experience we can see the political consequences of the labels that we use to describe things.

To call the Iraq war a civil war has very different consequences to very different sides within the war itself, within Iraq itself and also from the outside. And shows just how fraught these apparently simple terms can be when we use them to analyse extraordinarily complex conflicts....

Read entire article at Brendan Trembath at http://www.abc.net.au

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More Comments:

William Mandel - 7/24/2008

Does Mr. Beatty actually contend that Hitler's, or Napoleon's, attacks were the efforts of a social group to survive? What social group was threatened by whom, to cause Hitler to launch an attack?
Mr. Beatty ignores conquest as purpose, although it simply stares one in the face in examining most wars. Others are preemptive: It's clear that you are preparing to attack me, so I'll jump you first. In some cases that last is a fact, in some merely an excuse, and in yet others it is a misreading of intentions.

Randll Reese Besch - 7/23/2008

The FARC (mostly) in Columbia but the USA has had a hand in keeping the death squad democracy alive and in power by infusions of millions of dollars and military personell. The Tamil Tigers of Elam fighting for independence on the island of Sri Lanka and lower India have perfected the suicide killer in recent years. Also the Maoist Naxals in the rural thinly populated parts of middle India are also active. There are many more.

John D. Beatty - 7/23/2008

Explain to us rubes the difference between "civil" wars and any other label. Are there special "civil" war bullets that can only be used in conflicts so designated? Are "civil" wars somehow distinct in how the bodies get cold?

No? Thought not.

"Civil" war is an easy excuse for non-historians and a convenient label for professional scribes to attach brutal attributes to a conflict that they prefer to think of a "fratricidal," easily ignoring and sidestepping the fact that ALL wars are functionally fratricidal. War is an extension of one society's policy over another. Simple as that. If that society is a neighborhood gang or a trans-oceanic alliance the function is the same.

Further, spineless demagogues can simply label any conflict a "civil" war as an excuse not to concern themselves with it and, horror-of-horrors, actually participate in or intervene militarily regardless of any strategic issues involved.

In short, its a cop-out used to provide a fig leaf to not think about the central underlying issues in all conflicts: The desire of any social group to struggle survive even at the expense of others. When conflict is so reduced it becomes very difficult if not impossible to contain and explain.

"Civil" wars are no different.