Civil war

Almost two years ago, a “guest blogger” in the Washington Post made the claim that Iraq was not in a civil war, because civil wars tend to be more bloody than what he had seen. He might as well have said that Civil Wars tend to be more old-timey, with lambchops, fiddles, and morphine. The number of people dead and the violence involved don’t make them any less of a civil war.

Someone ought to tell Robert Kagan. He writes:

>It is what’s wrong with this story, however, that makes it so irresponsible. The fact is that, contrary to so many predictions, Iraq has not descended into civil war. Political bargaining continues. Signs of life are returning to Baghdad and elsewhere. Many Sunnis are fighting al-Qaeda terrorist groups, not their Shiite neighbors. And sectarian violence is down by about 50 percent since December.

So, evidence of a civil war includes (1) decreased violence; (2) some Sunnis fighting al-Qaeda groups; and (3) diminished sectarian violence.

Some might think a civil war has less stringent requirements:

>”Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter’s ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain.” (Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, “Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000.)

Does Iraq qualify?

>The definition focuses on three main dimensions of civil war: that it is fought within a country rather than between states; that it is fought between insurgent forces and the state; and that the insurgent forces offer effective resistance.

>The Iraqi central government is pitted against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance. Some 50 distinct cells, spanning the political spectrum from secular Arab nationalists to religious fundamentalists, direct the activities of at least 20,000 to 30,000 part-time guerrillas, and perhaps many more. They strike regularly throughout seven key center-north provinces, including Baghdad, which at 6 million persons contains a fourth of the inhabitants of Iraq. In civil wars, the violence is staccato and almost random. Journalists or bloggers who visit Iraq and find bustling bazaars and brisk traffic are often fooled by their naiveté into thinking that the violence has been exaggerated. But it should be remembered that boys went swimming and fished not far from where the battle of Gettysburg was being fought in the U.S. Civil War. Guerrilla violence does not need to be omnipresent to effectively disrupt the society.

Seems so.

Update: Reuters.

3 thoughts on “Civil war”

  1. As per usual, you introduce your quite valid critique by overstating it. Replacing “bloody” with “old-timey,” you say: “The number of people dead and the violence involved don’t make them any less of a civil war.”

    But it seems that everyone here agrees that, unlike fiddles, blood is a necessary component of war. As even the definition of civil war which you quote (the link to which, by the way, is broken) points out, some threshold of death is a necessary qualification for attributing the state of civil war to a situation. Some threshold of old-timey-ness is not. Blood is relevant, and so the proper questions are the factual one of how much has been spilt, and the linguistic one of how much violence we mean when we use the word “war.”

    (Yes, you do go on to address these in your astute analysis of Kagan–I had just rolled my eyes once too many times at your opening paragraphs to let that analogy slide).

  2. Thanks for the analysis. Perhaps I do that. But keep in mind, that was meant to humorous. There is, indeed, as you point out, some kind of mortality threshold for something to be called a civil war, but that threshold is really low in the passage cited. I wouldn’t therefore take issue with the idea of mortality, rather with the idea that low mortality (as was the remark of Washington Post guest blogger) disqualifies a civil conflict from being a civil war. Thanks also for the update on the link. I don’t know why it did that.

Comments are closed.