Civil Wars of Words

The stakes are now so high for applying or withholding the label “civil war” it is unlikely that politics can ever be eliminated from consideration. We should now be better equipped to see why. Once we know more of civil war’s fractious history, we can see its birthmarks more clearly; we discern its accumulated scars; and we may see how sensitive the wounds of civil war remain. Our ideas of civil war transmit the pain of two thousand years. And that pain continues to unsettle our politics down to the present.

Like the term “genocide,” “civil war” now has not only political connotations but also legal implications that can trigger action from the international community; indeed, to draw the boundary between genocide and civil war—two essentially contested concepts, each with legal effects—can be even more contentious.1 Civil war conjures so many images and associations of horror and destruction that it is hard to imagine any good that might come of using it. This sense goes to the very heart of the term, which is a paradox, even an oxymoron. What could possibly be “civil” about a war? “Civil” is an adjective that qualifies otherwise benign forms of human activity, like civil society and civil disobedience, and even the civil service. Its nearest relatives, etymologically and linguistically, are “civility” and “civilization.” War does not bring people together peacefully or direct their energies nonviolently; it hardly implies politeness or polish when it involves so much bloodshed and death. Surely the darkness of war blots out any brightness of what can be called civil.

Some might say that this is “merely” semantic or rhetorical, simple jousting with words and not matters of real life—or death. Another response is the approach I have taken throughout this book: to assume that such arguments reveal a great deal about the way we define our communities, how we identify our enemies, and how we encourage our allies. Words are the way we construct our world; they are not the only way, to be sure, but they are the means by which we build it in conversation with our fellow human beings as we try to persuade them of our own point of view, to justify our actions, and to sway outsiders or even posterity. But in speaking of wars, words themselves are wielded as weapons, whether the blood is hot or the battlefield has gone cold: “Words about war—even the names of war—can be contentious indeed.”2 And no form of war is more nominally contentious than civil war.

The application of the term “civil war” may depend on whether you are a ruler or a rebel, the victor or the vanquished, an established government or an interested third party. As one leading scholar of contemporary civil war has written, “The description of a conflict as a civil war carries symbolic and political weight since the term can confer or deny legitimacy. Indeed the very use (or not) of the term is part of the conflict itself.”3 Or, as Thomas De Quincey exclaimed more succinctly, “The casuistries of civil war—how vast!”4 The battle over names can continue long after the conflict has ceased; for example, using the term “civil war” to describe the struggle between the Italian Resistance and the Fascist government during World War II has remained controversial because of the equivalence it seemed to imply between the two sides.5

More immediately during ongoing conflicts, the other powers of the earth may hedge their bets or decide that these wars are beyond their control because they are solely “civil,” that is, internal, matters. The consequences of such decisions have been central to major conflicts across the centuries and around the world. For example, was the American Revolution a revolution only for the colonists in North America, or was it a civil war within the British Empire? Was the U.S. Civil War a war between equal opposing parties or a rebellion inside the boundaries of a single sovereign state? Did calling the conflicts in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s “civil” wars allow the rest of the world to deny responsibility for what took place behind closed borders? And did naming what took place in Darfur after 2003 “genocide” rather than civil war render a fundamentally political conflict instead intractably ethnic, and hence beyond hope of reasonable resolution?6

The choice of category has moral as well as political consequences. It can be a matter of life or death for tens of thousands of people, usually those least able to control how their own destinies are shaped. Deciding whether what we see is indeed a civil war can have political, military, legal, and economic consequences for those outside the war-torn country as well as for those within it. As we have heard, the international community’s motive for acknowledging the existence of such a conflict may be to avoid involvement: a civil war, it is sometimes assumed, is somebody else’s business; outsiders should stay away. Conversely, the label can be applied to authorize intervention after a state has collapsed and a humanitarian crisis ensues.7 These polarities both in motive and in response are also part of the concept’s paradoxical nature.

The decision that a civil war is in progress may also determine which provisions of the laws of war and international humanitarian law can be applied while the fighting takes place as well as later, when the aggressors are judged and war criminals are potentially identified. The financial consequences are likewise momentous: millions of dollars of humanitarian aid from the UN and its agencies can also depend on the application or withholding of the label of civil war to a conflict in a member state. In all these situations, knowing civil war when you see it can be imprecise, dangerous, and expensive. Hence the great urgency of deciding on a definition and of applying it as rigorously as possible to particular cases. The pressure to define civil war is often inversely related to the political stakes for offering such a definition: the higher the pressure to be precise, the greater the chance that exactitude will itself be a source of political contention.

The very name “civil war” can bring legitimacy to forms of violence that would otherwise be suppressed or decried. At least since the nineteenth century, if violence within a state can be called a “war,” rather than a rebellion or an insurrection, for example, then those waging it are liable for the protections of combatants (as well as the penalties for those who violate the laws of war). To have a conflict called a “war”—even if a “civil” war—can bring with it recognition from the international community, and in turn the possibility of various kinds of external support: economic, legal, even military. Recall, for example, the international recognition accorded in 2011–12 to the National Transitional Council in Libya during the Libyan civil war.8 While the historical associations of the term “civil war” may be overwhelmingly negative, at certain times and in particular places its legal and political consequences have been positive.

Layered into current conceptions of civil war are its many meanings from the past, as well as from the surrounding discourses—of history, politics, law, and social science, for example—that have laid down their own strata of significance. From history, especially from Roman history, came the understanding of civil war as recurrent and sequential. From politics, civil war derived its links with civilization and sovereignty, rebellion and revolution. From law arose both the effort to constrain civil war within a precise definition and the attempt to regulate it according to legal protocols. And from the modern social sciences sprang the examination of civil war as a cumulative, global phenomenon, ripe for aggregation and susceptible to analysis as to its causes and consequences. These broad waves in the conceptual flow of civil war carried it across the centuries but also left choppiness in their wake. Civil war became so contested a concept because it could be used competitively and because it gradually gained prestige as a subject, particularly after legal thinkers such as Vattel and Lieber appointed it as a mark of belligerence, a signal for intervention, or a spur to humanitarian regulation. All these features remain contingently attached to civil war into the present, as evidence of its multiple, accumulated pasts and of the contestation over it, by now perhaps too precious ever to be settled.

Civil war is an inheritance humanity may not be able to escape. By this, I do not mean that humans are inherently competitive, greedy, and aggressive or that our lot will always be societal suicide—to drive swords into our own entrails, as Lucan might have put it. Instead, I mean that civil war is one of those indispensable concepts that, once invented, has proved to be surprisingly translatable. It moved from Rome into many major world languages without difficulty and lost none of its accumulated awkward baggage. That innovation that had eluded the Greeks became under the pithy oxymoron and compelling historical narrative devised by the Romans an unassailable idea until the nineteenth century. Even the utopian promise of revolutionary change could not dethrone civil war from the repertoire of political thought, if only because politics itself was always a form of civil war by other, less deadly means. In this way did the idea acquire the bewitching power of something not invented but discovered.

What can the historian do in the face of such a force? There are perhaps two ways to respond. One would be to try to recover some presumed essence of the term, to reduce somehow its profusion of meanings into something more manageable. The other would be to reconstruct it in all its complexity, to uncover just how it became so fraught with significance. As we have seen in recent debates about conflicts in Iraq and Syria, attempts to confine civil war within a single definition have led only to further complication and contestation. It would seem better, then, to work from the other direction and to excavate the various meanings of civil war as they have been laid down over the centuries. Abandoning the first approach’s illusory promise of simplicity, one may yet be spared its inevitable result of perplexity.

Where a philosopher, a lawyer, or even a political scientist might find only confusion in disputes over the term “civil war,” the historian scents opportunity. All definitions of civil war are necessarily contextual and conflictual. The historian’s task is not to come up with a better one, on which all sides could agree, but to ask where such competing conceptions came from, what they have meant, and how they arose from the experience of those who lived through what was called by that name or who have attempted to understand it in the past.

Civil war is, first and foremost, a category of experience; the participants usually know they are in the midst of civil war long before international organizations declare it to be so. Yet it is an experience refracted through language and memory, via the record of past civil wars and the ways they were thought and argued about, often in distant times and far-flung places, and out of fears that the civil wars in one’s own country’s history might come again. It is an experience framed—some might say distorted—by the conceptual heritage of civil war. Once the concept had emerged, it became irrevocably available as a lens through which conflicts could be viewed and as a weapon with which the rhetorical battles over their significance would be waged. Civil war must still be understood in the realm of ideas that are both inherited and contested. Struggles over its meaning will ensure that its multiple futures will be as controversial and as transformative as its contentious past.

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