Excerpt: Civil Wars
A History in Ideas
From the Balkans to Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, and most recently Syria, civil conflict has exploded across the globe. In the West, politics itself looks ever more like civil war by other means. At such a charged time, David Armitage’s unique perspective on the origins and dynamics of this phenomenon is indispensable. His highly original history traces this least understood and most intractable form of organized human aggression from ancient Rome through the centuries to the present day.
     Ideas of what civil war is, and what it isn’t, have a long and contested history. Defining the term is an acutely political act: whether a war is “civil” often depends on whether one is a ruler or a rebel, victor or vanquished, participant or foreigner. Likewise, calling any particular conflict a civil war can shape its outcome by determining whether other nations choose to get involved or stand aside. This is true of many conflicts: from the American Revolution (commonly referred to as a civil war as it was waged) to the U.S. Civil War to the Second Gulf War. In each, pivotal decisions by outside powers turned on precisely such shifts of perspective. 
     In Civil Wars, eminent historian David Armitage offers invaluable illumination. By touching on significant developments in Western thought—the poetry of Lucan, the political theory of Thomas Hobbes, the so-called Lieber Code produced during the U.S. Civil War, to name a few—he creates a “genealogy” of our sometimes contradictory notions about civil war. The result reveals much about how this intellectual inheritance has shaped the political fortunes of our uneasy world and how we might think about this form of violence in the future.
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War is hell, the U.S. Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman is supposed to have said, but surely the only thing worse is civil war. On that fact, there has been general agreement across the centuries. Internal wars are felt to be more destructive than ones against external enemies. Writing in the wake of Rome’s civil wars, in the first century B.C.E., the poet Lucan concluded from the shattered cities, abandoned fields, and droves of the dispossessed, “No foreign sword has ever penetrated / so: it is wounds inflicted by the hand of fellow-citizen that have sunk deep.” Civil wars are like a sickness of the body politic, destroying it from within. Likewise, the Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne would warn his readers during the French Wars of Religion, “In truth a forraine warre is nothing so dangerous a disease as a civill.” Dangerous and morally degrading, too. Just before the Irish Civil War of 1922, an elderly priest lamented, “War with the foreigner brings to the fore all that is best and noblest in a nation—civil war all that is mean and base.” And even when the battles have ceased, they leave wounds that will not heal: “I question whether any serious civil war ever does end,” T. S. Eliot observed in 1947. On a visit to Spain in 1970, the former French president Charles de Gaulle agreed: “All wars are bad . . . But civil wars, in which there are brothers in both trenches, are unforgivable, because peace is not born when war concludes.” 
       Civil wars are doubtless inhumane but they have been so widespread and persistent that some have suspected them of being essential to our humanity. As Hans-Magnus Enzensberger argued, “Animals fight, but they don’t wage war. Only man—unique among the primates—practises the large-scale, deliberate and enthusiastic destruction of his fellow creatures.” And what could be more characteristically human, yet more shamefully different from the habits of other animals, than inflicting aggression on your immediate neighbors? Formal warfare, conducted by professional armies and constrained by the laws of war, was something modern and recent, but what lay behind the outward show was a more basic, more enduring, form of inhumanity: civil war. “Civil war is not merely an old custom,” Enzensberger concluded, “but the primary form of all collective conflict.”
Publisher: Allen Lane