It’s a crucial time to study civil wars, historian David Armitage points out to his readers at the beginning of his compact and intensely thought-provoking new book Civil Wars: A History in Ideas, because the world is currently awash in them.
“Since 1989, barely 5 percent of the world’s wars have taken place between states,” he writes. “One has only to think back to the Balkan wars of the 1990s, or to those in Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, Somalia, Nicaragua, and Sri Lanka, for instance, to realize how prominent and how deadly internal struggles have been in recent memory, to say nothing of the ongoing suffering of those who live in their wake.” And these conflicts represent an immediate problem for the rest of the world because, as Armitage points out, “civil wars do not usually stay ‘civil’ for long” – and they’re no respecter of borders. Not only the violence but also the economic instability and refugee crises they spawn inevitably become the problem of their neighbors and the rest of the world.
Armitage’s book, densely researched and smoothly written, is a pointed attempt to understand the nature of civil war by understanding its history. He packs a great deal of learning and insight into a text of little more than 200 pages, centering on a series of history’s most famous internecine conflicts, from ancient times through the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War, to the American Civil War, to the present day, when the long violence in Syria stands as just the most prominent example of civil war’s ubiquity on the international stage.
“A mighty people,” wrote the young Roman poet Marcus Annaeus Lucanus in his epic “On the Civil War” during the reign of Nero, “attacking its own guts with heavy sword-hand/kin fighting kin,” and according to Armitage, the Roman literary world’s fascination with the phenomenon of civil war (epitomized in Julius Caesar’s own book on the subject) followed hard on the heels of the Roman political world’s invention of the phenomenon itself. “The Greeks never spoke of a political war, a politikos polemos; it was almost literally inconceivable in Greek,” Armitage writes. “The Romans alone would bear the guilt of inventing civil war and of learning how to tell its stories and determining what its history meant.”
Armitage traces the broad outlines of Rome’s many civil wars and briskly moves his narrative forward through the centuries, looking at how the conflicts were theorized by thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Algernon Sidney and aphorized by public figures like Voltaire and Montesquieu. Always the narrative is haunted by the stark admission both of the frequency of civil war and of its savagery, with Armitage quoting Spanish historian Cieza de Léon “the wars that are most feared and that are fought with the greatest cruelty are civil wars.”
When the underlying sensibility seems to shift in the 18th century from civil war to revolutions like those that broke out in Great Britain’s North America colonies or in France, Armitage points out that the shift is as much semantics as anything else. “The creation of this narrative would entail its own act of forgetting,” Armitage claims. “The nascent category of revolution was designed, in part, to repress memories of civil war and to replace them with something more constructive, more hopeful, and more forward-looking.”
Much of “Civil Wars: A History in Ideas” will be provocatively unsettling to readers who have perhaps rested too much weight on that frail distinction between civil war and revolution. The modern British state was born in civil war, after all, and the United States emerged out of not one but two civil wars, the first fought against the British Empire of which the colonies had been a powerful and willing part, and the second fought citizen against citizen on American soil. (“As so often,” Armitage writes, “progress toward perpetual peace entailed a march through the graveyards filled by civil wars”).
Indeed, it’s impossible when reading this book to avoid the conclusion that civil wars have shaped more of human history by far than conventional wars – indeed, that they are the conventional wars.
Armitage treats much too briefly the modern incarnations of the phenomena he’s describing, especially considering how compelling he is when writing about events within living memory. He writes about the halting efforts of various international legal conventions to come to some sort of protocol about intervention in civil wars, writing sardonically, “Recent efforts to bring civil war within the pale of civility remain frustratingly and lethally incomplete”
As a result, “Civil Wars: A History in Ideas” sometimes lives up to its bloodless subtitle by turning theoretical right when the reader most wants more pragmatism. But perhaps there isn’t much pragmatism to be found on such a baffling subject; “Civil war is an inheritance humanity may not be able to escape,” he writes at the end of his account, but with the help of powerhouse books like this one, there may at least come greater understanding.
Book Review by Steven Donaghue, originally for Christian Science Monitor