Is Iraq in a state of civil war?
When most Americans think of a civil war, we think of the Civil War. The American Civil War. We think of literally millions of soldiers marching against each other and dying by the thousands every day. We think of cities on fire, blockaded ports, and thousands of infantry charging into cannon fire.
The problem with this image is that the American Civil War is, historically, a pretty intense and bloody conflict as far as civil wars go. Many civil wars are much smaller and less bloody, and don’t involve armies, battlefields, and artillery shelling.
Over 550,000 Americans died in those four years of fighting. Wikipedia has a page on which you can compare the death counts of some of the bloodiest wars in human history, and it’s both eye-opening and sobering. Compared to the death counts of some contemporary civil wars around the globe (particularly in Africa), the American Civil War is comparably deadly. The Bosnian civil war in the early 90’s, for example, claimed 278,000 lives in only three years.
America’s defining internal struggle was no mere state of unrest. In fact, more Americans died in the Civil War than any other American conflict. When Americans think of “civil wars”, we think of the worst thing that ever happened to our nation.
When does “internal unrest” become a “civil war”?
And yet there are many other wars that military historians call “civil wars” whose death counts are far smaller than the American, Bosnian, or Angolan civil wars. Some even pale in comparison.
- Was the war in Kosovo a “civil war”? In four years of fighting, 7,000 people died.
- Was the war in Lebanon in the 1980’s a “civil war”? 150,000 died there over 15 years.
- What about in Sri Lanka, where fighting rages to this day? 60,000 deaths over 22 years.
- There is a civil war raging right now, too, in Liberia. Since it began seventeen years ago, 220,000 have died.
And what about Iraq? Well, the numbers are of course controversial. But if we look at only the fighting that has occurred since Bush’s May 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech, the most reliable estimated death toll ranges from 38,000 to 42,000, with more controversial estimates exceeding 100,000. That’s a lot more than in Kosovo or Sri Lanka, but not nearly as much as the civil wars in, say, Sierra Leone or Somalia.
Using death counts to define the nomenclature of war is, of course, just stupid. Baghdad alone saw more deaths in one week in the year 1258 (when Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu Khan massacred over 200,000 citizens) than the entire nation of Iraq has seen in the last three years. Does that mean that the 40 people killed in Baghdad bombings today doesn’t count as a “massacre”? Of course not.
So we can’t use death counts to define a civil war. But even if we put death counts aside, simple logic tells us that Iraq is in a state of civil war.
Who’s fighting who?
In May 2003 our enemy, the government of Saddam Hussein, was defeated. Our war against the leadership of the nation of Iraq was over. But as we all know the fighting continued, and has in fact increased year after year until today. The Iraq War’s second phase now consists of the following different types of violent confrontations:
- Iraqi insurgents fighting American and Coalition occupying forces
- Iraqi insurgents fighting Iraqi government armed forces, Iraqi police, and the Iraqi citizenry.
- Foreign fighters fighting all of the above.
- “Sectarian violence” between internal Iraqi factions.
Some people argue that numbers 2, 3, and 4 aren’t serious or intense enough to qualify as civil war. Again, that’s a semantic dispute. But what about number 1? Does that qualify as a civil war? The answer to that is easy to find using basic logic:
- Is America “at war” in Iraq? Yes.
- Are we fighting against the government of Iraq? No.
- Are we fighting against armed Iraqi groups who wish to control Iraq? Yes.
So, if we are “at war”, defending one internal Iraqi faction against another, then isn’t that war, by definition, a civil war?
Those who deny that there is a civil war in Iraq do so because they believe that if Iraq were really in a state of civil war, then the American mission will have been a failure. What I see is that the American forces are doing an extraordinary job of keeping the civil war down to a low level. But let’s not mince words, it is a civil war. In fact, if there was no civil war, if the fighting was so low-level that the Iraqi government wasn’t significantly threatened by the insurgency… well, then America’s forces would quite simply not be needed in Iraq and we could bring them home today, right?
Did I just say that?
I’m still on the fence about whether or not the US is ready to pull out of Iraq. My conclusion that Iraq is in fact in a state of civil war, and that America’s armed forces may be playing a key role in keeping this conflict from getting much hotter, makes it all the more complicated for me. I don’t want the bloodshed in Iraq to increase any more than it already has, and I don’t want Iran or other neighboring nations to take advantage of Iraq’s vulnerability after we depart. But at the same time, I wonder how it is that the Bush Administration can continue to claim that things are going well in Iraq, that there is no civil war and that the Iraqi government is making great progress, all the while making the case that we have to stay in Iraq apparently indefinately because of the threat of the insurgency.
As usual, it’s the Administration’s (and their supporters’) lying, exaggeration, and shocking denial of reality that seems to be the real thing preventing America from arriving at a real strategy for victory.