What is a Civil War?

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:

  1. Iraqi insurgents fighting American and Coalition occupying forces
  2. Iraqi insurgents fighting Iraqi government armed forces, Iraqi police, and the Iraqi citizenry.
  3. Foreign fighters fighting all of the above.
  4. “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.


13 responses to “What is a Civil War?”

  1. Your post brings up many good questions and answers. However, according to the definition of “civil war” (A war between factions of the same country; there are five criteria for international recognition of this status: the contestants must control territory, have a functioning government, enjoy some foreign recognition, have identifiable regular armed forces, and engage in major military operations), there is NO civil war in Iraq, not right now anyway. BUT, if U.S. forces were to withdraw and leave the country in the current ambiguous state that it is in, there certainly would BE a civil war. Iraq is presently in a struggle, a struggle as a result of significant ethnic and religious differences. Our success in Iraq depends on our understanding of that.

    The current struggle in Iraq can be better labeled as a communal war, featuring opposing subnational groups divided along ethnic or religious lines, and the fight is about group survival. This can be seen in the pattern of violence, which is strongly correlated with communal affiliation. The overwhelming majority of the insurgents in Iraq are indigenous Sunnis, and the small minority who are non-Iraqi members of al Qaeda or its affiliates are able to operate only because Iraqi Sunnis provide them with safe houses, intelligence and supplies. Much of the violence is aimed at the Iraqi police and military, which recruit disproportionately from among Shiites and Kurds. And most suicide car bombings are directed at Shiite neighborhoods, especially in ethnically mixed areas where Sunni bombers have relatively easy access to non-Sunni targets.

    The case for withdrawing U.S. troops is not a strong enough one. The “war” is about resolving the communal security problems that divide Iraqis, and it is too early to give up on achieving this goal. In fact, today’s conflict could degenerate into attempted all out civil war, even genocide, is possible if compromise fails and American forces were to leave. The presence of U.S. troops is essential. To withdraw them now, or to start withdrawing them according to a rigid timetable, would undermine the prospect of forging a lasting peace. Our current objective in Iraq is “democratization” or “Iraqization”, not “war”, and should be labeled as such.

  2. there are five criteria for international recognition of this status: the contestants must control territory, have a functioning government, enjoy some foreign recognition, have identifiable regular armed forces, and engage in major military operations

    That definition is from a US Army Field Manual. It’s a fine definition, and it’s useful for making a technical distinction between types of conflicts.

    Here’s another one, written before the Iraq War:
    “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.”
    (From Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, “Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92,” the Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000)

    There are many valid definitions of what a “Civil War” is, including a common sense definition that normal everyday people understand, where citzens of the same country are killing each other in great numbers to gain political control. Do the “civil wars” in Angola, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Libera, or Sri Lanka fit the US Army definition? I don’t think so, and yet we do call these conflicts civil wars.

    Most of those who deny that Iraq is in a state of civil war don’t know anything about the Field Manual definition, or the Journal of Peace Research definition — rather, they simply want to make it seem like the violence in Iraq is not very great, that it’s getting better and more peaceful there.

    I agree with you that pulling out would almost certainly lead to a huge increase in violence and bloodshed, even possibly genocide. But I also suspect that even if we succeed in building a multi-ethnic democratic state before pulling out, that the country would still devolve quickly into a whirlwind of violence.

    So when do we “give up”? Never? I’d be a lot more willing to agree to a nearly-perpetual US occupation of Iraq on behalf of building peace and democracy, but I can’t see how we’re ever going to get there if the Bush Administration keeps trying to make it seem like the military challenges we face aren’t significant. They keep trying to sit in the middle: They want America to feel like we’re at war and they want us to agree that staying in Iraq is important for the security of Iraq and the region … but at the same time they keep suggesting that we’re 6-9 months away from beginning a final pull out, and that our troop levels are just fine.

    Frankly, I think we’re many years away from being able to pull out without Iraq lapsing into some increased level of violence. A real leader who was genuinely committed to building a democracy in Iraq would tell America this: “As far as we can tell right now, we’re in Iraq for the next decade.”

  3. I like this dialogue. And I agree with most of your points. However, I still disagree that Iraq is in a civil war. A civil war to me is one where you have two clearly defined factions with clearly defined and disagreeable objectives fighting each other. Such as the American Civil War and the Spanish Civil War. Iraq has one group, insurgents or a resistance force, attacking another, central government forces. And are the insurgents in Iraq suffering equitable losses to meet the criteria of your definition? Are Iraqi security forces fighting back? Are they targeting and killing Shiites? Are Shiite or Kurdish citizens killing Sunnis? No. But the answer to all of these questions could soon be “yes,” and then there would be no doubt that there is a civil war raging in Iraq.

    I do agree that the violence in Iraq is very, very great. It is not getting better there or more peaceful. If anything, the struggle and chaos have increased. The only thing the Iraqi government is able to do right now is attempt to forge ahead with making progress, increase police and security forces, and stabilize the country. And our president, our leader that began this should be saying “We are staying put until the job is done. We are not pulling troops out and we are not leaving until a negotiation has been reached and the violence ends.” And not until then should a “pull out” strategy be implemented.

  4. I don;t think it really matters whether or not Iraq is “technically” in a civil war. To spend too much time debating that borders on callous. The point is, innocent people are dying, there is political and military unrest, there is uncertainty as to how to resolve this, and it is an unfortunate sitaution all around.

  5. It is about as close as it will get to civil war given criteria: (1) contestants must control territory – key party / militia leaders (including Sadar) are members of elected Council of Representatives (COR); (2) have a functioning government – Government of Iraqi (GOI) and COR are official: (3) enjoy some foreign recognition – GOI is recognized by UN; (4) have identifiable regular armed forces – Iraqi Army and Iraqi Security Forces wear uniforms, however, militas are not as easy to identifiy; and (5) engage in major military operations – both sides engage in open hostile actions. However, the violence is more complex than just trying to use a communal or civil war label. It is difficult to determine how much is sectarian violence, insurgent activity, or criminal activity. Each requires unique counter-actions. All would declince with a strong judicial system – rule-of-law.

  6. Rob: I have come to a far simpler definition: Are hundreds of people being killed every day by people who are trying to control their own country? Yes? Civil war.

  7. Gary Chong Avatar
    Gary Chong

    I find myself going with the definition accepted by the military. After all, they are the ones actually doing the fighting. Civil wars are fought between uniformed combatant forces under the authority and direction of formally recognizable, competing governments within a country (e.g., the Confederacy vs, the US government). What Iraq has, therefore, is not a civil war, but a war between non-governmental, sectarian factions (local and insurgent) vying to control parts of the country, while a fledgling democratic government (with our help) strives to establish civil order, stability, and peace as it is able.

  8. Apparently every month a new criteria is added to the definition of a civil war. Formally recognizable? Uniformed? Competing governments? Under those restrictions half of the conflicts currently referred to as civil wars (Kosovo, Sri Lanka, the Spanish Civil War, Lebanon, Russia) will now need to be called by some other convoluted name. The “uniformed” part is the most hilarious: Half of the Confederacy fought without uniforms! Hezbollah fights without uniforms. The Viet Cong fought without uniforms. Fighting without uniforms is a very powerful military strategy, but apparently if you decide to fight that way your conflict will never get to be called a civil war.

    The original “civil war”, the origin of the term itself, was fought in England in the mid 1600s. The fighting was between various loosely-cobbled together political and regional factions. It sounds like we have to start calling the English Civil War by another name, now, then.

    I remember there was a long period after the invasion of Iraq where the Bush administration forbade themselves, the media, and by extension the whole world, from using the word “insurgency” to describe the organized militant groups emerging in Iraq. After about a year of this it became just too ridiculous to avoid using the term and we all gave in and started using it. It was even revealed that the Pentagon and much of the Administration was already using the term “insurgency” even as they insisted publicly that it was not an insurgency. The same thing is happening here: The Administration is publicly and politically insisting that it’s not a “civil war” in Iraq, but everyone is gradually realizing that it’s ridiculous to do this.

    What’s even more ridiculous and sad is that as each day goes by that we are told that this is not a civil war because of some narrow definition that restricts the term to a situation where all the parties in conflict have to have strong governmental identities, we are learning that Iraqi opposition/insurgent leaders like Sadr are, in fact, running shadow governments within Iraq today, training their troops in organized hierarchies, establishing political ties with foreign governments, etc. The more we pretend it’s not a civil war by using more and more restrictive definitions of the term, the more the actual situation looks like those definitions.

    Words are important: To me, if we call it what it is we will do a better job fighting it. We blew our chance to stop the emerging insurgencies early on because we were hiding our heads in the sand and avoiding using the term — thus we underestimated the threat and allowed it to grow while we pretended it was something less than it was. Today by avoiding the term civil war we are doing the same thing: underestimating the situation and allowing it to get worse through willful ignorance.

    As Bush himself said, “Fool me once, shame on … wont get fooled again!

  9. Colin Powell calls it a civil war. The only people who don’t, these days, are President Bush and those people whose primary motivation in the argument is defending President Bush.

  10. cookie smith Avatar
    cookie smith

    why do the president keep saying the Iraqis will follow the soulders back to the united states , When the shoulders get back to the United States can’t they protect us from them If they are here back in the united states and how will they be able to follow them back. they won’t be able to get on planes with weapons if they have any and the armforces should be able to handle them following them back.

  11. the conflicts in Angola, Sudan, and certainly Sri Lanka ALL MEET the US army definition actually, as over conservative as it is. Someone also said that Hezbollah and the Viet cong fought without uniforms. Hezbollah actually has a professional, trained and fully regulated militia with uniforms and the like, and the Vietnamese national liberation front (viet cong) civil authority divided their forces into regular troops (wearing green khaki,) guerrilla units (black PJ’s, some standardized equipment.) and local village police militia. K, now that I’m done my nitpicking binge, let me say that the current conflict in Iraq is not a civil war, and that doesn’t make the situation any less horrible. Iraq is a very violent country, but not every thirdworld country with gross amounts of violence can be slapped with the label of a civil war. throughout history, war has been recognized as a level of violence separate from violence between individuals and groups. violence between individuals and groups can be “politically” motivated, but that still does not make it war in the literal sense. War is when two or more separate societal units (a group of people that have come together for mutual gains, and establish government and the rule of law) solve their differences between each other through large scale organized violence with the goal of one society gaining dominance over another. This can take the form of violence between stone age tribes, city states, nations and empires, warlordocracies or factions in a civil war. This phenomenon is not present in Iraq. That does not make Iraq’s situation any better or any worse than civil war, just different. The only factions that rule any people or territory in Iraq are loyal to the central government. The insurgent factions are simply an obstacle to basic law and order, they do not impose their own (yet.) The Sunnis and Shi’ite are not at war with each other, Sunni underground terrorist cells representing only themselves commit acts of terrorism against Shi’ite civilians and thus Shi’ite groups retaliate similarly. This is not war, just senseless horrific violence, a slow degradation of social order and the failure of the state to provide adequate security to its citizens. It’s extremely probable that all out factionalization and civil war will break out as soon as the US leaves, but that hasn’t happened yet. Iraq’s conflict similarly resembles the one in northern Ireland on a much larger scale. If you are calling this conflict a civil war, you have to point out the other six “civil wars” Iraq has had throughout its years, and the seven “civil wars” America has had throughout its history; arguably, with this vague criteria there’s a civil war underway in America right now. Changing the definition is cool with me, but changing it over Iraq just because American troops are involved seems a little absurd. Just before someone tries to butcher my argument with examples, I do agree that the English civil war, the Somali civil war, the Liberian civil war, Afghanistan before the US incursion,Lebanon, the various Yugoslav conflicts and many other examples you could throw at me are all civil wars. Iraqs situation is just different from theirs, perhaps worse than a few of them.

  12. Alex, your points are very well taken. But did you notice that this blog post was written almost three years ago? At the time, there were large portions of Iraq — indeed, entire cities — that the central government had no control over. There were several armed native Iraqi political factions in de facto control of those areas. Even US forces were unable (or unwilling) to enter portions of the country due to the military control by local militias.

    Things have changed since then. Part of what helped with that change was the recognition that we were dealing with organized insurgency, not just random acts of violence. Is there a distinction between “civil war” and “insurgency”? Perhaps there is, but the distinction is not a matter of kind but a matter of degree.

    Civil war has a qualitative difference with other kinds of in-country violence, however — with foreign invasion and instigation, with anarchy, with crime, and with general unrest. Iraq’s violence in 2006 included all of those, of course, but the dominant source of violence was, by far, Iraqis fighting each other (and fighting us) with some leaders having the perfectly plausible objective of wresting control of the country for themselves.

    The important distinction I think I was trying to make was not between the various lesser sorts of political violence and “full scale civil war”, but to point out that the violence in Iraq was (and still is) between native Iraqi factions determined to control their own country in their own different ways, and not the result of a small band of foreign troublemaking terrorists stirring the pot. This was the big question, if I recall correctly, in 2006. It was as much about the nature of the factions (were they native forces trying to take over the country and not foreign meddlers simply trying to hurt the US?) as it was about the scale (were any factions really doing enough damage that they stood a chance of actually taking over control of the country?). I think the reluctance to call it a civil war back in 2006 was in part driven by the Bush administration’s continual denial that the US invasion tore the Iraqi society into pieces, which would have undermined their core argument that the invasion would have brought peace to Iraq if not for foreign Al Qaeda forces messing things up. If they called it a civil war, that would have admitted that the factions actually stood a chance of winning. They thought it better to play down the importance of the factions, for better or worse — calling the fighting a “civil war” would have made the factions seem more powerful than the Bush administration wanted them to seem. And it would have required admitting that the factions were actually Iraqis and not foreign terrorists.

    Again, it was the recognition that the violence was, at its heart, an organized internal native insurgency that, I think, has led to the turnaround in Iraq that we see today in 2009. That recognition — that we are fighting insurgents and not terrorists — is, to me, the equivalent of saying “it was a civil war”. You may convincingly argue that an “insurgency” is not a “civil war”, but I’ll confess that I would likely view such an argument as a matter of semantic quibbling of almost no political importance… but you certainly could not (and I’m not assuming you would want to!) argue that an “insurgency” is the same as “terrorism”, which is what the debate over the Iraq civil war question was really all about in 2006.

    Honestly, I view this debate as over and dead. The Bush administration’s contention that the conflict was caused by foreign terrorists has been proven false by its very own decision (implicit in the surge) to focus on counter-insurgency and not on counter-terrorism.

  13. wellsaid Chris. Really, its pretty clear u know what your talking about. (fyi, I didn’t check the date of the entry,sorry for rehashing a three year old blog argument)