Sunday, March 26, 2006

Civil War Redux

Yes, I, too, think it's a big waste of time. But my "legions" of detractors seem to like this topic (see here) so much I thought I'd give them another skeet disk.

The first thing to be said -- again -- is that by whatever name you choose to call it -- civil war or walk in the park -- Iraq today is a sad and deadly place, beset in its central provinces by tragic levels of violence, and threatened in many other places by religious thugs who threaten to undo all the freedoms bought so dearly with American, British, and Iraqi lives and the blood and treasure of ourselves and our allies.

That is 99 percent of the question. This business of naming it is a mere tadpole by comparison. What matters is what to do about it, and if the people in charge, in Baghdad and Washington, devoted as much time and brainpower to thinking about that as we do to arguing about terminology, perhaps Iraq would get somewhere.

[For my part, I said once or twice the worst mistake we made in the after-war was letting al-Sadr live, and I can't help but see this present mess as in some sense a fulfillment of that. But others said so, too, and there's no way to tell if having him thrown in jail, or killed outright, wouldn't have led to some worse consequence later.]

Now about this business of civil wars. I come to the topic via study of the American Civil War, where the discussion of the term and its meanings has a particular focus and twist. It's prefered in some quarters and rejected in others, and the arguments made and used tend to reflect the facts of that one case. But my exposure to it is not exclusively in ACW discussion, and I do know a bit about other so-called civil wars.

Something I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that people are using “civil war” with a wide range of meanings. Some clearly are crafting it to fit the situation, either to include or exclude Iraq, but there’s no reason to believe everyone is playing a semantic shell game with it.

I was even more surprised to learn that someone had reduced the term to a mathematically precise definition, and this was being used to bludgeon those who didn't feel Iraq, however violent, had yet risen to the level of "civil war."

Various mathematical formulae were put forth, but the one that came with a precise citation was the one I found Juan Cole pushing on his site:

"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."

It seems I ought to have known that. But then, I figured, I haven't taken a political science course since I was in college in 1982. And it turns out the definition Cole insists on as "widely adopted" has only been around since 2000. And it was published in something called the "Journal of Peace Research." And it was published by a colleague of Cole's, a professor at Cole's own school, named J. David Singer.

Well, type in "J. David Singer" and "civil war" on Google and tonight you get 386 hits, which includes Singer's own work and Cole's article and people quoting Cole. When I hit the "publish" button in a few minutes, the number will rise to 387. So I don't know exactly what "widely adopted" means any more than I know exactly what "civil war" means, but this doesn't seem to meet it.

Even as it stands Singer's definition has wiggle room aplenty. What's "sustained?" What's "primarily?" He gives numbers, but they mostly provide a definition of "effective resistance," and his definition says nothing about the purpose of the struggle. When I tried to make a rough definition of it, the purpose was the central thing:

To really be a civil war, you have to have sections or factions of a country competing to be the government of that country, and putting forth claims to legitimacy.

That may be an effect of the American Civil War schoalrship, where the discussion is how to separate a "civil war" from a "rebellion" or a "war of secession." I had taken it as the proper term to describe a specific kind of internal warfare, between two factions each claiming to be the legitimate government of a region or nation. That situation, common in history, needs a proscribed word or phrase. I thought “civil war” was it.

What’s going on in Iraq today is something I might call religious war. It seems to me closer to Germany in the 1620s than to England in the 1640s: Even though both were rooted in religious conflicts, only one is commonly called a civil war.

No matter whose definition you use, how do you fit into "civil war" the bulk of the violence in Iraq recently -- such as shelling markets or blowing up mosques, which has for its purpose simply destabilizing and radicalizing the population, not siezing territory or political power? Or the multiplicity of factions that fight among, alongside, or against one another as one week turns to the next? It might even be called something worse than a civil war.

A workable definition of "civil war" also has been cited (here, among other places) and referred to, though I can't find it on their site:

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.

As a purely military definition, that's closer to what I would accept.

The root of the confusion goes all the way back to the Latin words civitas, "citizenship, community of citizens," and its relative civis "townsman." Thus you could etymologically define a civil war as a war for control of a civitas, as I do, or, in the broadest possible sense, “battles among fellow citizens,” which certainly includes modern Iraq but also the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Even if political scientists do come up with a precise mathematical definition and arrange 100 percent agreement among themselves on it, that does not encumber the rest of us with the necessity to stop using "civil war" any other way but theirs. Astronomers have set definitions for words like magnitude and brightness which are highly technical, but which don't impinge on the way you or I will use those words. Civil war, like terrorism itself, is not going to be defined one way by all people. The ambiguity is nicely captured in the Wikipedia definition:

A civil war is a war in which parties within the same country or empire struggle for national control of state power. As in any war, the conflict may be over other matters such as religion, ethnicity, or distribution of wealth. Some civil wars are also categorized as revolutions when major societal restructuring is a possible outcome of the conflict. An insurgency, whether successful or not, is likely to be classified as a civil war by some historians if, and only if, organized armies fight conventional battles. Other historians state the criteria for a civil war is that there must be prolonged violence between organized factions or defined regions of a country (conventionally fought or not). In simple terms, a Civil War is a war in which a country fights another part of itself.

Ultimately the distinction between a "civil war" and a "revolution" or other name is arbitrary, and determined by usage. The successful insurgency of the 1640s in England which led to the (temporary) overthrow of the monarchy became known as the English Civil War. The successful insurgency of the 1770s in British colonies in America, with organized armies fighting battles, came to be known as the American Revolution. In the United States, and in American-dominated sources, the term 'the civil war' almost always means the American Civil War, with other civil wars noted or inferred from context.

Probilgio, hammering away in the comments, claims what I'm engaged in is "semantics" and "pedantry." Of course it's semantics; this whole debate, no matter whose part you take, is the very definition of semantics: the science of the meaning of language. As for pedantry, it's pedantry on all sides, no matter which position you prefer.

Cole, in his "Salon" article, says Iraq is "incontestibly" in a civil war. Then if you scroll up on Cole's site, you'll see "Saturday, March 25, 2006/Year Four of Iraq Civil War: 51 Killed"

If Juan Cole thought for four years there had been an Iraqi civil war, why hadn't he written it that way all along? Certainly the "1,000 battle deaths per year" of his friend's definition has been there all along. Why wasn't he carping about it continuously since March 2003 (seems an odd date, but it's his, not mine)?

In fact as recently as August he was writing things like:

Personally, I think "US out now" as a simple mantra neglects to consider the full range of possible disasters that could ensue. For one thing, there would be an Iraq civil war. Iraq wasn't having a civil war in 2002. And although you could argue that what is going on now is a subterranean, unconventional civil war, it is not characterized by set piece battles and hundreds of people killed in a single battle, as was true in Lebanon in 1975-76, e.g. People often allege that the US military isn't doing any good in Iraq and there is already a civil war. These people have never actually seen a civil war and do not appreciate the lid the US military is keeping on what could be a volcano.

Which raises the interesting (to me) question of "why now?" And leads me back to the answer that the sudden fixation with "civil war in Iraq" in March 2006 comes back to the media's needs and the anti-Bush movement having latched on to it as their new rallying cry, like "quagmire" once was.

The media for practical purposes needs a new set of nouns and verbs for its headlines after three years of having worn out "violence," "carnage," "chaos," etc. Something to convey the Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence and at the same time to ratchet up the perception of failure among the readers. That's just the nature of the media. If you've been saying "here it comes" for three years now, you better believe you'll be chomping at the bit to switch to "here it is," unless you like to look like a smacked ass.

And the antis, having discovered a resistance to this term among the White House inner circle, recognized it as a button to keep pushing. The reasoning behind their sudden fetish for "civil wars" is in comments like the ones on this site:

It would change everything. The Republicans, now squirming, would flee and Democrats now hiding would make like sharks on chum. Civil War - the Death Frame for BushWar

Once again, fine, it's a political tactic. But then don't try to hit me with the rubbish that Cole used in his freshly minted discovery that Iraq is in a civil war and has been all along:

That there should be a political controversy over whether there is a civil war in Iraq is a tribute to the Bush administration's Orwellian attention to political rhetoric.

Speaking of semantics, funny how Cole uses "Orwellian" to describe, ironically, the exact thing Orwell hated and exposed. As Clive James once put it, "It is as if George Orwell had conceived the nightmare instead of analyzed it, helped to create it instead of helping to dispel its euphemistic thrall."

But here's another bit of semantic pedantry for you: If people who have not cared to take much notice of the idea of civil war suddenly discover a definition of civil war and push it as the only acceptable one, and that definition happens to be the one that suits their political passions of the moment, I call them trimmers. It's a good 19th century term. It's not a compliment.

I don’t think any of us broadly disagrees with what is happening in Iraq. The people I respect are more concerned with how to handle it than with what to call it.