It’s All Very Complicated

A Review of David Armitage’s Civil Wars: A History in Ideas

/ by Izidor Janžekovič

David Armitage, Professor of History at Harvard University, where he teaches intellectual history and international history, appeals to us in a crying call not to oversimplify things, with his memorable line, “It’s all very complicated.” According to him, this should be the motto of every historian, and it should be engraved over every history department. Armitage is definitely among historians known for complex narratives. He proves that with his fresh book Civil Wars: A History in Ideas.


One would imagine he would start with a definition of what exactly a civil war is. Interestingly enough, he offers no clear definition, because he states that there will never be a clear definition that would be accepted by all. It is a highly-politicized term, and he tells us that it’s always political, it’s always ideological, and it’s always conflicted. It may look descriptive, but it is firmly normative, expressing values and interpretations more than any stable identity.


What makes a war “civil” rather than “foreign?” To call a war “civil” is to acknowledge the familiarity of the enemies as members of the same community: Not foreigners, but fellow citizens. As German legal thinker Carl Schmitt put it: “Civil war has something atrocious about it. It is fraternal war, because it is conducted within a common political unit…and because both warring sides at the same time absolutely affirm and absolutely deny this common unit.”


Armitage questions whether fratricidal violence is even foundational. We only have to look at our common mythology, i.e. Judeo-Christian heritage and Greco-Roman heritage. Some of the core myths from that endless fountain are examples of violence between brothers: The Bible’s Cain and Abel, Rome’s Romulus and Remus, Greeks’ Eteocles and Polynices. As a true humanist, Armitage shows that there is no gene in our DNA that makes us fight, and there is nothing inevitable or inescapable about (civil) war.


In a manner of the Annales School of History, or the so-called longue durée, Armitage’s book takes place and time from ancient Greece up to and including Syria. He is interested in patterns, ideas, continuities, historical memories and mores. The book is divided in three major (chronological) parts, i.e. “Roads from Rome,” “Early Modern Crossroads,” “Paths to the Present;” each of them further divided over two chapters. The book is written in fluent and reader-friendly style, and has about 240 pages of text, over 30 pages of notes and over 45 pages of bibliography.


After introducing the topic and explaining the complexities of civil wars, he delves into Classical Antiquity. Firstly, his attention is focused on ancient Greece and many city-states. What he actually wants to show is how we cannot think of Greek internal conflicts (stasis) in the 5th century BC as civil wars per se, since Greeks rarely thought of themselves as one political unit. It was the Romans who “invented” the civil war (bellum civile). But even the Romans weren’t sure when it all started, even though the civil wars played such an important, albeit negative role in Roman society and historiography. This tradition also had a lasting effect on subsequent writers and thinkers about civil wars. Whoever started a civil war in Rome was deemed a traitor to his brothers and to the Roman fatherland.


After that, he jumps over into Early Modern Period. It is at the end of this period, in the 2nd half of the 18th century, that another term comes to the forefront. If civil war was mostly thought of as negative and destructive, then the “revolution” was figured out to be (mainly) positive and inventive. Armitage shows how civil war is not only in the eye of the beholder, but the use of the term is, itself, often a source of strife among the combatants. Established governments will always view civil wars as rebellions or illegal uprisings against legitimate authority, particularly if they fail: The American Civil War was used to be called a “rebellion.” By contrast, the victors in a civil war will often commemorate their struggle as a revolution, as did those in the American and French “Revolutions.”


In the last major part, he looks at the present (global) situation. He points out that there is practically no interstate war currently going on. The somewhat misleading expression for the period after the end of the World War II is the “Long Peace.” However, even though there are no (civil) wars in the West, there are many civil wars around the globe, and we feel like the world is in the constant state of emergency, the war atmosphere pressuring us. Nowadays, we don’t talk just about civil wars, but rather of internationalized civil wars. Civil war is not usually contained by the boundaries of the single state, nor necessarily between only two parties. They draw and drag in neighbors, fighters and great powers, and they spill over the boundaries (cf. refugee crises).


Armitage asserts that civil war has gradually become the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence. Because it affects mostly non-western countries, civil war has been described as “development in reverse.” Wars within states also tend to last longer than wars between states. These conflicts are also much more prone to recur than any others, as “the most likely legacy of a civil war is further civil war.” According to Armitage, the era of war between states has been replaced with the era of war within states.


If we trust Ernest Hemingway, who himself reported on, and lived through, th Spanish Civil War (For Whom the Bell Tolls), and his plead that every war, “No matter how necessary, nor how justified,” is a crime, we see that civil wars do not usually stay “civil” for very long.

Izidor Janžekovič