Civil Wars: A History In Ideas
by David Armitage
- Global History, Warfare
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What makes a war “civil”?
Review by Sanford Levinson
David Armitage, one of Harvard’s most imaginative historians, has encouraged his fellow historians to take a much longer perspective than is now conventionally the case; most historians, after all, write books focusing on quite narrow events or time spans. His new book is altogether different. In some 240 pages he examines the concept of “civil war” from ancient Rome quite literally to the present day in such countries as Iraq and Syria. Armitage is formidably learned. Fortunately, however, he writes wonderfully accessible prose, and as one works through the book, the sheer practical importance of the topic becomes ever clearer.
Classical wars are fought with clearly foreign enemies. They are often titled by the name of the enemy. Think only of the Vietnam War fought by the United States. (Not surprisingly, it bears a different title in Vietnam.) In civil wars the enemies are one’s fellow citizens, not infrequently even members of one’s biological family. As Armitage demonstrates, the Greeks had no real conception of civil war. That awaited ancient Rome, which developed a robust theory of Roman citizenship. But this also generated the potential for the citizens in fact to develop antagonisms against one another and, ultimately, to rip the polity apart.
Armitage demonstrates the sheer complexity involved in naming and analyzing given wars. Was the American Revolution, for example, really a secessionist version of civil war by the hitherto loyal subjects of a single British Empire? Similarly, was what we call the American Civil War really in fact a war between two separate states, the United States of America and the Confederate States of America? Are the European theaters of World War I and World War II definable as “civil wars” within a common “Western world” (which obviously requires a diminution of the fact that separate states fought them)? These are not only fascinating intellectual problems. It turns out that much international law depends on how one defines conflicts. The traditional “law of war” was written for clear-cut conflicts between and among separate states. “Civil war” presents anguishing problems, for at least one side in a conventional civil war—the established government—will define its enemy as terrorists or insurrectionists and not as genuine political equals who are contending for control of the country or, as in secessionist movements, trying to leave the country in order to establish an independent polity. “The very name ‘civil war,’” Armitage writes in his conclusion, “can bring legitimacy to forms of violence that would otherwise be suppressed or decried.” The reality of civil war is often extremely violent; 750,000 persons perished in the American Civil War. But joined to brutal reality, inevitably, are abstract ideas that try to make sense of what is occurring. “Civil war must still be understood in the realm of ideas that are both inherited and contested.” Armitage contributes wonderfully to such understanding.
About the Author: David Armitage is the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University and former Chair of Harvard’s History Department. His many books include The Ideological Origins of the British Empire and The Declaration of Independence: A Global History.
About the Reviewer: Sanford Levinson is W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Regents Chair in Law at the University of Texas.
Additional Book Details
|Release Date:||February 7, 2017|