Thursday, June 28, 2007

Civil War?

The term "civil war" has been used so many times in the mainstream media that people are beginning to think "civil war" every time they hear the word "Iraq." The truth is that, by any reasonably well accepted historical definition of civil war, no such conflict exists in Iraq. The truth is also that the prospects of the conflict descending into a civil war are minimal and diminishing by the day.

Let's get a few things out of the way, first. We let historians do history and we let the journalists do journalism. The media doesn't do a very good job of analyzing history, despite the fact that the history of conflict is largely written from the accounts of journalists. Their job is to report the news, not analyze or interpret it. They tell the story. Historians interpret it. Historians, naturally, make lousy journalists. Instead of focusing on reporting the story, a historian is more likely to get bogged down in the historical significance of it all, missing the opportunity to capture and explain what happened, to who, when, where and how. Isn't specialization great?

Historians generally agree that armed conflicts range from general unrest and rioting to all out revolutionary and civil war. The conflicts are regarded as revolutions when the overthrow of the established government is a possible, even if unlikely outcome of the conflict. If we compare the conflict in Iraq with other modern-era conflicts that historians recognize as civil war, it becomes clear that Iraq's conflict is not even close to being, or even becoming a civil war.

Lebanese Civil War, 1975-1991. The Lebanese Civil War was fought between Christian and Muslim militias, along with the involvement of Syria, Israel, The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Throughout much of the bloody conflict, each warring faction had control over significant portions of territory, with the Christians controlling the northwestern coastal regions, the Muslim/PLO factions controlling the southern coastal regions, and Syrian forces holding the eastern and northern regions. Territorial boundaries shifted regularly during the conflict through the 1970's and early 1980's, as did patterns of support from the various outside factions. The conflict was prolonged and bloody, with all sides suffering significant casualties during pitched battles. Each side had clearly defined systems of command and control of military forces. Each side had clearly identified political leaders, political infrastructure, and a measure of public support from part of the population. Most importantly, each side had the capacity (through internal or external means) to raise, train, equip and deploy military forces. The conflict ended in 1991, when the militias dissolved following several key engagements and political developments in 1990.

Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. The bloody Spanish Civil War devastated Spain and served as a testing ground for German military technology and tactics. The three-year conflict ended when the Nationalists overthrew the government and established a Nationalist Dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The atrocities of this conflict were among some of the worst in history (to be exceeded only by the Second World War). Widescale use of terror tactics, including bombings, assassinations, and the targeting and execution of religious and civil leaders. As in the Lebanese conflict, both sides controlled major geographic regions of the country and enjoyed the popular support of some segment of the Spanish population. The patterns of external support also show significant ideological characteristics, with leftists backing the "Republicanos" and right wing support of the Nationalists. Germany and Italy supported the Nationalists; The Soviet Union and, to an extent Mexico, supported the Republicanos. Both sides fielded significant armies that were well equipped, well trained and commanded effectively. Both sides had clear political leaders and clear lines of command and control over the military forces. There were tens of thousands of casualties caused by pitched battles of historical and strategic significance.

  • Do you see any similarities whatsoever between the current conflict in Iraq and two of the most studied civil wars in modern world history?
  • Who are the leaders of the insurgency?
  • What territories, or provinces, of Iraq are controlled by the insurgents?
  • What military capabilities do the insurgents have? Are they capable of fielding an army in battle?
  • What are the political objectives of the insurgents?
  • What level of popular support do the warring factions have?