When is a civil war not a civil war?

Most contemporary conflicts, like Iraq and Ukraine, are transnational
March 3, 2022
How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them
Barbara F Walter
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In her new book, Barbara Walter makes a powerful argument that civil war is a distinct possibility in the United States. She bases this argument on a set of phenomena that can be observed in wars in other places. These include what she calls “anocracy”—when a country hovers between democracy and authoritarianism and is plagued by ethnic factionalism and the loss of status among certain groups and individuals. Such wars are different from the past, with no organised battlefields and decentralised militias that target civilians.

Her argument, largely based on findings in American political science, could have been even more compelling if she had drawn on a larger body of research. Few of the wars she discusses fit neatly into the category of civil war. Most contemporary conflicts are transnational; the militias and armed groups Walter describes are both very local and, at the same time, globally networked. Her accounts of the wars in Iraq or Ukraine, seen through the civil war lens, will read rather oddly to anyone familiar with those conflicts.

Similarly, other features of what I call “new wars” that could help to strengthen her story include: the idea that ethnicity is a consequence, rather than a cause, of violence; that ethnic cleansing is often a form of gerrymandering aimed at creating pure constituencies so that factions can win elections and establish control; and the growth of hyper masculinity in groups that have lost status not only in relation to ethnicity or race, but also gender.

Nevertheless, this book is significant because it has begun a discussion about the parallels between wars in places like Syria and what is happening now in the west, with the rise of right-wing populism.