"Civil wars cost an estimated $123bn a year, last four times longer than conventional wars and are more likely to recur"by Saul David / April 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Civil Wars: A History in Ideas by David Armitage (Yale, £18.99)
We live in an era of civil war, or conflict within states. “Since 1989,” writes David Armitage, “an average of 20 intrastate wars have been in progress at any one moment—about 10 times the national average globally between 1816 and 1989.” Prior to 1945, the vast majority of wars were interstate; now the opposite is true.
This matters because civil wars cost an estimated $123bn a year, last four times longer than conventional wars and are more likely to recur. They also afflict the world’s poorest countries. Yet very few studies have been made of them, an omission that Armitage, a professor of history at Harvard, is determined to rectify. His intention is not to produce an overarching theory, but rather an explanation of why “we remain so confused about civil war and why we refuse to look it in the face.”
He does this by charting the way fraternal war has been defined by different civilisations and races from Ancient Rome to the present day: from the Roman concept of a struggle against intimate enemies; through the early Modern period when successful civil wars were rebranded as revolution, while failed attempts to overturn the existing order were called rebellion; to the more recent, not always successful, attempts to ameliorate the severity of civil war by making it subject to international law.
Armitage concludes his wide-ranging and illuminating guide with the observation that the experience of civil war is “framed—some might say distorted—by [its] conceptual heritage.” His aim is “to show that what humans have invented, they may yet dismantle; that what intellectual will has enshrined, an equal effort of imaginative determination can dethrone.” Let’s hope he’s right.