Bending the Third Rail
Because We Should, We Can, We Do
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Civilly Untidy
Tristero, over at Digby's, beats me to a discussion of just what constitutes a civil war?

The media is headlining that Iraq is "on the verge" of a civil war. I contend that Iraq has been in a civil war for years. Tristero quotes various individuals in academia and their definitions. I found this quote in Tristero's post particularly interesting:
[Kenneth Katzman] "Civil war is organized violence designed to change the political structure or governance within a country, or internal conflict within a state...

This week [September 16, 2005] it’s definitely become clearer that we’ve entered civil war, but whether it’s a sustained or permanent feature, we don’t know. Also, I wouldn’t say it’s full-blown, that is, where it’s neighborhood against neighborhood...just because you don’t have one side fighting back doesn’t mean you’re not in a civil war. "
I would suggest that this is the most aggressive use of the term civil war in Iraq of the bunch. But the part of it being "sustained" or a "permanent feature" particularly intrigued me.

During the beginning of the American civil war, it was the conventional wisdom that the disruption would not last long. During the first battle, the battle of the First Bull Run just outside Washington D.C., the social elite gathered with picnic baskets on the hillside to watch the confrontation as sport. No one expected the insurgency to last, and all were surprised by what they saw. Even with the first battle, estimates continued to center on a short conflict with minimal disruption to everyday life.

Unfortunately, most of us are afflicted with history time distortion. History is taught with beginnings, middles, and ends. This solidifies in our minds that these events are distinct with bookends. Of course this is not how history works, and Iraq is a classic example.

The confrontations and tensions between Iraqis are a longstanding problem. Iraq was never meant to be a unified state. It was formed at the whim of the British who did not take into account the different ethnic and religious groups within the designated borders. Saddam dealt with the divisions with brutal military and police control. His removal, and the vacuum left due to American bungling since the end of the open war removing Hussein, created the conditions for open civil war. And as time goes by, we see the seeds of those conditions watered with the American bungling now germinating and growing into the weed of civil war.

I imagine the actual violence in Iraq will rise and fall. Again remember. During the American civil war, battles were not constant, continuous or even widespread. But the net result was still that of bloody confrontation that repeated through many years and left the country still struggling with it's differences.

I suspect the American media will continue to report Iraqi conflict as a snapshot, when in fact it's an ongoing video of civil war that will not stop until Americans leave and Iraqis decide it's time to split the sheets or unify.
Blogger mikevotes said...
I'm certainly willing to accept the statement that Iraq has been in a civil war for up to a year now, but I would include the phrase "low grade" or "low intensity" because none of the action has really taken place by large organized groups.

Yes, the militias have been involved, but there does not appear to have been broad comprehensive strategy and most of the acts appear to be undertaken by small groups of a dozen or so actors.

Also, historically, we prefer to mark eras around specific events. For instance, the US was involved in WWII before pearl harbor in various "low intensity" ways, but Pearl Harbor is seen as the beginning of the American war. I could list more examples, but I think you get my point.

Current US study of history still works on the "great men, great events" model which doesn't describe cultural shifts or the lives of common people particularly well.

It's semantic whether this event technically signifies the beginning.

But I do think it's hugely significant if that technical beginning is presented in media coverage.


Blogger Lynne said...
Most people in the colonies did not participate in the fighting that led to our independence from Great Britain, either. It was actually a minority faction that rebelled. The size of participatory groups in a conflict isn't as important as the persistence of their resistence. Like in Vietnam. Like in Iraq.
This is one your best posts, Grey.

Blogger GreyHair said...
Mike, I have to disagree with one part of your post:

"Yes, the militias have been involved, but there does not appear to have been broad comprehensive strategy and most of the acts appear to be undertaken by small groups of a dozen or so actors."

By the U.S. military own estimation, the insurgency is between 15,000 and 20,000. And despite killing and imprisoning thousands since the beginning, they estimate that number has remained steady. And you know, like asking an alcoholic how much they drink, if the Pentagon says 20K, it's probably 40K. Sounds pretty large to me.

Also, as reported during the most recent "Frontline" on the insurgency, it has continuously evolved and become very highly organized. There are factions that don't necessarily agree ... except to get rid of the U.S. They have been working in concert on that goal with distinct strategies and tactics. And that has been evolving since day one.

I contend that civil war doesn't have to "look like" what we think of as "battles". And the lines between a "civil war" and a revolution are not clear either (depends on who wins I think). The tactics may be small groups hitting and running, but it's a battle just as much as troops lined up along fronts imo.

Either way, we agree that the media will miss out on any of it.