Varieties of Civil War

by Kieran Healy on March 31, 2006

Jim Henley:

bq. The NOT A CIVIL WAR OH NO marked by Shiite death squad attacks on Sunnis, some of whom are surely guilty of guerrilla activity and some of whom are surely not, is really Insurgency Plus.

This reminds me of something I meant to say the other week. In much the same way as we’re not supposed to call Iraq a quagmire, we’re also not supposed to say it’s on the brink of — or already stuck in to — civil war. It’s worth bearing in mind that just as there are different “kinds of quagmires”: there are also varieties of civil war. An example familiar to me — with the usual caveats that this just meant as an illustrative comparison, not a strong correspondence — is the “Irish Civil War”: of 1922–23. It was a conflict between Free State forces (the government, who supported the “Anglo-Irish Treaty”: that ended the “War of Independence”:, and the opponents of the treaty, including a majority of the old IRA.

For present purposes, what’s worth noting is that while the conflict was relatively short it was also vicious, especially towards the end, and especially amongst the elites. There was a cycle of execution, retaliation and retribution both in the field and against prisoners. A relatively large proportion of the political class was killed. What did _not_ happen, however, was something like the American Civil War, where large armies repeatedly confronted one another on the battlefield. Moreover, life, as always, went on. The Irish Civil War was largely confined to active combatants, and casualties were heavily concentrated in the leadership. For instance (I’m open to correction here), the Free State army was of course targeted but its unarmed police force was generally not subject to attacks. It’s also worth noting that a very large majority of people did not support the Anti-Treaty side, but that didn’t stop the conflict from happening.

Less than eight years after the war ended the government peacefully handed over power to the party directly descended from the Anti-Treaty forces. For years afterwards many of those in Parliament looked across the aisle at the murderers of their fathers, uncles or brothers. Iraq is very different — much more complex — in all kinds of ways, not least because of its strategic importance, its oil reserves and the continued presence of an occupying army. So the Irish case offers little real direction. Optimistically, maybe, it reminds us that it is in fact possible for severe civil conflict to resolve itself into something like peaceful coexistence. But it also shows that you don’t need to wait for an Antietam or a Gettysburg to say that a country is in the middle of a bitter civil war.