Hell of a Book

by Michael Moran

Civil wars spring from deep and deadly divisions but they also expose identities and commonalities

If Germany once again fell upon France, and the German army, the Bundeswehr, made a dash for the Channel, would that conflict be considered a civil war? In the context of the supranational European Union, or even the multinational North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the question cannot be dismissed out of hand, notwithstanding the reemergence of bullying nationalism across much of the Western democratic world.

Voltaire is routinely credited with the apothegm that “every European war is a civil war.”* Napoleon, anticipating the conceits of his compatriot Marine Le Pen, later sharpened the point further: “Turkey excepted, Europe is nothing more than a province of the world; when we battle, we engage in nothing more than a civil war.”

The question of what constitutes a civil war — what separates it, say, from rebellion, insurrection, riot, genocide, or terrorism — has bedeviled political theorists, legal scholars, military commanders, and philosophers since the earliest days of civilization. Modern conventional wisdom might define civil war as strife between internal factions, tribes, or ethnic groups. Viewed through an American filter, such conflicts carry the inheritance of misguided, ultimately futile interventions — Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan — places to pity, perhaps even to douse with diplomatic retardant, but also places that hard-learned experience suggests are best left to native combatants. Despite centuries of efforts to define, refine, and tame — in fact, even to name — these conflicts, ambiguity remains.

For Harvard historian David Armitage, these issues go beyond legalities or semantics. In his new book, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), Armitage delves into the history of what was once called “fraternal conflict,” not merely to dissect and categorize, but to explore broader territory.

[S]uch arguments reveal a great deal about the way we define our communities, how we identify our enemies, and how we encourage our allies. Words are the way we construct our world; they are not the only way, to be sure, but they are the means by which we build it in conversation with our fellow human beings as we try to persuade them of our own point of view, to justify our actions, and to sway outsiders or even posterity. But in speaking of wars, words themselves are wielded as weapons, whether the blood is hot or the battlefield has gone cold: “Words about war — even the names of war — can be contentious indeed.” And no form of war is more nominally contentious than civil war.

In fact, as Armitage stresses, the names of wars matter enormously, and he spends a full chapter exploring the genesis of what has become known as the U.S. Civil War. Southerners referred to this watershed conflict variously as “the War for Independence” and even “the Revolution,” constructions that stressed their view of the Confederate states as sovereign entities. Later adherents to the Lost Cause, seated back in the unified Congress in the early 20th century, continued to argue against the use of “civil war,” instead proposing “the War Between the States.” Northerners disagreed, of course, and, having won on the battlefield, would largely write the history of the war. Yet despite myriad contemporary descriptions of the conflict as a “civil war” even as the slaughter continued, including one in Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, it was only in 1907, during a U.S. Senate debate over pension benefits for veterans who had fought in the conflict, that the name “Civil War” was officially adopted. (To this day, some Southerners will relate stories, only half-jokingly, of their ancestors’ exploits during “the War of Northern Aggression.”)

Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863 — Based on the painting Hancock at Gettysburg by the Swedish-born American artist Thure de Thulstrup (1848–1930), this print shows the Union lines during the Confederate bombardment prior to Pickett’s Charge. Chromolithograph published by L. Prang & Co. (Boston), 1887. (Photo: The New York Public Library, Print Collection)

Armitage, the author of previous works on the intellectual origins of British imperialism and a “global history” of the Declaration of Independence, begins his narrative in ancient Greece, quickly proceeding to republican Rome, where, he asserts, civil war as we now know it was invented. The author’s intent is to define “civil war” for us intellectually, advancing as much as is possible our ability to discern it, contain it, and — one hopes, someday — avoid it.

Civil war may be, as Armitage puts it, the “most characteristic form of organized human violence,” but for the most part, it has remained unstudied and “undertheorized.”

There is no great work titled On Civil War to stand alongside Carl von Clausewitz’s On War or Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution. . . . Clausewitz hardly discussed civil war at all, while Arendt herself dismissed it, along with war itself, as atavistic and antimodern. . . . It is not my aim to provide an overarching theory of civil war. Nor can I supply that missing treatise. What I can do as a historian is to uncover the origins of our present discontents, to explain just why we remain so confused about civil war and why we refuse to look it in the face.

The first part of Civil Wars focuses intensely on Rome. Armitage asserts that earlier societies, including the Greeks, have a much more limited relevance to the modern conception of civil war. On the other hand, “Romans were not the first to suffer internal conflict but they were the first to experience it as civil war.” Rome’s internal debates, the factionalism of its Senate, the internal allegiances and betrayals of Roman society, these are the foundation stones of our modern understanding of civil war.

For the Romans, civil war was the subversion of city-dwelling civilization. Yet there was also an enduring and disturbing strain of Roman history that suggested there was a tight relationship between civil war and civilization itself. These conflicts came back so often across the history of the republic and into the early empire that they appeared to be woven into the fabric of Roman public life.

The argument that follows is persuasive, although the Roman focal point exposes one of the book’s rare weaknesses: the dearth of analysis of the non-European world.

To be sure, Armitage rightly stays within his area of expertise, writing compellingly and insightfully about the civil conflicts of — primarily — the Global North. But the civil wars of Asia, Africa, and Latin America appear almost entirely through the lens of anticolonial movements, the Cold War, or today’s wars between the West and radical Islamic movements. The author points to the folly of U.S. policymakers who bumbled into civil wars in Vietnam and, more recently, Iraq, while deluding themselves into believing they were simply liberating a people from oppression. But the seminal civil wars of the developing world, from China to Colombia, from Cambodia to Nigeria, receive little attention. As the author himself notes, “Civil war is no respecter of borders. Indeed, it often turns countries inside out.” Civil Wars definitely remains within its borders.

Prof. Francis Lieber — Born in Germany, Lieber (1798–1872) taught history and political science at Columbia College (today Columbia University) and later had a position at Columbia Law School. He is famed as the author of the General Orders №100 (1863), better known as the Lieber Code, the first attempt to codify the laws of war and the direct antecedent of the Geneva and Hague conventions. All three of Lieber’s sons were in uniform during the Civil War, two on the Union side, and one on the Confederate side. (Oscar, the eldest, died fighting for the South.) “Behold in me the symbol of civil war,” Lieber exclaimed in May 1861. (Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

However, the territory covered more than makes up for this shortcoming. The book exhumes from obscurity (except to those already steeped in the history and philosophy of international law) influential thinkers like Hugo Grotius, the 16th-century Dutch jurist whose work underpins much of modern international law; Emer de Vattel, an 18th-century Swiss thinker whose Law of Nations marked the first attempt to codify the conduct of states; and the Roman historians Florus and Lucan, who, with Livy, Tacitus, and Cicero, chronicled much of what we know about the ancient republic’s history.

The question of what constitutes a civil war — what separates it, say, from rebellion, insurrection, riot, genocide, or terrorism — has bedeviled political theorists, legal scholars, military commanders, and philosophers since the earliest days of civilization.

John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, of course, make their mark, as do Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine. So, too, does Princeton political scientist John T. McAlister, whose verbal jousting with U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright in the context of whether the Vietnam conflict was, in fact, a civil war, briefly revived the debate on the nature of the American Civil War. And there is Democratic representative John Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, who in January 2006 issued the unwelcome observation that “We’re fighting a civil war in Iraq.”

In many ways Armitage is at his best on this hallowed yet much trodden ground. As he tells it, this descent from more general western intellectual history into the darker realm of intra-communal slaughter was accidental. Researching his book The Declaration of Independence: A Global History at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, Armitage discovered that among its collections were the papers of Francis Lieber, a German-born jurist and scholar assigned by the Union army to define the concept of “civil war” even as the U.S. Civil War (or, as a Mississippi senator protested, the “war between sovereign States”) raged.

“Civil wars are like a sickness of the body politic, destroying it from within.”
— David Armitage, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas

Lieber is one of those figures any reader should be thrilled to come across, and is by far the most compelling “discovery” resurfaced by Armitage’s scholarship. Left for dead at the Battle of Waterloo, Lieber emigrated to the U.S. and eventually joined the law faculty at Columbia University, where his lectures on the nature of war gained the attention of Henry Wager Halleck, general in chief of the Union army.

Grant Memorial, 1885 — Portrait of Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) surrounded by nine scenes of his career (clockwise, from lower left-hand corner): Graduated at West Point 1843 / Gen. Scott presenting diplomas; In the tower at Chapultepec 1847; Drilling his Volunteers 1861; Fort Donelson 1862; The Battle of Shiloh 1862; The Siege of Vicksburg 1863; The Battle of Chattanooga 1863; Commander-in-Chief 1864; The Surrender of Gen. Lee 1865. Chromolithograph (after the painting by Thure de Thulstrup) published by L. Prang & Co. (Boston), 1885. (Photo: The New York Public Library, Print Collection)

In 1862, President Lincoln, concerned about the legal basis for the conflict, tasked Halleck with aligning the Union army’s conduct of war with international legal norms. Halleck turned to Lieber, who had just learned of the death of one of his own sons fighting as a Confederate soldier in the Battle of Williamsburg in Virginia. Distraught but loyal to the Union, Lieber drafted what ultimately became the army’s General Orders №100, better known as the Lieber Code, still today the foundation of the U.S. Army’s doctrine on conduct in a civil war.

The past is unpredictable — Armitage opens his Afterword to Civil Wars with this “bitter” Russian saying. While poring over Lieber’s papers at the Huntington, he was struck by one of those coincidences that lucky historians can stumble upon, when the past illuminates the present, as “two battles over the meaning of civil war chimed across time.” It was late 2006:

As I worked through Lieber’s letters and the drafts, I found the past rhyming with the present in insistent and troubling ways around the challenge of civil war. Debate was beginning to flare in the United States, in Iraq, and beyond about the character of the contemporaneous conflict in Mesopotamia. Lieber’s perplexity in the mid-nineteenth century about defining civil war and the parallel complexity in the early twenty-first century of applying the term in Iraq struck me as two stops along a much longer historical journey that would go from ancient Rome via the early modern period right up to the present.

Armitage is a learned and winning tour guide, and Civil Wars a valuable mapping tool for that journey.

*It was in fact Fénelon, the 17th-century French archbishop, theologian, and writer, who asserted that “All Wars are properly Civil Wars.”


David Armitage | Civil Wars: A History in Ideas | Alfred A. Knopf | 349 pp. | 2017 | ISBN 978-0-30727-113-6 | More about this book

Mike Moran is visiting media fellow, International Peace and Security, Carnegie Corporation of New York.