For better or for worse, the increasing political polarization and extremism we see today is no more than a reversion to the American norm.
The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously described war as the pursuit of politics by other means. Louis XIV a more than a century earlier considered it the final argument of kings with the Latin phrase ultima ratio regnum engraved upon French cannon to emphasize the point. Those positions make sense for understanding conflict between rival states or their rulers. Wars fought within a political community raise different issues that go to the heart of deeper questions about how political order works and why it sometimes fails. Since the end of the Cold War, failed states mired in ongoing strife have made those questions all the more pressing for American foreign policy.
David Armitage offers insight for addressing those challenges in Civil Wars: A History in Ideas, which explores how successive generations since Rome understood conflicts within societies and drew lessons from them. His subtitle’s phrasing deliberately emphasizes context as the book shows how the idea of civil war developed from particular contexts. The concept then took forms that provided markers for later generations which put their own spin on the meaning of civil war. Rather than the commonplace academic perspective looking to lived experience from the bottom of society upwards or retrospectively applying theories of present day social science, Armitage focuses mainly on statesmen, intellectuals, and literary figures. The result emphases ideas and their impact. He also draws mainly on the Western tradition starting with the Roman Republic while recognizing contributions from other traditions as they intersect with his main narrative.
Looking to the Ancients
Why start with Rome? Greeks understood internal conflict very differently. What they called faction operated along a continuum of accepted political action to direct the state that could include violence or conspiracy. Thucydides sharply distinguished conflict within Corcyra from the struggle between Sparta and Athens in his account of the Peloponnesian War. Faction differed from war, which Greeks considered activity of cities and their rulers leading armies or fleets against foreign enemies. Conflict between independent city states did not fit the category of civil war because no overarching allegiance bound them as a single entity body. They operated akin to a state system rather than as a state.
Romans defined war as armed conflict waged for a just purpose against a foreign enemy. They also had a clear understanding of citizenship that bounded the political community. What Greeks and other societies called faction operated within Roman politics, but bringing organized military action into the commonwealth to control it went beyond internal disturbances. That step created the seeming contradiction of war amongst citizens which formed the category of civil war.
Episodes from the struggle between Caesar and Pompey during the closing years of Republican Rome onward forced Romans to reflect on civil war in what became a literary and historical canon on the subject. Authors struggled to make sense of this developing phenomenon, with later generations discussing their experiences in light of texts from an earlier time. The poet Lucan called such conflicts “wars which would bring no triumphs” when he looked back from Nero’s reign. His words contrast the gain from victories over foreign enemies with the miseries fighting between citizens unleashed. Armitage notes how literature even then operated as politics by other means with the past framed as paralleling a controversial present. Wealth coupled with greed and ambition brought discord that escalated into struggle for control of the state. The stakes precluded compromise. A sequence of conflicts, Armitage writes, became a cycle with its own internal logic. Civil war became part of civilization as a persistent disease remedied only when one side forcefully imposed order to end the struggle.
Classical Experience as a Basis for Understanding Civil War
The classical tradition’s centrality until the mid-20th century meant that Roman perspectives on civil war gave successive generations a language and set of comparisons they applied to conflicts of their own day. It helped answer pressing questions of why order collapsed into strife. William Shakespeare presented the 15th century Wars of the Roses in England between rival claimants struggling for the crown partly as a morality tale in his history plays. The conflict deserves more attention today because it highlights the fragility of political order even in states ruled by law along with the impact of contingent events.
Other conflicts across Europe, including religious wars sparked by the Reformation, presented variations on that older theme of ambition producing strife. Thomas Hobbes discussed civil war alongside war between states and the struggle of everyone against each other that formed the state of nature. Divided authority brought civil war, and Hobbes treated factions as rival commonwealth within the commonwealth. Permitting faction thus resembled “admitting an enemy within the walls.” Sovereign power existed to secure peace and thereby free men from the violence of their natural state. Hobbes’ arguments for a unitary sovereignty reflected the upheaval of the English Civil War in the 1640s. Submission to authority seemed a reasonable price to uphold civil society.
Unlike Hobbes and the jurist Hugo Grotius, who saw any peace as preferable to civil war, John Locke argued for a right by subjects to resist the illegitimate use of power. Unjust rulers introduced war into the commonwealth and thus bore the responsibility for breaking the peace. Where Romans saw civil war as occurring within the political community, both Hobbes and Locke considered it a departure from civil society mended only by a return to peace. They differed over where right lay, with Locke placing authority on the people’s side rather than the ruler. Engaging the Roman tradition alongside 17th century civil wars sharpened arguments about its nature that set future precedents.
A Typology of Civil Wars
Armitage describes three kinds of civil war that emerged from this synthesis: successionist conflicts like the Wars of the Roses fought over inheriting; supercessionist civil war between two parties recognized in law as separate bodies over a single territory; and then secessionist war marked a political community’s effort to break away from an established authority and claim independence as with the Dutch Revolt and American Revolution. Legal constructions gave protagonists rights while imposing obligations. Emer de Vattel, an important figure in the development of just war theory, distinguished rebellion from civil war partly by the scale and organization of the party opposing and sovereign, but also from the justice of their complaints. Civil war formalized conflict, limiting how it could be waged. Rulers had to treat opponents as lawful combatants and not rebels or criminals. Moreover, foreign powers had a right to intervene on either side.
The struggle between Britain and its American colonies showed the dynamic at work. What began as a provincial tax revolt became a civil war and escalated into an internal conflict that ended with British recognition of the United States. Americans took language from Vattel to justify their claim to independence. Both sides generally treated opponents as lawful combatants entitled to protection under the laws governing war. Prudence in avoiding reprisal dictated the step as much as principle. Most exceptions significantly involved clashes between Patriots and Loyalists as parties to a struggle for the same territory with retaliation for personal injury a motive on both sides. French intervention, followed by the de facto, if not de jure backing of Spain for the United States, helped make the claim to independence effective. The outcome gave force to Vattel’s identification of independence with sovereignty.
Revolution, Ideology, and Civil War
Armitage here links revolution with civil war, an association he knows many will find uncomfortable given both terms’ connotations. With revolution associated with progress and civil war seen as wholly destructive, he warns that the overlap between them gets lost. The conjugation “I am a revolutionary. You are a rebel. They are engaged in a civil war” draws moral distinctions that obscure what actually happened. Revolution once meant a turning in the cycle of events, typically guided by fortune, and often implied a return to proper order. Edmund Burke’s account of the Glorious Revolution in England (1688) offers a classic formulation, though Charles II’s restoration following civil war and Oliver Cromwell’s ascendancy might be framed the same way. Transforming revolution from a process into a particular event overthrowing an established regime changed the term’s meaning.
But revolution, as Armitage points out, grew from the same soil of factional division and failed governance as civil war. Inability to resolve fundamental differences through existing political institutions and culture sustaining them caused civil war from Rome to the present day. Stripped of retrospective justification, revolution looks a lot like supercessionist civil war. Burke described the French Revolution in those terms, noting that deposing a king can rarely be done without force. The struggle for power in France and resistance by royalists in the Vendee brought civil war. Threats to other states posed by what Burke called an “armed doctrine” prompted intervention and a prolonged war that lasted until Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in 1815.
Ideological war echoed the earlier cycle of seventeenth century religious conflicts and revived their cruelty. A backlash emerged against a conception of total war that found expression in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic era. Constraining what Antoine Henri Jomini called wars of opinion challenged military thinkers and lawyers, as their irrational motives defied limits. Arguments that civil war promoted national renewal tended to illustrate his point. Jomini drew on his experience of Napoleon’s wars in writings on military strategy and tactics that became textbooks for commanders on both sides of the American Civil War. That struggle, Armitage points out, brought efforts to bring civil war within the pale of civility by applying maxims from international law to a domestic conflict.
Limiting civil war raised difficulties, as Henry Halleck, a Union general trained in law, recognized in distinguishing civil war from rebellion and insurrection. Vattel’s conception affording rebels the full rights claimed by legitimate sovereigns put an undue burden on the latter’s duty to uphold authority. Treating the Confederacy as outlaws to be suppressed by any means necessary or available, however raised practical and moral concerns seen in earlier conflicts, including the American Revolution. Striking a balance amidst ongoing fighting and legal cases it raised produced the Lieber Code (known after its author Francis Lieber) in 1863. The Code marked the first attempt to codify the laws of way as guidance to Union forces. The distinction Lieber drew between rebellion and civil war enabled him to frame the present struggle in terms that justified its suppression. Although his reasoning had a long afterlife, widespread usage deemed the conflict a civil war.
Indeed, civil war because a term used very loosely to cover the World Wars that pitted European states against each other during the twentieth century. Efforts to clarify meaning produced categories that sometimes drew distinctions without much difference. The American Civil War hardly offered a model for later conflicts under other circumstances. Cold War fears that civil war had become too common led the Wiesbaden Protocol of 1975 to exclude “conflicts arising from decolonization” along with rioting and interstate wars from the definition. Interestingly, it broke with Vattel by enjoining outside powers not to intervene in civil wars. Later arguments for a “responsibility to protect” emerged from the Yugoslav Conflicts of the 1990s and other humanitarian catastrophes enjoined government to act where atrocities threatened non-combatants. Rather than protecting civilians, intervention has prolonged or escalated fighting to make things worse. The debate over how to treat war within states continues.
Armitage describes civil war as first and foremost a category of experience. How societies understood the experience of internal war and the wounds it inflicted shaped ideas which framed how people later made sense of similar phenomena. Armitage’s history in ideas resembles a conversation over generations about both the concept of civil war and its application to immediate events. Rather than lessons learned to be distilled into military or legal best practices, the approach challenges readers to pose questions of their own. Thinking about why order breaks down and how political conflicts escalated into civil war highlights the fragility of peace within countries as well as between them. Forewarned in this sense certainly means forearmed to prevent the catastrophe of civil war.