The Corner

Subject: Civil war semantics



I’ve been reading about whether or not Iraq is in “civil war,” and I’ve been completely underwhelmed as to reasons why this matters.  Civil wars are won through overwhelming violence, which is quite similar to the ways you win non-civil wars.  There are political matters that must come into play at the end, but if one side is fielding an army against the government and determined to fight, the government still must destroy that army, no less than if there were an invading army.

I’ve seen people trying to explain that if it’s a civil war then we should get out and leave it to the Iraqis.  This thought is wholly unsound.  Any definition of “civil war” that includes Iraq will also include Korea and Vietnam.  In Korea, we stuck it out through some bloody times, and our bloodshed gave South Korea room to produce a vibrant democracy and a prosperous economy that provides for its people while the North starves.  In Vietnam, we wigged out rather than face further bloodshed, and as a result the Communists killed a million people and created millions of boat people (in addition to tyrannically ruling over tens of millions of people who would have had a chance at freedom had we stuck around).

So why does the civil war label matter?  I think this senseless focus on the term represents another incarnation of the failure of political science.  The political science academy has become so obsessed with categorization and scientifically-sound measurement criteria (“Is it a civil war? Let’s look at our checklist!”)  that they’ve abandoned the study of human nature that should be their field.  Whether it’s a civil war doesn’t matter, winning does.  500 years ago Machiavelli wrote two sentences that sum up victory in a strife-ridden region: “Cesare Borgia was held to be cruel; nonetheless his cruelty restored the Romagna, united it, and reduced it to peace and to faith. If one considers this well, one will see that he was much more merciful than the Florentine people, who so as to escape a name for cruelty, allowed Pistoia to be destroyed [by civil strife].”  NM would roll his eyes at the question of whether this is a civil war; the key word in “civil war” is not civil, but war.

ME: I agree that the “civil war” designation shouldn’t matter. The Balkans were a civil war. Afghanistan is a kind of civil war.

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: 

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