Tangled! – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East

The paradox of piety observes no disconnect
Nor registers anxiety
As the ship of fools is wrecked
So leaders urge with eloquence
And martyrs die in consequence
We talk in last and present sense
As greed and fear persist
E Lucevan Le Stelle, Paul Hemphill

At a recent conference in Berlin, Germany’s prime minister Angela Merkel and and UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé managed, at least on paper, to cajole the external actors guilty of super-charging Libya’s misery to sign onto a unified agenda. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson, and Egypt’s pharaoh (and Donald Trump’s “favourite dictator”) Abdel Fatah el-Sisi,  joined a dozen or so others (with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo representing the United States) in declaring an intention to end foreign interference in Libya’s internal affairs: “We commit to refraining from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya and urge all international actors to do the same,” states the communiqué, in language one hopes all participants endorsed in (what would be uncharacteristic, for some) good faith.

This corroboree of hypocrites acknowledged that the increasingly violent and globally tangled Libyan civil war could only be ended if outside powers backed off and ended their meddling. They made altruistic and totally disingenuous declarations about a conflict  that they themselves have incited, exacerbated and perpetuated for nine years. And yet, explicitly excluded Libyan participation, contradicting the 2012 UN Guidance for Effective Mediation and its insistence on “inclusivity” and “national ownership” as fundamental elements for peaceful conflict resolution. It’s focus at this point was on the on the external, rather than the Libyan, actors and for reviving the world’s attention on the Libyan conflict.

A follow-up conference in Munich was convened in mid-February to renew its pledges to quit meddling. Stephanie Williams, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya reported zero progress and declared the agreed-upon arms embargo to be a joke. A sick joke, indeed – plane after plane land in Benghazi loaded with weapons from the UAE and other arms-suppliers destined for self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar‘s self-styled Libyan National Army.

Unfortunate Libya is neither the first nor the last pawn to be used and abused by outsiders in the new Great Game as the following guide demonstrates.

But first, there’s this letter to a British daily from Aubrey Bailey of Fleet, Hampshire (where hurricanes hardly happen):

Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.

We (she’s talking if Britain and us generic “good guys”) support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State. We don’t like IS but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like. We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him. We don’t like Iran, but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS.

So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win. If the people we want to defeat are are defeated, they might be replaced by people we like even less. 

And this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out. Do you understand now? Clear as mud! 

It casts new light on that thorny old aphorism “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”!

A cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East

Libya

We begin with  Libya, the “beneficiary” of the Berlin talk-fests.

On the side of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, Libya’s capital there’s: Not many … Italy (former colonial oppressor, in it for the oil, who’d just love to see an end to those refugee boats that wash up on its shores); Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor now ruled by a wannabe Ottoman sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and eager for offshore oil and gas leases); and potentially, Qatar (who fell out with Egypt, Saudi and the United Arab Emirates over its tepid support for the Sunni grand alliance against Shia Iran).  Turkish soldiers fly the government’s drones whilst Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries provide military muscle – Turkey would like to move them out of Kurdish Syria on account of their murderous behavior).  

On the side of the self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar, based in Benghazi in the east, whose sharp uniform is festooned in medals for this and that act of service and heroism), there’s: Egypt, (the US’ impecunious, brutal “partner in Freedom” – strange bedfellows in this amoral “new Middle East” that is just like the old Middle East); Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (see above, re. Qatar, whom they blockaded for several years); Jordan (perennially cash-strapped and dependent on rich Arab relatives), France and Russia (arms, oil, and influence); plus Russian mercenaries (plausibly deniable, capable and reliable, and familiar with the Middle East – see below); and Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed Arab militias (broke Sudan seeks Saudi favour).

And on the sidelines, a disinterested and divided UN, the UK and the US – although Britain, with France, helped wreck the joint by ousting longtime dictator Gaddafi; arguably, the US, although Donald Trump has confused matters by phoning Haftar and then saying that he’s a great bloke (he has a thing for dictators actual and potential, including Putin, Erdogan, Al Sisi, and the thuggish Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman); and in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.. 

As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.

Syria

On the side of the internationally recognized government in Damascus headed up by Bashar al Assad, there’s: The Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran’s Shia Muslims are related to Syria’s heterodox Alawi minority, whose elite happen to have rule the country for half a century, and Iran is consolidating it’s Shia axis across the Middle East); Russia (oil, pipelines, and restoring Soviet greatness); Lebanese Shia Hezbollah (de facto ruler of Lebanon) and its soldiers; the Iranian Quds brigade (the expeditionary arm of the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex that virtually runs Iran); sundry Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias beholden to Iran for cash, weapons, training and ideology); Russian and Chechen mercenaries (see above – deniable, reliable and capable); and, quite surreptitiously, Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor) which is ostensibly opposed to Assad, but needing Russian pipeline deals, runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds – but see below, and also, above with respect to Libya. As the song goes, “I’m so dizzy, my head is turning” already! 

On the side of “the other side”, which is not really a “side’ at all, but a grab bag of sundry rebels who were once supported by the US and are predominantly Islamist, with some indeed linked to al Qa’ida, which, of course, we all love to hate (Twin Towers, Osama bin Laden and all that), there’s: the US, Britain and France (why do they persevere so in what Donald Trump has called these forever, endless wars?); Saudi Arabia (Salafi Central and banker for all the bad guys) and the United Arab Emirates (also a financier for the foe); Israel (of course – mortal foe of Iran and of Hezbollah (“the enemy of my enemy” fair-weather friend – anything that distracts its perennial enemies is good for Israel); Hamas, the Islamists who rule the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, and oppose the Alawi oppressor of Sunni Muslims and of Palestinian refugees in Syria; and Turkey (see above –  hares and hounds, on the outer with Saudi and the UAE and pals with outcast Qatar, and engaged in an ongoing blood feud with Syrian Kurds ostensibly allied with Turkey’s outlawed separatist Kurds), and as we write, ominously trading blows with the Syrian Army and its Russian allies; and Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries – erstwhile former rebels and al Qa’ida and Da’ish fighters who are in it for the money, for vengeance against the Kurds and the Assad regime, and, for many, good old blood-lust. 

And stuck in the middle: Those Syrian Kurds, of formerly autonomous Syrian enclaves Afrin and Rojava (betrayed by America, invaded by Turkey, and forever abandoned by the rest of the world, they have been forced to come to terms with the Assad regime which has discriminated against them forever; sundry Bedouin tribes who work to a code of patronage and payback; the scattered remnants of Da’ish which was at the height of its power a veritable “internationale” of fighters from all over the world, including Europeans, Australians, Chechens, Afghans, Uighurs, Indonesians and Filipinos – the remnants of whom are still in the field and hitting back; and sundry die-hard jihadis from constantly splintering factions. Da’ish and the jihadis have been dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from allegedly unknown patrons in the Gulf autocracies, as evidenced by those long convoys of spanking new Toyota Hi Lux “technicals” – which have now curiously reappeared in Haftar’s Libyan National Army (see Libya, above).

Yemen 

On the side of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, there’s: Saudi Arabia, the US, and Britain; plus sundry mercenary outfits from Australia and Brazil; and Sudan (its militias paid by Saudi, as in Libya). The UAE was formerly on this side, but now supports a breakaway would-be Yemeni government Opposed to the present one. On the side of Houthis, a rebel Shia tribe in the north of the country, there’s: Iran and ostensibly its Iraqi and Lebanese auxiliaries – see above, the Shia ‘Arc” of Iranian influence. And in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.

Afghanistan

Its America’s longest ever war – ours too …

On the side of the UN recognized government there’s: NATO, including the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, Denmark and Norway; and also, Australia and New Zealand – though why antipodeans want to get involved in the faraway Afghan quagmire beats me … Oh yes, the US alliance, and our innate empathy for the poor and downtrodden.

On the other side, there’s: The ever-patient, ever-resilient Taliban, aided and abetted by duplicitous Pakistan (an ally of the US – yes!), and al Qa’ida and Da’ish, both dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from Gulf despots. 

And on the sidelines,  miscellaneous corrupt and well-armed Afghani warlords who take advantage of the ongoing turmoil and grow rich on bribes, option and smuggling; and the rest of the world, really, which has long ago zoned out of those “forever, endless wars”. 

So, what now? 

More of the same, alas. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations. It is business as usual in the scattered killing grounds as a bewildering array of outsiders continue to wage their proxy wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Bombs still explode in Afghanistan and Somalia, and whilst Islamists terrorise the countries of the Sahel, and even distant Mozambique, warlords rape and pillage in Congo. As usual in these proxy conflicts the poor people are stuck in the middle being killed in their thousands courtesy of weapons supplied by the US, European, Israeli, Russian and Chinese arms industries.

As outsiders butt each other for dominance, and the Masters of War ply their untrammelled trade, we are condemned, as Bob Dylan sang in another time and another war, to “sit back and watch as the death count gets higher’. I am reminded of WH Auden’s September 1, 1939, a contemplation on a world descending into an abyss: “Defenseless under the night, our word in stupor lies’. All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

 © Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

In That Howling Infinite, see also; A Middle East Miscellany

A postscript  from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

‘What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, ‘was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus–race.’

‘What IS a Caucus–race?’ said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

‘Why,’ said the Dodo, ‘the best way to explain it is to do it.’ (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race–course, in a sort of circle, (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’ This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.’

A House Divided – the nature of civil war

A house divided against itself cannot stand.  Abraham Lincoln
The North would not let us govern ourselves, so the war came.  Jefferson Davis
Perhaps it is the personal dimension that makes civil wars so attractive to re-enactors  in the U.K the US – the gloomy and yet paradoxically romantic concept of “a family divided” and “brother against brother”. When hundreds of ordinary folk meticulously don period garb and take up replica weaponry to replay Gettysberg and Shiloh, Worcester and Naseby, Towton and Bosworth Field, it is much, much more than a fun day out in the countryside. It might be good-natured play-acting, or participating in “living history”, but might it not also speak to some inner-need to connect with long-dead forbears who endured “the longest day” on those very fields in mortal combat with their own kith and kin.

This is just one of the many thoughts that entered my head on reading a recent article in the New York Review of Books. The review is reprinted in full below, but here are a few more of my own observations.

Notwithstanding the fact that civil wars are so devastating in terms of lives lost, the destruction wrought on the urban and rural environment, and the shattering of social and political institutions, fear of civil war and its consequences apparently does not deter belligerent parties from marching down that road. Often, one or another actually forces the issue, aware of the potentially disastrous consequences, but rationalizing it along the lines of national, ideological or sectional interest, and indeed, some concept of community, social, religious or ethnic survival, as happened, one could suggest, in England, in the US, Russia, Spain, and Bosnia. Sometimes, it is an accumulation of seemingly minor events, perceived slights, discrimination, actual atrocities, miscalculations, or overreactions that ignite pyres that have been building for ages – generations even. I think of Lebanon here, and Syria.

So often, causus belli that are in hindsight viewed by historians as pivotal, are not seen as critical to the participants, and indeed, many would protest that they had “no idea that things would come to this”, and that even then, there may have been a sense that wiser heads would prevail, that it would blow over or that it would be all over soon. Lebanon and Syria, again, and perhaps even the slave states that sought to secede from the Union, and the parliamentarians who challenged the royal prerogative. But one can be damn sure Generalissimo Franco knew what he was doing when he flew the Spanish Foreign Legion with its Moorish mercenaries to the mainland in 1936, as did Leon Trotsky when he unleashed the Red Army against the Whites.

A civil war can spawn from a wider, ongoing conflagration when factions or parties dispute the nature and terms of the post-bellum status quo and fracture along political and ideological lines. The Paris Commune after the Franco-Prussian War, for example, and Ireland after the Anglo-Irish treaty that concluded the rebellion against British rule.

The experience, cost, and legacy of civil war is often a powerful political and social disincentive to venture there again. It is this fear that probably prevents Lebanon from falling back into the abyss notwithstanding the many centrifugal forces at play in this perennially divided country. It most probably had a powerful influence on the political development of post-bellum England. The next and ultimate showdown between crown and parliament, and indeed “regime change” as we now call it, was a peaceful one, and indeed, was thus named the “Glorious Revolution”. The spectre of the Commune haunts still the French soul. The beautiful church of Sacre Coeur was built as a penance for and as a solemn reminder of the bloodletting in much the same way as Justinian raised the glorious Hagia Sophia in Constantinople as a form of contrition after his soldiers had slaughtered tens of thousands of his rebellious citizens and buried their bodies under the Hippodrome.

There is a view that civil war can be retrospectively be seen as a crucible of nation, a fiery furnace through which the righteous must walk – an ex post facto rationalization  of the Nietzschean paradox of “that which does not kill us makes us strong”. Abraham Lincoln verbalized this in his Gettysberg Address on a battlefield where the fallen had been only recently interred. Franco made a similar play as he laid claim to the wreckage that was Spain in the wake of three years of carnage, but then petrified his riven, country in autocratic stone until his death many decades later. The Russian Civil War was not a accorded such a nation-building ethos as it was viewed by the Bolshevik victors as the crushing of a counter-revolution against a new world already being born?

 And finally, to conclude this conversation, lets briefly contemplate the article’s discussion of how and when protagonists actually define their internecine conflict as civil war. The American Civil War is a case in point, referred to at times as “The Rebellion” and “The War Between the States”. The American War of Independence, also know as The American Revolution was indeed a civil war as defined by the author, fought along political lines by people who had race, faith, culture and identity in common. The English Wars of the Roses, which staggered on for thirty years in in the  fifteenth century is largely viewed as a dynastic struggle between noble houses rather than civil wars per se. And yet, nearly thirty thousand Englishmen died on the snow-swept fields of Towton, near York, the largest loss of English lives on a single day (a third more than perished on the first day of the Somme in June 1916).

 The Syrian tragedy, as the author notes, is regarded by the concerned, and hypocritically entangled outside world, a civil war by any definition. But it is at present a harrowing work in progress, viewed by the Assad regime and its supporters as a rebellion and as an assault by extremist outsiders, and by the rebel forces, as a revolution, albeit a comprised and even hijacked one. Jihadis for their many sins, see it as a messianic prelude to Armageddon.

Once thing for sure, civil war, the Hobbesian “war if all against all” (Hobbes was thinking England’s) is undoubtably the saddest, bloodiest and most visceral of all conflicts. I leave the last words to WB Yeats:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
   Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
   The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
   The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
   The best lack all conviction, while the worst
   Are full of passionate intensity.

See also:

Now, read on…


What Gets Called ‘Civil War’?

Linda Colley, New York Review of Books, June 8, 2017
Civil Wars: A History in Ideas,  by David Armitage (Knopf) 

The end of the world is on view at Philadelphia. Hurtling across a twenty-five-foot-wide canvas in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Together, Death, Pestilence, Famine, and War ravage the earth amid blood-red banners and what looks like cannon smoke. Warriors fall before their swords and spears, and women, children, and babies are slaughtered.

Benjamin West completed this version of Death on the Pale Horse in 1817, two years after the Battle of Waterloo. It is tempting therefore to see in the painting not only the influence of the book of Revelation, and perhaps the elderly West’s intimations of his own imminent mortality, but also a retrospective verdict on the terrible catalogue of death and destruction that had been the Napoleonic Wars. Yet West’s original inspiration seems to have been another conflict. He first sketched out his ideas for Death on the Pale Horse in 1783, the concluding year of the American War of Independence. Bitterly divisive on both sides of the Atlantic, the war imposed strains on West himself. Pennsylvanian born and bred, he was a supporter of American resistance.

But in 1763 he migrated to Britain, and he spent the war working as a historical painter at the court of George III. So every day he served the monarch against whom some of his countrymen were fighting, knowing all the while that this same king was launching his own legions against Americans who had once been accounted British subjects. It was this tension that helped to inform West’s apocalyptic vision. More viscerally than most, he understood that the American Revolution was also in multiple respects civil warfare.

Tracing some of the histories of the idea of civil war, and showing how definitions and understandings of this mode of conflict have always been volatile and contested, is the purpose of this latest book by David Armitage. Like all his work, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas is concise, wonderfully lucid, highly intelligent, and based on a confident command of a wide range of printed sources. It is also ambitious, and divided into three parts in the manner of Julius Caesar’s Gaul. This seems appropriate since Armitage roots his account in ancient Rome. It was here, he claims, between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, that lethal conflicts within a recognized society, a common enough experience in earlier eras and in other regions, began to be viewed and categorized as a distinctive form of war: bellum civile.

How this came to pass is the subject of Part One of the book. In Part Two, Armitage switches to the early modern era, which is here defined mainly as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and shows how elite male familiarity with classical texts encouraged Europeans and some of their overseas colonizers to interpret the civil commotions of their own times very much in Roman terms. Part Three takes the story from the nineteenth century to the dangerous and precarious present. Whereas the incidence of overt conflicts between major states has receded during the post-1945 “long peace,” civil wars have proliferated, especially in parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The “shadow of civil war,” Armitage contends, has now become “the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence.”

But why ancient Rome to begin with? Armitage attributes its centrality to evolving Western conceptions of civil warfare partly to this culture’s marked success in establishing and stabilizing the idea of a distinct citizenry and political community. “Civil War could, by definition, exist only after a commonwealth (civitas) had been created.” More significant, as far as perceptions in later centuries were concerned, were the writings and careers of two brilliant Romans, each of whom in different ways was caught up in the rivalry between Julius Caesar and Pompey and destroyed by the violence of their warring successors.

Cicero, an opponent of Caesar, is the earliest-known writer to have used the term “civil war.” He also employed it in a speech that he delivered at the Forum in 66 BCE, close to the spot where his severed head and hands would be put on display twenty-three years later, as punishment for his activism and his words. In the following century, the youthful poet Lucan completed a ten-book masterwork, De Bello Civile, on how, under Caesar, “Rome’s high race plunged in her [own] vitals her victorious sword.” Lucan dedicated his saga to Nero, the emperor who later forced him to commit suicide.

Their writings and the gory fate of these men helped to foster and perpetuate the idea that civil warfare was a particularly nasty variant of organized human violence. It is in part this reputation, Armitage contends, that has made the subject of civil war a more impoverished field of inquiry than inter-state conflict. Given that the English, American, and Spanish civil wars have all long been historiographical cottage industries, I am not sure this is wholly correct. But it is the case, and he documents this powerfully throughout, that the ideas and negative language that have accumulated around the notion of “civil war” have resulted in the term’s use often being politically driven in some way. As with treason, what gets called civil war, and becomes remembered as such, frequently depends on which side eventually prospers.

 At times, the term has been deliberately withheld for fear of seeming to concede to a set of antagonists even a glimmer of a claim to sovereignty in a disputed political space. Thus the royalist Earl of Clarendon chose in his history to describe the English Parliament’s campaigns against Charles I after 1642 not as a civil war, but as a rebellion. In much the same way, an early US official history of the Union and Confederate navies described their encounters between 1861 and 1865 as a “War of the Rebellion,” thereby representing the actions of the Southern states as a mere uprising against an indisputably legitimate government.

For Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863, by contrast, it was essential to insist that America was undergoing a civil war. He wanted to trumpet in public more than simply the rightness of a particular governing regime. Since its survival was still in doubt, he needed as well to rally support for the Union itself, that “new nation, conceived in liberty” as he styled it: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Of course, had the American Civil War ended differently, it might well not have been called a civil war at all. Later generations might have remembered it as a “War of Southern Independence,” or even as a “Southern Revolution.” As Armitage points out, when major insurrections break out within a polity, they almost invariably start out as civil wars in the sense that the local population is initially divided in its loyalties and responses. But if the insurrectionists eventually triumph, then—as in Russia after 1917, or China after 1949—it has increasingly been the case that the struggle is redescribed by the victors as a revolution. Partly because of the continuing influence of the ancient Roman cultural inheritance, “revolution” possesses far more positive connotations than the more grubby and ambivalent “civil war.”

Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Rebel–held al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo,  recaptured by government forces, March 2017

As a searching, nuanced, and succinct analysis of these recurring ideas, linguistic fluctuations, and shifting responses over a dramatic span of time, and across national and continental boundaries, Armitage’s account is a valuable and suggestive one. But as he admits, it is hardly comprehensive. This is not simply because of the scale of his subject matter, but also because of his chosen methodologies.

In dealing with civil wars he practices what, in an earlier work, he styled “serial contextualism.” This means that he offers detailed snapshots of a succession of discrete moments and of particular intellectual, political, and legal figures spread out over a very long stretch of time. The strategy is sometimes illuminating, but one has to mind the gaps. Most obviously, there are difficulties involved in leaping, as he does, almost immediately from ancient Rome to the seventeenth century. By the latter period, for instance, England’s “Wars of the Roses” were sometimes viewed and described in retrospect as civil wars. But at the time, in the 1400s, commentators do not seem to have resorted to medieval Latin phrases such as bella civilia or guerre civiles to describe these particular domestic and dynastic conflicts. Although classical texts such as Lucan’s De Bello Civile were known to medieval scholars, the impress of this ancient Roman inheritance on contemporary interpretations of fifteenth-century England’s internal wars does not appear to have been a vital one.

Why might this have been? The question could be rephrased. Why should it be imagined that language and concepts drawn from the ancient Roman past supplied the only or even the dominant ideas and methods for subsequent Westerners wanting to make sense of the experience of large-scale civil contention and slaughter? After all, in the medieval era and long after, most men and even more women possessed no direct knowledge of the Roman classics. Multitudes in Europe and everywhere else could not even read, never mind afford books. Yet in the past as now, it was precisely these sorts of “ordinary” people who were often the most vulnerable to the chaos and bloodshed of civil warfare, and so had little choice but to work out some ideas about it. What were these ideas?

A practitioner of intellectual history from the so-called Cambridge School of that discipline, Armitage barely touches on such questions. More international in range than many of his fellow scholars, he shares some of this school’s leading characteristics: its fascination with the long-term impact of Aristotelian and Roman republicanism, its overwhelming focus on language and on erudite elite males, and its comparative neglect of religious texts. It is partly this deliberately selective approach to the past and its sources that allows Armitage to venture on such an enormous topic over such a longue durée. But again, there is a mismatch between this methodology and the full extent and vital diversity of his subject.

To be sure, many of the impressive individuals who feature in his book were much more than desk-bound intellectuals or sheltered and austere political players. One of the most striking segments in Civil Wars is Armitage’s treatment of the multiple roles of the Prussian-born American lawyer Francis Lieber, who provided Lincoln with a legal code for the conduct of the Civil War. Lieber had fought at Waterloo and was left for dead on the battlefield. During the 1860s, he also had to bear the death of one of his sons who fought for the South, even as two others were fighting for the North. As he remarked: “Civil War has thus knocked loudly at our own door.” The fact remains, however, that most men caught up in civil wars throughout history have not been educated, prosperous, and high-achieving souls of this sort. Moreover—and this has a wide significance—civil wars have often been viewed as having a particular impact on women.

In harsh reality, even conventional warfare has usually damaged non-combatants, women, children, the elderly, and the infirm. Nonetheless, the idea long persisted that war was quintessentially a separate, masculine province. But civil wars were seen as taking place within, and cutting across, discrete societies. Consequently, by their very nature, they seemed likely to violate this separation of spheres, with women along with children and the old and frail all patently involved. This was a prime reason why civil warfare was so often characterized in different cultures not just as evil and catastrophic, but as unnatural. In turn, this helps to explain why people experiencing such conflicts have often resorted, far more avidly than to any other source of ideas, to religious language and texts for explanations as well as comfort.

The major holy books all contain allusions to civil warfare and/or lines that can be read as addressing its horrors. “I will set the Egyptians against the Egyptians,” declares the King James version of the book of Isaiah: “and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour.” It was often the Apocalypse, though, as demonstrated by Benjamin West’s great canvas, that Christians mined for terrifying and allusive imagery. Such biblical borrowings sometimes crowded out references to the Roman classics as a means of evoking and explaining civil war altogether, as seems often to have happened in medieval England.

At other times, religious and classical imagery and arguments were combined. Thus, as Armitage describes, the English poet Samuel Daniel drew on Lucan’s verses on the Roman civil war when composing his own First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Wars between the Two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke in 1595, a work plundered for its plots and characters by William Shakespeare. But it is also easy to see in portions of Daniel’s text the influence of the Apocalypse:

Red fiery dragons in the aire doe flie,
And burning Meteors, poynted-streaming lights,
Bright starres in midst of day appeare in skie,
Prodigious monsters, gastly fearefull sights:
Straunge Ghosts, and apparitions terrifie,
…Nature all out of course to checke our course,
Neglects her worke to worke in us remorse.

It was never just Christians who turned to holy books and religious pieties so as to cast some light on the darkness of civil war. Unlike allusions to the Roman past, such responses seem to have been universal. Indeed, I suspect that the only way that a genuinely trans-continental and socially deep history of civil warfare could conceivably be written would be through an examination of how civil wars have been treated by the world’s various religions, and how such texts and interpretations have been used and understood over time. In particular, the idea that Samuel Daniel hints at in the passage quoted above—that civil war was a punishment for a people’s more than usually egregious sins—has proved strikingly ecumenical as well as persistent.

Thus for Sunni Muslims, the idea of civil war as fitna has been central to understandings of the past. But fitna in this theology connotes more than civil warfare. The term can evoke sexual temptation, moral depravity—once again, sin. The First Fitna, for instance, the war of succession between 656 and 661, is traditionally viewed by Sunnis as marking the end of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, the true followers of Muhammad.

As Tobie Meyer-Fong has shown, the civil wars that killed over twenty million Chinese in the 1850s and 1860s, the so-called Taiping Rebellion, were also often interpreted as divine retribution for immoral, decadent, or irreligious behavior.* Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist commentators on all sides rationalized the carnage and disorder in these terms. Poor, illiterate Chinese caught up in this crisis seem also to have regularly turned to religion to make sense of it, and not simply out of faith, or as a means to explain apparently arbitrary horrors. By viewing civil war as punishment for Chinese society’s sins in general, they could also secure for themselves a strategy and a possible way out, even if only in spiritual terms. They could make extra and conscious efforts to follow a moral pathway, and hope thereby to evade heaven’s condemnation.

Analogous responses and patterns of belief continue today, and understandably so. As the ongoing civil warfare in Syria illustrates all too terribly, vulnerable people caught up in such ordeals can easily be left feeling that no other aid is available to them except a deity, and that the only alternative is despair. David Armitage concludes his book with a discussion of how the “long-term decline of wars between states” (a decline that should not be relied on) has been “accompanied by the rise of wars within them.” As in his previous book, The History Manifesto (2014), co-written with Jo Guldi, he also insists that historians have a duty—and a particular capacity—to address such large and recurrent features of human experience:

Where a philosopher, a lawyer, or even a political scientist might find only confusion in disputes over the term “civil war,” the historian scents opportunity. All definitions of civil war are necessarily contextual and conflictual. The historian’s task is not to come up with a better one, on which all sides could agree, but to ask where such competing conceptions came from, what they have meant, and how they arose from the experience of those who lived through what was called by that name or who have attempted to understand it in the past.

Certainly, a close reading of Civil Wars provides a deeper understanding of some of the semantic strategies that are still being deployed in regard to this mode of warfare. Thus President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters frequently represent Syria’s current troubles as the result of rebellion, revolt, or treason; while for some of his Russian allies, resistance in that country is to be categorized as terrorism.

But historians can illumine the rash of civil warfare that has characterized recent decades more deeply than this. Whereas Armitage focuses here on the making and unmaking of states, it is the rise and fall of empires that have often been the fundamental precipitants of twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century civil wars. At one level, the decline and demise of some old, mainly land-based empires—Austrian, Ottoman, and Soviet—have contributed to a succession of troubles in Eastern Europe. At another, the old maritime empires that invaded so much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East frequently imposed new boundaries and yoked together different peoples in those regions in ways that were never likely to endure, and stoked up troubles for the future. In these and other respects, Armitage is right to insist that history can equip men and women with a better understanding of the past and of the troubled present. It always has done this. But only when its practitioners have been willing to adopt broad and diverse and not just long perspectives.

Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton. Her latest book is Acts of Union and Disunion: What Has Held the UK Together—and What Is Dividing It? 
. (June 2017)