Civil war

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A civil war is a war in which parties within the same culture, society or nationality fight for political power or control of an area. Political scientists use two criteria: the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second criterion is that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side.<ref> Edward Wong, "A Matter of Definition: What Makes a Civil War, and Who Declares It So?" New York Times November 26, 2006 online at [1] </ref>

Some civil wars are also categorized as revolutions when major societal restructuring is a possible outcome of the conflict. An insurgency, whether successful or not, is likely to be classified as a civil war by some historians if, and only if, organized armies fight conventional battles. Other historians state the criterion for a civil war is that there must be prolonged violence between organized factions or defined regions of a country (conventionally fought or not).

Ultimately the distinction between a "civil war" and a "revolution" or other name is arbitrary, and determined by usage. The successful revolution of the 1640s in England which led to the (temporary) overthrow of the monarchy became known as the English Civil War. The successful insurgency of the 1770s in British colonies in America, with organized armies fighting battles, came to be known as the American Revolution. In the United States, and in American-dominated sources, the term 'the civil war' almost always means the American Civil War, with other civil wars noted or inferred from context.

Factors such as nationalism, religion, and ideology played little role in pre-modern civil wars. Modern nationalists have commonly read past revolts (such as Scotland against England or Catalonia against Spain) as early stirrings of nationalism, the truth is that these conflicts were in fact feudal or dynastic rather than national. There are some pre-modern civil wars that can be seen as fueled by religion (the Jewish Revolts against Rome), but these can also be seen as revolts by a servile people against their oppressors or uprisings by local notables in an attempt to gain independence.


Premodern Civil Wars

Religious conflicts

Civil wars fought over religion have tended to occur more frequently in monotheistic societies than in polytheistic societies; one explanation is that the latter tend to be more "flexible" in terms of dogma, allowing for some latitude in belief. In Europe through the Middle Ages, the Christianity of the great bulk of the population was influenced by pagan tradition. With the great majority of the population illiterate, access to the Bible was limited and led to a significant amount of syncretism between Christian and pagan elements. With religion so loosely applied, it was rare for people to feel particularly oppressed by it. There were periodic appearances of heresies, such as that of the Albigensians, which led to violence, but historians tend to view these to be the product of peasant revolts rather than themselves motivators of a civil war.

As religions tended to become more rigidly defined and understood by their followers, inter-religious tensions generally increased. The rise of Islam witnessed a rash of uprisings against non-Islamic rulers soon after its appearance. Subsequent Islamic history has been marked by repeated civil conflicts, mostly stemming out of the Shi'ite-Sunni divide. In Europe the Protestant Reformation had a similar effect, sparking years of both civil and international wars of religion. Civil wars between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism consumed France in the Wars of Religion, the Netherlands during the Eighty Years' War, Germany during the Thirty Years' War, and more recently, The Troubles of Northern Ireland. Religious disputes among Protestant sects also played a role in the English Civil Wars, while official persecution of Catholics during the French Revolution spurred the Revolt in the Vendée.


A revolution is generally seen as a civil war fought over issues of ideology, over how power should be organized and distributed, not merely over which individuals hold it. The classic example of a revolution, and by some arguments the first is the French Revolution, which is seen to have pitted the middle class and urban poor of France against the aristocracy and monarchy. Some argue that revolutions are a modern continuation of the peasant revolts of the past. Unlike peasant revolts, however, revolutions are almost always led by members of the educated, but disaffected, middle class who then rally the large mass of the population to their cause. Others see ideology as merely replacing religion as a justification and motivation for violence that is fundamentally caused by socioeconomic factors. To be successful revolutions almost always require use of armed force and sometimes escalate to a civil war, such as in the Chinese Civil War. In some cases, such as the French and Russian Revolutions the revolutionaries succeed in gaining power through a quick coup or localized uprising, but a civil war results from counterrevolutionary forces organizing to crush the revolution.

Separatist revolts

One of the most common causes of civil wars, especially in the post-Cold War world has been separatist violence. Nationalism can be seen as similar to both a religion and an ideology as a justification for war rather than a root cause of conflict. All modern states attempt to hold a monopoly on internal military force. For separatist civil wars to break out thus either the national army must fracture along ethnic, religious, or national lines as happened in Yugoslavia; or more commonly a modern separatist conflict takes the form of asymmetrical warfare with separatists lightly armed and disorganized, but with the support of the local population such groups can be hard to defeat. This is the route taken by most liberation groups in colonies, as well as forces in areas such as Eritrea and Sri Lanka. Regional differences may be enhanced by differing economies, as in the American Civil War. National minorities are also often minorities and wars of religion may link closely into separatisty conflicts.


Coups d'état are by definition quick blows to the top of a government that do not result in the widespread violence of a civil war. On occasion a failed coup, or one that is only half successful, can precipitate a civil war between factions. These wars often quickly try to pull in larger themes of ideology, nationalism, or religion to try to win supporters among the general population for a conflict that in essence is an intraelite competition for power.

Reasons for war

Almost every nation has minority groups, religious plurality, and ideological divisions, but not all plunge into civil war. Sociologists have long searched for what variables trigger civil wars. In the modern world most civil wars occur in nations that are poor, autocratic, and regionally divided. However, the United States was one of the wealthiest and most democratic countries in the world at the time of its bloody civil war.

Some models to explain the occurrence of civil wars stress the importance of change and transition. According to one such line of reasoning, the American Civil War was caused by the growing economic power of the North relative to the South; the Lebanese Civil War by the upsetting of the delicate demographic balance by the increase in the Shi'ite population; the English Civil War by the growing power of the middle class and merchants at the expense of the aristocracy.

Competition for resources and wealth within a society is seen as a frequent cause for civil wars, however economic gain is rarely the justification espoused by the participants. Marxist historians stress economic and class factors arguing that civil wars are caused by imperialist rulers battling each other for greater power, and using tools such as nationalism and religion to delude people into joining them. Also, recent evidence proved that the violence observed in civil war can come from spurious reasons.

Not only are the causes of civil wars widely studied and debated, but their persistence is also seen as an important issue. Many civil wars have proved especially intractable, dragging on for many decades. One contributing factor is that civil wars often become proxy wars for outside powers that fund their partisans and thus encourage further violence.

Research related to the democratic peace theory have studied civil wars and democracy. Research shows that the most democratic and the most authoritarian states have few civil wars, and intermediate regimes the most. The probability for a civil war is also increased by political change, regardless whether toward greater democracy or greater autocracy. Intermediate regimes continue to be the most prone to civil war, regardless of the time since the political change. In the long run, since intermediate regimes are less stable than autocracies, which in turn are less stable than democracies, durable democracy is the most probable end-point of the process of democratization [2]. The fall of Communism and the increase in the number of democratic states were accompanied by a sudden and dramatic decline in total warfare, interstate wars, ethnic wars, revolutionary wars, and the number of refugees and displaced persons [3].

Post war

Rebuilding a society in the wake of a civil war is often difficult. In an international war the two parties merely have to agree to a cease-fire and can, for the most part, go their own way. In a civil war not only must violence stop but the factions involved must also learn to coexist with each other. This can often prove difficult, as much of the population will have lost friends or loved ones in the war­—losses which they blame on their opponents. Civil wars also tend to greatly entrench any ethnic, religious, or ideological divisions within a society and restoring unity can be very difficult. The record of United Nations peacekeeping forces in healing such war-torn societies is mixed.

See also




  • Ali, Taisier Mohamed Ahmed and Robert O. Matthews, eds. Civil Wars in Africa: roots and resolution (1999), 322 pages
  • Mats Berdal and David M. Malone, Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (Lynne Rienner, 2000).
  • Paul Collier, Breaking the Conflict Trap: civil war and development policy World Bank (2003) - 320 pages
  • Stathis Kalyvas, "'New' and 'Old' Civil Wars: A Valid Distinction?" World Politics 54, no. 1 (2001): 99-118.
  • David Lake and Donald Rothchild, eds. The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict: Fear, Diffusion, and Escalation (Princeton University Press, 1996).
  • Roy Licklider, "The Consequences of Negotiated Settlements in Civil Wars, 1945--1993," American Political Science Review 89, no. 3 (summer 1995): pp 681-690.
  • Andrew Mack, "Civil War: Academic Research and the Policy Community," Journal of Peace Research 39, no. 5 (2002): pp. 515-525.
  • David M. Malone and Mats R. Berdal. Greed and Grievance: economic agendas in civil wars (2000), 251 pages
  • David T. Mason and Patrick 3. Fett, "How Civil Wars End: A Rational Choice Approach," Journal of Conflict Resolution 40, no. 4 (fall 1996): 546-568.
  • Patrick M. Regan. Civil Wars and Foreign Powers: Outside Intervention in Intrastate Conflict (2000) 172 pages
  • Stephen John et al, eds. Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements (2002), 729 pages
  • Monica Duffy Toft, The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003). ISBN 0-691-12383-7.
  • Barbara F. Walter, Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (Princeton University Press, 2002),
  • Elisabeth Jean Wood; "Civil Wars: What We Don't Know," Global Governance, Vol. 9, 2003 pp 247+ online version

External links

cs:Občanská válka da:Borgerkrig de:Bürgerkrieg es:Guerra civil eo:Interna milito fr:Guerre civile gl:Guerra Civil hr:Građanski rat id:Perang saudara os:Мидхæст it:Guerra civile he:מלחמת אזרחים lt:Pilietinis karas nl:Burgeroorlog ja:内戦 no:Borgerkrig nn:Borgarkrig pl:Wojna domowa (konflikt zbrojny) pt:Guerra civil ro:Război civil ru:Гражданская война simple:Civil war sk:Občianska vojna sl:Državljanska vojna sr:Грађански рат fi:Sisällissota sv:Inbördeskrig th:สงครามกลางเมือง vi:Nội chiến uk:Громадянська війна ur:خانہ جنگی wa:Guere civile zh:内战

Civil war

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