This is one of most thought-provoking works on civil war I have ever read. Too many accounts of civil conflicts are a collection of atrocity stories, explaining nothing, or binary narratives of good guys v bad guys, the definition of which determined by your political persuasion. Most accounts do little to explain violence, let alone try to predict when it might happen. This book eschews such approaches and attempts to explain the underlying logic of violence.
To simplify the theory, violence in civil war correlates to the degree of control a warring party exerts on any given territory ‘parties’ here meaning, incumbents (governments) and insurgents. Taking Greece as his principal example, but illustrated by many examples of conflicts, he shows how violence is not random but concentrated in zones most subject to contestation by the warring parties. Where incumbents or rebels are dominant, violence is scarce. Where neither incumbents nor rebels are in overall control, say a situation where incumbent forces rule during the day, the rebels at night, a ‘balance of power’ is achieved and violence is restrained. It is the leading edge of conflict, in areas where incumbents and rebels are challenging the other side for territory they control, or defending territory from challenges, that violence is most intense.
This sounds like a mechanistic explanation but it isn’t. He tackles issues of motivation. Few people in civil wars actually do the killing. The taboo against taking life with one’s own bare hands stays strong, even in civil war. Instead, people use denunciation, to settle scores, a tactic that can lead to the demise of the denouncer’s victim, without the getting one’s hands dirty. Distance from the consequences of one’s act keeps conscience at bay. The combatants do much killing on the basis of informers. The discussion of the interaction between denunciation and violence is a fascinating one. The practice, like violence, corresponds to the degree of control either side exerts. In areas where there is a balance of power, there is less of it, because the denouncer fears retaliation from the victim’s relatives or confederates.
This question also has bearing on how we tend to understand civil wars. Most accounts posit a binary division such as Catholics v Protestants in Northern Ireland, Hutu v Tutsi in Rwanda, Left v Right during the Spanish Civil War, to name just a few. These divisions are real enough but do they cause violence or are they an effect? Digging deeper, the reality is more complex. Under these ‘master cleavages’ at the macro level lie many ‘micro cleavages’, between families, relatives, villages, cutting in numerous directions.
Governments and their rebel opponents nail their colours to their ideological masts. Are those who follow the flags true believers? No, that does not follow. Followers’ allegiances and motivations are much more complex and fluid. Defection and pragmatism are common features of civil war. Rather than conceptualising conflict as between two blocs of contenders, one should look for alliances between the macro at strategic level and the micro at the local. The leaders may believe in the overt, spoken ideological reasons for fighting (or might not) but the followers’ allegiances are often tactical; they have their own motivations often for wanting to fight. They will talk the talk but walk a different walk. Iraq is a prime example. It should come as no surprise as to why the Americans were able to buy off their Sunni opponents in Iraq.
It is said that war is a continuation of politics by other means and that politics is local. This book shows, in its discussion of macro and micro cleavages, that the same considerations apply to civil war. That brings me to another key observation the book makes, on the intimate origins of much violence. Students of crime have long known that most murderers know their victims. The same observation applies to the perpetrators and victims of violence in civil war. This is contrary to received wisdom but this makes sense in the light of the macro/micro cleavages, discussed above, and the role of denunciation. A lot of this has origins in social and interpersonal conflict preceding the conflict.
Though it is an academic text, it is suitable for lay readers, willing to make the time and effort to assimilate its ideas. It gets past literary clichés about violence, ‘the horror, the horror,’ and so on and shows that violence has a pattern. It is not meaningless. It helped me understand features of contemporary conflicts. It’s no surprise that the exemplary violence of the Islamic State is greatest in the areas which it is seeking to take. It is less violent in areas it controls. Assad’s apologists should not make too much fodder of the fact that he controls major cities. In civil wars, incumbents usually control cities (as the French did in Algeria and the Americans in Vietnam) but that is no predictor of victory.
Overall, I have given this five stars not because it is always the most readable of books but because of the quality and originality of its ideas.
- Paperback: 510 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (1 May 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0521670047
- ISBN-13: 978-0521670043
- Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.9 x 23.4 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 885 g
- Customer Reviews: 13 customer ratings
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 61,856 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)