War between the states

Sun 26 Nov 2006 10:02 PM

A recent item in the New York Times asks if the present conflict in Iraq is a civil war or not. A "common scholarly definition" is given, which includes the operationalized requirement of at least 1000 dead including at least 100 from each side. These numbers give a gratifying formal weight to the pronouncements that, yes, it is a civil war. According to a dissenting scholar, a civil war requires having parties meet in "set-piece battles while wearing uniforms."

There is a good deal of distinction mongering, with various criteria entertained as perhaps necessary-and-sufficient for a conflict's being a civil war. This seems like the bread and cheese of philosophy...

Alcibiades: Please tell us, Socrates, about the ideal form of civil war?

Yet one may object that the game of discovering necessary and sufficient conditions, an eccentric preoccupation at the best of times, amounts to the worst wankery here. It matters not to the dead whether they died in a civil war. The article ends with an answer to this worry, offered by Stanford professor David Laitin:

Why should we care how it is defined, if we all agree that the violence is unacceptable? Here is my answer: There is a scientific community that studies civil wars, and understands their dynamics and how they, in general, end. This research is valuable to our nation's security.

His point is that identifying something correctly allows you to consult the right sort of experts in dealing with it. With the rubric civil war, one consults experts on civil wars. With the rubric financial opportunity or political posturing, one consults different people.

That is all a practical matter, and Plato scoffed at craftsmen. I am still puzzled about what makes for a civil war.

The OED lists 'civil war' on the same line with 'civil strife' and 'civil troubles.' The early specimens contrast civil war with external or foreign war. This suggests that 'civil war' is not sui generis, but rather a species of the more general 'war.'

Is the present conflict in Iraq a war? There is some debate about this, but the present US administration insists adamantly that it is.

Is the war foreign or civil? For the United States it is foreign, but the US is not the presiding power in Iraq. As the administration is quick to point out, Iraq has a nominally sovereign government. The conflict between that government and various military forces is certainly not a foreign matter. So the war is a civil war.

It might fail to be a civil war if one side is not a politically organized force, but then it fails to be a war at all. If it is a war, then it is a civil war. The curious dialectical situation is that the same parties presently insisting that the conflict is a war are also insisting that it is not a civil war. As a conceptual matter, that is untenable.

The war which is civil but not a civil war belongs in the philosophers' box of bric-a-brac along with chimera and the square circle. So it is our bread and cheese, after all.