Co-Sponsored symposium: Civil war: discord within

April 28 2017


A symposium organized by Michèle Lowrie (Classics) and John McCormick (Political Science)

To call formally organized violence within a regime “civil war” is never an innocent act. As armed conflict within borders has become a widespread mode of warfare in recent years, civil war has attracted new attention across disciplines. Bellum civile, the Roman concept for partisan warfare among citizens, has lent its name to such disturbances in modern European languages (guerre civile, Bürgerkrieg), but many other terms compete for dominance. What are the stakes of naming violent domestic conflict civil war rather than revolution, or the Greek stasis, or tumult, sedition, insurgency, or guerilla warfare? At what point do we call conflicts civil wars and when do we stop doing so? The recent disturbance in Syria, for instance, goes by civil war in the Western media, but it raged for a full year before earning that appellation. Arabists, however, prefer to characterize it as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran and therefore feel civil war is off the mark—a terminological-conceptual controversy that hearkens back at least to the “Spanish Civil War.” Some might choose to designate the Syrian conflict rather a religious war within Islam. Depending on one’s stakes, the name of civil war can legitimate one side or condemn all of the warring parties.