The conflict in Syria is now in its sixth year, has claimed quarter of a million lives, displaced half the country’s population, sent nearly 5 million refugees in search of safe havens, and destroyed cities like Aleppo and Homs, as well as the ancient ruins of Palmyra. The world knows this horror as the Syrian civil war, just as inhabitants of Syria have known almost since the beginning.
For Assad’s victims, this was not just resistance against oppression: it was a many-sided struggle to wrestle the state away from the president and his henchmen, who have clung onto power at any cost—in short, a civil war. Yet it took the International Committee of the Red Cross until July 2012 to confirm that what was happening was an “armed conflict not of an international character”, the official legal designation for what in common speech we call a civil war. Some 17,000 people fell into that yearlong gap between general understanding and legal jargon. What to call a conflict like Syria’s is more than semantic. It can be a matter of life and death for thousands of people.
Truth is the first casualty of war, it is said. Language may be the first casualty of civil war. Thucydides classically wrote about this in his chilling account of the stasis in Corcyra. Internal conflict changed the meaning of words from settled to arbitrary: foolhardiness became courage; modesty was called cowardice; and wisdom turned into laziness. 2500 years later, a contemporary observer remarked something similar, noting that civil war is “a phenomenon prone to serious semantic confusion, even contestation. The description of a conflict as a civil war carries symbolic and political weight since the term can confer or deny legitimacy to a warring party.”
Describing the Syrian conflict as a civil war—or non-international armed conflict—had consequences for the application of the Geneva Conventions and, in due course, to the possibility of war crimes trials against Assad if the bloodshed ever ends. In such conflicts, language matters in the here and now. But the conflicting languages of civil war have a much longer history, stretching back over more than two thousand years. Our confusions and collisions over what is, and what is now, a civil war are the product of that long and contested history.
I have just completed a book spanning those two millennia and tracing the varied ways in which we have learned to talk about civil war and the bitter combats humans have long had about what counts as civil war (or not). I call this a “genealogy” of civil war, in the sense that Nietzsche used the word genealogy—as he put it in his Genealogy of Morals, “anything in existence, having somehow come about, is continually interpreted anew, requisitioned anew, transformed and redirected to a new purpose by a power superior to it.”
Civil war has been perpetually reinterpreted, redeployed, transformed in the interests of power and advantage at least since the Romans invented the term—bellum civile—in the first century BCE. Conflicts like Syria, and the Second Gulf War before it, have shown what’s at stake in the twenty-first century for competing conceptions of civil war.
Call a conflict a civil war and you imply its civil—fought between members of the same society or polity—and that it’s a war: something more formal, yet also more fearsome, than a simple riot, rebellion or uprising. Call a civil war a revolution, and you change it from something ignoble and even atavistic into a movement that is uplifting and oriented towards the future. What Americans now call “the American Revolution” was in its early stages called “the American civil war”, between fellow Britons on either side of the Atlantic. Friends and foes of the French Revolution thought it deserved to be called a civil war before it succeeded and was baptised as a revolution. Only after its triumph did historians look back to the civil wars of seventeenth-century Britain and call them “the English Revolution”.
Is a failed revolution just a civil war, aimless and destructive? Is a successful civil war always a revolution, forward-looking and utopian? In contrast to revolutions, unfolding in a world-wide sequence of liberation over the past two centuries, civil wars have long been seen a local events, bounded by time and history and seared in community memory. Yet civil wars have a much longer history, reaching back to republican Rome (if not to the Peloponnesian War) and right up to the present.
Conflicts called civil wars have been fought on every continent over the centuries. To many observers, civil war seems to be humanity’s most characteristic form of conflict now that interstate wars have become vanishingly rare. The experiences of civil war, and the slippery words we use to speak and to fight about it, have a deep and contested history. Excavating the bitter conflicts over the meaning of civil war can help us understand the meaning of conflict, in our own time and in the future.