Monday, April 12, 2010

Civil War?

The term "civil war" has been used so many times in the mainstream media that people are beginning to think "civil war" every time they hear the word "Iraq." The truth is that, by any reasonably well accepted historical definition of the term civil war, no such conflict ever existed in Iraq. The truth is also that the prospects of the conflict ever descending into a civil war were minimal and are still diminishing by the day.

Let's get a few things out of the way, first. We let historians do history and we let the journalists do journalism. The main stream media doesn't do a very good job of analyzing history. Journalists naturally make lousy historians, despite the fact that the history of conflict is largely written from the accounts of journalists. The reason why journalists make lousy historians because they lack the academic background that historians use to put events in historical perspective. Furthermore, most historians subject their scholarly works to peers for review and criticism, a completely alien concept to journalists. Historians don't scoop one another. The journalist's job is to record events and tell the story as accurately as possible, before a competing journalist beats him to to it.

Historians interpret the stories of journalists. Historians though, make lousy journalists. Instead of focusing on reporting the facts of a story, a historian is more likely to get bogged down in the historical significance of it all. The historian tries to put things in proper historical perspective, potentially missing the opportunity to collect collaborative or contradictory factual information that might put his conclusions at doubt. He's fettered by a plodding, academic pace that seeks truth rather than disseminating the news.

Put it this way. A journalist can be forgiven for getting the story wrong if he didn't have all of the facts at the time he went to press. A historian can't get it wrong, because he's supposed to have or find all of the facts, analyze and interpret, share with colleagues, and reach consensus on what really happened.

Isn't specialization great?

Historians generally agree that armed conflicts range from general unrest and rioting to all out revolutionary and civil war. The conflicts are regarded as revolutions when the overthrow of the established government is a possible, even if unlikely outcome of the conflict. If we compare the conflict in Iraq with other modern-era conflicts that historians have recognized as civil war, it becomes clear that Iraq's conflict was not even close to being, or even becoming a civil war.

Lebanese Civil War, 1975-1991. The Lebanese Civil War was fought between Christian and Muslim militias, along with the involvement of Syria, Israel, The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Throughout much of the bloody conflict, each warring faction had control over significant portions of territory, with the Christians controlling the northwestern coastal regions, the Muslim/PLO factions controlling the southern coastal regions, and Syrian forces holding the eastern and northern regions. Territorial boundaries shifted regularly during the conflict through the 1970's and early 1980's, as did patterns of support from the various outside factions. The conflict was prolonged and bloody, with all sides suffering significant casualties during pitched battles. Each side had clearly defined systems of command and control of military forces. Each side had clearly identified political leaders, political infrastructure, and a measure of public support from part of the population. Most importantly, each side had the capacity (through internal or external means) to raise, train, equip and deploy military forces. The conflict ended in 1991, when the militias dissolved following several key engagements and political developments in 1990.

Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. The bloody Spanish Civil War devastated Spain and served as a testing ground for German military technology and tactics. The three-year conflict ended when the Nationalists overthrew the government and established a Nationalist Dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The atrocities of this conflict were among some of the worst in history (to be exceeded only by the Second World War). There was widescale use of terror tactics, including bombings, assassinations, and the targeting and execution of religious and civil leaders. As in the Lebanese conflict, both sides controlled major geographic regions of the country and enjoyed the popular support of some segment of the Spanish population. The patterns of external support also show significant ideological characteristics, with leftists backing the "Republicanos" and right wing support of the Nationalists. Germany and Italy supported the Nationalists; The Soviet Union and, to an extent Mexico, supported the Republicanos. Both sides fielded significant armies that were well equipped, well trained and commanded effectively. Both sides had clear political leaders and clear lines of command and control over the military forces. There were tens of thousands of casualties caused by pitched battles of historical and strategic significance.

Do you see any similarities whatsoever between the current conflict in Iraq and two of the most studied civil wars in modern world history?
Who were the political leaders of the insurgency?
What territories, or provinces, of Iraq were controlled by the insurgents?
What military capabilities did the insurgents have?
Were they capable of fielding a well equipped, well trained and effectively commanded army in battle?
What were the political objectives of the insurgents?
What level of popular support did the warring factions have?

Honest, historical interpretation of the 2004-2009 insurgency in Iraq clearly produces the conclusion that it was not a Civil War. It was protracted. It was bloody. And Iraq's future as a stable entity was in question until the 2007 infusion of combat troops known as "the surge." But at no time did the insurgents speak of their political goals, and there were no readily identifiable leaders of the insurgency. There were rag-tag militia commanders, but no single, unifying political force. At no time did the insurgents have control of any significant geographic territory. They were able to--temporarily--operate with impunity in certain regions of the country and sectors of Bagdad, but there were no geographic regions one could point to on a map and say, "this was the coalition's territory, and this was the insurgents' territory." The insurgents had virtually no organized military capability. They could not field an army, nor could they sustain operations in a prolonged, pitched battle. The insurgency had no clear lines of command and control. And, since Iraqis themselves were often the targets of insurgents' operations, there was little popular support within the areas the insurgents were operating in. Indeed, as soon as coaltion forces established a presence within a disputed region or zone, the people of the area quickly collaborated and provided intelligence on the insurgents locations, numbers and capabilities.

The conflict in Iraq is properly described as an insurrection or an insurgency. Had the insurgents gained enough political support and military capability, the conflict could have escalated into a civil war, but at no time was it one.

This however, has not stopped journalists from delcaring that Iraq was in the throes of civil war. The mantra was repeated during the political battles in the US leading up to and during the surge of troops that ended the conflict. Indeed, none of the journalists pounding the "civil war" drums are even willing to admit that the conflict is all but over, and that the good guys won.