Civil Wars

Civil Wars

A History in Ideas

David Armitage

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2017, 368 pages

Book Review published on: June 30, 2017

Gen. William T. Sherman once stated during the Civil War that “war is hell.” If war is hell, does that make civil war worse? Moreover, how do you define “civil war”?

These are two of the main questions raised in David Armitage’s Civil Wars. While many readers will easily identify the American Civil War as perhaps the last civil war, Armitage skillfully takes us on a journey starting with the Romans and bringing us to modern-day Iraq.

Ancient Rome is the time and place where the discussions of civil war were first captured. There were many discussions on how to define civil war, arguments that were accepted for a time and were reopened and debated at later times. For example, there were times the American Revolution was thought of as a civil war; English colonists against the English, but in the end, it was defined as a revolution. The same can be said for the American Civil War. At different times, this conflict was viewed more as an insurrection than a civil war, but it was ultimately labeled a civil war with the passage of time and changing definitions. In more modern times, civil war has been used to describe past conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, and even Iraq.

Armitage’s book takes a philosophic look at the politics of defining what civil war is and is not. It is a relatively easy read, but it does not shy away from going into the depth required to present the background and resulting points that help explain why it has been so difficult over the many centuries to pin down a universal definition for civil war. From early Roman philosophers, to renowned philosophers during the Enlightenment, to today’s political philosophers, Armitage has carefully laid out the arguments and discussions for and against the use of the term civil war. He provides the road map of where this started, where it is now, and all the many twists and turns in between.

For anyone who wants to get a better idea about the origins of the concept of civil war, this book will definitely provide the relevant history and details. It also lays out the different arguments made in trying to define civil war throughout the centuries as people and societies around the world evolve and continue to debate the topic. There are some portions of the book that go into a great amount of detail, but by and large, this book will help provide background to and spur further discussions about the history and meaning of civil war.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Troy Lewis, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas