CIVIL WARS by David Armitage


A History in Ideas
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A probing examination of the history of civil war and why it matters to define it precisely.

In this slender but dense work of academic history, distinguished historian Armitage (Intellectual and International History/Harvard Univ.; Foundations of Modern International Thought, 2013, etc.) tracks the emergence of “civil war” from Roman times to the present Syrian conflagration, exploring how it has become “the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence.” Defined by the ancient Greeks as a conflict between members of the same civitas, it features deadly strife among fellow citizens and family; it is the most profoundly destructive, shameful struggle; and it is without triumph, in the Roman sense of victory over foreign enemies. Indeed, the Romans had the dubious distinction of “inventing” or recognizing this new form of warfare as a kind of recurring plague of civilization, a violation of the “zone of cooperation and peace” epitomized by the city, replaced by “threats of irrationality, savagery, and animality.” Armitage regards Consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 B.C.E. to “free the fatherland from tyrants” as the first civil war; it was construed as defensive and only in the face of injustice. From here until the modern era, historians have weighed in on what constitutes a civil war: is it rebellion or revolution, such as the American or French revolutions, which were regarded as “fertile” conflicts that ultimately brought their citizens innovation and improvement? Armitage emphasizes that the Enlightenment thinkers had hoped to do away with what was regarded as the atavistic, destructive “weed” of civil war, yet the conflicts have proliferated to the point where global civil war is now the norm. Ultimately, the classification of “civil war” often determines the level of world response, politically, militarily, legally, and ethically—and whether it justifies intervention, humanitarian or otherwise.

An erudite work by a top-shelf scholar.

Pub Date: Feb. 28th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-307-27113-6
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2016


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