Worse than a civil war

Nick Douglas at Huffington Post’s Eat the Press does a nice job summing up the wisdom of the media crowd on the use of “civil war” to describe the wars in Iraq.

I think it’s worse than that. “Civil war” implies some order: two sides, usually, fighting each other with a clear goal of taking over the nation. But in Iraq, there are countless sides and motivations — religious, political, economic, historical, familial — all shooting at each other, many without a clear goal except disruption at best, murder at worst. At the Online News Association, Zeyad described neighborhoods at war with neighborhoods. Read the message-board notices he translates: urgent dispatches from war front in neighborhoods in Baghdad. At ONA, Zeyad called it civil war but also pointed out that the government is not in charge of anything, even the Green Zone. There is no order to the disorder.

I would call this something worse and more frightening: anarchy.

  • Jeff

    I completely agree with what you wrote. Our culture and our media likes to put labels on things, and we see intra-country battles and automatically say ‘civil war’. What’s happening over there is much more complicated.

    We’ve got two large groups of Arabs (Sunni and Shia), two large groups fo Sunnis (Arab and Kurd), and two large groups that suffered under Saddam (Kurd and Shia). Actually the Sunni Arabs suffered as well. But each gourp has all sorts of factions, each vying for power and dominance – either within their own group or over other groups.

  • Ethan

    Who’s responsible for this mess?

  • You write, ” Civil war infers some order… ” The word is ” imply. ” One implies, then someone else infers from that. Forgive me, but I’ve been waging this semantic battle for years. Seeing or hearing someone who should know better using the wrong word drives me up a wall.

    You can imagine how I feel about the somewhat larger semantic battle about which you write.

  • Dan Icolari

    Thanks, Terrence.

  • Ethan asks Who is responsible for this mess?

    Robert Dreyfuss waxes eloquent:

    The ISG’s [Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker] decision, which will be officially announced on December 6, represents a formal recognition by the American foreign policy establishment that Bush’s criminally misguided war of aggression in Iraq is lost. A war that was meant to demonstrate to the world the shock and awe of American power is ending as proof positive that the United States is too weak to subdue a fragmented nation of 25 million. A war that was meant to secure a preeminent place for the United States in the oil-rich Persian Gulf is ending with America in full retreat, leaving a shattered Iraq, a resurgent Iran, and a Saudi Arabia that is angry, bitter and disgusted with American bungling. A war that was meant to enhance Israel’s regional might is ending with what is likely, now, to be a reinvigorated push for a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian issue that will come at Israel’s expense—in Syria, in Lebanon, and in the Occupied Territories.


  • aldo

    ““Civil war” infers some order: two sides, usually, fighting each other with a clear goal of taking over the nation.”
    If you would expand your microscopic erudition beyond high School knowledge (C-) of American civil war you would learn that civil war can be with multiple sides like it was, for example , in Russia 1918-1921.In Russia were “ countless sides and motivations — religious, political, economic, historical, familial — all shooting at each other,”
    But why you would bother with history if your occupation is demagoguery?

  • Dick Eagleson

    The closest U.S.-centric model for what is going on in Iraq – paticularly in Baghdad – is not the Blue and the Grey of 1861-65 but the Bloods and the Crips of South Central L.A. from the 1970’s to the present. The magnitude of the violence is worse for at least three reasons:

    1. Homicidal violence as a first, last and evergreen resort for dispute resolution has been part of Arab culture for as long as there has been Arab culture. Arabs are tribal. Strongly tribal cultures are ultra-violent. U.S. urban youth gangs are simply manifestations of neo-tribalism – people in chaotic circumstances reverting to what has been the default template for human social organization for the last 50,000 years at least. Pre-Columbian North American Indians are an additional exemplar from history. Pretty much anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa is a third exemplar that is contemporary.

    2. The proportion of males between the ages of 15 and 35 – the prime age rage for criminality and general hell-raising – is much higher in the Iraqi population than in ours.

    3. The 15 – 35-year-old Iraqi male population has nowhere near the access to sexually willing females as do their age-range contemporaries in U.S. inner cities.

  • Eric

    As the first poster I agree with this analysis, except for the use of the word anarchy, a truly beautiful theory and ideal of autonomous, selfless governance of interdependent and solidary communities.

    But I apologize for injecting my ideology into a healthy debate, what brought me here was a similarity to something that rather horrified me earlier tonight: It suggests that the Iraq war, far from being a failure or a misadventure, is going exactly the way its authors planned. A documentary film – if anyone sees it – can bring that information to a wider audience.”

  • zong qua

    So after 50,000 years, what is the MSM and the USA worried about. Only nit pickers care if its “civil war” or “anarchy”. The US Military should just step back, hold all their coats and let them fight. Sooner or later it will end. Loan them extra bullets if the run low. The objective is to protect the worlds oil supplies at a minimal cost of lives and treasure.

  • Eric,
    Your referral to the Chris Floyd article was timely. In it, the following was noted: “War Plan Green” was a similar plan drawn up for an attack on Mexico. Many of us in academia are all too familiar with this recurring phenomena. Echoes of the past in the present?:

    At a very early stage of Mexico’s revolutionary upheaval in September of 1911,… Secretary of War Henry Stimson decided to send two secret agents to Mexico to assess the situation and the possibility of an American intervention. These were two young officers of the general staff of the War Department, captain Charles D. Rhodes, and captain Paul B. Malone, disguised as reporters of the Washington Times. […] the conclusion that Malone and Rhodes threw […] was very clear: “the history of industrial development teaches that in the past, empire has followed profitable investments especially in metals. It is therefore to be expected that the acquisition in Mexico by American capitalists of the greatest mineral and oil deposits knowing to exist, would compel intervention in the affairs of Mexico, should these investments and the lives of Americans be placed in serious jeopardy”. Considerations of national sovereignty, international law, right of self‑determination, etc., obviously did not concern these two military men and their conclusion was very stark: “it is therefore important that the general staff should at once begin a more careful, detailed study of the future occupation of Mexican territory, to include not only the military campaign, whose objective must be the Mexican capital, but the subsequent military government of this vast country, whether such occupation be merely temporary as in the case of Cuba, or more or less permanent as in the case of Philippines”.

    (excerpted from “U.S. Imperial Expansion into the Caribbean and Mexico, 1898-1920”, by Dr. C. Friedrich Katz, Morton D. Hull Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Latin American History, Co-Director, Mexican Studies Program, Department of History, University of Chicago).

  • In addition to not understanding the concept of ‘civil war’ you do not understand the word ‘anarchy.’ Anarchy is a political philosophy that opposes the nation-state in favor of political and economic self-rule. What you probably mean is ‘chaos.’ Also, I don’t your assumptions are fair. Your statement that the violence in Iraq is “without a clear goal except disruption at best, murder at worst” reveals an ignorance of human nature. In the majority of cases, murder is usually a means to an end, not an end in itself. I’m sure that those who are inciting such violence hope to accomplish something through it, whether it is political change or personal enrichment.

  • Oxford American dictionary:
    “a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority”

  • Glyn

    Or from the “Shorter Oxford English Dictionary” (3,767 pages): “Absence or non-recognition of authority in any sphere; moral or intellectual conflict; a state of disorder; chaos.” Seems accurate to me. That particular usage dates from the mid-16th century, so it’s been around for a while. Words such as anarchy and chaos can have different meanings in scientific and everyday speech.

    In response to Ethan’s question: “Who’s responsible for this mess?” My own immediate reaction when I hear of a car bomb in a crowded market place is to blame the bomber, sadly the response of some of my friends is to immediately blame Bush.

  • The LA Times reports:
    …instead of flaunting stronger ties and steadfast American influence, the president’s journey found friends both old and new near a state of panic. Mideast leaders expressed soaring concern over upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy — and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse.

    President Bush’s summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister proved an awkward encounter that deepened doubts about the relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney’s stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, yielded a blunt warning from the kingdom’s leaders. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s swing through the West Bank and Israel, intended to build Arab support by showing a new U.S. push for peace, found little to work with.

    In all, visits designed to show the American team in charge ended instead in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts.


  • Even the Oxford can show a conservative bias. An opposition of authority does not equal disorder or chaos, that’s an opinion, not a definition. You should read some books on anarchy before you start ignorantly tossing the word around. Or are books not important anymore?

  • Glyn

    Er, a dictionary is in fact a book.

    I think you’re trying to confine the word ‘anarchy’ to one single meaning, i.e. a philosophical movement. This use of the word is its other meaning, of chaos/a state of disorder. And it’s a little authoritarian of you (un-anarchic?) to try and impose your meaning and say that that’s the only one that there is.

    If your point is that there are no followers of Kropotkin or Bakunin currently blowing up Iraq, you’re probably right.

  • Christian

    Ah, the philosophical anarchists have arrived. When do we begin arguing which particular flavor of anarchist is the real one? Always one of my favorites. My vote is for the lexico-anarchists.

  • Carrick

    Excellent point, Jeff. Definitely not a civil war. But not call it a “breakdown in order”? That has less baggage attached to it that “anarchy”.

    I think word choices have consequences, sometimes profound ones.

    In this case, a civil war would imply that some force needed to be defeated.

    If it’s anarchy a breakdown in order, then order is restored by improving the security forces in Iraq. Without improved security forces, regional militias will rise to fill the vacuum (that cannot by the way be filled by the US forces), and there is nothing short of an act of God that will then get rid of them.

    With improved security forces, however, the freedom of the militias to act becomes highly curtailed and further they become redundant. So they can be controlled and even eliminated given the proper political will within Iraq.

  • Tom

    Old story: Julius Caesar was there first:

    George Bush vs Julius Caesar

  • Once we have determined what a civil war is, either Bush or Rove or Cheney will point us in the direction of the equally relevant question of how many angels can shuffle about on the head of a pin, keeping our eyes off the ball for six more months.