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the story behind the story | kate tuttle

What we mean when we say civil war

david wilson for the boston globe

It was during that second Gulf War that Harvard historian David Armitage began noticing just how much energy was directed toward defining just what was going on in Iraq. “There was highly political debate in the US and elsewhere about whether to call that violence a rebellion, an insurgency, an insurrection, or a civil war,” Armitage recalled.

“A great deal hung upon that definition,” he said. “It matters because once an international body like the Red Cross has said this is a civil war, at that point certain provisions of the Geneva Conventions kick in,” among other consequences. Indeed, he added, “efforts to define civil war have been highly political, highly ideological, often discriminatory, and a great deal hangs upon it, not just in terms of legal or political matters but sometimes the lives of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people.”

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In his new book, “Civil Wars: A History in Ideas,” Armitage examines the way people and nations talk about civil wars. One constant is a battle over definitions; another is the longevity of such struggles. “One of the lessons of the long history I’ve tried to tell is a discovery the Romans made 2,000 years ago that’s still true today,” Armitage said. “It’s that civil wars are much harder to conclude than any other kind of wars, precisely because they happen in this context of intimate enemies, people we recognize to be like ourselves.”

It’s territory we may find ourselves in again. “Even as formal civil wars seem to be declining in the 21st century,” Armitage said, “the language of civil war and the fact of political division leading to the possibility, even the actuality of outright violence, is becoming more and more evident, especially in democratic societies across Europe and now in the United States. Increasingly democratic politics is looking like civil war by other means, and recent events in the US in the last two weeks or so have only confirmed that grim prognostication.”

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Armitage will read 7 p.m. Wednesday at Harvard Book Store.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.