Civil Wars

Errol A. Henderson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


A civil war is a sustained, violent conflict between the military forces of a state and insurgent forces comprised mainly of residents of the state. Civil war is not synonymous with internal or intrastate war. The latter also includes conflict between groups in the state that does not involve the armed forces of the state, such as recent conflicts between warlords in Somalia, which are internal wars but not civil wars. In addition, civil war is characterized by a much higher scale of violence than riots or civil disturbances, which are more often sporadic and relatively disorganized forms of civil violence that are often of short duration. Therefore, the urban riots that spread throughout the United States in 1992 and the mass civil disturbances in France in the 1960s fall well short of the level of sustained violence present in civil wars. Also, civil disturbances are often directed at groups and institutions in the society other than the central government, which is the main protagonist in civil wars. Violence directed specifically at the regime in power, such as coups d' etat also often fail to attain the threshold of civil wars. While such conflicts often involve the armed forces of the society, coups d' etat are more explicitly extralegal executive transfers aimed at overthrowing the sitting regime's leaders. Coups are rarely accompanied by the sustained violence that occasions civil wars; however, coups can often spawn civil wars as in the case of the 1966 coup in Nigeria that gave rise to the Biafran Civil War the following year. It is widely agreed that civil wars have three clear attributes: (1) they are primarily internal conflicts as opposed to conflicts between states; (2) the participants include the central government's forces pitted against an insurgency as opposed to violence between groups in the society that does not include government forces (e.g., communal conflict); and (3) the insurgents must be capable of effective resistance, which is absent in cases of massacres and genocides that are prosecuted by states but often do not involve nonstate groups capable of effective resistance. Civil wars may also become internationalized, involving the intervention of third-party states on behalf of either the government or insurgents. Examples abound during the Cold War era, including civil wars that escalated into major interstate wars such as the internationalized civil war in Vietnam. It has been observed that civil wars have become increasingly destructive in the post-World War II era. For example, the Chinese Revolution from 1946 through 1950 resulted in approximately 1.000.000 battle deaths in this conflict between Chiang Kai-shek's government forces and those of Mao Zedong's communist insurgents. Yet it is not simply the greater availability of more destructive weapons of war in the modern era that has given rise to the prevalence of civil war. For example, the civil war in Rwanda in 1994 witnessed the massacre of more than 500.000 persons carried out largely with machetes and small arms. The vast increase in the number of states in the global system since the end of World War II may be partly to blame for the greater frequency of civil war during the postwar era; however, even controlling for the increased number of states in the world, the incidence of civil war during the postwar period has been greater than during the period from the end of the Congress of Vienna to the onset of World War II. Not only have they been more frequent, but many civil wars in the post-World War II era have been quite long. In fact, of the 15 longest civil wars in the period from 1815 until 1980, more than half occurred in the postwar era. All told, it is probably a combination of the severity of these wars, their greater frequency, and their protracted nature that has contributed to the perception of their increasing importance. From the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War in 1989, most civil wars occurred in the recently decolonized, or postcolonial, regions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and to a lesser extent in the Caribbean and in Central and South America. Civil wars during this period were virtually absent from North America and Europe, which experienced, at most, only two (the Greek Civil War and that in Cyprus). Only with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union did the regimes in Eastern Europe experience the paroxysms of civil violence similar to those which have continued to ravage the postcolonial states. During the Cold War era, the poverty and minimal institutional development of postcolonial states reduced their ability to provide effective governance for their countries and often left them ill-equipped to deter the insurgency of their disaffected citizenry (especially their armed forces). Many of these states became highly militarized and their citizens suffered under authoritarian generals who often used their troops as agents of internal repression. Meanwhile, modernization also induced social change in these states as they attempted to industrialize. The record of successful industrialization among postcolonial states was mixed (though largely poor) and development was strained by bloated militaries, burgeoning bureaucracies, and rapidly expanding populations. Political elites in postcolonial states faced increased demands from both their military counter-elites and their increasingly urbanized citizenry who were both potential sources of insurgency. In addition, fissures in the culturally diverse and often rapidly urbanizing newly independent states often increased their susceptibility to institutional breakdown. Cultural diversity within the postcolonial states often provided a basis for ethnic, linguistic, or religious mobilization by political elites who appealed to ethnic nationalism, or religious fundamentalism - often euphemisms for chauvinism and demagoguery - to mobilize their followers for political protest and insurgency. Further, the mixture of ethnocentrism, nationalism, and the arbitrariness of colonial boundaries appeared to foment civil war, especially secession, throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The weak regimes in the former colonized states often lacked legitimacy, thereby reducing their ability to mediate intercultural conflicts borne of rising expectations among the diverse groups in their states. As it were, most state elites catered to their preferred ethnolinguistic audience(s) whom they relied upon for support. Abrogating their role as impartial arbiter, they often evinced a penchant for repression rather than representation. In addition, Cold War intrigue and exigency contributed to the escalation of conflicts in the postcolonial world. Since the United States and the Soviet Union were effectively deterred from engaging each other directly, the Third World became the battlefield upon which they prosecuted wars in attempts to solidify and expand their respective spheres of influence. Whether their policies were driven by fears of falling dominoes or imperialist expansion, the destructiveness of superpower intervention in the domestic politics of postcolonial states gave truth to the African saying that "when two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers". Nevertheless, there is an emerging consensus that civil wars in the postcolonial world, even those during the height of the Cold War, resulted largely from internal factors. Fundamentally, postcolonial states were faced with the simultaneous challenges of state and nation-building. State-building involves the creation of effective institutions of government and the development of societal infrastructure to provide, at minimum, coordination for the executive, legislative, judicial, and military functions of the state as well as the establishment of institutional channels for political and social mobilization. In addition, it requires the development of the physical infrastructure of the society to include transportation networks, hospitals, schools, housing, sanitation facilities, and other public welfare assets that are necessary for the functioning of the society. State-building involves both coordinated planning and sacrifice; most importantly, it assumes a degree of social cohesion that generates among citizens a sense of identification with the state and a willingness to commit to the process of state-building and the sacrifice of parochial interests to more collective ones. Nation-building involves the creation of a national identity that supersedes local identities and loyalties that might compete with and preclude broader identification with the state. The objective in nation-building is to make the nation the primary political unit to which citizens swear fealty. Postcolonial states, especially, were almost always forced to build functional state institutions at the same time that they were attempting to galvanize a national consciousness and identity among the often diverse amalgamations of peoples in their territories. Where Western states were able to take each of these challenges (state- and nation-building, respectively) in turn, often over several centuries, postcolonial states were forced to accomplish both simultaneously. Without the glue of a common sense of national identification, there was little motivation for individuals to sacrifice their local institutions in order to contribute to the establishment of the often competing institutions of the state. Rival elites fed this recalcitrance since they often viewed state institutions as competitors to their traditional positions of leadership. The result was fissures within postcolonial states across cultural, class, and regional lines. In addition, postcolonial states were obliged to forge their national identities and promote state institutions during the Cold War era and in an international po

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEncyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict
PublisherElsevier Inc.
Number of pages9
ISBN (Print)9780123739858
StatePublished - Jan 1 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Psychology(all)


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