The Semantics of Civil War

“Men will ever distinguish war from mere bloodshed.”

Frederick William Robertson, 19th Century English Preacher

Listening to the radio and watching television, one can only marvel at the accuracy of Preacher Robertson’s observation.

As a simple matter of morality, it is an unconscionable waste of time and energy for policy makers to be sidetracked by the debate as to whether Iraq is or is not a civil war. In this case, George Bush is right. Iraq is not in a civil war; it is in a most Un-civil war, just as all wars are uncivil.

That said, however, in the broader context of propaganda and manipulation of language to manipulate the public–standard practice of this and other administrations–the argument on whether Iraq has descended into an uncivil civil war is important, as events of the past few days attest.

November 29 in Baghdad: The Council of Representatives (a.k.a. the Iraqi Parliament) voted to extend the country’s 25 month-old state of emergency for another 30 days. The action allows the security forces to arrest and detain Iraqis without warrants and to impose curfews. This gives near carte blanche to Shi’ite and Sunni death squads that have infiltrated the police and army. Moreover, some U.S. trainers are voicing concern that too much specialized training (e.g., sniper tactics) for Iraqis, whose ultimate allegiance is to sect, not nation, could, in the next weeks and months, be used against “other” Iraqis and even the U.S. trainers.

A day earlier, the UN Security Council, at the request of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, unanimously passed Resolution 1723 (2006) extending the mandate of the 160,000 “multinational” troops (almost all U.S. and about to become moreso) now in Iraq to December 31, 2007. As in past resolutions, the Security Council retained the provisions giving the Iraqi government the option to ask that the mandate be revoked before the end of 2007 and requiring that the mandate be reviewed not later than June 15, 2007, if it is not revoked earlier. Yet what many experts, in and outside the UN and elsewhere, continue to warn is that the very presence of the multinational force feeds into the general war frenzy and fear that have gripped one quarter of the population of Iraq.

In Tallinn, Estonia en route to a two day meeting of NATO heads of state, President Bush conceded that Iraq is “tough.” Still, he steadfastly ignored a question as to whether the situation in Iraq is a “civil war.” White House Press Secretary Tony Snow rejected the term, saying there are not yet “two clearly defined and opposing groups vying not only for power but for territory.”

Bush and Snow’s remarks came on the heels of evaluations by other public figures such as King Abdullah II of Jordan and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who said Iraq was nearly in or on the brink of civil war. More direct were Bush’s first-term Secretary of State and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, the NBC network, and the Los Angeles Times, who all unambiguously labeled the fighting “civil war.”

Now it is somewhat curious that the Pentagon’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (as amended through April 2006)–also known as Joint Publication 01 or JP-01–defines insurgency, guerrilla warfare, and unconventional warfare, but does not have a definition for civil war. For the military, a concept or an event not officially defined does not exist, and thus it does not require resources, planning, or further consideration. So, if the first Joint Publication has no definition, then that can only mean that the U.S. “doesn’t do civil wars.” (This also sets the Pentagon in a position to deny any and all accusations that it even thinks of inciting or otherwise getting involved in such conflicts. The CIA doesn’t reveal how it operates under civil war situations, let alone that it does, so it doesn’t have to bother with denials.)

Not quite. Recognizing that words are important in shaping the parameters for policy and programs, the Pentagon inserted an interesting disclaimer in the preface to the Dictionary of Military Terms stating that only terms “inadequately covered in standard commonly accepted dictionaries” are included. This undoubtedly would be cited as the reason “civil war” is not in JP-01, although “insurgency,” “unconventional warfare,” and “guerrilla warfare” are. This raises a question about which of these words are in a civilian dictionary and yet are also in JP-01. Webster’s New World College Edition Dictionary (2005) was chosen as the test bed, because the 20 volume, 21,728 page Oxford English Dictionary, while certainly “standard,” is not portable enough to be “common.” Webster’s defines “insurgence,” “guerrilla,” and “civil war” but not “unconventional warfare.”

How do the definitions compare?

In the military dictionary, “insurgency” is defined as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict”–with an “insurgent” being “a member of a political party.” Webster’s defines “insurgence” as “a rising in revolt, an uprising, an insurrection”–with the latter word adding “a rising against governmental or political authority, a rebellion, a revolt.”

The Pentagon defines “guerrilla warfare” as “military and paramilitary operations conducted in enemy-held or hostile territory by irregular, predominantly indigenous forces.” This folds, virtually verbatim, within the definition of unconventional warfare (UW), which differs in noting that UWs normally last for a long time and at least one side receives aid from an outside source.

In defining “guerrilla,” Webster’s includes the archaic definition of “warfare carried on by guerrillas”–that is, both the actions of armed conflict and the characterization of one who participates in this type of warfare.

Finally, Webster’s defines “civil war” as “a war between geographical sections or political factions of the same nation.”

Compressing the military dictionary definitions into a single statement centered on the common term “insurgency/insurgence” gives a composite definition of “a lengthy effort by opponents using guerrilla methods against a political authority currently in power.” This parallels the Webster’s “civil war” definition only in terms of a contest for political control.

After all that, it would seem simpler to take the Webster’s definition and be done with it.

But there is another word missing from JP-01, the three-letter word that encompasses all that the Pentagon represents: WAR. Should this omission be attributed to the disclaimer in JP-01, could one not infer that the message from the Pentagon to the general public is that the people, individually and collectively, are quite able–paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart–to recognize war when they see it.?

That same logic applies to civil war. One count indicates that the world has seen and vast populations have endured more than 100 civil wars since the end of the Cold War 15 years ago. Little wonder that more than 65 percent of the U.S. public thinks Iraq is a civil war.

The White House ought to listen to its own advice, stop wasting energy playing semantic games, and start pulling together regional security and economic reconstruction conferences as the alternative to war in Iraq. As these become operational, hope might begin to return to Iraq, and U.S and other coalition soldiers can return to their homes.

Anything less is “staying the course” of more casualties, more destruction, more hatred.

Col. DAN SMITH is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org.



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