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Reviewed by:
  • Civil Wars: A History in Ideas by David Armitage
  • Zachary C. Shirkey
Civil Wars: A History in Ideas. By David Armitage (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) 349pp. $27.95

Armitage’s latest book is a history of modern Western thought about civil wars from the seventeenth century to the present day. He reasonably argues that such a work is valuable because most current wars are civil wars that tend to be long, deadly, prone to recurrence, and especially disruptive to the societies in which they are fought. He defends his Western focus by showing that Western thought has shaped the modern international norms and international institutions to which we look to address contemporary civil conflicts.

The book focuses especially on the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the U.S. Civil War, and the civil wars of the Roman Republic, though he discusses many other conflicts as well. Armitage cogently demonstrates that Roman thought regarding civil wars heavily influenced modern Western thinking on the subject. Some of the writers that he considers are Lucan, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Emer de Vattel, John Stuart Mill, Francis Lieber, and several modern social scientists.

Strikingly, writers across the entire period of his study wrestled with the same set of questions. What is civil war? Is it different from revolution, rebellion, or secession? When can outside states legitimately intervene in such internal conflicts? How does one square competing norms of human rights and sovereignty? Do the rules of international wars apply to civil wars? When is revolt against the government warranted and legitimate? Are some forms of government more prone to civil wars than others? Are there strategies to prevent recurrence, or are repeated civil wars inevitable?

What becomes apparent is that because the answers to most of these questions—especially what is civil war?—are inherently political in nature, they will always be contested. Armitage shows that all of the writers’ conceptions of, and approaches to, understanding civil war were [End Page 394] shaped by the events of their day. Often their answers were designed to support specific policies and governments or to resolve specific problems faced by their societies. Thus, it is not surprising that today we are often unable to answer these questions because of their political implications.

What would be interesting, though it is clearly beyond the scope of the book, is the extent to which modern Western conceptions of civil war align with Chinese, Japanese, Islamic, Indian, or even medieval Western conceptions of civil war. Such a cross-cultural perspective might be fruitful in making progress on Armitage’s thorny questions. If Armitage is right that any attempt to understand the concept of civil war has political implications, our struggle to understand civil war seems destined to continue.

Zachary C. Shirkey
Hunter College
City University of New York


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pp. 394-395
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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