There is a lot of controversy at the moment over whether the conflict in Iraq should be classified as a civil war. NBC News garnered headlines with this rather pretentious announcement that it was rejecting the White House’s position, and from now on will refer to Iraq as being in a state of civil war:
This is, I think, a judgment call on which opinions can differ, but my own view is that the situation in Iraq, while violent, is not what has ordinarily been considered to be a civil war in the past. I say this for several reasons.
First, a civil war is a species of “war.” There are many kinds of violence–murder, riots, gang violence, terrorism, etc. But “war” has traditionally contemplated armies in the field. Iraq has militias, to be sure, but they do not, in my judgment, rise to the level of armies that have traditionally been viewed as conducting warfare. The militias generally don’t fight each other, as armies do; they are more like terrorist groups or gangs that prey on civilians.
Second, the level of violence in Iraq does not rise to the level that has been associated with civil war in the past. I wrote about this here, in August. I compared death rates in Iraq as they were then being reported with death rates in two civil wars: the American and Spanish. I concluded that the death rates in Iraq were only around one-quarter of what was seen in those paradigmatic civil wars. One could do this analysis with other civil wars; the Russian comes to mind, but don’t even think about it: it was one of the bloodiest events in world history. One might say: of course those wars were bloodier; they involved major battles like Antietam and Gettysburg. Which is another way of putting my first point about what constitutes a “war.”
The death rate is slightly higher today than it was in August, but not enough to have any material impact on this conclusion.
Third, the really high level of violence in Iraq is confined to Baghdad and perhaps one or two other areas. If you take all of Iraq outside of Baghdad (around 77% of the country’s population), the rate of violent death is only a little higher than what we see in American cities like Washington, DC and Baltimore. Remarkably, I think, the current murder rate in Iraq outside of Baghdad (but including Anbar province, Basra, etc.) is slightly lower than the murder rate in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina.
I don’t think that traditionally, a country would be said to be in a state of civil war if, outside of a single city, the level of violence could fairly be characterized as a high crime rate.
So, for those reasons, I would not call what is going on in Iraq a civil war. It seems pretty clear, though, that the present controversy is not the result of any good-faith effort to apply historical norms to the conflict in Iraq, but rather is part of the effort to stampede this country into defeat for partisan political purposes.
UPDATE: See the interesting discussion of this subject in the Power Line Forum, especially post number 15 by Publius.
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