Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Civil War? What Civil War

For weeks now the uniformed military and their non-uniformed contemporaries in the Pentagon, the White House, and the State Department have been formulating and re-formulating denials that the situations in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq have deteriorated into civil war.

In early August, General John Abizaid, Central Command commander, told the Senate Armed Services committee that the sectarian violence in Iraq was as bad as he had ever seen it and if not stopped, “it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, concurred, but both generals declined to label the fighting a “civil war.”

At about the same time, the UK ambassador to Iraq warned that Iraq was “sliding toward civil war” and was in danger of splitting along ethnic lines. Then, just yesterday, the senior UK officer in Iraq, LTG Rob Fry, came up with a more nuanced description during a televised press briefing for Washington reporters: “ So what I think we have is something which is, at the very best, civil war in miniature, at the very best. But I don't think it actually even meets that definition.”

But then Fry added: “We can continue to conduct military operations in order to separate the two sides of the sectarian conflict.” Fry even objected to use of the term “civil war” because “It is inflammatory language. “It is implying that the situation is worse than it is. It therefore encourages – among other things – adventurous media reporting” [that] could encourage a certain degree of despondency in the political constituencies of both of our countries. But above all, I simply don’t think it’s an accurate statement of the situation that we're currently involved in.”

If I understand Fry, the reason for not describing as a civil war the sectarian-based violence that, by his own statement, requires the “conduct of military operations in order to SEPARATE THE TWO SIDES OF THE SECTARIAN CONFLICT,” is first and foemost because it could affect the morale of people in the UK and U.S.

Now my dictionary says that a civil war is an armed conflict between two different parties or two sections of a country or nation. So it can be but need not have to geographical, as the U.S. Civil War was (witness the splitting of West Virginia from Virginia) but less so in the English Civil War.

“Civil” may also describe an anti-clerical or laic faction opposed to a cleric or “holy order” – the Knights Templar come to mind. Moreover, sectarianism that flares into warfare between factions vyeing for control of a reliious faith differs only in the underlying reasons for waging war. Islam finds Shia versus Sunni, but Christianity has encountered the Orthodox-Latinate split, the Protestant-Roman Catholic divide with its series of religious wars, as well as the infamous Inquisition – an absolutist state within a state that waged war against both its own apostates and against Jews.

As to a war being a “mini-war,” for those killed it makes no difference whether the bloodlestting if full-blown or only mini-blown.

With 3,000 Iraqis being killed every month, it’s time to stop the semantics gamemanship. Ordinary Iraqis feel like they are in a civil war. And they are the ones whose definition ought to count.

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