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Editorial cartoons from the 1860s show the Confederate and Union sides as brawlers being observed by figures representing Britain and France, left. These men are fighting with clubs, but in reality, the battle over slavery would involve some of the most advanced mechanized killing machines available at the time, and more Americans would die in the struggle than any other war the United States has fought.


Margaret MacMillan’s new book is War: How Conflict Shaped Us.

"There was death in every shape and form. And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it. There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars…”

This could be a description of Rwanda in 1994 when Hutus slaughtered their Tutsi compatriots, or of Bosnia in the same decade when neighbours turned on each other, or of Libya and Syria today. Its author, Thucydides, was writing in the 5th century BC about the civil war that ravaged the prosperous city of Corcyra on the island of Corfu.

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Today only a handful of the thousands of tourists who enjoy the island’s sun, sand and sea explore Corcyra’s few scattered ruins. Yet civil wars have continued to leave their ghastly trail through history, tearing societies apart and shattering families and friendships. The American Civil War over 150 years ago produced more American casualties than those in all the wars the United States has fought added together. Judging by the continuing disputes over the Confederate flag or statues of Confederate generals, memories of that war still matter in 2020. As the recent furor in Spain over the body of General Francisco Franco, victor in the country’s civil war of the 1930s, bears out, the scars of such conflicts are slow to heal. If the status of Northern Ireland is not settled between the United Kingdom and the European Union before the end of the year, there are mounting fears that the fragile peace between Protestants and Catholics achieved in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 may collapse and a new set of Troubles will arrive.

Kigali, 2019: Skulls of victims of Rwanda's 1994 genocide sit on display at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial.


We in the West sometimes take comfort in what is called, since 1945, the Long Peace, but if the world has dodged major global wars, it has seen far too many domestic conflicts where armed citizens turn on each other. Greece, Colombia, Sudan, Congo, Yemen, Angola, Lebanon, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, Bosnia: the list goes on. And the casualties, whether of those who are fighting or are targets of atrocities, are horrific: perhaps 150,000 in Greece’s civil war between 1946 and 1949, 190,000 in Colombia’s La Violencia between 1948 and 1958, over half a million in Syria’s continuing war. It is hard to get at the figures when there is such chaos and as hard to estimate all those who fled.

Wars usually start for one of three reasons: greed, fear and ideology. Often those who initiate them have what seem to be clear aims, perhaps to seize a desirable piece of land or resources, to survive, or to spread a religion or a political creed.

Once under way, however, wars take on a momentum of their own and are not easily stopped. As the toll of casualties mounts, passions – hatred of the enemy and a desire for revenge and recompense – take over. Ending war and building lasting peace is one of the most difficult tasks humanity has faced throughout its long history.

England, 1645: The Battle of Naseby, a victory for the parliamentarians in the English Civil War, is commemorated in a painting by an unknown artist.

Encyclopedia Brittanica

Civil wars are fought with particular ferocity and intensity and their effects have a long afterlife. That is because they are conflicts within the same family, often over property, but also over what sort of family you want it to be. In the case of the English Civil War, in the 17th century, the issue for many of those who fought was whether to be ruled by an absolute monarch or an elected Parliament. In the American Civil War, the North aimed to abolish slavery; the South wanted to maintain it. The long-drawn out civil war in China from 1937 to 1949 was about whether the Nationalists or the Communists would make China in their image. In our own times we have seen civil wars over which religion or sect will dominate. Shiites fight Sunnites, Protestants Catholics or Muslims Christians.

Such wars can also be about dividing up the family home when one group wants to secede. In the late 1960s, for example, the Nigerian state of Biafra, home to the Igbo people and, crucially, the country’s lucrative oil industry, tried to break away from Nigeria. The ensuing war lasted for three years and was fuelled by outside players who, as so often happens, took advantage of a crisis to pursue their own interests. East Pakistan, the predominantly Bengali part of the new state of Pakistan, was more successful in its bid for independence, thanks in part to the fact that the rest of Pakistan was a thousand miles away but also because the intervening power, India, threw its support behind the East. Bangladesh was born.

Canada has faced threats by different parts to secede. While those that come sporadically from the west have limited popular support so far, Quebec separatism from the 1960s to the end of the 1990s was much more formidable. The referendum of 1995, which could have opened the door to an independent Quebec, was only defeated by a very narrow margin. Canadians like to think of themselves as peaceable and the country may well have come apart without violence but as history demonstrates, nothing is certain in volatile situations when passions are running high.

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Montreal, 1963: Police tend to an army engineer, Sergeant-Major Walter Leja, who was trying to defuse an FLQ mailbox bomb before it exploded. He survived, but lost most of his left arm.

The Canadian Press

It can take a single incident, even an accident, to start a civil war, but they don’t just erupt or flare up. There are always rumblings and warning signs beforehand. Lines start to be drawn between one part of the population and another and the ties that join different communities within a single state start to fray. Institutions – representative government, nationwide political parties, legal systems, national media, or the military – that underpinned national unity splinter. Authority drains away from central governments, which lose the ability to hold the ring in which differences can be debated and compromises reached. When the state fails completely as it did in Russia in 1917 or has done in Libya or Somalia today, civil strife is almost inevitable as the strong vie for power and the weak suffer.

Long before that stage of open war is reached, differences of religion or class or culture – and often they overlap – have hardened into deep divisions. Their willing midwives are the scholars and artists who weave stories that purport to show their particular group has a long and distinct existence, often with a visceral tie to a particular piece of land. Such stories, and they are part of almost all group identities, read history backward from the present to create long pedigrees. The narratives feature past moments of triumph and greatness as well as loss and humiliation. They are enormously powerful in welding a group together and identifying its supposed enemies, not just those far away but those who share the same neighbourhood.

Unscrupulous politicians play their part, too, to whip up fears in their own communities, of being treated unfairly, being dispossessed or even annihilated. When communism ran out of steam in the 1980s, that faithful servant of the Party and the Yugoslav state, Slobodan Milosevic, suddenly discovered Serb nationalism. He wielded it as a weapon to gain support and keep himself in power. As others have done elsewhere, he seized on differences of religion or customs to turn non-Serb minorities into interlopers no matter how long their communities had been in Serbia.

Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 2019: A mural commemorates the events of 1972's Bloody Sunday, an attack by British soldiers on civilians taking part in a protest.

Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Often to outsiders the distinguishing markers between communities sharing the same space seem trivial. Freud called it the narcissism of small differences and the great satirist Jonathan Swift sent it up when his Gulliver lands upon adjoining islands that have been waging war for generations because the Big-Endians open their boiled eggs at the bigger end while their enemies the Little-Endians choose the other end. When I go to Northern Ireland I cannot tell a Protestant from a Catholic but locals can, by Christian names, addresses, or former schools. If you call the town Londonderry, you are a Protestant acknowledging English dominance; if you say Derry, you are likely to be a Catholic rejecting it. (And if you are making what is probably a doomed attempt to remain neutral you might say Slash City, from London/Derry.) Self-appointed community guardians often use violence, like enforcers in gangs, to cow those who resist polarization and who attempt to cross the lines.

Group identity is an armour against others who are increasingly seen as enemies, existential threats to the very survival of the group. India broke apart with great bloodshed in the Partition of 1947 because too many of the Hindus who dominated the nationalist movement and the Congress Party did not believe Muslims truly belonged in India and many Muslims came to the conclusion that they would only be safe in their own country. These deepening divisions and fears do not grow spontaneously on their own; they are fed and exploited by human agency by populist leaders such as Adolf Hitler or Mr. Milosevic in the past, or Hungary’s Viktor Orban and India’s Narendra Modi today.

As separate identities grow stronger, shared ones lose their power. Before the First World War, the disparate peoples of Austria-Hungary – that vast empire in the centre of Europe – were held together by a reverence for the ruling Habsburgs and a multicultural military and civil service. Nationalisms, such as Czech, Polish or Croatian, were already demanding alternative loyalties. The war hastened a process and by 1918 the empire had vanished. Its end was relatively peaceful, but still there was bloodshed as the newly emerging nations fought over their inheritance. On the Western edge of Europe, as the British reluctantly signed a treaty to give the southern part of Ireland its independence, a civil war broke out between the Irish nationalists who disagreed on the treaty itself and had differing visions of the new state.

Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2020: A woman cries at a graveyard ahead of a mass funeral near Srebrenica, where, 25 years earlier, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Civil war is not inevitable even in deeply divided societies, but one danger point is reached when the rhetoric becomes more exaggerated, to claim: “We are noble and virtuous; they are base and evil.” As Yugoslavia started its downward trajectory, the extreme Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats took to calling the Bosnian Muslims Turks to suggest they were strangers in the land. It is easy to dehumanize opponents by calling them vermin, insects or diseases that are poisoning the body politic. We heard such language in Rwanda and are hearing it today used against the Rohingya in Myanmar. Donald Trump calls Mexican migrants rapists or drug dealers, or labels COVID-19 the “China virus” to suggest that it is alien and un-American. And as the language becomes more violent, contemplating violence itself becomes easier.

Another dangerous threshold is crossed when communities are seized by fear of others or determine to assert their dominance. Militias start to appear and weapons are stockpiled. In Rwanda before the mass killings, locals were importing hoes and machetes in great quantities, far more than the farmers needed. Even peaceful and law-abiding citizens are tempted to get weapons, just in case. As respect for authority dwindles and governments grow weaker, those who are less scrupulous and bolder take the law into their own hands. Criminal gangs, volunteer militia and warlords exist on a continuum, all united by their willingness to use violence to achieve their ends. If the authorities are too unwilling or too weak to stop them, their appetites grow and ordinary people have no choice but to acquiesce in their dominance if they are to survive. And so war comes.

Because civil wars are fought between those who were once close and are about competing visions, they are particularly cruel. The cause of the other side is deemed not legitimate; those who support it are not just wrong but deeply wicked. There is little distinction made between those who are actually doing the fighting and the civilian society in which they are embedded. Men, women, children, old and young, all are culpable because they are part of an enemy entity that threatens the survival of all of us on our side. The enemy must be made to capitulate and so ground down and humiliated that there can be no doubt about the outcome.

Georgia, 1864: General William Sherman's Union troops use a lever especially designed by his engineers to tear apart train rails to prevent pursuit by the Confederate army.

Library of Congress/The Associated Press

In the American Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman on the Unionist side treated every Southerner as an enemy. In pursuit of victory, he singled out key Confederate states such as Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina for special treatment. He made examples of towns and cities, driving out the inhabitants and setting buildings on fire. In the countryside, his troops seized the cattle and destroyed the crops. His notorious March to the Sea, through Georgia in 1864, left a swathe of devastation some 60 miles wide. As another Northern general, Philip Sheridan, said of the Southerners, “The people must be left with nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war.”

Atrocities happen in all wars but in civil wars, when those fighting are often poorly disciplined and led, the rules of war count for little. Radovan Karadzic, the self-appointed leader of the Serbian Republic in Bosnia, ordered his motley forces in 1995 to make life so impossible for the Muslims that they would have to leave. In July, Serbian soldiers slaughtered at least 7,000 Muslim men and boys, whom they had promised to protect at Srebrenica.

In such wars, women are often singled out for particular humiliation. While all sides raped women in the Bosnian conflict, the majority of the victims were Muslim women, perhaps as many as 50,000. Now you will have to bear Serbian children, they were told by their attackers.

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Saada, Yemen, 2018: A child injured in a Saudi-led coalition air strike recovers in hospital.

Hani Mohammed/The Associated Press

Civil wars can end when one side is crushed or when outside powers impose a ceasefire. Yet the conflicts today in failed or weak states such as Yemen, Iraq, Congo or Afghanistan show no signs of ending any time soon. And even when peace of a sort comes, the bitterness and hatreds civil wars leave in their wake make rebuilding long and arduous. Often the fires that fuelled them continue to smoulder away underground, waiting for fresh oxygen.

Canadians who have managed to encompass difference and maintain strong shared values and structures may find it hard to understand how peoples cannot settle their disagreements peaceably. Yet today we have a ringside view of some of the worrying trends that have caused civil wars. Take a populist leader who appeals to the fears of his followers and labels his opponents as law-breakers or traitors; a society dividing itself into mutually hostile camps; rhetoric escalating; and armed militias sauntering about, apparently with impunity. Politicians and opinion makers are making the situation worse by calling established procedures and laws into question. Ordinary citizens, perhaps understandably, are losing faith in their own institutions.

There really are turning points in history. On Nov. 3, a great and wounded country goes to the polls. What road is it going to take?

Richard Ellis/Getty Images

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