Civil Wars: The Fights That Do Not Want to End

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Last week, after more than 25 years of conflict, the Tamil separatists of Sri Lanka admitted defeat in their war for an independent homeland. And so ended Asia’s longest-running civil war, one of some 20 civil conflicts burning around the globe, from Colombia to Iraq to Pakistan.

Which raises some questions: How long do most civil wars last? What is a civil war, anyway? And how, finally, are they ended?

According to Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations, a civil war is one fought within a society, but there are two kinds. In one, rebels seek to take over a region (as in Sri Lanka); in the other, they aim to control the whole state (like the FARC in Colombia). But as Mr. Boot points out, the distinction has been contentious throughout history because inclusion in the first category depends on whether you think the society is a single entity — not the point of view of rebels seeking to carve out an independent territory.

“If you had asked the Confederates in the American Civil War, that’s not what they called it,” Mr. Boot said. “For them it was a war of Northern aggression. They saw themselves as an independent state being assaulted by another independent state.”

But if you accept the general definition of a civil war as one fought within internationally recognized borders, then throughout history civil conflicts have tended to outlast international wars by a factor of about 20, according to Paul Collier, a professor at Oxford University and author of “Wars, Guns and Votes.”

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John D. Beatty - 5/27/2009

Why do we need to make a distinction between "civil" wars and any other kind of garden variety sanctioned killing? Has anyone ever heard a corpse complain about how it got cold?

Academia needs not distinction between this kind of conflict and that when the only difference is scale and intensity. The American Civil War, I could argue, was an extension of Celt vs Angle struggles that have gone on for millennia, with a few other elements thrown in. We don't really need to declare this one kind of war and another some other kind. We don't have to waste our time.