Iraqi Civil War vs. American Civil War

Callimachus contends that, by applying the definition used to proclaim the current mess in Iraq a civil war, “The American Civil War lasted until 1877, and the South won.”

The CSA suffered military defeat and government collapse. Its leaders were driven from power. But a relentless insurgency and the dirty work of policing internal ethnic strife wore down the patience of the people of the North. The old U.S. army never had much of a taste or aptitude for peacekeeping. Political tides shifted in the North and eroded any remaining federal commitment to reconstruction, and the U.S. government simply declared victory and went home, leaving race-based slavery wobbly and battered, but essentially intact in everything but name. (Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, writing after the war, described “slavery – so called -” as what “was with us, or should be, nothing but the proper subordination of the inferior African race to the superior white ….”)

His first two commenters point out, correctly, that this says nothing about whether Iraq actually is in a state of civil war, let alone we are winning our fight against the insurgency. It’s an interesting point, though, for discussion.

Comparing vastly different kinds of conficts strained analysis.

As I’ve argued previously, it is rather silly to point out that American forces have now been in Iraq longer than we were in Europe fighting WWII, because of not only the nature and scale of the conflicts but because, in the sense of having U.S. forces still stationed there, WWII hasn’t truly ended.

Certainly, that’s true in Korea, where we have technically been in a state of war (or police action or whatever you want to call it) 57 years and counting. Given that we are still taking casualties on a regular basis in Iraq, though, comparisons are silly.

If civil war breaks out in Iraq, assuming it hasn’t already, it won’t look much like the American version, with independent states with clean geographic boundaries fighting according to the accepted rules of warfare in distinctive uniforms. As such, we may not recognize it until it’s well underway.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    Objection, your honor.
    A civil war, by definition is an INTERNAL struggle.

    Iraq, as it’s developing, is outside forces… Iran, particularly, along with Syria, showing up and trying to pass as Iraqis, so as to make this LOOK like an internal conflict.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Bithead: There were external forces during the U.S. Civil War, too. Indeed, a major political component was the struggle of the South to get the Brits to lend more support to their natural cultural/economic allies while the North was shifting the war to be about slavery–anathema in Europe by then–rather than repression of national sovereignty.

    As for Iraq, while outside support from Iran and Syria are undoubtedly part of the picture–to say nothing of the U.S.-led Coalition–it’s still mostly an internal phenomenon.

  3. legion says:

    The old U.S. army never had much of a taste or aptitude for peacekeeping.

    Ummm… it still doesn’t. In fact, if Callimachus’ assumptions and definitions are accepted (though Bithead’s point worth thinking about), it’s a pretty good argument that we’re proceeding down a road to failure…

  4. Compare and contrast what is happening in Gaza with Iraq. Is one more in a civil war than another? Also recognize the differences in provinces within Iraq.

    I do think the comparison to the war of northern aggression and Iraq is an interesting one. While the south had much more success in the military phase of the war than the former Iraqi government, the real issue is in the post-military phase. When Grant refused to continue to use federal troops to impose governments on the southern states (aka withdrawal), that was when the “reconstruction” governments started to fall. You can make a good argument that the reverberations of the failed reconstruction governments was with us for 100 years. Just a point to ponder for those whose strategic thinking on Iraq doesn’t go further than “withdraw within 6 months”.

  5. LJD says:

    Peacekeeping taste and aptitude is being well demonstrated in Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, to name a few. I guess it depends on what you consider to be the definition of ‘peacekeeping’ as in, whether it’s effective or not. Which leads one to ask, when do we switch from ‘peacekeeping’ to ‘asskicking’?

  6. Billy says:

    The American Civil War lasted until Brown v. Board of Education. The North won, but it took almost a century.

    Otherwise, Cllimachus’s point is exactly correct; the Hayes compromise was really a withdrawal of an occupying force from a hostile territory, and the South could be seen to be “winning” from 1877 until the 1950s, at least inasmuch as there was a de facto return to the status quo of race relations and states’ rights of the antebellum period.

  7. spencer says:

    I would think that using your idea of occupation defining a war that WW II would have ended when the rational for having troops in Europe and Japan shifted from occupation to providing protection against the communist. On that basis WW II would have ended in the 1947-49 period.

  8. carpeicthus says:

    If the Civil War was about civil rights, then he’d be absolutely right. It wasn’t, though — it was about the union and trade policy and slavery, so the analogy fails. We could have had conflicts with goals that could be achieved by our projected efforts; we didn’t.

  9. James Joyner says:

    If the Civil War was about civil rights, then he’d be absolutely right. It wasn’t…

    Well, there was the matter of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which were imposed on the South as a precondition for re-entry into the Union and which were summarily ignored from 1877 to 1965 or thereabouts. To be sure, this wasn’t the major rationale for the war but then neither was beating back an insurgency in the case of Iraq.

  10. Given that the emancipation proclamation specifically allowed slave ownership in parts of the US that were “no longer in rebellion”, that Grant owned slaves when he accepted the surrender from a non-slave owning Lee, that the founder of the KKK (Forrest) praised the blacks that served under him as “no better confederates ever lived” and Lincoln said he was not in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, you would have to be a product of a teacher union’s standard of excellence education to think the war of northern aggression was won by the north with the Brown v Education case.

    Using your criteria, when would you project the US troops in Korea will win that war?

  11. Callimachus says:

    Good points all around. My post was meant to provoke thinking rather than ram home a point. Persoanlly, when it comes to the ACW, I agree with carpeicthus.

    The post had more to do with words and how we (especially the big media, where I work) use and define them than with physical realities in Iraq. When it comes to Iraq I think Algeria in the ’50s is a better analogy than the U.S. in the 1860s. Presently Iraqi society is in a period of violent and forced segregation and destabilization that the insurgents on both sides hope will end in a real civil war. It’s headed that way, but to call it a civil war now is a bit premature, considering how a real civil war, if it comes, will look. But some people extend the start of American Civil War back to John Brown’s raid or even the 1851 Christiana Riots. That, too, is defensible.

  12. Billy says:

    The invocation of two individuals and a single quote is quite the thesis that the “war of northern aggression” wasn’t at all about slavery. Truly, I must concede before such a staggaring display of intellect.

  13. floyd says:

    Cllimachus; I am ASHAMED of an educational system that has intentionally and successfully cultivated such ignorance, and allowed our history to be painted with such a broad brush of bigotry. Yankee racism has proven more insidious, and at least as pervasive, as that displayed by the objects of their scorn.Our nation was founded on princples which subsequently became casualties of that horrible war.

    As for the bigoted stereotypes diplayed on your site, congeniality is far more common in the south than it is in the north.I can also see that OTB denizens are more cogenial than the crass commenters over your way.

  14. floyd says:

    Callimachus; most humble apologies for copying a misspelled version of your name into my comment. If you care to reply , feel free to spell my name in any way that might suit your whim.[lol]