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Dispatches from the American Gray Zone

Cultural denial in an era of global civil war

“Civil war has gradually become the most widespread, the most destructive, and the most characteristic form of organized human violence,” writes historian David Armitage in Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (2017). This turn to civil war is, for Armitage, “the most striking change in patterns of human conflict for centuries.” From the end of the Thirty Years’ War to the conclusion of the World Wars, organized violence between human beings chiefly involved their conscription or enlistment in geopolitical power struggles between states; the years since 1946 have seen these conflicts almost totally eclipsed by wars carried out within states. As Armitage notes, “according to one widely cited estimate”—a report issued by the Peace Research Institute at Oslo (PRIO)—“since 1945 there have been 259 conflicts around the world that have risen to the level of a war, and the vast majority of those were internal conflicts.”

It’s not just that civil wars have increased in number; their lead perpetrators have also become more violently ambitious and more resistant to peaceful resolution. Civil wars, in the years since the World Wars, have proven strikingly resistant to peace agreements: eighty-two concluded with military victory—the victors “preferred to crush their enemies,” writes military historian Lawrence Freedman—and only twelve ended peacefully. Yet even many of these peaceful resolutions were the byproduct of draining conflicts of attrition; they can hardly be called “agreements.” When one side begins feeling the pain of the long-term sacrifice of resources and combatants alike, they drag themselves to the negotiating table. This has the effect, too, of making modern civil wars more protracted than civil wars before 1945—and also much more prone to intervention from developed nations now relatively free from interstate warfare. Freedman adds that the “distinguishing feature” of modern civil wars—and especially the wars of the 1990s—“was their length, the inability of either side to bring them to a conclusion, and the extent to which the international community, with mixed success, tried to do so.”

These coerced outcomes, in turn, make it all the more likely that civil wars, which typically nourish the memory of civic hatreds, will reignite as their underlying causes worsen. To the extent that such wars are conflicts over resources, they occur most often within poor and fragile territories—a dismal state of affairs sure to be worsened by global climate disaster. And these vulnerable, resource-challenged states have only multiplied in the wake of the Cold War’s collapse. Former Soviet and African territories in particular are notorious breeding grounds for such conflicts, thanks in no small part to their careless decolonization. All these trends, taken together, add up to a little-acknowledged metastasis of resource rivalry and civic hatred that has seized the foundations of the world system since the End of History was first announced in 1989. In part, the explosion of intrastate civil hatred is simply a function of math. Since the founding of the United Nations the number of member states has grown from 51 to 193. As the most cursory review of modern history will quickly demonstrate, the increase in weak states means a corresponding boom in the opportunities for warfare.

It’s not just that civil wars have increased in number; their lead perpetrators have also become more violently ambitious and more resistant to peaceful resolution.

Beyond such straightforward numerical reckonings, though, the deeper causes of civil conflict across the globe are complex, the result of a destabilizing world system. Past metaphors—Western culture has often met civil war’s monstrous inexplicability slantwise, through image and analogy—now seem inadequate. For Lucan, the great poet of civil war, Rome’s descent into civil strife meant a suicidal empire had “plunged in her vitals her victorious sword.” Thomas Hobbes, adapting the image, prescribed absolutism as a cure for the plague of civil discord, which he likened to an “Epilepsie” that thrashes the “Body Naturall.” In our own time, we might describe civil war as the incurable autoimmune illness of global capitalism: a disease that attacks all systems of the international body from within—indeed, pitting each against the other—calling into question the function and sovereignty of every organ.

The Wars at Home

In his 2017 study, Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra observes that the present scourge of civil wars might be understood as one big, deranging world war. He counterposes this grim conflagration, at least implicitly, to the downward spiral of the comfort promised (in the West at least) by our supposed Long Peace. This postulation of a post-historic respite from the most ruinous forms of global rivalry, starting roughly at the end of the Second World War, as Mishra suggests, is only a randomized snapshot of the recent course of human conflict. In the hands of meliorist apostles of peaceful order such as Steven Pinker, this dodgy data set can be manipulated so as to make it seem that human violence has declined since 1945, along with wars between states. Such wars might well be receding, Mishra concludes, but this means only that they are now

dwarfed by those between terrorists and counter-terrorists, insurgents and counter-insurgents; and there are also economic, financial, and cyber wars, wars over and through information, wars for the control of the drug trade and migration, and wars among urban militias and mafia groups. Future historians may well see such uncoordinated mayhem as commencing the third—and the longest and strangest—of all world wars: one that approximates, in its ubiquity, a global civil war.

Mishra’s warning about “global civil war” is not restricted to “future historians” or heads of state. Culture, too, is implicated. The prospect of civil war on a planetary scale means “it is no longer sufficient to ask ‘Why do they hate us?’ or blame political turpitude, financial malfeasance and the media,” he argues. Such alibis no longer suffice because the global metastasis of civil war brings with it an equally lethal mood of cultural confrontation, which we now see convulsing not only vulnerable poor states, but also many neoliberal regimes across the West. The demented cultural logic of neighbor harming neighbor amid the tragic suspension of ethical, moral, and civic values translates into a new race to the bottom. The “Maginot Line” of global civil war “runs through individual hearts and souls,” Mishra concludes. “We need to examine our own role in the culture that stokes unappeasable vanity and shallow narcissism.”

This examination will require determined effort. The sociological and historical study of our current era of civil wars, Freedman notes, is “in its infancy.” Generalist writing about contemporary civil wars—or even scholarship meant to address the “hearts and souls” of a broad readership—is another scarce, and urgently needed, global commodity. Since the 1960s, the collection of data on global violence has downplayed the spread of civil war—and when researchers belatedly turned to the subject, starting in the 1990s, they still tended to group the relevant data, by methodological habit, under the categories devised to analyze state-sponsored violence rather than the kind that destabilizes states from within. Meanwhile, popular writers such as Pinker have leapt into this numbers breach with evangelistic ardor, seeking to assure all concerned parties that the global system remains on a supremely peaceful and reasonable path of self-correction. Add to this the self-induced cultural amnesia of the Great Powers and their citizens, who have erected a culture industry of sentimentality and a politics of opportunism when it comes to their own wars. Against this great roiling backdrop of Western self-delusion, civil wars in poorer countries are conveniently ignored.

This is all to say nothing of the controversy over the idea of civil war itself. It is, Armitage writes, “an essentially contested concept about the essential elements of contestation.” The case of Mishra’s “global civil war” is revealing; its most characteristic uses and abuses cut sharply across political lines. The term was brandished, Armitage adds, by conservative theorist Carl Schmitt (Weltbürgerkrieg) against Leninism and even Lenin himself (whom Schmitt derided as “a professional revolutionary of global civil war”); in 1962, John F. Kennedy described the Cold War as “a global civil war [that] has divided and tormented mankind”; today the notion of worldwide civil war is often wielded by centrists who aim to unify the crusade against global terrorism and stoke Islamophobia. On the left, the phrase has been used by Giorgio Agamben (in his writings on stasis and the state of exception), Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and, more recently, the artist and theorist Hito Steyerl—surprisingly, in the last case, to provide context for the worldwide circulation of artworks. In all of these examples, “global civil war” is called upon to reinforce an essentially static body of political descriptions and prescriptions; in none of them does the term refer to the world system we actually inhabit.

Library of Congress / Washington, D.C., April 8, 1968, Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report magazine photograph collection

War All the Time

Yet contention should not breed denial. Those who write about contemporary civil war—whether they deem it global in reach or merely advocate for its global policing—may be at odds about matters of cause and context, definition and politics, but few would take issue with the historical record, which shows that civil violence is surging. This bedrock trend clearly upends the central thesis favored by ideologues of the Long Peace—that violence is generally in decline. In The Future of War (2017), Lawrence Freedman surveys the record:

The recorded conflicts showed a progressive rise from 1945, peaking in the early 1990s. There were forty armed conflicts in the world in 2014, the highest number since 1999. The number had risen from thirty-four in 2013, and they were becoming more deadly, with about a quarter accounting for all but a few percent of the casualties. There was no consistent and reliable trend line. A few of the conflicts had an enormous effect on the amount of violence around at any given time, such as Vietnam during the 1960s, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1990s, or Syria in the 2010s.

The telling absence of what Freedman calls a “consistent or reliable trend line” means that there’s no credible basis for affirming the claim of Pinker and his fellow meliorists that human violence has declined during a Long Peace. Other chroniclers of civil war in our time concur with this glum finding. “The Long Peace stands under a dark shadow,” Armitage writes. By way of illustration, Armitage explains that since 1945 there have been “roughly twenty-five million ‘total battle deaths’ . . . or about half the military casualties of World War II.”

Where Have All the Numbers Gone?

To be sure, no one has asserted that the so-called Long Peace is free of bloodshed. Still, there must be some underlying explanation that can account for the alarming incidence of violent death on a planetary scale. In part, the Long Peaceniks’ premature proclamation of victory over humanity’s demons is simply a forensic and rhetorical one: violence has not declined in incidence so much as in name, and the theaters of conflict have shifted from the well-chronicled sites of interstate engagement to the shifting and less readily measurable outbreaks of intrastate belligerence.

Nevertheless, Pinker and other apologists for the Long Peace stoutly cite the apparent downturn in “battle deaths” as a sign of the vigorous forward march of Enlightenment ideals. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker aims to show by way of “scientific” inquiry that a decrease in battle deaths underwrites a “virtuous circle” of progress. “In absolute numbers, annual battle deaths have fallen by more than 90 percent,” Pinker argues. “So believe it or not, from a global, historical, and quantitative perspective, the dream of the 1960s folk songs has come true: the world has (almost) put an end to war.”

Don’t believe it. Pinker’s detractors in multiple fields, including philosopher John Gray and, again, military historian Lawrence Freedman, have noted that the clocking of battle deaths is a misleading metric of the consolidation of peace and progress in a global system that now thrives on longer brands of intrastate conflict.

In addition, the reduction in deaths on the battlefield tends to mirror broader demographic trends—something that Pinker, best known as a linguist and cognitive psychologist, would have grasped had he been better versed in recent trends in world history. Freedman, for instance, writes in The Future of War that Pinker consistently neglected to incorporate social and medical improvements in his analysis. “With more people living past their fifties,” he writes, “the proportion of the population prone to street fights and military service declined”; and those who do enlist are generally in better health, which means they’re less prone to becoming causalities of standard warfare.

Against this great roiling backdrop of Western self-delusion, civil wars in poorer countries are conveniently ignored.

Still more damning, though, is the way that Pinker’s myopic focus on battlefield death entirely bypasses the proliferation of casualties in undeclared conflicts within states—the very brand of civil war that has overtaken the global stage. “In these conflicts ‘battle deaths’ was often a meaningless measure,” Freedman concludes. “Individuals would often participate on an occasional and informal basis, military and criminal activity were intertwined, and neighboring states were often closely involved.” The category of “battle deaths,” in other words, adds little in the way of analytical value to the inchoate study of unsanctioned chaos bred by intrastate violence.

In Dubious Battle

Yet Pinker’s methodological problems are, in a certain way, our own. Despite the prevalence of civil war in our time, the Centre for the Study of Civil War admits that this mode of conflict remains “less studied than interstate war.” When data is collected, it is immediately and justly called into question. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker sometimes argues from data sets gathered by the University of Michigan’s Correlates of War (COW) Project, founded by J. David Singer, a political scientist, in 1963. Launched prior to the nineties boom in the study of civil war, the COW project injudiciously pooled its data from episodes that most resembled interstate conflicts. As Freedman notes, the Singer project’s singular “focus on interstate wars meant that it took a long time before those working on COW, and like-minded researchers, took civil wars seriously.”

Pinker elsewhere relies on newer data collected by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), which likewise mostly measures the fallout of global conflicts via the narrow metric of “battle-related deaths.” But this is just one of the initiative’s analytical flaws. It turns out the UCDP requires a minimum of twenty-five such deaths a year (per conflict) for collection as an “armed conflict”—a figure that does little to address the precipitous rise in episodes of civil violence reported by journalists and victims. For his part, Freedman sharply questions the precision of such databases in view of the strategies of concealment and evasion that many governments employ to mask the spread of destabilizing civil strife within their borders. “For want of anything better were guesses admissible?” Freedman asks. “Should government statistics known to be falsified be used? Whose account of inherently confusing events could be trusted?” Such questions, viewed against the misleading political and empirical legacy of the Long Peace thesis, are staggering. Just for starters, consider what the sunny fables of irenic global uplift featured in Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature would look like had he the misfortune of addressing Bashar al-Assad’s many discredited but powerful efforts to downplay the spread of civil war within his Syrian regime as he systematically wages internal war on his own citizenry.

Those who write about contemporary civil war may be at odds about matters of cause and context, definition and politics, but few would take issue with the historical record, which shows that civil violence is surging.

As of March 2017, the Syrian Civil War had left more than two million Syrians with permanent disabilities or injuries. And at least twelve million Syrians have been displaced, according to Freedman, who relies on information provided by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. These numbers alone reveal how little the tabulation of battle deaths means in the context of a brutal state-sponsored bid to extinguish a civil uprising. Measured in documented “battle-related deaths” alone, the total “violence” registered by the Syrian Civil War would amount to 321,000 deaths—among these approximately 112,000 of Assad’s forces, a roughly equivalent number of non-government combatants, and at least 96,000 non-combatant civilians. These figures clearly don’t begin to approximate the true scale of the atrocity.

Rather than heeding the canons of empirical inquiry and affirming that we’re measuring global violence in a conceptually wrongheaded way, Pinker has relied on a brand of statistical denialism, by continuing to insist on battle deaths as the most relevant index of human violence and its alleged abatement. Even so, his most recent peace-and-progress tract, Enlightenment Now, grudgingly owns up to “a cascade of bad news”—including the Syrian Civil War, along with recent acts of terrorism, the rise of autocracy, proliferating hate crimes, and shootings by American police. He even appears to concede that all this countervailing evidence would “seem” to make his argument “obsolete”—until, that is, he once more trots out the reassuring straw metric of battlefield deaths. “The Syrian civil war, with 250,000 battle deaths as of 2016 (conservatively estimated), is responsible for most of the uptick in the global rate of war deaths,” Pinker announced—by which he means humanity’s lurch into the demon-infested Bad Old World Order of blood-and-soil mayhem is nothing more than a blip.

What’s more, Pinker contends, those who would question the Long Peace suffer from grave epistemological and data blind spots of their own—a condition he blames on availability and negativity biases. These alarmist souls privilege the recentness and terribleness of the Syrian Civil War against the overall trends borne out by hard, unsentimental data. But Pinker’s data set, which omits many violent civil conflicts around the world (including those precipitated by the global outpouring of immigrants from Syria) is the problem—and the bias, a wholesale rejection of post-Enlightenment literature, is his own. In the end, Pinker is merely waving a tattered banner of Enlightenment liberalism at the specter of a diverse range of thinkers he might as well have from clipped from the bibliography of an overheated Dinesh D’Souza diatribe—his featured anti-Progress apostates are Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, Zygmunt Bauman, Edmund Husserl, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Jean-François Lyotard. His consideration of civil war, in other words, is a matter of politics, not science. And politics, as that Progress-baiting post-philosophe Foucault wrote, “is the continuation of civil war.”

Patriotic Gore

Of course, Steven Pinker didn’t invent the tactic of pretending that widespread civil violence doesn’t count—he’s just popularized it. The ritualized ignorance of the new face of global conflict is, in fact, a well-established feature of postwar liberalism, one that has robustly survived into present-day theories of war in the world system. And suitably enough, the task of correcting this deeply distorted historical record demands a fresh look at military history, in the long-ago time before the alleged Long Peace.

Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood: The European Civil War (2007) is among all recent works of European history the one that best fulfills Mishra’s injunction to overcome cultural narcissism and reckon with the anomie of civil war. But Traverso achieves this aim by way of a method that would strike most Western readers as counterintuitive or revisionist: he posits that the World Wars were in fact an extended European Civil War. By unearthing the struggles of anti-fascists, partisans, artists, and intellectuals—as well as the murderous and “theoretical” zeal of their enemies—Traverso attempts to understand what led to the radical suspension of values that culminated in violence not only between Europe’s states but within them. In this respect, Traverso works entirely against the grain of the triumphal liberal history of modern conflict, which consecrates itself by touting its defeat of totalitarianism, and elides anti-fascism in all of its guises by presenting it as, in one way or another, unitary with fascism. Traverso laments that this legacy extends very much to the present:

The only memory of the age of fire and blood that was the first half of the twentieth century that it seems necessary today to preserve is the memory of the victims, innocent victims of an explosion of insensate violence. In the face of this memory, that of the combatants has lost any exemplary dimension, unless that of a negative model. Fascists and anti-fascists are rejected equally as representatives of a bygone age, when Europe had sunk into totalitarianism (whether Communist or Nazi). The only great cause that deserved commitment, so post-totalitarian wisdom suggests, was not political but humanitarian. So Oskar Schindler has dethroned [French Resistance leader] Missak Manouchian. The example kept in mind today is that of the businessman (a Nazi party member) who rescued his Jewish employees, rather than that of the immigrants in France (Jews and Armenians, Italians and Spaniards) who fought against Nazism in a movement linked to the Communist Party.

The example of Oskar Schindler here is instructive. Traverso is alert to the problems posed by a modern culture industry that would lionize a Nazi, by way of Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture entry Schindler’s List (1993), at the expense of a historical narrative that could accommodate a communist anti-fascist combatant such as Manouchian who had been murdered by Nazis. Such a history would, by necessity, strive to understand the World Wars as more than a series of interstate struggles, ultimately rendering them more intelligibly, and compellingly, as a series of violent civil wars between partisans and fascists.

However, Traverso’s project of rendering a World War’s resolution as decisively shaped by forces of political resistance and anti-fascist agency is made unthinkable by a pervasive cultural amnesia. The cultural machinery of collective forgetting is on lavish display, for example, in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 battle-porn opus Dunkirk, which eliminates all historical context and features only the combatants—Nazis and allied forces—fighting on behalf of the Great Powers. Or consider in the same vein last year’s Oscar-winning work of Great Power hero-worship Darkest Hour, which depicts the United Kingdom as a sleeping empire, one awakened heroically by Winston Churchill. It is rare, maybe impossible, to find an example in popular cinema of a partisan or anti-fascist combatant. We’re a long way, both in time and political imagination, from Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 neorealist tribute to the anti-fascist resistance in Rome, Open City.

It’s easy to disregard the importance of the culture industry in promulgating narratives of war that downplay the historical power of civil strife and resistance; this is precisely why Mishra invokes his cultural Maginot Line, why he appeals to the hearts and minds of readers. Writers such as Mishra are urgently seeking to rouse us from our sleepwalking tour of the modern history of civil violence—a catatonic state that importantly doubles as the rationale for ignoring civil violence in the present—even at home.

Pale Gray for Guilt

How else to describe our reaction to the deadly protests, last August, in Charlottesville, Virginia, except as a civil uprising of neo-fascist white supremacists? It was as if American society was suddenly roused to the legacies of two civil wars at once: the European civil war and the American civil war. The defense of a Confederate monument by neo-fascists itself brought together, for many, two competing historical strands that aren’t generally permitted to cross each other in polite American cultural settings. The stories of American slavery have always been kept apart from historical narratives about Nazis and Italian Fascists lest they provoke too searching a mood of American introspection; Spielberg’s Lincoln and Schindler’s List are meant to be distinct Oscar-winning films. Seen in this light, Trump’s attempt to conflate anti-fascists, who seemed to appear on the American political stage for the first time, with neo-fascists (some of whom, in the president’s judgment, were “very fine people”) was nothing more than an act of appropriation: he took this cynical politics of fascist-leftist moral equivalency straight out of the liberal playbook.

Violence has not declined in incidence so much as in name, and the theaters of conflict have shifted from the well-chronicled sites of interstate engagement to the shifting and less readily measurable outbreaks of intrastate belligerence.

After the protests in Charlottesville—after Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist neo-Nazi—American culture became momentarily interested in the idea of civil war. The purest distillation of this fascination came from The New Yorker—the apotheosis of culture industry liberalism—which ran a piece by Robin Wright titled “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?” It should come as no surprise that Wright’s line of questioning reflected a deeply American cultural narcissism and withdrawal from history. Her foremost worry is “America’s stability.” To this end, she interviews a former U.S. Army Special Forces operative who has spent his career “navigating civil wars in other countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia, El Salvador, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan.” He tells Wright: “We keep saying, ‘It can’t happen here,’ but then, holy smokes, it can.” The general mood of doe-eyed wonderment here, it has to be said, calls to mind Robert Warshow’s characterization of the magazine braintrust’s panicked reaction to the Second World War and the dawn of the nuclear age: “They never dreamed the world’s inelegance could become so dangerous.”

Still not completely satisfied, Wright proceeds to question a number of Civil War historians, who provide her with varying levels of confirmation and uncertainty. Finally she arrives at the historian Eric Foner, who offers a dose of historical sanity. “Obviously, we have some pretty deep divisions along multiple lines—racial, ideological, rural versus urban,” he explains. “Whether they will lead to civil war, I doubt. . . . People are not debating the Civil War. They’re debating American society and race today.”

Foner is right, of course: Americans are not debating a new Civil War because there is no such conflict to debate. Still, he’s also right to suggest that our history teems with past, and continuing, civil struggles—I’m reminded of Barbara Fields’s remark, which Traverso might agree with, that the American Civil War “is in the present as well as in the past.” It’s worth heeding that insight as we struggle to reckon with the obvious spread of civil violence throughout the world. That this state of affairs, as Mishra argues, may amount to a global civil war is something that, like the aftermath of Charlottesville, should provoke much wider contention and debate than we’ve so far seen in our terminally self-satisfied mirage of civil peace.

America’s obdurate amnesiac ignorance of both our own simmering civil conflicts and the broader global landscape of civil anomie brings to mind another observation made in Fire and Blood. In his history of partisans and anti-fascists, Traverso subtly undermines the integrity of the wartime “gray zone”—a largely imagined state of noncommittal apprehension shared among a cohort of liberals afraid of the civil violence twisting and spiraling around them. He writes of an

indistinct, broad group of all those who, out of fear, refusal of violence, or opportunism, either could not or would not choose their camp in the civil war—those who withdrew or hid, not to protect themselves from persecution, but to escape a conflict that tore society apart and divided their community. Some people did not know which side to join; others, despite recognizing the rightness of the anti-fascists’ action, dared not follow them . . .

As I was finishing this essay, I read a front-page Sunday New York Times profile of a tech entrepreneur who, upon learning of Trump’s election, absconded to Ohio and closed himself off from the news. He called his cultural and political exile “The Blockade.” No, New Yorker readers, there is no new American Civil War—but there is an outside world of civil violence. And within that world, American culture is the gray zone.