• Michael Vlahos

Civil War History Shows Us What We Don’t Want to Know

History talks too much. We all know this. Yet still, we keep on encouraging her. The result: Too many parallels, too much data, too long a list of lessons. Predictably, we throw up our hands. Can we really learn from History? So we just cherry pick the lessons we are looking for.


Take civil war. History dangles so many internecine conflicts in front of us, yet each is different. Moreover, the bloodletting happened to different people, in different times and places. What can they tell us — and how can we tell what is relevant to us today?

Yet I believe that comparative history is still worthwhile, all this notwithstanding — as long as you ask the right questions. Do not ask for “looks like” or “feels same.”

Instead, look for similar dynamics. Civil War dynamics are all about the forces pulling things (society and its constitutional order) apart. Here, there is always a movement pushing big change (a new order, a new religion, a new ruler). Likewise, there is always a movement pushing to preserve the continuity of tradition (the old ways, or a restoration of them).

[See my post, Civil War: Death match Between Continuity and Change]

Even with the same basic push-pull, however, forces pushing society to civil war take many shapes. So why not start with an overview of historical variants in civil war — with relevant and familiar cases — and see if the variations in conflict dynamics can be reduced to a manageable set. This set, if not wholly complete, will present an overall topology of civil war.

With this topology in hand, we can then investigate each contour in our civil conflict today.

Here are five strong variants of civil war:


Variant One: An abiding sense of kinship across a national society migrates away from the unity of the whole — what Benedict Anderson called “imagined community” — toward separate and mutually estranged identities. Estrangement, once ratified through civil war, requires that each newly emergent identity create (or recreate) a successor community on new terms of kinship, in a new national context.

We see this sort of migratory kinship in two large culture area shifts at the end of the 18th century. In North America, 13 alienated colonies established a nation separate and distinct from Great Britain, through a divorce ratified by civil war. It was civil in severing kinship with Britain, but also, just as critically, excising a massive piece of itself: Those still loyal to the motherland. From their separate searches for new community and kinship would spring three new identities: The United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

Spanish America — that sprawling world from California to Tierra Del Fuego —also broke away from its mother country, in a rolling revolution that gave birth to 15 new nations. Like the United States, each new brother nation had to find its way to a unique sense of itself, and a new kinship unto itself.

Two: A longstanding constitutional order (and its entrenched regime) can no longer adjust to existential cultural change. This means that the popular sources of legitimacy and authority in society have shifted in ways that more rigid hierarchies and institutions of rule cannot accommodate. Hence, the equipoise among society’s groups and factions loses stability and must be replaced by a new order. Civil war is the path of necessary transition.

This variant holds for the end of the Roman republic, the French Revolution, and the American Civil War. Rome tore itself apart for a century, and yet at its end, the Res Publica was reborn — as a thinly disguised empire. France tore itself apart for a generation, only to be remade — with a weak monarchy replacing the strong. The United States, too, opened its veins in a near-fatal bloodletting, only to find itself in a place not so far from where tragedy had first embarked. This sort of civil war can make a new order that more than resembles the old — where a new elite replaces the old.

In Mexico, a generation of civil war created a new society, with a new civil religion, as well as a successor central state. Yet this achievement was purchased at the highest price in blood. From 1910-1928, every leader met his end in gunfire.

Three: “Imagined Community” among disparate identities is an artificial kinship maintained through leadership and regime force majeure — that which is irresistible — and can no longer be enforced. Civil war is thus the natural solution, in which civil conflict transitions relatively quickly to struggles for liberation and independence. Sometimes, however, separation can be overturned through successful reimposition of a force majeure regime, combined with sincere cooptation, including power-sharing and local autonomy guarantees.

This was the passage in Yugoslavia and Ireland. Scotland and Quebec, in contrast, were successfully coopted, yet the bitter overhang of 18th century British force majeure means that Scotland’s passage to independence is perhaps not yet done, while generous accommodation by Ottawa has managed to keep Quebec in Canada. Force majeure has been applied more savagely by Turkey against its Kurds, and by ruling Sinhalese against the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, reaching genocide proportions.

Four: A rising religious movement seeks the forced conversion of the entire national community, and an official renunciation of former terms of kinship, of bonds of allegiance to original identity, and even of “mystic chords of memory.” This is a different kind of force majeure, to be administered by the state — and for the state to insist on such forced conversion, its laws, institutions, and constitutional order must be owned by the new movement. To take over, the successor religion must subvert the state.

In Western tradition, the hallowed model of such subversion is the takeover of the Roman Empire by the Christian Church. Within three generations of Constantine’s conversion, the old gods had been outlawed, and over several centuries, the entirety structure of European society enforced orthodox belief, strict adherence, and doctrinal purity. This organization of society reached its climax with the Spanish Inquisition. The faith that had been so brutally persecuted by Romans became a force of universal persecution — which in the 16th century led to insurgency and insurrection across Europe. The ultimate failure of religious enforcement led to civilization-wide civil war.


A modern, though no less calamitous war of forced conversion was sparked by the Bolshevik coup d’état of November 1917. Again, a ruthless minority sect embarked on a decades’ long campaign to replace Russian orthodoxy and its traditions of rule with the cultic religion of Marx and Lenin. If early Christianity was “woke” then Marxism was “doublewoke” — indeed, most precisely defined as a heresy of Christianity.

Five: Formal, regulated civil war is integrated into the constitutional order as the new national process of state succession and its legitimation. The question — “Who will be the new emperor?” — is decided by the outcome of a single ceremonial battle. To the victor fall the right of rule, and the right to celebrate the legitimating ritual a Triumph (in Rome or Constantinople), and a ritual coronation and acclamation (Senate and People of Rome). “Regulated” civil war thus serves as an institutional custom for imperial succession.

The custom was established during the late republic through a dizzying series of battles, to the last claimant (of the grass crown) still standing: Augustus. He transformed republic into empire, and grass crown into golden diadem, yet the surefire method for imperial succession remained. For the next sixteen centuries, this bloody ceremonial tradition continued, all the way into Ottoman times.

Yet no nation, however imperial, or however grand, should wish for a constitutional order in which regime succession is legitimated through civil war, however ceremonial the tradition. Too many great states — Rome and Byzantium among them — eventually foundered when such ceremony got out of hand.


So, if civil war can in fact be circumscribed as a topology of five variants, which of these best applies to the United States today?


Truth is, today’s American civil war touches elements of all five. This means, potentially, not only that our national struggle is complex — that is a given in civil strife — but more pointedly, that complex dynamics fueling and firing our fight need to be pulled out and examined, one by one. Each of these forces will tell us what somethings of significance, and also, what crazy wrinkles, may lie ahead.

My next post will examine how five facets of civil war each touch on this American struggle.