Is Civil War
Going out of Style?
The remarkable decline in civil wars is particularly impressive because, while the increase in civil wars from the 1960s to the early 1990s can be attributed in part (but only in part) to the increasing number of independent states, there has been, of course, no decline in that number during the turnaround that has taken place over the succeeding two decades.

As discussed both in my "War has almost ceased to exist," and in the "Policing the remnants of war" articles, I consider the general improvement in the quality of government to be a key factor in the decline of civil war. But whatever the reason for the decline, it seems possible (though far from certain) that civil war may be going out of style.

During the course of the twentieth century, Europeans came to embrace the idea, first strenuously promoted late in the nineteenth century, that they ought not to do war --- or at least war among themselves --- anymore. That perspective has held for international war on the continent now for two-thirds of a century, massively shattering all previous precedents. Civil wars in Europe were also almost unknown during that period as well, and when a set of them broke out in the Balkan corner of the continent in the 1990s, the reaction was one of amazement, something that inspired strenuous, if not always particularly effective, efforts to stamp out, or at least to contain, the conflicts. Central to the concern --- or outrage --- was a doctrine associated with British prime Minister Tony Blair: "We either stand aside and let this man conduct a policy effectively of racial genocide in a part or Europe or we say 'I'm afraid we're not going to allow that.' " Genocide and war may happen elsewhere, but not here. We simply don't do that anymore.

It doesn't seem too much of a stretch to suggest that civil wars may be going out of style in other areas as well. Unlike Europe, Latin America and East Asia have experienced many civil wars since 1945, but there have been a very few there in the last couple of decades. Perhaps belatedly, the number of coups has also declined enormously in these areas.

In like manner, it may be that something similar is happening in Africa and elsewhere. Peoples there seem to have become fed up with the civil warfare they or their neighbors have suffered in recent decades in which small numbers of thugs, often drunken or drugged, have been able to pulverize effective society through their predatory criminal antics, sometimes sustaining them for decades. In consequence of this disgust, there has been a strong willingness to accept and make effective use of outside aid and to establish effective (if hardly perfect) governments, a process that Page Fortna, among others, has interestingly explored. At any rate, the Mobutu to Mandela phenomenon discussed in the article seems to be holding, at least for now, and the number of civil wars going on in the continent remains at low levels.

There may be another way to look at all this. It may be tempting to characterize (or dismiss) the recent remarkable decline in the number of civil wars ... as a "blip." But perhaps the "blip" is in the rise in the number of such wars that took place from the 1960s to the early 1990s. As noted in the article, much of this seems to have come from rapid decolonization, which led to the creation of a host of countries that were, to put it mildly, ill-governed and therefore prime candidates, in my view, to become civil war arenas. If that is the case, it is the increase of civil war that is the historical peculiarity, and it is one based substantially on a phenomenon that cannot be repeated.

§   §   §

The Rambo Phenomenon
Rambo movies and the decline to a notable absence of them. The relationship between the movies and the incidence of civil war is documented in Reflections Table 3.1 [see below.] It is similar to the figure on p. 37 (Figure 3.1), but it only gives the trend for civil wars and it has been updated to 2010.

The Rambo connection is not quite as absurd as it at first may seem. There are repeated reports of combatants in Africa and the Balkans stoking up not only on booze and drugs in their lairs before beginning a rampage, but mainlining Rambo movies as well. For example, a memoir by Ismael Beah, a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, mentions this repeatedly, and one theater director in Sarajevo not entirely facetiously called for a war crimes trial for Sylvester Stallone: "He's responsible for a lot that has gone on here!" Indeed, one Serbian paramilitary unit actually called itself "The Rambos" and went around in webbed masks and black gloves with black ribbons fetchingly tied around their foreheads.

At any rate, when the latest Rambo movie came out in 2008 I checked it out and, for whatever it is worth, updated a chart I had published in The Remnants of War on the earlier Rambo films.

[Go here to view the chart.]

The body count includes only people who visibly fall inert after being bombed; garroted; blasted; stabbed; strangled; blown up by mines, artillery, grenades or other explosives; shot by bullets, artillery or arrows; incinerated by fires or flame- throwers; bludgeoned; stomped or beaten; disemboweled or beheaded; or pushed or tossed off precipices or out of aircraft. It also includes people who had their necks snapped. In a couple of scenes, the action moved very quickly, and bodies became hard to distinguish (such as when a whole bunch of people were mowed down by machine-gun fire), but in most cases the death-toll was clear. In addition, there were many instances in which Rambo blew up occupied tanks, helicopters, cars, trucks, trail passages, guard towers or other buildings. Fatalities from these episodes were not included in the body count unless the people inside were clearly shown to die by, for example, bolting into the open from their erstwhile place of refuge, clutching various body parts and collapsing to the ground.

whatever its programmed and much escalated mayhem, however, the latest Rambo movie has yet to reverse the trend...

In a recent book, Meredith Sarkees and Frank Wayman have argued (mainly in the concluding chapter by Sarkees) that war has "a depressing endurance" and does not seem to be in decline. To arrive at this conclusion, they rely solely on yearly data on "war onsets," thereby giving the same weight to a war that dies out in one year as to one that lasts ten. However, they do provide a list of wars and the years the wars lasted, making it roughly possible to duplicate with their data the number of ongoing wars by year, as applied in my article "war has almost ceased to exist." The results are displayed in Reflections Figure 3.2, and can be compared to those in Figure 3.1 on p. 37. As can be seen, the patterns are similar to those in the article: an increase of ongoing warfare that peaked in the early 1990s with a distinct, if lumpy, fall-off since. The total number of wars is somewhat larger in the Sarkees/Wayman version because there were years in some of their wars in which 1,000 battle-related deaths were not suffered --- for example, Castro's war in Cuba that raged throughout l958 but that technically ended very early in 1959 is counted in both years even though there were very few casualties in the later year.
--- From War and Ideas: Selected Essays
John Mueller
©2011 Routledge
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