The Long Life of a Shattering and Complex Idea: Civil War

How a conflict is defined and labeled can make all the difference in whether an organization such as the Red Cross comes on the scene.

Civil Wars: A History in Ideas

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Length: 349 pages
Author: David Armitage
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-02

Among the many jarring statistics in the opening of this timely and perceptive book is one concerning the sharp rise of intrastate war. “Since 1989,” Armitage writes, “an average of twenty intrastate wars have been in progress at any moment -- about ten times the annual average globally between 1816 and 1989.” The death toll from intrastate war, since 1945, is in the vicinity of 25 million -- and that includes “battle deaths” only. Factor in civilian deaths along with all the suffering which no statistic can capture, and the resulting picture is exceedingly grim. It’s no wonder that Armitage characterizes our current global landscape as “a world of civil war”.

Is there anything that can be done? David Armitage, the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History at Harvard University, makes no pretenses about providing a simple solution to these complex problems. But what he does offer is an indispensable contribution for how we understand the concept of civil war: by providing a history of its origins and transformations. Such a work has been conspicuously lacking in the literature and it is this lacuna which Armitage seeks to fill.

Civil Wars: A History in Ideas canvases over 2,000 years of history, beginning first with ancient Rome, where Armitage definitively locates the conception of civil war, to our 21st-century crises, among them Syria’s ongoing situation. One of the benefits to this long-term approach is the chance to see the many transformations the concept of civil war has undergone since its original Roman conception. It’s through this kind of genealogical investigation that Armitage is able to shed so much light on why civil war is an “essentially contested concept”. That the use of the term “civil war” is mired in argument and definitional disagreement is rather apparent; consider, for example, debates in 2012 about whether Syria was or was not undergoing a civil war. But perhaps much less obvious is why this has come to be the case.

It is to the Romans, as mentioned, that Armitage turns our attention first in order to show not only the genesis of civil war but the Roman ways of thinking about it that would pervade so many centuries of later thought. Armitage makes the case that it was in republican Rome and “not any earlier setting, such as Greece” that civil war originated. Though the Greeks had certainly experienced internal conflict themselves -- they had what they called stasis, or faction -- the experience was more a “state of mind” than something inherently bound to violent confrontation. More crucially, the concept was never tied to “a political or legal definition of those who stood on each side of the internal division.”

While recognizing elements of stasis in their own situation, the Romans felt it necessary to invent a new term to encapsulate their experience. Civilis (civil) was combined with bellum (war); both were existing notions but never before had they been put together. It was an explosive combination, for instead of a traditional enemy as the object of war it was now citizens and the commonwealth itself. The result was bellum civile, or civil war.

Rome certainly had a lot of them. The first was between Marius and Sulla, near the beginning of the 1st century BC, then Caesar and Pompey’s of the same century, and a host of others off and on into the 4th century AD. Historians and poets of Rome tried desperately to make sense of this phenomenon; they offered narratives and analyses which sought to reflect the horrors of civil war as well as discover the causes of such destructive chaos. From Lucan’s Civil War to Augustine’s City of God, there was a torrent of passionate thought tackling this potent and recurring Roman problem.

Not all of the narratives offered like-minded positions. Indeed, there were many different strands of thought. But the Roman framework for thinking about civil war and the language it was couched in would be hugely influential. In the second part of the book, “Early Modern Crossroads”, which looks at the 17th and 18th centuries, we can see these ideas very much present. The classical education received by Thomas Hobbes and John Milton, among many others, helped them reflect on the English Civil War in part through the prism of the Romans.

Roman ideas about civil war would never go away, but an important juncture in the meaning of the term would come toward the end of the 18th century as the Age of Revolution began. The concept of civil war would need to be distinguished from the explosive and world-changing energy that powered the idea of revolution. But the distinction would prove not to be so easy -- then or now.

Nor for that matter would the task of bringing a legal framework to civil war. This shift forms another of Armitage’s key “turning points” in the history of the term. It was in the 19th century, amidst the American Civil War, that an attempt was made to bring civil war into “the emergent global framework of law”. The ramifications were monumental, and indeed the significance of the endeavor resonates strongly with the challenges faced by international and human rights lawyers today. As Armitage makes clear, how a conflict is defined and labeled can make all the difference in whether an organization such as the Red Cross comes on the scene.

There are a wealth of other ideas contained in this book, all guided by Armitage’s acute analysis. The book’s relatively short length belies just how much intellectual history can be found within its covers. Much of the material is quite challenging, and Armitage should be commended for making it both lucid and relevant.

Civil Wars is critical reading for anyone who wants to better understand the myriad problems bound up in the concept of civil war and its dense historical past. Armitage himself takes a cautiously optimistic approach to the future, believing that “what humans have invented, they may yet dismantle”. Not everyone will agree that civil war is such a construct, and may instead be inclined to view it as a deeply ingrained, perhaps inescapable, tendency in human nature. Nonetheless, Armitage’s engaging exploration of the idea of civil war can help provide us with the bearings we need in order to contend with this devastating phenomenon.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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