There’s a weird blindness amongst many historians and commentators about civil war. Lucan put it well, ‘most uncivil civil war’: as if the pun involved in the title touches on anxieties about intrafamilial violence. But whatever the reason, we tend to forget about them. Take, for instance, the following piece of received wisdom:
This is a very striking statement, even if we modify it as its advocates usually do (no two properly functioning democracies have ever gone to war together: for there have been countries, like the People’s Republic of North Korea or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that have been at war with democracies). Actually, say the commentators, there is one trivial exception to this statement. During the Second World War Great Britain (a democracy) went to war with Nazi Germany (a dictatorship). In the early stages of that War the Soviet Union (a dictatorship) signed a pact with Hitler, They later broke this pact, and went to war against Germany themselves. But whilst the pact held Russia and its satellite states—including Finland—were technically ‘at war’ with Britain. Finland at this time was a democracy, so although no actual hostilities broke out between these two countries there was a brief period when two democracies were at war. In name alone. But apart from this, no two democracies have ever gone to war together.
“No two democracies have ever gone to war together.”
This is quite an important piece of received wisdom in the circles of Power. It underpins, for instance, the belief that by bringing democracy to the former dictatorships of Iraq and Afghanistan, the USA will be ensuring peace in the future. The idea is that democracies are somehow allergic to war; it’s too disruptive, to expensive. It may not personally cost a dictator very much to go to war, sitting in his luxury bunker; but going to war kills ordinary people, and in a democracy ordinary people are the Boss.
But is it true? No, it’s not true. There are so many counter examples that it’s embarrassing that this doctrine is so widely believed. Ancient Greece, for instance—which is, after all, where the term ‘democracy’ comes from—was composed of warring cities, many of which were ruled along democratic lines. (On the one hand cities like Ancient Athens were perhaps less democratic than modern states, because women and slaves had no representation; but in another sense they were more democratic, since the citizens did not elect representatives to govern on their behalf, but actually governed themselves, gathering in assemblies to which everybody was invited to make decisions).
But put Ancient Greece on the side for one moment. There are two absolutely central counterexamples that mark precisely the blind-spot in contemporary monopower-superpower thinking. Those two counterexamples are, exactly, the two defining wars of American history, the two conflicts that still shape US attitudes about war, and which feed into war-shows like 24. The American War of Independence. The American Civil War. Both these conflicts were wars between functioning democracies. After all it was not George III—a mentally unstable and merely constitutional monarch—who prosecuted the war on American soil; it was a series of Parliamentary Prime Ministers. And the Confederate States of America, despite their shameful commitment to slavery, were federated according to exactly the same democratically representative principles as the United States.
The logic of this dangerous piece of foreign-policy received wisdom (‘No two democracies have ever gone to war together’) is that wars are fought by enemies—by unlike peoples, by nations, tribes or religious that are alien to one another. I think a historian from the future will be astonished that anybody could have thought this at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Nowadays wars are fought by friends: by people who are similar to one another. It was a monotheistic Presidential fundamentalist, George Bush, who took his nation to war against a large group of monotheist fundamentalists; something in which he was supported by a monotheistically devout Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Secular, liberal Continental Europe largely declined to send its people to die in that war.