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Defining war (The Economist)

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RWP#151A D-Day, Utah Beach – Operation Overlord, Normady France – WWII – Seabees of the 111th Naval Construction Battalion Unloading a Rhino Ferry on a Normandy Beach June 6, 1944. Photo courtesy of the NARA.

Defining conflicts: What makes it a war?

Some say killing 25 people a year is enough, others suggest 1,000

NOT every scrap involving armed groups in the same polity is a civil war: on that much the experts agree. That may be all they agree on, though.

A database built by the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Norway, together with Uppsala University in Sweden, lists a total of 416 armed conflicts since 1946, of which 332 are “intrastate”, 63 interstate and 21 “extrastate”, a term that covers colonial wars of liberation. In its plenitude the list includes civil conflicts that no one would see as a war. The Casamance region in southern Senegal, for example, has suffered from secessionist violence for decades; a few people die in attacks every year, mostly soldiers. But residents would be surprised to learn their country is engaged in a civil war.

Various qualitative measures may help distinguish mere conflict from war: do the rebels have political support? Do they have a hope of winning? Are they in it just for money? But academics like to make quantitative distinctions, too. The trouble is choosing the numbers. Should the threshold be a mere 25 deaths a year? Or does it take 100, or 1,000? The deaths of combatants in organised forces are normally more accurately counted than others, but while using them (as in chart 1 in the main piece) provides advantages in terms of comparability and accuracy, it will often vastly underestimate the full damage. Is a war not a war simply because no one counts the dead?

Above a threshold of 1,000, few doubt a war is going on. A threshold of 100 can be more divisive. In keeping the “troubles” in Northern Ireland from becoming a war, for example, such a threshold fits the views of the British public—but not that of Northern Irish paramilitaries. A cut-off of 25 results in seeming absurdities; America may have a long history of semi-organised racial violence, but having the American civil war last well into the 20th century, as such a threshold would, seems daft.

Another important distinction is what the rebels want: the state, or just part of it? Of the 332 civil wars, 174 are or were fought for control of the state, 158 over a particular region. But wars are messy, and can involve both. In the recent conflict in Mali, jihadists wanted to topple the government and take over the whole country, but their Tuareg allies sought an independent north. Most Syrian rebels aspire to state power, but the Kurds among them want independence for the north-east. Such distinctions are blurry, but they matter. Different types of civil wars require different solutions.


How to end civil wars

Conflict, War and Terrorism: Datasets

On the duration of civil war (English)

A beginner’s guide to conflict data… (Kristine Eck)

International Crisis Behavior Project

Armed Conflict Dataset

Conflict Barometer


Center for Systemic Peace



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