Equal Rights Libertarian

Home » Uncategorized » 20211106 -The Logic of Violence in Civil War

20211106 -The Logic of Violence in Civil War




The main idea is to present the author’s theory of violence in civil wars. This theory includes such core notions as selective vs. indiscriminate violence, five levels of control distribution between political actors: 2 areas of complete control of one side, two areas of incomplete control, and one contested area where neither side dominates, and a considerable role of information collected via denunciations and support of the population. The author not only formulated his theory but also provided massive empirical support based on data from multiple civil wars, especially on the Greek Civil war, which is the author’s specialty.    


The introduction includes discussing historical puzzles when some villages are massacred during various civil wars, but others nearby remain untouched. It also discusses the meaning of civil wars, the book’s goals, the road map of the book, and a bit of the history of the project. 

Here is the author’s definition:” Civil war is defined as armed combat within the boundaries of a recognized sovereign entity between parties subject to a common authority at the outset of the hostilities.”

And here is the author’s high-level description of the book:” I begin with a simplified and abstract characterization of violence in civil war, yet one that stands on well-specified conceptual foundations. I analytically decouple civil war violence from civil war. I show that despite its many different forms and the various goals to which it is harnessed across time and place, violence in civil war often displays some critical recurring elements. Rather than just posit this point, I coherently reconceptualize observations that surface in tens of descriptive accounts and demonstrate that seemingly random anecdotes tend to be facets of the same phenomenon. The positive component of the book consists of two parts: a theory of irregular war and a microfoundational theory of violence (with two strands: indiscriminate and selective). Unlike existing work, the theory stresses the joint character of civil war violence, entailing an interaction between actors at the central and local levels, and between combatants and noncombatants. This interaction is informed by the demands of irregular war, the logic of asymmetric information, and the local dynamics of rivalries. Hence the theory differs from existing accounts of violence that stress exclusively macrolevel motivations and dynamics, pinpoint overarching and preexisting cleavage structures, and characterize violence as “wanton,” “indiscriminate,” or “optimal” from the users’ point of view.

From the theory, I specify a model of selective violence that is consistent with the theoretical characterization, in which the interaction between actors operating at different levels results in the production of violence in a systematic and predictable way. This exercise yields counterintuitive empirical predictions about the spatial variation of violence at the microlevel, which I subject to an empirical test using data I collected in Greece. The empirical test confirms the explanatory power of the theory in a limited setting, whereas evidence from a wide array of civil wars suggests broader plausibility. Of course, the general validity of the theory awaits further empirical testing.

Finally, I explore two implications of the theory, looking first at mechanisms of “intimate” violence and then at how the modalities of violence identified can help inform our understanding of cleavage formation – that is, how and to what degree national-level or “master” cleavages map onto local-level divisions.”

1 Concepts
This chapter repeats the author’s definition of civil war and discusses its various examples, starting with the ancient Greeks. This discussion is mainly about different forms of the violence, its process, outcomes, and specifics of occurring in Peace and War.  The author also discusses here the scope of violence, its aims, and production:

2 Pathologies
In this chapter, the author discusses what he calls “pathologies” of the literature about wars and violence. These pathologies include five biases:” the partisan bias (taking sides), the political bias (equating war with peace), the urban bias (overlooking bottom-top processes), the selection bias (disregarding nonviolence), and the overaggregation bias (working at too high a level of abstraction).” After this definition, the author reviews each bias in detail with extensive reference to examples in the professional literature.   

3 Barbarism
Here is how the author describes the content of this chapter:” I reconstruct, specify, and contrast four general arguments inspired by different theoretical traditions. The first thesis, present in many historical and descriptive accounts, flows from Thomas Hobbes’s insight linking the breakdown of political order to violence. The second, transgression, points to domestic armed challenge as being transgressive of established norms, thus triggering violence. The third account, polarization, can be found in historical and sociological research and stresses deep ideological or social divisions, highlighting the predictably violent effects of what Carl Schmitt described as total enmity. The last thesis stresses violent responses triggered by security concerns related to the technology of warfare practiced in civil wars. I review several theoretical and empirical facets of these arguments and select the last thesis as the most appropriate theoretical foundation for a theory of violence in civil war.”

Before going into detail about the theoretical traditions, the author describes the exceptional barbarity of civil wars. In such conflicts, the victims are often noncombatants well familiar with each other. Then, the author analyzes the Hobbesian breakdown of society during the civil war using specific parameters, such as:” brutalization, revenge, security dilemma, and medievalization.”

The analysis of the transgression comes down to a discussion of lawful vs. unlawful warfare. The author refers to the historical distinction between” Bellum hostile and Bellum Romanum or Guerre mortelle.”

For the polarization, the author looks at causes of conflict, whether they are ideological, ethnic, or something else: ” The causes of polarization may be found at the intersection of structural conditions, political institutions, and the action of political entrepreneurs who succeed in turning real or perceived differences into polarized politics. At the individual level, polarization manifests itself as “fanaticism”: an uncompromising and passionate commitment for a particular cause that overcomes other connections between people and leads to a willingness to shed one’s own blood as well as the blood of others. Exemplary statements are encountered in most conflicts.”

After that, the author discusses the technology of warfare:

  • Irregular war as a revolutionary war
  • Irregular war as “medieval” war
  • Irregular war as a struggle for security

At the end of the chapter, the author concludes: “Four different theoretical accounts for violence in civil wars – breakdown, transgression, polarization, and warfare – have been identified, reconstructed, and discussed in this chapter, in order to clarify the choice of foundation on which to build the current theory of violence in civil wars. Each account has great merit and continues to stand as a strong basis from which to answer a variety of questions surrounding civil war and violence. Violence is a complex phenomenon, and it clearly encompasses multiple processes and mechanisms. Ultimately, they must be operationalized and tested empirically. Nevertheless, a deductive theory of violence in civil war must arise from a simple and clear foundation.”

4 A Theory of Irregular War I: Collaboration
This chapter lays out the first part of a theory of irregular war as the foundation on which the author builds a theory of civil war violence. The author discusses the relation between irregular war and geographical space and derives key implications for the nature of sovereignty in civil war. The author then turns to the issue of popular support, where he distinguishes between attitudinal support (preferences) and behavioral support (actions). The author argues in favor of a framework that makes no assumptions about the underlying preferences of the vast majority of the population and only minimal assumptions about behavioral support, in which complex, ambiguous, and shifting behavior by the majority is assumed, along with a strong commitment by a small minority. Finally, the author concludes with a discussion of the institutional context within which interactions between political actors and civilians take place.

5 A Theory of Irregular War II: Control
This chapter analyzes the relation between collaboration and control and argues that military resources generally trump the population’s prewar political and social preferences in spawning control. In turn, control has a decisive impact on the population’s collaboration with a political actor. However, the amount of military resources required for the imposition of complete and permanent control in a country torn by civil war is enormous and, therefore, typically lacking. This places a premium on the effective use of violence as a key instrument for establishing and maintaining control – and thus for generating collaboration and deterring defection; in turn, effective violence requires discrimination.

The author presents two main propositions:

Proposition 1 The higher the level of control exercised by an actor, the higher the rate of collaboration with this actor – and, inversely, the lower the rate of defection.

Proposition 2 Indiscriminate violence is counterproductive in civil war.

In brief: “…to be effective, violence must be selective.”

6 A Logic of Indiscriminate Violence

This chapter specifies the logic driving indiscriminate violence. Proposition 2 posits that indiscriminate violence is counterproductive in civil war contexts. If this is so, then why is it observed so often? Addressing this puzzle calls for a theory of indiscriminate violence. The author begins by examining how and when indiscriminate violence is observed. Next, he discusses its logic and specifies the conditions under which it is counterproductive. The author then reviews four arguments that account for why indiscriminate violence is observed, despite its apparent counterproductivity, including the specious observation of indiscriminate violence because of truncated or misinterpreted data and its commission as a result of ignorance, cost, and institutional constraints. The author also argues that indiscriminate violence emerges when it does because it is much cheaper than its selective counterpart. Yet, any “gain” must be counterbalanced by its consequences. Thus, indiscriminate violence is more likely either under a steep imbalance of power between the two actors or where and when resources and information are low. In the absence of a resolution of the conflict, even indiscriminate actors are likely to switch to more selective violence.

Here are reasons that, the author believes, lead to indiscriminate violence:

  • The Artifact: “The low visibility of selective violence may lead to a gross overestimation of indiscriminate violence.”
  • The Ignorance: “Ultimately, ignorance must be qualified as a cause of indiscriminate violence because political actors often seem aware of its deleterious effects from the outset.”
  • The Cost: “Identifying, locating, and “neutralizing” enemies and their civilian collaborators one by one requires a complex and costly infrastructure.” It is a lot cheaper to apply violence indiscriminately.
  • Institutional Distortions: the author uses the American war in Vietnam as an example when leadership overinvested in firepower and neglected information collection and analysis.

The author also provided a graph for consequences:

7 A Theory of Selective Violence
The author presents the following argument:” Selective violence presupposes the ability to collect fine-grained information. The most effective way to collect it is to solicit it from individuals, which explains the ubiquity of the practice of denunciation in civil war. Denunciation is central to all civil wars, with the probable exception of a subset of civil wars where no actor attempts to obtain the collaboration of members of groups that allegedly support its rival and where all relevant information is in the public domain, conveyed by visible individual identities.” Selective violence is possible only if political actors have access to information that allows identifying targets. Consequently, the author looks in detail at sources of such information – denunciation and what motivates people to do it. The author also uses the economic approach to this process as presented in the following graphs:

The author also presents some math describing this process. At the end of the chapter, he concludes:” This chapter has specified a theory of selective violence in civil war as a joint process, created by the actions of both political actors and civilians. The key resources around which the process is arrayed are information and violence. Political actors need information in order to be able to target selectively, to distinguish from among the sea of civilians those who are abetting the enemy. Civilians have information, which they provide through denunciation, which can be either political, or, more likely, malicious, in hopes that the violence of the political actors will be directed against those denounced. There is, significantly, a great potential for abuse in such a system, but violence need only be perceived as selective in order to avoid the pitfalls of indiscriminate violence. Denunciation will only occur in such situations in which its benefits, be they psychological or material, outweigh the predicted costs; the most significant cost would be retaliation, quite possibly in the form of a counterdenunciation by the victim or the victim’s family to the other political actor. Hence, denunciation will only occur when potential denouncers perceive the political actor as able to protect them from retaliation.”

8 Empirics l: Comparative Evidence; 9 Empirics II: Microcomparative Evidence
In these two chapters, the author provides empirical evidence related to his theory of violence. The author collects this evidence from multiple sources with the most detailed information from the author’s area of expertise: the Greek civil war in the 1940s. 

10 Intimacy
The intimacy here relates to the specific character of civil wars when fighters are neighbors, often know each other, and have the know-how to maximize damage and suffering. The author explicitly analyses all kinds of denunciations, their circumstances related to the type of war: occupation, ethnic, ideological, anti-colonial, and so on. The summary:” This chapter has provided a theoretical account of the nature and causes of intimate violence in civil war, one derived from the theory of selective violence and its focus on the joint production of violence. This account helps solve a key puzzle: political violence is supposed to stand at the exact opposite pole of criminal violence, yet both share a critical common feature: intimacy. In doing so, this chapter reconciles two separate research programs long perceived to be incompatible with each other: one focusing on small-scale interpersonal violence (exemplified by Gould 2003) and one focusing on large-scale political violence. By alluding to a process through which the grand issues of the conflict and the actual dynamics on the ground connect to each other (or fail to), this chapter also lays the foundation for the next and final chapter, which elaborates the theoretical implications of this disjunction.”

11 Cleavage and Agency
The author makes a key point in this chapter that civil wars are complex events, not easily fit into simple ideological or ethnic cleavage. Here is the author’s characterization:” …actions in civil wars, including “political violence,” are not necessarily political and do not always reflect deep ideological polarization. Identities and actions cannot be reduced to decisions taken by the belligerent organizations, to the discourses that are produced at the center, and to the ideologies derived from the war’s master cleavage. Hence, an approach positing unitary actors, inferring the dynamics of identity and action exclusively from the master cleavage and framing civil wars in binary terms is misleading; instead, local cleavages and intracommunity dynamics must be incorporated into theories of civil war, as illustrated by the theory of selective violence. Second, and counter to Hobbes, civil war cannot be reduced to a mere mechanism that opens up the floodgates to random and anarchical private violence. Private violence is generally constrained by the logics of alliance and control – that is, by national elites and supralocal actors. Civil war fosters a process of interaction between actors with distinct identities and interests. It is the convergence between local motives and supralocal imperatives that endows civil war with its intimate character and leads to joint violence that straddles the divide between the political and the private, the collective and the individual.”


Here the author restates the goal of this book as:” to specify exactly if, how, when, where, and for whom violence “pays.” Simply put, indiscriminate violence is an informational shortcut that may backfire on those who use it; selective violence is jointly produced by political actors seeking information and individual civilians trying to avoid the worst – but also grabbing what opportunities their predicament affords them. In both instances, violence is never a simple reflection of the optimal strategy of its users; its profoundly interactive character defeats simple maximization logics while producing surprising outcomes, such as the relative nonviolence of the “front lines” of civil war.” The author also makes an interesting statement that “civil wars privatizes politics.” In the end, the author briefly describes the current state of the field of history and psychology of wars and tries to define the place of his book within this field.


For me, this book was very educational, opening a point of view I had not really considered before. Somewhat surprising was the extent to which control of the location and power of political actors to inflict violence defines people’s behavior. I was also slightly intrigued by the dynamics of selective vs. indiscriminate violence that the author describes so well and with so much empirical support. I also think that the author is absolutely correct about the complexity of civil wars and intermixing of private and political, especially as it is expressed via denunciations. One big lesson, quite applicable to the current ongoing cold civil war in the USA, is that, like any war, the side capable of inflicting more damage on the opponent in the right places at the right time will win. So the approach of seeking common ground and compromise could be a losing strategy, at least until complete control is established over the political landscape.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: