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Iraq ’s Civil War
Semantics as Warheads

Last Thursday marked the 31 st anniversary of the beginning of Lebanon ’s civil war, in 1975. April 9 th marked the third anniversary of the “fall” of Baghdad . For obvious reasons, neither date was commemorated. The Lebanese have yet to reconcile, even though hostilities there ended in 1990. Iraq has yet to know a day’s peace. But is Iraq in a state of civil war? Lebanon ’s experience provides some answers.

One of my sharpest memories of growing up during the Lebanese civil war is of the daily concurrence of horror and normalcy — of playing Monopoly at a friend’s while rumors of beheadings were serrating the neighborhood, of shooting marbles in the driveway while the town across the valley got its five o’clock shelling. So it was around the country: Feasting in one sector while another burned, sometimes because another burned; a sector thronged with shoppers and typically wild drivers in the morning only to be deserted by afternoon as snipers or fugitive checkpoints drenched the place in terror.

There’d be days of total peace when every part of the country seemed ready to call off the battle and shake hands, when bulldozers reopened roads through the latest debris and headlines announced another corner turned. Then there’d be days of total war, of apocalyptic nights when the sky was ablaze and our hearts seemed war zones of their own, ready to burst from fear. Despite it all life went on, not because the Lebanese have a special knack for life (150,000 of them were killed during those years), but because as anyone in any war zone will tell you: what choice do they have but to go on?

The projection of normalcy in the middle of bedlam isn’t an anomaly of civil wars. It’s one of the essential make-ups of civil war: The country isn’t mobilized for war against a common enemy. Nothing is that organized, that predictable. The country is in fragments — in fragments of militias, of agendas, of random bombings and mass kidnappings and routine beheadings, and also in fragments of normalcy, of schooldays and weddings and ridiculously busy bazaars and children playing all over the place as if nothing happened. They don’t call it a civil war for nothing. For all their concentrated rituals of discipline and allegiance, their uniforms, their synchronized abilities on the parade ground, militias are just glamorized gangs whose rules and objectives are as unpredictable as the territory they control. They can be sunning themselves one day and acting like their whole world is Omaha Beach the next. Civilians make do with the unpredictability.

To the outside observer parachuting in, the scene might look normal or devastating, depending on the day and place of the visit. In Lebanon during those years the only certainty was that peace was an illusion. The setting, the players, the meddlers, the pent-up resentments of three generations, the Lebanese’s famous incapacity for compromise and that always-reliable assassin of solutions — sectarian conceit — ensured against peace. Civil war was the country’s default setting no matter how many times it rebooted.

That’s where Iraq is today, on a scale ten times bigger. Its memories are all war: Iran in the 1980s, the United States and its allies in 1991 and again since 2003. The irony is that at no time in those wars have Iraqis fought for their own fate. They’ve spent twenty-five years fighting someone else’s wars. They’re done. Their civil war began a little less than three years ago. The only veil left is the American army and its allies, and the misunderstanding in the West of what makes a civil war. The veil is threading. That’s not keeping the parachuting propagandists from finding vehicles for their one-hand clapping. They’ll drive about in the US military’s armored convoys for a few miles then report back, with glee, that they were welcomed, applauded, cheered. Ralph Peters, the retired army officer whose recent New York Post column, “Dude, Where’s My Civil War?” was a particular hit with the civil-war deniers’ crowd.

Waging a war at home over the meaning of civil war in Iraq is another way to divert attention from the failure over there, and from those who enabled it over here. It’s semantics as warheads. The debate is giving revisionists a chance to make yet one more stab at Iraq as a victorious enterprise. But like so much of the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq , even those warheads are a dud. Reality speaks louder.

Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer and columnist, and editor of Candide's Notebooks. Reach him at


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