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The Logic of Violence in Civil War

The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis N. Kalyvas. Cambridge University Press, 2006, 508 pp.

Stathis N. Kalyvas’ The Logic of Violence in Civil War is a must-read for those specializing in insurgency and counterinsurgency issues, present and past, from generals making life-and-death decisions to historians of civil war conflict. The book reads like the social science equivalent of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species or Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, taking the vast body of research at hand and providing a new way of conceptualizing it all. As Kalyvas notes, “the habitually cited causes of group division (e.g., ideological, social, or ethnic polarization) often fail to account for the actual dynamics of violence,” with savage infighting occurring even in relatively homogenous zones while some particularly heterogeneous areas have escaped such (p. 5). His book provides the first comprehensive framework for analyzing civil war violence, a framework in which scholars will be operating for years to come.

Taking issue with the extant literature on civil war violence, Kalyvas aims to overcome one common misconception—what he calls “madness,” or the belief that such violence is more pathological than logical—and five common biases: “the partisan bias (taking sides), the political bias (equating war with peace), the urban bias (overlooking bottom-up processes), the selection bias (disregarding nonviolence), and the overaggregation bias (working at too high a level of abstraction)” (p. 32). He also refutes the notion that barbarism in civil wars occurs due to the breakdown of the social order allowing human nature to be unconstrained, the lack of application of the laws of war, or the preexisting polarization of society along ethnic or ideological lines, finding instead that barbarism is “a function of the degree of insecurity faced by armed actors,” and where these “armed actors are most vulnerable, they are most likely to use violence (pp. 84, 85). Whereas functioning states retain a monopoly on violence, expressed militarily or judicially, those states undergoing armed challenges from insurgents experience a fracturing of that monopoly along territorial lines. Kalyvas insists that the level of control exercised by a faction, rather than the dominant ideology of the people under such control, is the real determinant of cooperation among the populace; “The absence of alternatives often produces collaboration irrespective of the level of popular satisfaction or lack thereof, which may be then wrongly interpreted as a reflection of legitimacy” (p. 93).

The distribution of control is key to the author’s theory about civil war violence. Indiscriminate violence is, first, “a way to come to grips with the identification problem”—that is, the problem of determining allegiances in the civil war environment—and thus is likely to occur “where and when resources and information are low” (p. 147); and, second, a means of “shap[ing] civilian behavior indirectly through association” (p. 150). Thus, indiscriminate violence is not likely to occur where actors possess great levels of information and/or control, and Kalyvas hypothesizes that the negative repercussions of such violence will lead actors to move away from it as the conflict progresses. By contrast, an actor is likely to employ selective violence—arrests, executions, and so forth—where it exercises dominant, but not total, control because the effectiveness of selective violence as a deterrent hinges upon, at the very least, the perception of selectivity.

Kalyvas divides areas undergoing civil war into five zones of control: (1) total incumbent control, (2) dominant incumbent control, (3) contested control, (4) dominant insurgent control, and (5) total insurgent control. Given the linkage between control and violence, his theory predicts violence perpetrated by the group in power to be unlikely in zones 1 and 5, respectively. Actors are more likely to employ indiscriminate violence against zones of enemy control (zones 1 and 2 for insurgents and zones 4 and 5 for incumbents). In areas of fragmented control, selective violence is employed primarily by the dominant political actor: incumbents in zone 2 and insurgents in zone 4. Finally, this theory surprisingly predicts that the balance of control between insurgents and incumbents in zone 3 areas is likely to produce no selective violence by either side, which “suggests a complete contrast between symmetric and asymmetric war when it comes to violence. In the ideal type of conventional war, all violence takes place on the front line; in the ideal type of irregular war, the functional equivalent of the front line turns out to be peaceful for civilians” (p. 204).

The author provides evidence for this theory, first in the vast array of literature on civil war violence covering written works from Thucydides to the present-day war in Iraq. Next, he presents his microcomparative evidence relating to the Greek Civil War (which started in 1943 under German occupation and continued to 1949)—specifically, the Argolid region of southern Greece, where the author conducted extensive fieldwork and was able to exploit a previously untapped judicial archive that allowed him to reconstruct a detailed picture of the region during the civil war years. Kalyvas includes the handful of instances where his theory mispredicts violence in order to explore other factors which may have been at work in the conflict. Afterwards, he devotes a chapter each to the feature of intimacy—common to both political and criminal violence—as well as to the factors of cleavage and agency, noting that “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 political and the private, the collective and the individual” (p. 387). Two appendices cover the sources of his data as well as the towns included in his study and the means by which he coded them as zones of control.

Kalyvas unravels both the assumption that the areas most contested are those which experience the greatest level of violence and the tendency to view the local population as objects rather than subjects with their own agency. The Logic of Violence in Civil War will thus certainly serve as the starting point for future investigations into the subject.

Guy Lancaster

Arkansas State University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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