Quagmire in Civil War 

  • Published

Quagmire in Civil War by Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl. Cambridge University Press, 2020, 340 pp.

Quagmire in Civil War is a data-rich compilation of conflict research that seeks to define and reframe the concept of quagmire for scholars and policy makers. Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl has dedicated much of his academic career to this subject matter, having held prior fellowships at Harvard University and Princeton University and presently teaching in the Political Science Department at Leiden University. His book is eagerly received since scholarship on the topic of quagmires is scant and genuine inquiry into drawn-out intrastate wars has been stymied by popular assumptions about regional conflict.

Professor Schulhofer-Wohl theorizes that quagmire is made, not found, as a result of strategic decisions from intrastate warring factions and their foreign backers who effectively subsidize civil wars. Strategic missteps leading to a quagmire effectively trap the belligerents, so they are unable to make progress but are also unable to withdraw. The author states that quagmire occurs when “for at least one of the belligerents, continuing to fight costs more than the expected benefits,” but “withdrawing will increase rather than avert those net costs.” Common misconceptions—that quagmire can be simply defined by lengthy duration and is inherently endemic to certain regions—are quickly dispelled as naïve and oversimplified.

In support of his thesis, the author draws on empirical field research—extensive third-party data and personal interviews—on Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. An entire chapter of the book gives context on the issues, actors, and turning points of the Lebanese Civil War. Comparisons with the civil wars in Chad and Yemen offer ample secondary data to support the thesis. Finally, the book provides data on all civil wars worldwide fought between 1944 and 2006, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe—a substantial trove of data that required a herculean effort by the author to analyze and assimilate in support of his stance. In the majority of these historical examples, the author highlights that quagmires emerge as a result of swirling domestic-international interactions and strategic choices made within and outside of a state.

Thus, strategy plays a central role in the creation of quagmires. This is a key insight from the author that was previously absent in the limited literature on the subject. In each conflict, the belligerents and their foreign backers assess the state of the conflict and sequential actions based on how they expect the other parties to next behave. As such, a war bogged down in quagmire revolves around strategic interaction in the context of game theory—weighing costs, benefits, and the uncertainty of the future.

Importantly, the book furthers the body of research on civil wars and creates from scratch a conceptual landscape for the idea of quagmires. Professor Schulhofer-Wohl offers two original insights on strategy and quagmires. First, he describes a duality of strategies in civil war with polar outcomes: belligerents can choose between low-cost nonterritorial or higher-cost territorial strategies. The first approach employs violence to maintain the status quo and thus put sustainable pressure on an adversary. The second strategy is more costly but pays greater dividends if it succeeds in seizing territory from an adversary. Given these two options, it is unsurprising that many belligerents—absent magnanimous foreign backing—will opt for the low-cost guarantee of status quo rather than risk imminent defeat.

The second original insight is that foreign backers often have interests to support a belligerent side but cannot control whether their side chooses the nonterritorial or territorial strategy or substitutes between the two strategies at any given time. Thus, they often effectively bet on the side they wish to prevail but without total control over their investment. Through original insight and numerous case studies, the book demonstrates why many belligerents in a civil war find the best choice is neither to concede nor to escalate.

Unfortunately, Quagmire in Civil War spreads itself too thin at times, seeking to develop a conceptual framework for quagmire and apply this to the 15-year Lebanese Civil War in a few hundred pages. The Lebanese Civil War (1975–90) was a lengthy political and military event that alone could fill several volumes with scholarship and analysis. Rather than trying to recap every aspect of the Lebanese Civil War, the author could pare down his historical review to only those salient facts that will relate to his theory of quagmire. Additionally, when the author next purports to analyze all civil wars worldwide from 1944 to 2006 in a scant 40 pages, one necessarily worries that the task is overly ambitious and the analysis too shallow. Finally, casual readers of strategy may find entire passages too erudite to understand or enjoy: tables depicting abstract conflict outcomes in an alphabet soup of algebraic terms are not everyone’s cup of tea and may leave most readers skipping to the chapter summary.

Still, quagmire is an important and underdeveloped aspect of civil wars that can have far-reaching effects on the US and its allies, threatening to displace citizens, destabilize alliances, impose political burdens through refugees, and disrupt markets. Thus, Professor Schulhofer-Wohl’s theories and conclusions deserve serious attention, and if his book is overly ambitious, future volumes can easily digest and expound upon his pioneering work. Any shortcomings of his book can be forgiven for the scope of the subject and the utter lack of preexisting scholarship.

Quagmire in Civil War is of interest to anyone with a stake in national defense or humanitarian efforts. The ongoing Syrian Civil War has spilled over into Iraq and Lebanon while outside backers pick a side, propping up either the Syrian government or Syrian rebel groups. US involvement has fed the sprawling Syrian Civil War with each strategic decision and arms investment in local rebels. Thus, every civil war without an end in sight implicates entire regions and continents; suffering and wasted resources are not limited to the warring state.

A civil war’s direct nexus to human lives and personal suffering demands greater awareness and scholarship on quagmires. In civil wars, quagmires promote human suffering and the abject agony of intractable armed conflict. All war is destructive; quagmire compounds the tragedy endlessly and needlessly. With the publication of this book, Professor Schulhofer-Wohl advances scholarship on the most destructive form of civil wars, putting forth novel ideas intended to mitigate pointless suffering. For that, he should be commended and his ideas widely disseminated.

Capt Matthew H. Ormsbee, USAF


"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."