There are plenty of examples of destructive civil wars that bring deaths and economical and societal rupture to the countries that experience them. This phenomenon has stretched from Ancient Greece to the modern day, with horrific examples like the Russian Civil War in 1918, the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the Ukrainian Civil War in 2014. The human sacrifice that has been paid to these civil conflicts is outrageous—the damages, quite lasting. And yet, civil wars have persisted for centuries. Why?
In a speech given during the annual “Classics and The World Today” lecture held at UTM, Professor Matt Simonson from Arizona State University outlined a few societal red flags that facilitated the development of civil conflicts in Ancient Greece: no gun or violence control, citizen-run societies, urbanization, and clear social class division. Although taken to the extreme in Ancient Greece, these red flags could still explain the reasons for civil wars in many modern countries.
The example of the Russian civil war shows how damaging the effects of a weakened government can be for a nation in crisis. Following 1917, when the Bolsheviks took over the government under Lenin’s leadership, the Romanov royal family was executed and mutilated in July of 1918, ending a three-hundred-year old dynasty of monarchs. The government’s presence became weak in Russia; the citizens felt mistrust and confusion, and space was created for people of radical views to take the country’s faith into their own hands. The White army was formed by a group of intellectuals that sought the withdrawal of the communists and the return of the monarchy, while the Red army consisted of Bolsheviks and was meant to support and protect the newly appointed government. These two armies represented the major socio-economic and ideological divisions within Russian society at the time and marked the beginning of three years of ruthless civil war.
According to Philip Verwimp’s article “Machetes and Firearms: The Organization of Massacres in Rwanda,” although the rivalry between the Hutu and Tutsis tribes in Rwanda was one of the factors that prompted the 1994 genocide, the access of the Rwandan population to deadly weapons remains the main reason why the conflict reached its monstrous scale. “In August 1991,” Verwimp notes, “Colonel Nsabimana, chief of staff of the Rwandan army, proposed to provide a gun for every administrative unit of ten households.” This desire to arm the Rwandan population carried the excuse of self-defense, and in 1992 to 1993, the government continued to take steps towards the purchase and distribution of guns, Kalashnikovs, grenades, and machetes.
The numbers of purchased firearms was reported to exceed the budget and demands of police departments and military. Moreover, in those same years, there were reports of increased weapon possession and use in rural areas of Rwanda. Departing from these facts, if the Rwandan genocide was compared to a fire, then the tribal conflicts that took place would only be the spark that started the fire, while the accessibility of weapons to the Rwandan population would be the firewood that made the fire possible.
The Ukrainian civil war in 2014 exemplifies how economical gaps and abuse of power can cause instability and conflict in countries that seem otherwise stable. After decades of economic uncertainty and low quality of life, the population of Ukraine saw a ray of hope in the possibility of associating with the European Union. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian government, headed by President Yanukovych at the time, was threatened by the possibility of losing Russia’s support. A decision was made to reject the EU and continue to strengthen the ties with Russia, causing public indignation and a following series of demonstrations in November 2013, also known as Euromaidan.
The demonstrations were ignored at first, but began to raise more concern as they became more aggressive, causing the government to suppress them violently. The clear corruption of the government and its refusal to address the matter pushed the Ukrainian people to continue the Euromaidan, eventually leading to the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, followed by armed conflicts—conflicts that involved rebels and the Russian and Ukrainian armies—that culminated in Donbass.
Although the Euromaidan and the civil conflicts were kept at bay and did not cause as many deaths as the Russian Civil War or the Rwandan genocide, it still caused some tragic losses and a huge economic pushback in Ukraine, consequences of which are evident to this day.
Considering the examples of the Russian Civil War, the Rwandan genocide and the Ukrainian Civil War, it’s fair to assume that the main causes of civil conflicts that were present in Ancient Greece, as outlined by Professor Simonson, are still present in some countries of the modern world. Although poor gun policies, high level of social division and injustice, and a weakened government are only a few things to be aware of when analyzing civil war, it is still important to focus on changing these aspects and supporting countries that show these signs in order to prevent the human sacrifice that armed civil conflicts imply.