What makes a civil war a “civil war”? Obviously it depends less on who is actually fighting it and more on what other people want to make of it. Several news organizations, most notably NBC and MSNBC, have bitten the bullet and started calling the current “conflict” in Iraq a bonified “civil war.” The Bush administration, still Cheney-ganged into thinking the good guys will rout the bad guys according to the neocon scenario, is loathe to call the debacle of our occupation a “civil war.” But at least there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that what we see is some kind of war, and not just a few rowdies on a Saddam-nostalgia binge.

Columnist William M. Arkin sides with those who prefer the wait-and-see approach to the Iraq conflict:

The military says in its doctrinal manuals that a war must have five criteria to be labeled a civil war. First, the combatants must be intent on controlling territory and establishing a nation. Second, each side must have a functioning government. Third, the sides must enjoy at least limited international or foreign recognition of their legitimacy. Fourth, the sides must have regular armed forces. And fifth, the sides must be engaged in major military operations.

In Iraq, there isn’t some side — other than the Kurds, that is — who are intent on splitting off from the other and establishing a working government. There is barely a functioning government in Baghdad and it at least officially includes representatives of all camps. There is no recognition of any breakaway group. And of course, there is only one working armed force and only one party conducting major military operations: That would be the United States.

So by classic definition, we are not talking about a civil war.

So columnists like Mr. Arkin are now engaged in hermeneutics that would please biblical exegetes. A less literal and more pragmatic reading of the U.S.-backed five pillars of civil war can argue the opposite, liberally interpreted. First, all the combatants are definitely interested in both controlling territory and establishing a government. In this sense the Kurds have already achieved victory, even if it does not last, in their civil war against Saddam during the 1990s. Second, the main antagonists do indeed have functioning governments in the absence of the proper functioning of the U.S.-backed central government. There may not be national flags and anthems, but beyond the random and criminal violence there are well-organized groups. And, third, all of these groups have legitimacy somewhere. Iran and Saudi Arabia may not agree on who should rule Iraq (as though they should be calling the shots), but all of the major combatants are legitimized elsewhere, even if not by U.N.-level governments. Fourth, there may be no formal regularity in all the fighting factions, but then the Taliban were hardly a regular army when they took control of Afghanistan. To insist that there be formal armies, as a remake of Napoleon or the world wars, is more fantasy than realpolitik. The critical point should be if an armed group, no matter how irregular, can gain political control. Obviously this could happen in Iraq, despite the lack of formal armies on all sides. Indeed, the “formal” volunteer army of the current government seems least likely to gain the upper hand in coming years. Finally, this definition is cross-culturally blind in assuming that major military operations are the only path to achieving a political victory. There is no force powerful enough in Iraq to engage the U.S. military directly. Everyone, including Saddam, knew this from the start. But wars are not won simply with weapons. Indeed, the days of duking it out on the battlefield in tank formations and infantry charges are over.

The definition quoted by Mr. Arkin would rule out many of the civil wars of the past several decades. For the people getting killed, it hardly matters what we on the outside call the “war.” But I do not think we should settle for “call it what you will” lethargy. Iraq as a nation has descended into anarchy and widespread violence that threaten the future of a single unified country including all the existing groups and this bodes ill for future peace in the region. Don’t call it what “you” will, but recognize the depth of the problem as the occupation by U.S. troops continues. We need to stop bellyaching about a failed policy and allow the Iraqis to sort out their own problems. For this sad story there is no happy ending.

Daniel Martin Varisco