Civil wars challenge cultural norms, government, and military tactics. Defined as war within the same nation, civil wars rarely occur in isolation. Most of the time there is an aspect of outside influence that leads to war and influences its outcome. This is the case with the 12 world civil wars outlined below. Atrocities are numerous and committed by all sides involved in the conflict. While civil war battlefield injury and death are usually high, the civilian population suffers the most. As armies move through villages, towns, and cities, they leave a path of destruction.
Food crops and livestock are taken to feed the armies, leaving women, children, and the aged without food. The wounded and dead remain on the battlefield, forcing residents to bury the dead before the bodies rot and to care for the injured in their homes, barns, and farm fields. Diseases are prevalent and kill more than the actual battles. Cultural taboos are often broken as military leaders attempt to achieve victory. And in some cases, those on the losing side of a battle or war are simply slaughtered or forced into slavery.
1. Peloponnesian War 431-404 BCE
The ancient Greek war occurred between the Delian League led by Athens and the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta. The two city-states of Athens and Sparta vied for power of the Aegean Sea located between present-day Turkey and Greece. Strategically located in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean was an important waterway for trade. The city-state that controlled the Sea would control trade and benefit economically from connections with Asia, Europe, and Africa. The Peloponnesian War began in 431 BCE and concluded in 413 BCE. The war is generally viewed in three phases.
The first phase occurred from 431 to 421 BCE. Sparta repeatedly invaded Attica. Athens defeated Sparta’s invasions with its superior naval forces and military tactics while conducting raids along the coast of Sparta-controlled Peloponnese. When the first phase of the war ended in 421, peace was short-lived. Beginning in 415 BCE, Athens sent a massive force to attack Syracuse in Sicily. This was a disaster and the entire force was destroyed in 413 BCE. The final stage, often called the Decelean or Ionian War saw Sparta with support from Persia, successfully undermine the Athens Empire by destroying its fleet at Aegospotami, which ended the war.
The Peloponnesian War was about territorial control as well as ideologies. Athens was a democracy and Sparta was an oligarch. When Sparta won the war in 413, Athens became part of the oligarch. Both sides committed atrocities upon each other and civilians. Soldiers on the losing sides of battle were taken captive and placed into slavery or killed while women and children were forced to move and become slaves. Lands were burned making farming impossible and starvation probable. Each army engaged in brutal war tactics that upended cultural and religious taboos concerning acceptable ways to wage war.
The English Civil War is a series of three wars that determined the fate of the monarch in England. 40 years after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, England had become an empire that included Scotland, Ireland, and colonies in North America. When war broke out people throughout England picked sides and acted accordingly. Battles were fought in Massachusetts and Maryland as well as in Ireland, Scotland, and England. Those in port cities and developed areas supported parliament while those in the countryside supported the crown.
Parliamentarians supported a regular parliament in which the monarch must consult while supporters of the Crown rallied around the idea that the monarch could do what he or she wished without consent of parliament. Throughout the first (1642-1646), second (1648-1649), and third (1649-1651) wars opposing sides implemented pike and shot warfare. Lines of infantry would face each other and fire volleys, both sides would reload, and then fighting would resume in an orderly fashion. As with many wars of the era, death on the battlefield was small compared to death from disease, plague, famine, and exile.
The English Civil War in Ireland had a devastating impact. Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentary forces conquered the island through a siege and then a massacre of Catholic priests, soldiers, prisoners, and civilians. Catholic-owned lands were confiscated and distributed among the victorious soldiers, creditors, and English settlers in Ireland.
Roughly 41% of Ireland’s population died from battle, plague, disease, or famine at the hands of Cromwell’s army while Scotland lost 6% and England lost 3.7%. At the end of the war in 1651, England, Ireland, and Scotland had no monarchy and England was put on a path toward a parliamentary monarch, which would create the Kingdom of Great Britain in the eighteenth century.
The Han Chinese believed that the ethnic Manchu of the Qing dynasty were inept, corrupt, and void of ancient traditions. Since 1766, the population of China doubled. At the end of the First Opium War in 1842, the Qing dynasty was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking, which permitted the British Empire to infiltrate Chinese trade in silks, porcelain, and tea. After several bad harvests and droughts, agricultural production declined while taxes and rents increased. Peasants left their land for cities. As poverty became more prevalent so did banditry and the creation of secret societies.
With permission from the Qing dynasty, Europeans had established missions in China to convert the population to western Christianity. As the Chinese Christian population grew, new religious sects appeared. Hong Xiuquan, who was the self-proclaimed brother of Jesus Christ, founded the God Worshipping Society that combined aspects of indigenous millenarianism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Christianity.
The new Taiping Christianity became a “dynamic new Chinese religion” with many followers who wished to restore ancient social and moral traditions to a rapidly growing China. Local officials in the southern province of Guangxi began a campaign of religious persecution in late 1850. In early January 1851, rebel forces defeated Qing forces.
Over 15 years, Taiping forces fought against Qing armies. In 1853, rebel forces took over Nanjing and renamed it Tainjing. Taiping forces were successful; however, when they attempted to take Shanghai in August 1860, they were met with Qing forces supported by European armies. With a Qing victory, the stage was set for a re-conquest of China, which ended in 1864. An estimated 20 to 30 million people were killed and millions more displaced. The Taiping Rebellion is considered the bloodiest civil war in world history and the starting point of modern China.
The American Civil War began on April 14, 1861. South Carolina and its wealthy plantation owners led the charge of secession. After rebel forces fired upon Fort Sumner, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina reluctantly joined Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas to form the Confederate States of America (CSA). The border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri precariously remained in the Union but had stars on the Confederate flag. Yet, just because a state seceded did not mean that all of its citizens agreed. The very personal ideological debate over slavery and states rights created divides between friends, neighbors, and families.
Technology was the only winner during the war. Guns became more accurate with corkscrewed barrels that allowed bullets to spin. Southern women broke out of their forced lady-like roles and became field nurses that provided medical care to wounded men on the battlefields. Plantation and farm buildings became army headquarters and hospitals while farmland was turned into mass graves and cemeteries in the aftermath of battle. Near the end of the war, the Armies began using trench warfare as a new tactic to force surrender.
The devastation caused by the war cannot be understated, particularly for civilians. Millions of women and children were forced from their homes when armies scorched their crops, stole their livestock, confiscated family treasures, and burned their barns and houses. The bloodiest day of the war was September 17, 1862, when over 22,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing at the Battle of Antietam.
In a last-ditch act for victory, the CSA offered slaves their freedom if they fought against the Union. After four years of war, over 620,000 soldiers were dead, millions of civilians had been killed, wounded, or forced to leave their homes.
The Tokugiawa shogunate governed Japan since 1600. In an effort to modernize their military dictatorship, the shogunate ended Japan’s isolationist policy in the early 19th century. With the opening of its borders, European influence changed the culture and economic system. Many people did not want their culture to change or their economy to be controlled by foreigners. As tensions mounted, people began advocating for a return to Imperial rule and abolition of the military dictatorship. In an act of self-preservation, the shogunate launched a military campaign against Imperial forces attempting to reclaim power.
The Boshin War, also called the Japanese Revolution, began on January 27, 1868 when the shogunate attacked imperial forces near Kyoto. In an ironic twist, the shogunate who had opened Japan to modernization remained mostly an army of samurai. The shogunate used military tactics perfected by Napoleon III and received military support from France. Imperial forces received warships, ammunition, and military expertise from the United Kingdom. The Boshin War was a local war with international influence.
During the course of the brief war, 120,000 men were mobilized to fight and only 3,500 were killed. Foreigners remained a target of the samurai throughout the war. Samurai killed 11 French sailors on March 8th and then killed the British ambassador on the street in Kyoto on March 23rd. Imperial forces were victorious.
With the implementation of a single and unified imperial government, the Emperor’s residence was moved to Edo which was renamed Tokyo. When the new government abolished the samurai class, some found new administrative positions, but most fell into poverty. Japan continued its modernization begun by the shogunate and adapted a more progressive approach to foreign influences.
The geographic territory of the Russian Empire was massive and included numerous ethnic groups. After the Russian Revolution, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland became sovereign states. The remaining territory that included Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, South Caucasus, Central Asia, and Mongolia became the site of a horrific civil war to determine which faction would control the new country.
The Russian Civil War is generally divided into three phases. Phase one is the Revolution to the December 1917 Armistice; phase two is January to November 1919, and phase three is the siege of the White forces in the Crimea. There were many participants during the three phases, but the most powerful was the Red Army and the White Army.
The Red Army was aligned with Bolshevik socialism and led by Vladimir Lenin. The Reds implemented mandatory conscription and those that refused were taken hostage and shot to ensure loyalty. The White Army, or White Movement, was comprised of defenders of the monarch, landowners, middle classes, and anti-Bolshevik socialists. From November 1917 to its official end of June 1923, the Red and White Armies fought each other with catastrophic outcomes. Hundreds of thousands were killed during the Red Terror led by Lenin and the responding White Terror. Mass graves of the murdered lined the Russian countryside.
The Red Army was victorious and created the Soviet Union; however, the new country lay in ruins. Both armies had murdered millions of people including the extermination of Jews in south Russia and Ukraine. The Russian economy was decimated with only a fraction of land farmed. What crops did exist were damaged by successive droughts which led to famine and mass starvation. Buildings were collapsing, infrastructure was destroyed, and the cotton and iron industries were at a standstill. Over 7 million children were left homeless and orphaned and lived on the streets throughout the Soviet Union.
The Irish War for Independence was brutal and violent. Fought from 1919 to 1921, it pitted Irish Republican Army (IRA) against British forces. To end the war, the Anglo-Irish Treaty made Ireland a British dominion like Canada and Australia. For the men and women who fought for independence, the Treaty became a catalyst for a personal and devastating split of the IRA. The Irish Free State supported the treaty. Their leader, Michael Collins, stated that Ireland needed “freedom to achieve freedom.” Those that rejected the Treaty followed Eamon de Valera and formed the Anti-Treaty Army as defenders of the Republic declared in 1916.
Guerilla warfare was the hallmark of the Irish Civil War. Fought from 1922-1923, both sides used ambushes, sabotage, raids, and petty warfare to achieve their goals. In an ironic twist, the Irish Free State was supported by the British and benefited from increased supplies and weapons.
The Anti-Treaty forces had to rely upon the Irish citizenry for support, which was difficult due to the inability to agree upon a centralized chain of command. Irish Free State forces grew while the Anti-Treaty forces were relegated to the countryside. Cornered, the Anti-Treaty forces set fire to homes of Free State senators, which resulted in the implementation of martial law across Ireland.
In November 1922, after months of bloody ambushes and assassinations, the Irish Free State sanctioned the execution of Anti-Treaty prisoners. In response, Anti-Treaty forces assassinated an Irish Free State member of parliament. As support from the citizenry dwindled, the Anti-Treaty forces destroyed their weapons and went home. The war was over by the summer of 1923; however, no treaty was ever signed. The ideological split that led to civil war remained intact for decades. Thousands were killed and thousands of fatigued citizens emigrated.
The Spanish Civil War began with a military coup on July 17, 1936. Generals in the Spanish Republican Armed forces declared opposition against the elected leftist-leaning government. Nationalists, led by General Francisco Franco, were conservative and largely aristocratic and received support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Soviet Union supported the left-leaning Republicans that were overwhelmingly urban and loyal to the Spanish Second Republic. The fight for governmental control lasted just over two years with thousands murdered, tortured, and disappeared.
German planes, in support of Franco and the Nationalists, bombed Republican-controlled cities. Republican officials began evacuating children. Over 35,000 los ninos were sent throughout Europe with 20,000 evacuees shipped to Mexico, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The atrocities committed by both sides included executing Roman Catholic priests, Protestant clerics, civilians, and those classified as unwanted. Nationalists and Republicans held in prison were tortured with both sides admitting to pushing prisoners off of bridges to their death. Through recent excavation of mass graves, it is estimated that at least 288,000 people were executed.
Propaganda informed the world of the war in Spain. Leaflets, radio programs, posters, and movies were distributed as ways to garner support for both sides. Famously, Ernest Hemmingway advocated military aid for the Republicans with the release of his film, The Spanish Earth. After fleeing to Paris, Salvador Dali painted his famous work, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), and Republicans commissioned Pablo Picasso in 1937 to paint Guernica.
The Nationalists were victorious forcing thousands into exile as refugees to the south of France. Republicans that remained were persecuted under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco that lasted until his death in November 1975.
Imperial Japan ruled Korea from 1910 until 1945. On August 10th, allied powers divided the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel with the Soviet Union providing armies in the North and the United States providing military support in the South. When China became a communist nation, it sent forces to North Korea. With approval from Joseph Stalin, North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. By the end of the month, the United Nations had committed military forces from 21 countries with over 80% of those forces from the United States, to fight against the invading army.
From June to August 1950, the North’s Korean People’s Army had gained control of almost the entire peninsula. Unprepared for war, the UN and US forces finally regained control of Seoul and South Korea in September 1950, after the Battle of Inchon. Joseph Stalin blamed Soviet forces for the defeat. In October, China intervened, sending military support and troops to North Korea.
A stalemate began in July 1951 and lasted two years. Both sides committed atrocities against civilians and battle troops. Recent figures state that over 1.2 million soldiers were killed with many more civilians captured, displaced, and killed.
North Korea labeled the war the “Fatherland Liberation War.” South Korea refers to it as the “6-2-5 Upheaval.” In the English-speaking world, it is simply called the “Forgotten War” as it was in stark contrast to the feel good war that liberated Europe from the Nazis just a few years before. The Korean Armistice Agreement was reached on July 27, 1953, but no peace treaty has ever been signed. Technically the two Koreas are still at war. On March 30, 2013, North Korea proclaimed that it had entered a “state of war” with South Korea, which escalated the international war of words between world leaders.
Portugal colonized Angola in 1575 and did little to change the distinctive ethnic cultures and tribal regions. Some Portuguese became farmers but the majority of them held positions in government, public administration, and industry. Ethnic Angolans were prohibited from such roles. At the end of the 19th century, Portugal became more controlling in order to protect the wealth of oil and diamonds from other European powers. In 1975, Angola achieved independence and the Portuguese Angolans fled, leaving no trained natives to run the new nation. Angola fell into an economic depression and civil war.
The Angola Civil War had three phases. The first was from 1975-1991, the second from 1992-1994, and the third from 1998 to 2002. The main power struggle occurred between the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The civil war destroyed infrastructure, economic structures, and religious institutions, making governance impossible. Yet, Angolans did not fight the war alone. In the heat of the Cold War, the United States covertly provided military aid to the UNITA while the Soviet Union provided aid to the MPLA making the war an international affair.
Oil companies exploited the large reserves, paying the UNITA government. The UNITA operated state-owned diamond mining with DeBeers controlling the monopoly, earning $3 billion between 1992-1998. Money went to purchase weapons from the US and its allies. Russia shipped a freighter full of ammunition to the MPLA in September 2002, allowing for an MPLA victory. When the war ended, Angola had become a humanitarian disaster. Almost 5 million people had been displaced. Most of the population had no access to medical care, over half had no access to drinking water, and the overall life expectancy was less than 40 years old.
The Salvadoran Civil War began on October 15, 1979 between the military-led government of El Salvador and a collection of guerilla groups called the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Over 12 years of war, extreme violence was committed on both sides. The United Nations has estimated that over 75,000 people were killed most of them civilians, and many more thousands disappeared. Both sides recruited children and trained them as child soldiers, targeted and killed individuals, and used death squads. Over 85% of the carnage came under the instruction of the military-led government, which was supported with military training, troops, and money by the United States government.
El Salvador engaged in a four-day war with Honduras in July 1969. After the war, El Salvador increased its military spending and purchased weapons from Israel, Brazil, West Germany, and the United States. El Salvador had been experiencing massive socioeconomic disparities, but when the 1973 oil crisis struck, food prices increased and agricultural production declined. Inequality and hunger led to anger and civilian unrest. On October 15, 1979, the United States backed a military coup, and later junta, that ousted President General Carlos Humberto Romero. In the aftermath of the coup, thousands of anti-coup protesters were killed by the new El Salvadorian regime.
Government backed forces implemented “widespread torture, mutilation and killings of noncombatant civilians” to defeat insurgency of the numerous guerilla forces, which were severely underfunded. Women and children fled to Honduras, only to be denied entry. As people were caught between the borders, El Salvadorian planes bombed the people caught between borders. In 1991, the United Nations brokered peace that required regulation of the El Salvadorian armed forces and established a civilian police force.
The “Scramble for Africa” began in the 19th century and the Berlin Conference of 1884 divided African into European colonies with Germany colonizing what became Rwanda. In 1916, Belgium took over the colony. Both the Germans and the Belgians enforced the idea that Tutsi people were superior to the Hutu and Twa despite any physical distinctions. In 1935, Belgium implemented national identification cards that listed ethnicity, further dividing the ethnic groups. Tutsi and Hutu remained at odds, even after Rwandan independence in 1962. Between 1935 and 1990, the population increased from 1.6 million to over 7 million people, placing a strain on natural and man-made resources.
The Rwanda Civil War happened in two phases. The first phase began on October 1, 1990 when the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) invaded the north of Rwanda from neighboring Uganda, comprised mostly of Hutu. The FAR and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) brutally fought each other for three years. The Arusha Accords ended the war with a power sharing agreement between the FAR and RPF.
Conservative Hutus did not like the agreement. Once it was adapted, they began formulating plans for a “final solution” for all Tutis. President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, beginning phase two of the war.
Hutu militants systematically began killing Tutsi. Using machetes, blunt objects, clubs, and fire, Hutu citizens were encouraged to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Over 100 days 500,000 to 1 million people were murdered in the Rwanda Genocide. The RPF resumed the civil war and methodically began capturing territory. On July 4, 1994, they took control of Kigali and forced the interim government to Zaire. Rwanda was decimated. Thousands of children became orphans, refugees flooded into surrounding countries, and HIV/AIDS infections increased dramatically due to the use of rape as a war tactic.