AS is now so often the case with a work of excellent, earnest scholarship, the key is found in David Armitage’s book’s subtitle: A History in Ideas. This is not an intellectual history “of” ideas, it is an intellectual history of a slippery political concept — civil war — as bandied about “in” the minds of select, brilliant, dazzling writers over the centuries.

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AS is now so often the case with a work of excellent, earnest scholarship, the key is found in David Armitage’s book’s subtitle: A History in Ideas. This is not an intellectual history "of" ideas, it is an intellectual history of a slippery political concept — civil war — as bandied about "in" the minds of select, brilliant, dazzling writers over the centuries.

Armitage, born, raised and trained in England, is a professor and the former chair of history at Harvard, having meandered to the field of sprawling intellectual histories from English literature (especially through John Milton). His work, as is the case with this book, typically involves peering painstakingly at the political underpinnings of great works of western literature and history.

This exhaustively researched and documented book is a desperately welcoming and frequently gripping read. Writing in graceful, easy prose, Armitage admits a comprehensive history of this curious political label "civil war" is impossible in a single book or even career, and so aptly opts for an eclectic threefold focus. First, the ancient roots of the term in the Classical world, paying attention to the Greeks but homing in on the Romans (who both engaged more addictively in civil war and wrote more ruefully and obsessively about it). Second, early modern Europe and its dark habit of civil war and more auspicious tendency toward "revolution," concentrating here especially on the English Civil Wars (1642-51), the American Revolution (1765-83) and the French Revolution (1789-99). Finally, the 19th century and beyond, with an expected and climactic focus on the U.S. Civil War (1861-65).

Throughout, Armitage is careful to trace, with persistent pause and elegant elaboration, the contours of the ways "civil war" has been deployed as a descriptive category by keenly thinking intellects. One would guess the adjective "civil" wants simply and plainly to refer to "within a particular city-state" (or corresponding discrete political unit), but it is more complicated and tricky than that. At various points, for just one example, historians and theorists have understood "civil" to mean "within one’s own religion." In that line of thinking, any Christian nation-state that engages in armed conflict with another Christian nation-state is embroiled, technically, in a "civil war." Throw in haphazardly deployed and differently connoting terms such as "revolution" and "rebellion" and "insurrection" and "secession" and you have waters thoroughly muddied.

Despite these (intriguing) bits of semantic minutiae, Armitage lays out and clings to a few resounding points. The most arresting one is cynically ironic: Those states beset and hounded by civil war are invariably horrified by it, and by themselves, and therefore seek to make amends by documenting it carefully, even celebrating lessons to be learned painfully from it.

But the rub is right there: the more a state retells and remains conscious of its own civilly bellicose past, the more it is likely to descend once again into its awful snare. The Romans learned this. The Early Modern Europeans knew this. Americans ought to know this, but have perhaps not quite caught that point yet. To escape the crippling contagion of "civil war," one must wilfully stop shining a beacon on it. The choking dust is churned up too easily.

It takes a busy, productive, deft mind to craft a timely history book such as this — and, even more, to deliver it in a form that both experts and lay people alike can absorb handily.

Laurence Broadhurst teaches English, history and religion at St. Paul’s High School in Winnipeg.

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