New Perspectives on Civil War

In recent decades, few sociologists have engaged in the study of civil war. For many individuals across the world, civil war is nonetheless an important reality, worthy of sociological attention. As a new contributing editor, I will try to increase such attention. Using this platform, I will raise sociological questions about civil war, and identify points at which sociologists can contribute to, or have contributed to, our understanding of civil war. The current debate on Syria will serve as a starting point.

Syria has been engaged in a civil war for more than two years now. Recently, a chemical attack on civilians took place. Various world leaders have held the Syrian regime responsible for the attack. They have accordingly been discussing a punitive expedition against the Syrian regime. The plans for such an expedition have been put on hold, pending plans for a diplomatic resolution. But the possibility of a punitive expedition is still present. Such an expedition would, arguably, not serve to topple the regime. However, it could influence the support of the Syrian army for the regime. Military support for the Syrian regime deserves attention.

Why should we care about military support for the Syrian regime? In her work on non-violent civilian resistance, Sharon Erikson Nepstad has argued that loyalty of the military apparatus is decisive for the success of civilian resistance. When the military chooses to withdraw its allegiance to a regime, that regime will not survive. The context of civil war, an instance of violent resistance, is different. And yet, the effect of loyalty of the army to the regime can still be tremendous for the evolution and outcome of a civil war. This justifies the following question: when does an army shift its allegiance?

That question has traditionally been approached from a perspective of security studies, focusing on military coups. In these studies, individuals, other than the very top military leaders, tend to be ignored. That makes sense in situations short of civil war. But in times of civil war, the question of military allegiance can be better approached from a perspective of collective behavior. Why? The military consists of a large set of individuals. These individuals have been trained to be obedient and operate as a unitary actor. During times of peace, that is relatively unproblematic. But in times of uncertainty and risk, like civil war, obedience becomes challenging, both for high commanders and for the rank-and-file. At all levels of the military hierarchy, individuals need to decide whether to stay or leave.

So, how can we think about military allegiance from a collective behavior perspective? In Ruling Oneself Out, Ivan Ermakoff has outlined an innovative and appealing theory for understanding collective behavior in contexts of uncertainty and risk. Application of the theory suggests that normative positions of soldiers and officers may influence the decision to remain loyal or become disloyal. But equally, if not more, important is the desire not to become isolated. Officers and soldiers pay a social and possibly physical price for remaining loyal or becoming disloyal when their peers or superiors choose differently. Military personnel will attempt to identify cues or signals about the position of others, and take a position accordingly. A very dynamic game of signaling and position-taking may follow within and across units. The current debate around the punitive expedition against the Syrian regime will probably trigger a new series of cues relevant for defection or desertion of individuals and complete units.

Ermakoff’s approach brings the question of military allegiance squarely into the realm of sociology. It puts a human face on the question of allegiance and illustrates the potential of sociology for explaining important social phenomena related to civil war. In weeks and months to come, it will be interesting to look out for relevant cues and signals, such as public statements and actual defections, and consider loyalty of the Syrian army from this micro-level perspective.

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One response to “New Perspectives on Civil War

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