What America's Civil War tells us about Arab civil wars

The American civil war changed the map of the United States, and allowed it to expand its writ for the first time

Hisham Melhem
Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

150 years after its end, the legacy of the American Civil War, the country’s most cataclysmic, and so far most enduring transformational milestone, continues to reverberate in our politics and to shape our society and culture.

In the antebellum, people used to talk about ‘These United States’, referring to an ambiguous and less coherent nation, but after the war, the people living in this coalition of states became the American citizens of ‘The United States’ of America. And while a victor and a vanquished emerged from the war, the defeated South had to endure more than a century of economic stagnation, political disenfranchisement of millions of African-Americans, through the imposition of ‘Jim Crow’ laws, a system of government-sanctioned racial oppression during which 3446 blacks were lynched. Civil wars rarely end when the fighting stops, they continue in different forms’ including violent ones, as we have seen in the racially motivated killing of nine African-Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina at the hands of a young man who seemed to have traveled back to the United States in a time machine from 1862. But if it took a powerful, more cohesive and democratic nation (even if its democracy was flawed then) more than a century, to recover–mostly- from the war, I shudder when I think of how long it will take Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya to recover, if ever, from their seemingly endless catastrophic civil wars.


From the Potomac to the Euphrates

If one of the enduring legacies of the American civil war was to forge a more united country, after a staggering loss of 700,000 combatants, it is now almost unthinkable to anticipate that Syria and Iraq will be able to maintain their territorial integrity as unitary states or more importantly achieve meaningful political reconciliation, a difficult process requiring them to exorcize their sectarian and other cultural daemons. The previous civil wars in Lebanon, Algeria and Sudan, did not lead to any serious attempts at self-criticism or political reconciliation. Denial of human agency is widespread. A sizable number of Lebanese still cling to the myth that their war was caused by others, even when they were doing most of the killings. And depending on their political biases, the outside culprits may be Israelis, Syrians or Palestinians.

The civil war in America was fought mostly by two conventional armies with clear chain of command. The proliferation of militias and armed gangs operating in the South did not alter the fact that when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865, meaningful military resistance ended. The civil wars in the Arab states began as peaceful and spontaneous protest movements against oppressive regimes, but the preponderance of violence employed by the entrenched despots, forced the protestors- this is mostly true in the case of Syria- to gradually turn to violence. The inability of the regimes to decisively crush the opposition, the passage of time, the toxic sectarian factors and the open-ended nature of the conflicts, coupled with the active involvement of regional and international powers and their proxies in the fighting radically transformed these wars in the minds of the combatants into intractable existential struggles.

Civil wars as determinant of Identity

The United States emerged from its civil war as a new nation, with a clearer sense of identity and purpose. At the core of the conflict was the ‘original sin’ of slavery that the Founding Fathers failed to expunge from their new republic, and how the Federal government relates to the States. In 1860 the American South was one of the wealthiest agrarian economies in the world, with solid and secure European markets for its ‘King Cotton’, tobacco and rice. The main pillar for this economy was the institution of slavery, with its unique (free) labor advantage. The North was more populous more advanced and better educated and rapidly industrializing. The civil war, in this context was a clash of competing values and identities. And yet, even in defeat, the South struggled mightily, and mostly succeeded to cling to a romanticized and mythologized ‘Lost Cause’ narrative that was immortalized by popular culture including films such as the racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation and to a lesser extent Gone with the Wind.

The American civil war changed the map of the United States, and allowed it to expand its writ for the first time from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast, to become later on one nation indivisible. The Arab civil wars, particularly in Syria and Iraq are likely to change the map, the so-called Sykes-Picot map that brought them to life a century ago as new nation states

Hisham Melhem

Similar clashes of identities are at the core of some of the Arab civil wars. The combatants in the Arab civil wars are mostly Arabs, fighting Arabs including those working in tandem or on behalf of Iran. But they are fighting for competing identities. It is very unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future for one group to emerge in any of these Arab civil wars to impose a different identity, and coerce others to accept it. The mythologized antebellum is at heart of the persistent collective memory of those still sympathetic to the Confederacy. It is the defeated South that still reenact with enthusiasm and nostalgia civil war battles; for Southerners reenacting these battles is a re-affirmation of a special history, and paying homage to certain values; Defeated peoples have long memories and they cling longer to their victimhood narrative. For Northerners, these exercises are at best a hobby, or a sport and that they are done ‘for fun’. For the Arab combatants, the Sunni-Shiite cleavage is at the heart of the struggle for a new, dominant identity. For Shiite combatants, say in Syria and Iraq commemorating, or even reenacting the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in Karbala is an act of devotion and solidarity and of trying to experience the same pain and anguish that Imam Hussein must have felt. Here too, we encounter the persistence of collective memories, and the facts that victims or defeated people have long memories, and they keep perpetuate them and live by them.

Fighting other people’s wars

The American civil war is the major such war in modern times where the role of neighbors and outsiders was limited and did not contribute much to the outcome. The U.S. is protected and isolated by two great oceans to the East and West and bordered by two weaker states, Canada and Mexico. The inability of the South to achieve a clear victory at the battle of Antietam in September 1862 ended any hopes the South might have had about earning the recognition of France and Britain. The European on the whole did not challenge the North’s blockade of Southern ports. The war created havoc in the international cotton market, and let to changes in the pattern of producing this commodity in places like Egypt and India. The American civil war did encourage a global arms production to provide to the American combatants. More than 900,000 British Enfield rifles were used in the war. And although the majority of the Union Army soldiers were immigrants born abroad, no ‘foreign’ legions sent by states were involved in the war.

The Arab civil wars are similar to the Spanish civil war, in that all of their neighbors are involved in their wars at different levels. Almost all the neighbors of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya are parties to these conflicts. In fact, it is Iran and its Shiite proxies, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon that saved Assad’s regime in Syria from imminent fall. The involvement of the neighbors and the West, since it is unlikely to achieve decisive results will prolong these wars.

The maps they are a-changing

The American civil war changed the map of the United States, and allowed it to expand its writ for the first time from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast, to become later on one nation indivisible. The Arab civil wars on the other hand, particularly in Syria and Iraq are likely to change the map, the so-called Sykes-Picot map that brought them to life a century ago as new nation states. After years of wars, sectarian killings and the dislocation of millions, these two countries have been eroding slowly as nation states. They may not break-up formally like the former Yugoslavia, but a de facto partition could persist for years, along with low intensity civil strife. We have seen such cases in recent decades like Afghanistan, Angola, Sudan and Somalia just to name a few. The fact that these wars are not likely to be settled any time soon or maybe ever by the decisive victory of one party as was the case in the American and the Spanish civil wars – a difficult proposition, given the heterogeneous nature of these societies- means that these countries will not be able on their own to solve their problems, a situation that will make their predicament more tragic.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending