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Published on Jun 12, 2013
Civil war is like pornography--we think know it when we see it. Yet ideas of civil war have a long and contested history with multiple meanings and contested applications. This lecture offers a critical history of conceptions of civil war, with special attention to its legal definition since the nineteenth century. The application of the term "civil war" can depend on whether you are a ruler or a rebel, the victor or the vanquished, an established government or an interested third party. It can also determine whether outside powers intervene, which provisions of international humanitarian laws, and what international aid bodies like the World Bank are willing to invest in war-torn countries. Conflict over its meaning, as well as the meaning of conflict, demand historical reconstruction to illuminate contemporary confusions about civil war.
David Armitage is is the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at Harvard University. This lecture was recorded on May 9, 2013, as the annual Maurice and Muriel Fulton Lecture in Legal History.