Each year, civil wars cause hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of injuries and massive destruction. Displacement is consubstantial to these conflicts, the millions of refugees that pour into neighbouring countries create regional instabilities. To the immediate cost, counted in trillions of euros (destruction, refugees, emergency aid, peace-keeping), must be added the indirect costs – ecological disruption, the destruction of historic sites, chaotic urbanisation, the transformation of land structures – which shatter the futures of societies for decades to come, well beyond the end of the conflicts themselves.
Although located in areas perceived as out of the way, civil wars engage not only the founding principles of international order, but the very internal organisation of our societies. Indeed, civil wars, just like social margins, are laboratories of new political technologies that can be implemented elsewhere (Tullis 1999, Kraska 2001). Civil wars, without foreshadowing a common future, can be considered indicators or accelerators of global trends such as electronic surveillance, privatisation of essential Governmental functions, or security-centred approaches to social issues. Finally, whether through migration, individual engagements or the media, these wars contribute to the redefinition and the radicalisation of identity divides. For instance, the rising rejection of Islam in Western countries or the Shia/Sunni conflicts in the Middle East are at least in part the result of civil wars.
In addition, since the end of the Cold War, civil wars represent almost the totality of conflicts. They affect mostly States that are ethnically diverse. These wars have a distinctly transnational character: armed organisations have in most cases a sanctuary in a neighbouring country and non-military external actors (IOs, NGOs) intervene on both sides of the border. They rarely lead to a change in international borders; annexation, a rare event, is almost never recognised internationally today; secessions remain infrequent (Atzili 2012; Zacher 2001). In the end, the territories are more stable than the States. Contrary to the Elias’ model, where the political centre defines its territorial control, borders are today largely stable due to international constraints. Rather, what is at stake in war is generally the control or neutralisation of the political centre. Even if they have little chance of success, the opposite dynamic, genuinely transnational (Rwanda-Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s or Syria-Iraq in 2014), is even more interesting to analyse, as these situations offer a contrario insight into the dominant logic.
The structural similarities of contemporary civil wars suggest the possibility of a theoretical model based on a comparative approach. However, as some authors have noted, social sciences are struggling to understand extreme situations. These events are conceptually fertile, since the violent rupture of the daily routines makes visible, through contrast, the very foundations of social order. Consequently, the study of civil wars opens up promising avenues for general sociology and political thought more broadly.