New book delivers insight, solutions to civil war conflict


BINGHAMTON, NY -- Sixteen million people have died in civil wars in the past 50 years. As the single most destabilizing force in world politics today, the only greater tragedy than civil wars is the suffering that pushes individuals into them. And understanding why any one person would take up arms against his government offers clues to why countries resort to civil war and how it can be stopped.

In his new book, Sixteen Million One: Understanding Civil War, Patrick M. Regan, professor of political science at Binghamton University, State University of New York, draws from a decade of research on civil conflicts to explore the conditions that would drive individuals to take on the life of a rebel.

As part of his research, Regan met with Palestinian resistance fighters struggling against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The book combines tales from his wanderings into this war zone and reflections from his travels at home and abroad, with evidence from scholars who search for explanations for why people rebel.

 “We can talk about anticipating genocides, eliminating dictators, preventive interventions and eradicating poverty,” said Regan. “But unless there is a clear grasp of how and why these issues arise, society and in particular, policy makers, will not be able to design effective ways of controlling these devastating forms of conflict.  It is equally important for parents contemplating sending their young into the struggles of others since, ultimately, it is the broad public who has to bear the burden of the outcomes. It is therefore vital that we have clear ideas about the causes and the implications.”

Regan points out that a lack of understanding of civil wars makes them particularly challenging for the policy community to respond to effectively.  He uses Rwanda as an example and suggests it was a tragedy that the world did little to stop. Regan also notes that Iraq and Afghanistan are tragedies the world did much to inflame.

“Every generation has its civil war,” said Regan. “Some boil over quickly, such as those we’ve seen in Uganda and Sudan. Then there are others that simmer through generation after generation like those in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and Palestine. But the choice to take up arms is virtually the same for the villager in Darfur or the Palestinian as it would be for you or me: the grinding of poverty and the inequities born of discrimination of the political, social or religious variants.”

According to Regan, this moral compulsion is particularly apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States continually confronts individuals who are willing to risk everything in order to change their governments. In the process, this commitment to conflict by ordinary citizens gives Americans an even more compelling reason to leave.

“People who are shut out of political processes also tend to be shut out of the economic opportunities,” said Regan. “This kind of structure keeps people poor. But once recognized, individuals will try to change it and, in extreme cases, they take up arms against those who impose these conditions.”

“The types of problems generally linked to civil wars can appear insurmountable but to refuse to tackle a problem because it looks too big allows it to get bigger,” said Regan. “I hope this book gives people a better idea of what they allow or encourage their governments to do. Or what it implies when they back a particular foreign policy.” 

Regan also hopes that Sixteen Million will offer new insight into the mechanics of civil war and that he can provoke thought about what civil war is and what it can do to a community.

“There are options, but the range of good ones is rather meager,” said Regan. “Our best hope is to reduce structural poverty. This should be a goal for policymakers and the general public alike since I believe it will give us our best chance at increasing stability in our global village.” 

Patrick M. Regan, who studies the ways civil wars can be stopped, is a professor of political science at Binghamton University. He has written two other books and numerous articles on managing conflicts, and traveled extensively in conflict zones from Central America to Northern Ireland and most recently, Palestine.

Last Updated: 9/17/13