Until Iraq, I really thought I understood what a "civil war" was. Or, more accurately, I understood that a great variety of intrastate conflagrations could be rightfully termed "civil war". The American Civil War was a civil war. In a different sense, Bosnia and Rwanda were civil wars marked by hideous power imbalances. It goes on. Recently, though, I've had to conclude that I was grossly naive. Apparently I completely missed an essential nuance--a boundary between whatever it is that's happening in Iraq and something else called a "full scale civil war". Here's a very recent example of somebody making this distinction:
It’s too early to pronounce the U.S. military’s surge in Iraq a failure. It’s not too early to say, though, that there’s no sign that it’s succeeding — that it’s making Iraqi politics or security better in any appreciable, self-sustaining way. At best, the surge is keeping Iraq from descending into full-scale civil war. At best we are dog paddling in the Tigris. Which means at least we should start to think about what happens if we have to get out of the water.
I include that line about "dog paddling in the Tigris" because I suppose that's the academic term we're supposed to use to describe the sort of vast sectarian violence we're seeing in Iraq. In my downy innocent days I would have called that violence a "civil war", and been happy to stipulate that the civil war might become more or less violent over time as a number of factors changed. Though I'm wiser now, I'm still not exactly sure where the dividing line is. All I can say for sure is that a casualty rate of about 30,000 Iraqis a year is not significant enough to warrant the term "full scale civil war". We're still in the "dog paddling in the Tigris" stage of the conflict. Keep that in mind, people.