Civil War

"All wars are Civil Wars, because all men are brothers."
Francois Fenelon

A Civil War is an intense conflict between organized groups trying to take control of a state and/or region, or to change government policies. Most Civil Wars are fought by a status-quo ruling body of the state and one or more groups that wish to change said state, though said non-state groups often fight each other as well, and it can also be between two states that both claim to be the sole rightful (nation-)state for a single nation. To be considered a "war" rather than an uprising or rebellion requires that the conflict involve regular armed force, involve organized factions, and be on a certain scale and of a certain intensity. All the sides involved have to have a genuine chance (however small) of achieving their aims in the conflict for it to be a Civil War and not just a rebellion/uprising. Where rebellions end and Civil Wars begin often isn't clear, and whether a conflict is called one or the other often depends on what the factions - especially the victorious one - decide to call it.

Those fighting Civil Wars usually don't call them that, as they try to make use of the power of language to suggest that they are in the right: the ruling power will term it a police action against unpopular extremist rebels. Their enemies will consider themselves People's Heroes and Freedom Fighters spearheading a populist Revolution. However, it is just as likely for a small group of rebels to claim Civil War status (as such terminology would give their struggle an air of seriousness it would not otherwise have), or likewise, for the government to use the term (to justify force that would seem excessive against a mere criminal action). How the outside world views the situation is largely Written by the Winners. This is largely why wars for independence are so murky when it concerns the concept: generally, if a country fails to gain independence, expect it to be called a civil war, and if it does, expect it to be called a regular war or a Revolution (thereby implying that the two post-war countries were never one).

No matter who prevails, it is often a Pyrrhic Victory, as, depending on the world situation, internal conflict provides an opportunity for exploitation or conquest by outside forces: Divide and Conquer if the villain takes advantage, and Enemy Civil War for the heroes.

Civil Wars both real and fictional have provided excellent opportunities for stories, as depicted morality can be all over the board. The fact that both sides believe themselves to be justified allows for an authorial portrayal of both sides having good people fighting for what they believe in along with a couple of real bastards on both sides. Often, while one side may indeed be presented as morally superior, there will be a Worthy Opponent among the enemy ranks and the Perspective Flip is common. Along with that, there can be Star-Crossed Lovers pining for each other across the battlefield and families split by the tension of what they believe is right.

Many an Alternate History is based around one side of a Civil War prevailing over another.

This is not to be confused with Marvel Comics' Civil War.

Examples of factual Civil Wars commonly used in media:

  • The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), famously depicted in Shakespeare's plays.
  • The English Civil War(s) (1642-1651) looms large in British wargaming and historical re-enactment, but also some dramas
  • The American Revolution (1775-1783) is under-represented, but still features in US works
  • The French Revolution (1789-1799) involved a series of wars within France, in the Vendee, in Brittany, Lyon and Bordeaux fought between Royalists and Republicans.
  • The American Civil War (1861-1865) features in US works
  • The Russian Civil War (1917-1922) features prominently in Soviet works and expat accounts, most famously in Sholokhov's epic novel Quiet Flows the Don
  • The Chinese Civil War c.1916-1950 is a setting for a smattering of mainland-Chinese dramas and several foreign sinophiles' diaries
  • The French Civil Wars in 1940-44 and 1954-62 are conspicuously absent (bar The Battle of Algiers) - official policy under Charles De Gaulle was that the former never happened, and the same has largely gone for the latter as well
  • The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is the inspiration for Picasso's Guernica and features in the writings of George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway
  • The Korean War (1950-1953) is perhaps best-remembered as the setting of M.A.S.H. and some forgettable action-flicks
  • The Vietnam War (1955-1975) is very well represented in US media, albeit featuring largely (if not exclusively) on the US's involvement.
  • The Troubles (1969-1998) are at least in the background of many works set in the British Isles in the '60s-'90s, although as with the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 direct focus on the events is very rare.
  • The Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) is hard to avoid in local media
  • And a host of others.

Examples of famous fictional Civil Wars:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • The Gryps War of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist there was the Ishvalan Civil War which happened in the backstory, and devolved into a Guilt-Free Extermination War due to the Amestrians ordering their genocide.
    • Later on in the manga, Colonol Mustang starts his own revolution to take power and stop the plans of the main villain, assisted by General Armstrong and her forces.

    Comic Books 
  • Astérix provides the page picture (although the names aren't those of the Goth chiefs but doctored to be the names of then-current French politicians). Astérix, Obélix and Getafix engineer an Enemy Civil War berween the Goths to prevent them from invading Gaul before centuries.
  • The Marvel Civil War, with heroes supporting a Super Registration Act fighting those who refused to reveal their identities. Intended to be an Outside Man, Inside Man situation, with the pro-reg group trying to head off an even worse situation by co-operating. This also went meta, the resulting Fandom War, pitting the authors of said story arc versus most of the rest of the fandom and their fellow writers.
    • Its sequel, Civil War II, involves the Marvel superheroes once again split, this time Captain Marvel wants to use someone precognitive powers to prevent crimes and disasters from happening. Iron Man, however, refuses to punish criminals before they commit crimes. All of this is set off by the deaths of War Machine and She-Hulk at the hands of Thanos.

    Fan Fic 
  • In Equestria: A History Revealed, the Equestrian Civil War, when Luna first became Nightmare Moon and attempted to usurp Celestia.
  • Depending on your interpretation of the backstory of Shell Shock, the conflict may or may not be a civil war.
  • Heavily implied to be the case in Welcome To The Brothel.
  • In A Kingdom Divided some of Equestria's towns rebel against Princess Celestia.
  • In Brother Against Sister, it's Prince Blueblood who leads the seceded part of Equestria. Apparently, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic writers love this trope.
  • Occurs twice in Venezuela before the Alien Invasion in Worldwar: War of Equals. First between various political factions after Hugo Chavez's death and the second between Loyalist forces and supporters of the new military leadership after Nicolas Maduro is removed from power by a military coup.
  • Narrowly averted in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfic The Divide. After it's discovered that Sombra was Celestia's son, Cloudsdale secedes from Equestria in disgust, with rumblings as far as the Crystal Empire of others planning the same. However, despite Chrysalis' attempt to inflame the situation, cooler heads prevail, and ultimately the situation is resolved peacefully, with Cloudsdale rejoining.
  • Much like in the books, Son Of The Seven Kingdoms has a civil war, but the number of sides is smaller: the main contendants are Joffrey (who holds the Iron Throne and has the support of the Westerlands) and William (with the support of the North, the Riverlands, Dragonstone and part of the Stormlands), while Renly and the Tyrells seek to ally with William (who is betrothed to Arya Stark) by marrying him to Margaery, Dorne and the Vale are proclaiming neutrality and the Iron Islands might end up becoming independent.
    • After Renly's death, the rest of the Stormlands flock to William, as do several Westerland lords dissatisfied with Lannister rule; the Tyrells are talked into allying with the Lannisters by Littlefinger, who also promises Tywin that he can win over the Vale; Tyrion begins trying to win over Dorne for William; and the Iron Islands still go independent.
  • The W.I.T.C.H. fanfic Ripples has one break out on Meridian following the Darkest Winter Night, between those loyal to Phobos and the so-called Council of Restoration, composed of all the noble houses which view him as an usurper and wish to depose him. However, the latter eventually collapses due to a combination of political infighting and being worn down by Phobos' military, leading to the canon Rebellion beginning.

  • The Galactic Civil War within the Galactic Empire forms the central conflict of the Star Wars franchise, preceded by the Clone Wars, fought between the Galactic Republic and a Confederation formed for seceding Republic planets. Numerous smaller-scale civil wars are noted in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and initially the Empire cracked down on them fiercely, unlike the Republic which usually let them be or sent Jedi to figure things out. Later the Empire was content to let them rage while chasing Rebels.
    • In the EU there's actually a Second Galactic Civil War, this one with the Galactic Alliance (post-New Jedi Order New Republic, which in itself is post-Endor Rebel Alliance) against the Confederacy, which is a group of worlds led by Corellia in an attempt to break away. It ends up shifting the power balance quite a bit; the Jedi Order even forms its own temporary government in order to end the conflict.
  • The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a civil war between loyal agents of SHIELD and infiltrated agents of Hydra. It begins in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it is continued in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

  • A civil war is an important part of the backstory in A Brother's Price. The royal family of Queensland had such a wealth of daughters that the family was split, the older half staying and marrying Michael, the younger half marrying Raphael and moving to rule recently-annexed Southland. But Michael turned out to be infertile, and the younger sisters became more and more insistent that their children be considered the heirs. This led eventually to what was called the War of the False Eldest, which ended with all of the younger sisters and their children being executed. Except, it turned out, for their boy Alannon, who was abducted by Queensland spies; he is dead by the time of the book, but the Royal Blood he passed on certainly has an impact on his grandson.
  • Most of A Song of Ice and Fire is devoted to this. They start calling it The War of the Five Kings in the second or third book. In the Back Story there are more, such as the Dance of the Dragons, the Blackfyre Rebellionsnote  and Robert's Rebellion.
  • Discworld's Ankh-Morpork has a number of Civil Wars in its backstory, though the narrator makes clear that many were accidental, overblown in the retelling, and generally not very competent affairs. It is mentioned that while the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, has created a time of relative peace under his rule, he has done so by playing increasingly small factions against each other, to the point where, although everyone is technically still fighting a civil war, no one can do enough damage or make enough money out of it to become a threat. The Night Watch books in particular utilize the concept.
  • Don Quixote travels to Barcelona, a Spanish province that is at a Civil War at The Cavalier Years
  • The Wizarding Wars of Harry Potter. Presumably Voldemort had his eye on global conquest, but the books focus on his attempts to fully consolidate power in Britain, and those fighting against him from within.
  • The Hanover-Stuart Wars in Waverley.
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls is set during, and about, the Spanish Civil War.
  • In Christian Nation, a dozen or so American states that are in protest of President Steve Jordan enforcing the Fifty Blessings to be the law of the land, superceding the power of the Constitution, attempt to secede, forming the Secular Bloc States, leading to what was called a "holy war" which ultimately ends with the rogue nations being recaptured and the last holdouts of freedom and democracy being laid siege upon in Manhattan.
  • World War Z has one break out in China during the height of the Zombie Apocalypse, between the ruling Communist government (which is insistent on wasting lives on pointless human wave tactics against the zombies) and renegade sections of the military (which realize how stupid those tactics are). This war ultimately ends when a rebel submarine takes out the whole Politburo with a nuclear strike, after which both sides reunite to focus on the zombies.

    Live Action TV 
  • Two of them on Babylon 5: The Earth Alliance Civil War, and later the Minbari Civil War. Several other civil wars are indicated or implied to happen off-screen after the show's end, such as the Telepath War on Earth and Vir's rebellion against Emperor Londo Molari on Centauri Prime.
  • The Dalek Civil War in Remembrance of the Daleks.
    • There was another Dalek Civil War all the way back in The Evil of the Daleks, between the "Human Factor" Daleks created by the Doctor, and the normal Daleks led by the Emperor.
  • The Unification War in the backstory of Firefly, by virtue of its intended analogizing to the The American Civil War.
  • The fight of the Federation against the Maquis in the Star Trek franchise veers from this to portraying them as merely a terrorist group, Depending on the Writer.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation had a rather short-lived (in broadcast terms) civil war in the Klingon Empire, instigated by the House of Duras when Picard (acting as arbiter) snubbed their blatant attempt to install a Puppet King. It lasted two episodes and ended as soon as the Federation stopped the Romulans from supplying the Duras, leading to their quick defeat.
  • Supernatural:
    • Season 6 involves a civil war in Heaven, as the Council of Angels fragments after season five's Screw Destiny ending. On one side, Archangel Raphael and those who think the Apocalypse should be restarted. On the other, Castiel and those he's convinced to try this "free will" thing. There's plenty of spillover onto Earth, although most of it is left to our imagination. It gets so bad Castiel is willing to work with Crowley, then give up on free will altogether and declare himself the new God after absorbing the souls of Purgatory. This ends badly.
    • In Season 9 the remaining angels are all thrown out of Heaven and sent to Earth. Soon multiple factions are fighting a nasty civil war amongst themselves over what the angels should do next. Angels who prefer to remain neutral are hunted down and killed by all the warring factions. There is also a civil war going on in Hell as the Demon Knight Abbaddon has returned and challenged Crowley's position as King of Hell.
      • Comments from Castiel's former followers in Season 7, as well as Metatron in Season 8, suggest that the fighting never actually stopped. It's just that the spillover doesn't reach Earth again until the angels fall in mass at the end of Season 8.
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
    • The show spends the last portion of its first season dealing with the infighting between loyal SHIELD agents and those who served HYDRA. By the time Season 2 starts, however, this conflict is over, allowing SHIELD to focus on HYDRA's external organization.
    • The second half of Season 2, however, deals with another SHIELD civil war, this time between Coulson's rebuilt but traditionally run group, and Robert Gonzales' "real SHIELD", which is dedicated to more transparency and equality among its agents, but has a more hardline approach to dealing with superhumans. That one ended when Coulson revealed Nick Fury was still alive, not to mention his connection to the Avengers. Gonzales wisely ceased further hostilities, giving into Coulson's suggestion to merge amicably.
  • Rome: Much of the series is centered around the civil wars of the late Roman Republic. In the first season Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon after he's declared an outlaw by the Senate, emerging victorious over Pompey Magnus and his allies. After his assassination the Caesarian and conservative factions declare a truce. Then a three-way civil war erupts between a rogue Mark Antony, Octavian, and Brutus and Cassius; Octavian teams up with Antony against Caesar's killers after he had just finished fighting Antony. Finally, there's a civil war between Mark Antony and Cleopatra on the one hand and Octavian on the other, who gives himself absolute power after defeating Antony to end all this infighting for good.
  • Tyrant: In the second season there's an islamic insurgency in Abbudin after a gas attack on the rebels leads them to team up with more radical elements. This becomes an all-out civil war between the Al-Fayeed dictatorship, the Army of the Caliphate, and local militia the Red Hand.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Horus Heresy is one of the biggest setting-defining events of Warhammer 40,000, despite the fact it took place ten thousand years ago in the past. This is due to the fact that the war was so devastating that it resulted in the deaths of trillions, caused the Emperor to essentially die, and cost the Imperium thousands of years of technological innovation, transforming it into a Fascist, but Inefficient dictatorship/theocracy, besieged on all fronts by hostile forces and stuck in Medieval Stasis.
  • Happens frequently in BattleTech. The Free Worlds League tend to be at civil war with each other from time to time, and the Clans don't always agree with one another and fight each other just as often during their Invasion. Then there was the FedCom civil war instigated by Katherine Steiner-Davion for control over two states.
  • The primary setting of Fate of the Norns: Ragnarok: an eternal winter has set in, the end of the world approaches, and Viking society collapses: cue lots of civil wars for what's left.

    Video Games 
  • Dragon Age II shows the beginning of a civil war between the mages and templars which could potentially spread across the world. The player is forced to choose a side, which is more difficult than it sounds. The conflict is more widely depicted in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
    • The first game also contained a conflict between Loghain and the Ferelden nobility.
    • As of Asunder (which takes place shortly after II), civil war is also on the horizon in the Orlesian Empire, the most powerful human nation in the setting. This will be detailed in The Masked Empire.
    • One of the Awful Truths revealed about the elves in Dragon Age: Inquisition is that this is how the original elven homeland was really destroyed, or at least weakened enough for Tevinter to conquer it.
  • In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there's a civil war raging between the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloak rebellion. You can negotiate peace between the two sides (on account of the pressing threat of the entire world getting eaten by dragons), or join up with one. (Or negotiate peace, then join up with one side and end the war anyway.) The civil war itself is a sterling example of Grey and Gray Morality and Both Sides Have a Point in action, neither side is "right" and both sides have negative elements:
    • The Empire is trying to hold onto Skyrim because it needs both the resources and the manpower, especially since they expect a full-scale war with the Aldmeri Dominion in the future. Skyrim also acts as a vital transportation hub, connecting the heart of the Empire to all of its other territories. While the Empire is criticised for not understanding the people of Skyrim or their cultures, they are generally considered fair and just rulers by the common citizens. However, the Empire's vast bureaucracy and weak leadership clog their government with inefficiency.
    • The Stormcloaks view the Empire as an oppressive foreign power that is weak and unfit to rule Skyrim, and are violently opposed to the Empire's ban on the worship of the human god Talos (a clause that was reluctantly added to the peace treaty the Empire signed with the Thalmor). However, the Stormcloaks carry a noticeable degree of Fantastic Racism against non-Nord races, and their rebellion is perceived by many as ill-timed and short-sighted, especially in the face of the true threat of the Thalmor.
    • The entire war was instigated by the Aldmeri Dominion. The Thalmor's intent was to soften up the Empire for another invasion attempt, though they realize they may have underestimated Ulfric. The Dragonborn getting involved and quickly ending the war in favor of either side will completely derail this plan since it means the Thalmor will either have to face a united Empire or a two front conflict against the Empire and Skyrim. The only truly "wrong" choice for the Dragonborn is to do nothing.
  • The Covenant Civil War in Halo, started in the last year of the Human-Covenant War when Prophet of Truth thought that the Sangheilis had outlived their usefulness and tried to extinct them with the help of the Jiralhanaes. Didn't worked so well when the Sangheilis allied with the Humans and destroyed the Covenant as a superpower.
  • In Mass Effect 3, the Robot War between Quarians and the Geth was actually spawned by a Civil War between Quarians who sympathized with the Geth and Quarians who wanted to destroy them all. The Geth only took up arms to defend their friends, but this eventually became "defend themselves" when the quarian sympathizers were rendered into a non-entity.
  • The backstory for Star Trek Online reveals that this is pretty much the state of affairs for the Romulans post-Shinzon that got worse post-Hobus Supernova. The backsotry dealt with the war between Tal'Aura's Romulan Star Empire and Donatra's Imperial Romulan State in the aftermath of Shinzon's rebellion while the main bulk of the Romulan Player Character deals with Sela's Romulan Star Empire (ran by the Tal Shiar) going up against D'Tan's Romulan Republic.
  • The Alliance-Hierarchy War in Star Control is also a civil war for humanity, because there are humans on both sides: the Earthlings on the side of the Alliance, the Androsynth on the side of the Hierarchy.
  • Happens repeatedly in Starcraft. The big reveal in Legacy of the Void is that the Xel'Naga more or less wiped themselves out this way. A rogue faction of Xel'Naga led by Amon grew weary of their duties (they wanted to be gods, not shepherds) and tried to break the Cycle by artificially uplifting the Protoss and the Zerg to use them as weapons. The rest of the Xel'Naga objected and fought against Amon's mad scheme. By the time the dust settled, nearly all of the Xel'Naga had perished.
    Web Comics 

    Web Original 
  • After the takeover of Molossia (now Kickassia), the people of Channel Awesome fracture over the spoils, resulting in one of these: The Nostalgia Critic against everyone else.
  • One of these ended a dynasty in the Acasi Empire, which in turn ended a twenty-year war between the empire and the neighboring city-states of Rhael.
  • Decades of Darkness sees a lot of these:
    • The divergence point is Thomas Jefferson's early death in 1809, starting a series of events that results in New England (along with a disillusioned New York and New Jersey) seceding from the Union, with military help from Britain.
    • Spain eventually has its own civil war, which eventually causes it to split back into Castile and Aragon.
    • In Brazil, anti-slavery/pro-democracy forces within the military eventually stage a coup against the royal family, who escape with support from the Americans, resulting in the country being divided between an American puppet state in the north and a republic in the south.
    • Near the end of the timeline, their losses in the Global War cause Britain and France to break apart into a number of bickering smaller nations.
    • Also near the end of the timeline, there's a civil war in Canada (here an autonomous kingdom instead of a dominion) between supporters of the monarchy and a democracy movement. This one isn't resolved by story's end, but it's speculated in-universe that the republicans will succeed in breaking western Canada away, leaving a rump kingdom in Ontario; left unresolved is the fate of Wisconsin, which is the most heavily divided between the two sides.

    Western Animation 
  • The war for Mobius on the Sonic SatAM cartoon.
  • In Transformers in general, the default state of Cybertron seems to be a state of civil war to provide a reason for robots to shoot each other. There have also been various internal conflicts within both Autobot and Decepticon, and occasionally Maximal, Predacon, and Vehicon ranks.
  • Book 2 of The Legend of Korra starts off with the Northern Water Tribe imposing martial law on the Southern Water Tribe. Considering that the Southern Water Tribe does not recognize Northern leadership and has been allowed to self-govern for almost a century or even longer, this predictably resulted in an insurgency.
    • The end of Book 2 revealed that the civil war was built on false pretenses. Northern Chief Unalaq (probably) didn't give a crap about what the South was doing. He instead wanted unfettered, exclusive access to the Southern Spirit Portal located in Southern Water Tribe territory, and the simplest way to do that was to impose martial law as justification to plant a military base around the portal.
    • The balkanization of the Earth Kingdom happened off-screen shortly after the events of Book 3. The reunification of the Earth Kingdom led by Kuvira also happened off-screen and was mostly glossed over. However, considering that Kuvira had an army and used it to intimidate city leaders to submit to her leadership makes it easy to speculate that the reunification of the Earth Kingdom likely wasn't gentle.
  • In the South Park Imaginationland Trilogy, the war between the Good and Evil Imaginary characters orchestrated by a terrorist cell. Each side had their own separate territory in Imaginationland.