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Allowed Internal War

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In some works of speculative fiction the overarching authority of a nation has so little direct control over its provinces or client states that they occasionally go to open war with one another and the king can't do a thing to stop it. They might even openly condone it. So long as they follow the rules, of course.

In general, these conflicts tend to come in two forms:

  • Sometimes, these conflicts are explicitly permitted and condoned by the central authority factually or nominally overseeing everybody. In these cases, the ruler may very deliberately foment conflicts between their subjects as a form of divide et impera — if your subjects spend all of their time fighting each other, they're far less likely to want to unite to face a common foe (say, for instance, you), and if they do revolt they will likely be too disorganized and sapped of their strength to be able to do so effectively. In other cases, however, this may be maintained simply for the sake of traditions, or the central ruler may just not really care what their subjects get up to as long as the taxes come in on time. These conflicts tend to be the most organized, and the most likely to be subject to specific rules of conduct.
  • In other cases, the central ruler may not want their subjects to go to war with each other, but cannot stop them. This tends to be a sign that the central authority is weak or failing, and as its control over its subjects slip these become and more independent and more likely to actively war against each other instead of going through official channels to resolve grievances. These conflicts are far more likely to be destructive and unregulated. Typically, over the course of a story the central authority will either be able to bring its subjects back into heel, or else it will fall apart entirely and the country will fully fragment into truly independent states.

This tends to be a standard part of feudal governments, futuristic or otherwise. It's also fairly likely to happen in a Multiple Government Polity. Interpreted figuratively, it is viewed as a dissent-limiting tactic in Real Life; in the words of Noam Chomsky: "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum...."


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Last Exile: The Guild who control all technology on the planet allow the continental powers of Disith and Anatoray to wage endless, fruitless war with each other. They do this partly for amusement, and partly because it keeps the nations from realizing that the Guild is who they should really be fighting.

    Comic Books 
  • Albedo: Erma Felna EDF: In Issue #11, a planet had a civil war and Toki said that normally the EDF would let them have at it, but the 80% of the system's population that wasn't entangled in the war petitioned them to intervene.
  • Black Moon Chronicles: The sprawling Empire of Lynn has very little control over its provinces outside the capital region, so is often unable to stop them from going to war with each other, while the Emperor spends most of his time on various campaigns against insubordinate governors to reassert the crown's authority.
  • Flash Gordon: The many worlds dominated by Ming the Merciless are allowed to fight among themselves, since it weakens their defenses and undermines their ability to overthrow Ming. It's not until Flash negotiates a cease-fire that Ming's empire begins to crumble.

  • Flash Gordon (1980): During the presentation of tributes in Emperor Ming's audience hall, Prince Vultan tries to give Ming the fabled Ice Jewel of Frigia. He says the Hawkmen took it in battle. Prince Barin angrily challenges him, saying that Vultan stole it while the Arborians were burying their dead. Klytus forbids them from fighting in the Emperor's palace, but it's apparently O.K. for kingdoms to fight one another everywhere else. While Princess Aura is with Flash, she tells him that this is a deliberate policy on Ming's part.
    Aura: Every moon of Mongo is a kingdom. My father keeps them fighting. It's a really brilliant strategy.
  • The Warriors: Coney Island is the home turf the Warriors, one of many street gangs that have carved up New York City into fiefdoms. These gangs are too numerous, too organized and too Ax-Crazy for the police to handle; when the gangs fight one another, the police are nowhere to be found, preferring to let the psychopaths to kill each other off.

  • The Belgariad: In the backstory, Arendia spent many centuries locked in a brutal three-way civil war between the duchies of Mimbre, Asturia, and Wacune.
  • The Dark Elf Trilogy: The noble families of the Drow city of Menzoberranzan are ranked in a strict hierarchy. The only way to move up is to defeat a house of higher rank, with the ultimate goal of becoming one of the top eight families which comprise the ruling council. While such wars are more or less a spectator sport for houses not involved, for the war to be considered valid the attackers must eliminate every man, woman and child of the defeated family, leaving no drow noble to speak against the victors (commoners and slaves don't count and are usually eager to join the winners). If they fail, the ruling House Baenre destroys them, while strengthening itself by adopting the survivors of the defeated house. It's observed at least once that no matter who wins inter-house conflicts at a tactical level, it's really Baenre that always comes out on top.
  • Destiny's Forge: The kzinti have a form of internal war called skalazaal, which any pride can declare on any other... but they are restricted solely to muscle-powered weapons when they do so, in order to keep tactics like Orbital Bombardment or Atomic Hate from being used in settled territory.
  • Dune: The Great Houses frequently war with each other over planets. They even have a system of rules known as kanly meant to minimize civilian deaths and other collateral damage (such as forbidding the use of nuclear weapons on living targets). The original book starts out with House Harkonnen beginning a "War of Assassins" to reclaim Arrakis from House Atreides (the Harkonnens lost their contract with the CHOAM Company that monopolizes the trade in Arrakis's spice), secretly with the support of the Emperor.
  • Sector General: In one of the early stories, the eponymous hospital takes in a large number of wounded humans and Monitors. One of the Monitors explains to the viewpoint character, a surgeon, that Earth decided to have a war, which is apparently something the galactic government lets happen every so often in "Normals" so aggressive tendencies can work themselves out. They go so far as to provide a suitable uninhabited planet and place restrictions on what weapons are allowed. (The reason Sector General is taking in wounded is that this one got out of control.)
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: The various feudal houses can wage wars against each other, and often do for reasons varying from disputes over land and resource ownership to personal grudges, although overstepping certain bounds will result in an intervention from the king.
    • In the Dunk and Egg prequels, a very small scale feudal war is seen between two very petty houses, Osgrey and Webber, trying to resolve who owns the fresh water supply during a drought.
    • The "Lords Declarant" of the Vale of Arryn raise an army and briefly lay siege to the Eyrie in order to remove Lord Petyr Baelish as Lord Protector during heir-apparent Robert Arryn's minority. They formally declare their intentions to their liege, Queen Regent Cersei Lannister; they do not ask for aid, but only for the crown to refrain from interfering. She replies that Baelish is not to be harmed; otherwise, she doesn't seem particularly bothered.
  • Theta starts on board a passenger liner carrying refugees from the latest war between Brynton's houses.
  • Wolfs Empire Gladiator: The Galactic Roman Empire allows its noble houses to fight among themselves for dominance. There's only one apparent rule: don't let your fight stray into Terra Firma province, ruled directly by the emperor. When the war between House Viridian and House Sertorian did this in the immediate Backstory, the Praetorian Guard utterly annihilated both fleets on orders of the emperor, who then ordered that the war be settled by gladiator tournament.
  • Mistborn: The Original Trilogy: The Lord Ruler will periodically allow internal strife within his empire in order to cull anyone who might be getting too powerful. Usually this takes the form of a house war among the high nobility, but the occasional skaa rebellion can serve the same purpose. As the Lord Ruler is powerful enough to crush any other force in the empire (single-handedly, if necessary), he himself doesn't need to fear these sorts of conflicts.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5: The Drazi choose their leaders by a practice of randomly dividing themselves into "Green" and "Purple" factions once every five years. The two factions then fight it out over possession of a sash of office, and the side with the most victories wins and their leader becomes the ruler of the Drazi state. They aren't supposed to use deadly force, but the Green Drazi aboard the station decide that ignoring that rule will only have consequences if they lose... And to futher complicate the situation, it turns out that there's no rule that requires the faction leader to be a Drazi themselves, as opposed to a very annoyed Earth Alliance officer who would like them to go and have their war somewhere else.

    Mythology and Religion 
  • The Bible: The Book of Esther has the king's Evil Chancellor decree that the Jews must be slaughtered, and makes this official with the king's own seal. The king is in love with Esther, but can't contradict an order bearing his seal, so instead he allows Esther to warn her people and arm themselves.

  • Friends at the Table: In the PARTIZAN series, one of the dystopian characteristics of the Divine Principality is the normalization of a constant state of low-level civil war. As part of its guiding philosophy of Asterism, making internal conflict an accepted and regulated part of the Principality's very culture means internal conflict cannot threaten the Principality's continued existence, if anything simply reinforcing its ideals. By the finale, the challenge the revolutionary group Millennium Break faces is to fight the Principality in a way that can't be spun as heroic underdogs resisting a corrupt system, as while being recognized as a legitimate political movement will benefit their PR and resources, it will neuter their goal of overthrowing the Principality entirely.

    Tabletop Games 
  • BattleTech: The Clans are all subject to a single Grand Council composed of the Khans and in times of crisis presided over by an ilKhan. But when they're not at risk of extinction the Clans are constantly fighting over planets in "Trials of Possession" in their idea of improving the genepool.
  • Exalted: Not quite at the level of war, but the Scarlet Empress built the entire political structure of the Realm around constant internecine conflict between the various Houses descended from her bloodline, with the idea that she would be the only force with actual power who could resolve all disputes. This worked just fine until the Empress suddenly vanished...
  • Ironclaw: Calabria is feudal, so houses have wars every so often, but the vassals of House Bisclavret are notorious for their petty wars.
  • Lancer:
    • Union is stretched thin cleaning up SecComm's messes so conflicts between subject governments often escalate into open warfare before the Navy intervenes. In the case of the Proxy War between Harrison Armory and the Karrakin Trade Baronies in the Dawnline Shore they haven't been able to do much more than blockade the Blink gate.
    • The Karrakin Trade Baronies have a long tradition of limited brush wars between houses, often reduced to elaborate Combat by Champion in mecha.
  • Traveller: The Third Imperium is so loosely confederated that subject planets are allowed to have internal wars so long as they don't spill onto other worlds, attempt to secede from the Imperium, or use nukes. "Trade Wars" are also allowed as a method for preventing market saturation, in which case Mega Corps can fight on multiple planets so long as damage is limited to their employees and property.
  • Warhammer 40,000 has small internal wars happen all the time usually between factions on a single planet, while many worlds fight a local insurgency as well. Due to the inefficient communications, these planetary civil wars may be over before the wider Imperium learns of them (if ever) and as long as the taxes keep being paid by the new regime, they don't care.

    Video Games 
  • Celestus: The player can wage war against Nations in their own Faction with or without penalty, depending on what the Chancellor of said Faction thinks of rebellion.
  • Crusader Kings II: Implemented differently depending on whether the Conclave DLC is turned on. The 2.6 patch additionally gives lieges the ability to arbitrate a conclusion to wars inside a realm (by commanding defending rulers or revolt leaders to surrender, or attackers to ask for "white peace", meaning status quo antebellum).
    • Without Conclave, the Crown Authority law for your empire or kingdom dictates this. Under Minimum or Low Crown Authority, your vassals can fight each other freely, though technically this is only "allowed" in the sense that your king is too weak to do anything about it. At Medium or above, the only wars they can pursue are either against foreign realms (i.e. a vassal develops a claim on and conquers a county belonging to another nation using their own troops), or against their liege (whether that's yourself or a higher-tier vassal). Most players try to institute at least Medium Crown Authority to prevent vassals from consolidating lands and becoming a threat to them. Note that this law does not apply to vassals who are not within the de jure borders of your personal titles; they may still wage war with impunity.
    • With Conclave, Crown Authority is broken into several sub-laws. The top liege is permitted to enact laws banning internal wars, but unless this is enacted they're only permitted to use their realm council to "enforce realm peace" once every five years as long as the council is content (i.e. the liege has been in office for three or more years and/or has not gone against the will of the council recently), forcibly ending all wars between their direct vassals (including revolts against direct vassals).
  • Destiny: The Hive, as social darwinists to the point of omnicidal mania, will gladly wage war among themselves in between genocides, so that weakness might be culled even from their own species. Their higher-ups, who have Resurrective Immortality, consider killing each other to be both a sacred duty and an expression of love.
  • The Elder Scrolls:
    • During the 1st Era, the Alessian Order, a rabidly anti-Elven religious Theocracy came to power within the Alessian Empire. At their height, the Order held nearly as much power as the Emperor. However, the extreme severity and strictness of the Order eventually led to the fracture of the Alessian Empire. To note:
      • The Order (and the Alessian Empire in general) was dealt a significant blow when the Order-supporting Nordic King Borgas was killed. As Borgas was the last direct descendant of Ysgramor, the Nordic Empire erupted in the War of Succession following his death. Though the Order survived for thousands of years after, the Alessian Empire (and thus the Order) was significantly weakened without their powerful Nordic allies to the north.
      • The Colovian King Rislav started an uprising against the Order. He inspired the Direnni Altmer of High Rock and the High King of Skyrim, Hoag Merkillernote , to fight against the Order as well. Though the Order would survive, they were dealt a crushing blow by the combined forces of their enemies at the Battle of Glenumbria Moors, which robbed the Empire of several more supporting nations (including the fracturing of Cyrodiil itself).
      • Internal strife within the Order finally led to its end during the War of Righteousness. Many details of the war have been lost, but it is said that half the population of the Iliac Bay was wiped out during the decade-long war and the Order's headquarters, a monastic complex at Lake Canulus, was razed.
    • During the usurpation of the Empire that Arena covers (though it isn't present in that game, but in the backstory and in-game books of the next game), Jagar Tharn, in the guise of Uriel Septim VII, either didn't or couldn't bother with preventing wars between and within the provinces, leading to several separate conflicts (such the Arnesian War between Argonia and Morrowind, or the War of the Bend'r-makh between Skyrim on one side, and High Rock and Hammerfell on the other) whose consequences still undermine Imperial rule even after Tharn is overthrown and the true Uriel VII restored. Even in other, less usurpation-filled times, smaller local wars were still tolerated within the Empire, such as the War of Betony between the Hammerfell kingdom of Sentinel and the High Rock kingdom of Daggerfall.
    • Introduced in Morrowind, the Morag Tong was sanctioned by the Dunmeri government specifically to avert this trope, as open warfare between the Great Houses is destructive, disruptive, expensive, and weakens the Dunmer overall. The threat of having legal assassins sicced against you mostly keeps the Great House leaders in line.
    • In the 200-year Time Skip between the events of Oblivion and Skyrim, the Empire was severely weakened by the fall of the ruling Septim dynasty, making it unable to stop several wars between its vassal states. With Morrowind trashed by the eruption of Red Mountain, Argonia invaded the Dunmer in revenge for centuries of slave-trafficking and reconquered areas that had historically belonged to them (the Empire's inaction in all of this led to Morrowind's government seceding altogether after House Redoran halted the Argonian advance). Meanwhile the Bretons of High Rock and Redguards of Hammerfell sacked Orsinium, the city-state homeland of the Orcs (though the Empire did intervene militarily in this case, they were too late to prevent the destruction of the city itself). Eventually, immediately prior to the events of Skyrim, the Skyrim Civil War erupts between the Nords who support the Empire and those who seek independence behind Ulfric Stormcloak. At least here, the Cyrodiilic Empire attempts to avert the trope by sending Imperial reinforcements, but not until the entire eastern half of Skyrim has seceded to the side of the rebellion.
  • Imperium Nova: Houses can fight each other, but they can't have battles on planets under Imperial Jurisdiction unless the attacker has feud points against the defending house or one of them is a "Renegade", breaking that rule automatically gets your House declared Renegade and thus open game for every house in the galaxy.
  • Mass Effect: The Turian Unification War in background history started with the outer colonies of the Turian Hierarchy, having culturally drifted apart over the centuries and become xenophobic, started warring with each other. The central government on Palaven refused to intervene beyond diplomacy for several years but once the warring colonies cut each other down to less than a dozen factions, all of them exhausted from the war, the government stopped being neutral and swiftly forced them back in line with comparatively minimal effort.
  • Star Trek Online: In the Klingon Defense Force storyline, the Player Character at one point takes part in a war between the House of Martok and the House of Torg, with the Klingon High Council mostly ignoring it as just another day in the Klingon Empire (despite the fact that the Empire itself is in the middle of a war with the Federation). That is, until Worf and Alexander Rozhenko, representing the House of Martok, present evidence that Torg had been colluding with the Romulans to destroy Martok.
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic: The Sith are already known for fighting and plotting against each other as much as they do against the Jedi and Republic, but the Sith Inquisitor storyline introduces us to a fight to the death called a "Kaggath". Unlike a normal duel between two Sith Lords, this one involves them using each others' power bases to defeat their rival in addition to their own powers. That means any military assets they have under their command can and are used against the other. Furthermore, the challenger gets to pick the arena, which can be a city, a planet or even the whole galaxy. And this is all perfectly legal in the Sith Empire. The Inquisitor's nemesis Darth Thanaton calls for one of these on Corellia, even though the Empire is already engaged in a massive battle with the Republic on that world (not to mention the overall war with the Republic). Needless to say this is very helpful to the good guys. Defied however when Thanaton tries to rally support from the Dark Council after losing, upon which they mock him for wasting time and resources rather than just trying to kill you (especially since by that point the Empire has formally gone to war with the Republic in the other class storylines).
    Darth Ravage: The Kaggath is a playground game. Murder has no rules.
  • Stellaris:
    • Beginning with update 1.3, Jingoistic Reclaimers allow their vassals, or Thralls, to fight wars with one another but not to colonize empty planets, presumably to reduce the threat they may pose.
    • Nemesis DLC allows one to reform the Galactic Community into a Galactic Imperium. One law the Emperor can then institute is a "Pax Galactica", which forbids the imperial subjects from making war against one another. Unless the "Trial of Advancement" resolution is also passed, in which subject nations without a seat on the Imperial Council can challenge a Council member for their seat.
  • Tyranny: Kyros the Overlord permits their archons to war with one another in Act II, and in Act III, formally declares that whatever Archon kills or subjugates all the others in the Tiers will get the realm as their own.

  • Evon: The Duke of the Pridelands doesn't mind if his vassals kill each other off in petty wars, so long as they file a formal declaration of war. Hero had to leave because he slew the lord who had his mother assassinated (with no evidence) without declaring war or challenging him to a duel.

    Real Life 
  • U.S. history:
    • The threat of this was one of the things that led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states were feuding with each other so badly that one or two of them were considering military action against a neighbor. Technically the Constitution itself does not outright forbid individual states from going to war without the rest of the country, but it requires permission from Washington. So far it hasn't happened yet.
    • The Toledo War (1835-6), where the state of Ohio and the territory of Michigan went to war over a strip of land both claimed to be theirs. The US government tried to intervene politically but did little to actually keep them from fighting each other. In the end though, the war ended without any casualties when Congress offered Michigan statehood and the Upper Peninsula in exchange for abandoning their claim on the Toledo strip.
    • "Bleeding Kansas" (1854-9) became the name for what was essentially a Proxy War between the North and South leading up to The American Civil War over whether the Kansas Territory would be admitted to the Union as a slave or free state: the winning side would (theoretically) gain additional representation in Congress, meaning increased power in the abolition debate. Armed gunmen and militias from both sides killed people or seized territory to gain an advantage over the other leading up to the vote on statehood. The federal government was too divided by the issue to be able to restore order. The "free" side eventually won, and Kansas was formally admitted as a free state shortly after the Civil War's official beginning.
    • The Hatfield-McCoy feud was so bad that West Virginia and Kentucky threatened to go to war with each other over the whole affair. Since the Civil War was a recent memory (the feud was fueled by loyalties during that war), the Federal Government was having none of that and stepped in to put a stop to it. All this was started over a murder, a real-life Romeo and Juliet, and who owned a pig.
  • During the last years of the USSR the central authority decayed so much that Armenia and Azerbaijan, still Soviet Socialist Republics, declared war on each other and Moscow was powerless to do anything about it other than bleat about peace. The war continued after the USSR's final demise, and Armenia and Azerbaijan still aren't on speaking terms.
  • For most of Japan's recorded history, the royal family has theoretically been the divinely ordained heads of state, but during the shogunates the emperor didn't have any real authority, so the lords of the various domains frequently warred with each other for power. The Sengoku Period is arguably the most famous of these. This ended with the Meiji Restoration, which saw the emperor take back the reins of power from the Tokugawa Shogunate (over the shogun's strenuous objections); Emperor Meiji abolished the traditional caste system and reformed Japan into a Western-style parliament-supported monarchy.
  • The Percy-Neville feud in Northern England in the 1450s was, like the Hatfield-McCoy feud, a vicious rivalry between two rich, powerful, well-connected families that turned into a series of bloody clashes between them — made all the worse by the fact that, being medieval aristocrats, each side had its own army of knights. The Crown's authority so far north was extremely weak, especially following the king's mental breakdown after England's defeat in The Hundred Years War, and their efforts to intervene consisted largely of Strongly Worded Letters to both sides. The various alliances both sides formed with other noble factions — which ultimately extended all the way to the royal court — ended up helping to kick-start the Wars of the Roses.