I discuss several conceptual problems raised by current understandings of political violence, especially as they pertain to actions, motivations, and identities in civil wars. Actions “on the ground” often turn out to be related to local and private conflicts rather than the war's driving (or “master”) cleavage. The disjunction between dynamics at the top and at the bottom undermines prevailing assumptions about civil wars, which are informed by two competing interpretive frames, most recently described as “greed and grievance.” Rather than posit a dichotomy between greed and grievance, I point to the interaction between political and private identities and actions. Civil wars are not binary conflicts, but complex and ambiguous processes that foster the “joint” action of local and supralocal actors, civilians, and armies, whose alliance results in violence that aggregates yet still reflects their diverse goals. It is the convergence of local motives and supralocal imperatives that endows civil wars with their particular and often puzzling character, straddling the divide between the political and the private, the collective and the individual.
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