"All wars are Civil Wars, because all men are brothers."
What's so civil about war anyway?
—The last line of the Guns N' Roses song "Civil War"
A Civil War is an intense conflict between organized groups to take control of a nation or region, or to change government policies. To be considered a "war" rather that a minor uprising depends on the high-intensity of the conflict and the involvement of regular armed forces, required to be sustained, organized and large-scale. Both sides have to have a genuine chance to achieve their aims in the conflict. Generally, Civil Wars are fought between a status quo ruling body of the state, and those who wish to change said state. Separating a Civil War from a rebellion is difficult, and often is determined by the length of the war, and the relative success of the rebelling element.
Those fighting in Civil Wars usually do not term it as such at the time, as part of the propagandist power of language: the ruling power will term it it as an action against a dangerous uprising by crazed rebels. Said rebels will consider themselves Freedom Fighters against an overbearing ruling class. However, it is just as likely for a small group of rebels to claim Civil War status (as such terminology would give their actions an air of legitimacy 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 not be so termed.
No matter who prevails, it is often a Pyrrhic Victory, as, depending on the world situation, internal conflict provides a ripe opportunity for conquest by another nation: 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 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.
- The Wars of the Roses (1455-1485), famously depicted in Shakespeare's plays.
- The English Civil War(s) (1642-1651)
- The American Civil War (1861-1865)
- The Russian Civil War (1918-1923)
- The Chinese Civil War c.1927-1949
- The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)
- Korean War (1950-1953), started out as a civil war, later became an international war.
- The Troubles (1969-1998)
- The Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009)
- And a host of others.
Anime and Manga
- 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.
- 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.
- The War of the Five Kings in A Song of Ice and Fire
- Don Quixote travels to Barcelona, a Spanish province that is at a Civil War at The Cavalier Years.
- The Dalek Civil War in Remembrance of the Daleks.
- The Unification War in the backstory of Firefly, by virtue of its intended analogizing to 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.
- 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.
- 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 first game also contained a conflict between Loghain and the Ferelden nobility.
- 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 The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there's a civil war raging between the Imperial Legion and the Stormcloaks. 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.
- 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, and the province connects the heart of the Empire to all of its other territories. Added to this is that the Empire needs Skyrim because they expect a full-scale war with the Aldmerri Dominion in the future, and is still reeling from the last one. The Stormcloaks, however, 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 (as part of the peace treaty the Empire signed with the Dominion). Both sides also have their negative elements; the Empire does not understand the people of Skyrim or their cultures, and their vast bureaucracy and weak leadership makes them an inefficient government. Accidentally trying to execute the Dragonborn for a crime s/he didn't commit because the captain didn't want to double-check the lists did not help them any. On the other hand, the Stormcloaks possess a noticeable degree of Fantastic Racism, and their rebellion is perceived by many as ill-timed and short-sighted.
- The war for Mobius on the Sonic the Hedgehog 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.