The Citizen as an Actor: Factors Behind Civilian Victimization in Conventional Civil Wars

By Sarah McKinnis

On Friday, November 1st, the Yale International Relations Association (YIRA)’s Global Perspectives Society hosted Laia Balcells, a political scientist and expert in the fields of political violence, nationalism, and ethnic conflict. Balcells earned her PhD from Yale in 2010, and presented findings from research that she “started when [she] was here.” The event was essentially a lecture centered around the question of why there is violence targeting civilians “behind the front lines” during conventional civil wars and specifically the rationale behind civilian deaths. 

As curious students shuffled into WLH and out of the chilly fall air, Balcells began with an introduction to the different types of civil wars—irregular, conventional, and non-conventional symmetric—and explained to the group how violence in conventional civil wars initially seems senseless and random. In a conventional civil war with clear fronts, why would one go behind the front lines to deliberately commit acts of violence against citizens?

Balcells said that when she first started this research, most experts held that view, and she was told that it was not worth pursuing. However, her research revealed that there are, in fact, patterns, to the violence committed against civilians in conventional civil wars. She emphasized the importance of asking questions in these kinds of situations, and studying things that are often ignored and pushed aside. Civilian victimization was something that had been seen as chaotic, full of randomness and “mayhem,” something that should not be studied. Study those topics, she urged us, “even if it’s dark.”

Before presenting her findings, she familiarized her audience with two prevalent theories regarding this violence. First, that of military control, which is the idea that there is more violence in places where control of the area is contested. The second is that of discipline, which is based on how the armed group started resource-wise. If their recruitment was based mainly on ideology and they were otherwise resource-poor, there are higher levels of discipline and less killing of civilians. Conversely, if the group recruited people who were there for opportunistic reasons and the ideology was less of a factor, they would be less disciplined as time went on, resulting in more killing of civilians. However, Balcells emphasized that these theories are flawed and fail to consider a number of factors. 

In order to explain how different factors identified in her research can influence who is targeted in a conventional civil war, Balcells employed the Spanish Civil War as a case study. For this lecture, she chose to focus on the reasoning behind direct violence, which is more intimate and usually selective, such as executions. We looked at color-coded maps of Aragon and Catalonia from 1936 to 1939 that revealed the variability in killings by village in the regions under both rebel and loyalist control. 

Why the variability? First, political factors. When Balcells did her research, she took issue with the fact that politics was largely ignored in the analysis of the dynamics of violence, despite the fact that politics is a crucial factor at the onset of civil wars. It is “unrealistic,” she told us, to believe that pre-war polarization has nothing to do with who is targeted during the war. In areas of unilateral military control, civilians will be persecuted only if there has been significant pre-war political mobilization in that area, and strong supporters of the rival group are perceived as a threat. 

Emotions play a large role in who is targeted, too. Once violence has started, there is a rise in emotions such as anger and a desire for vengeance. Balcells explained that more violence initially will lead to increased violence in the following time period, motivated more by revenge than by strategic or political reasons. If your family is harmed or killed by a rebel group, you are more likely to want to commit violence against those responsible than if you were not personally affected. In Balcells’ analysis of violence in the Spanish Civil War, once control of a region had changed hands, there was a strong correlation between the number of executions in the first period and those in the second period. 

Overall, the most deciding factor of violence in a community is how close the distribution of supporters versus opposers in that area is to parity. Direct violence is much more selective because it deals with the execution of group members or of “fifth columnists” (individuals or groups within a country at war who side with its enemies), so local citizens are much more relevant in the perpetrator’s ability to commit violence. Balcells presented a bell curve and three scenarios to help us understand how influential civilian agency is, with frequency of armed-group supporters at .25, .54, and .7. The only situation where cooperating with the armed group was beneficial to citizens was when the proportion of supporters was at .54. The effect of this can be seen in variation within a single conflict, as well as in comparison between conflicts. In the other cases, it was either futile or unnecessary to cooperate in violence. 

Balcells confirmed this model using statistics from the Spanish Civil War. Because the outbreak of the civil war was so linked to the election, she calculated competition in each area by looking at the percentage of votes for each side. Higher competition indicated higher parity, which indeed paralleled more occurences of violence. Citizens were not just acting to increase violence, but also to prevent it. When there was a situation in which violence had higher costs than benefits, they might tell the armed group that nobody supporting the opposition was living there, or that they had all recently left. The nature of civilian agency also led Balcells to discover that the effect of political and emotional factors is stronger in smaller communities, due to the lack of anonymity. In contrast with a small town, it is possible to leave or hide in a big town without being noticed.

As Balcells’ time with us drew to a close, she summarized her findings, challenging us to consider civilians not just as victims of conflicts, but as actors who have an impact, particularly in the case of lethal violence against civilians. It was an incredibly informative hour, and the audience left with a much better understanding of the motivators of civilian victimization in conventional civil wars, as well as a desire to read more of Balcells’ research.

Sarah McKinnis is a sophomore in Trumbull College. You can contact her at