Yet when, towards the end of Trump’s presidency, a radical friend of mine told me he thought America was heading for civil war, I dismissed the argument out of hand. Why? How? ‘Or’ What? It takes a unique confluence of mistakes and crises for civil war to appear possible, and an even longer list of elite mistakes, crises and failures for them to occur.
But 2021 is a different world from 2015. Talking about insurgency, secession, civil conflict and civil war is no longer the gossip of the gullible and the mentally ill. He enters the margins of polite society. Some people support this national divorce; others oppose it. Others claim that they would actually rather declare war on their recalcitrant compatriots rather than let them go their own way without being worried.
None of this morbid interest in civil strife is irrational, given the times. The year 2021 has so far been a spectacular year for signs of political decline: the United States has now seen the appearance, one after another, of all the notable “horsemen of the apocalypse” who historically herald conflicts. and the revolution. Political division among its elites, increasing loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the population, military defeat abroad, and a new and very disturbing crisis in the real economy with no end date in sight.
Any of these crises would be bad enough on their own; taken together, they represent a really serious threat to the stability of the current order. Yet the question that must ultimately be answered is quite simple: What is the likelihood of a civil war, or a national divorce, or a scenario of unrest? To answer this question accurately, it is necessary to dispel some misconceptions about its impossibility.
One of the most disturbing aspects of contemporary American political discussion is the feeling that many participants are often possessed by a thinly veiled thirst for blood. Sometimes that thirst for blood is not even thinly veiled; After unarmed USAF veteran Ashley Babbit was shot and killed through a locked door in the Capitol building, many anonymous and less anonymous commentators have suggested that the problem with police violence in America may not be – not that the officers were shooting and killing too many unarmed people – but rather that perhaps they were not killing enough. After a wave of destructive riots that ravaged many cities across the United States last year, this turn to an open celebration of equally unnecessary violence when visited by the enemy team is testament to a kind of dangerous polarization.
From that kind of bloodlust stems another very common claim: that a Civil War, if fought on American soil, would end quickly and lead to a fairly straightforward slaughter of all the insurgents flying over America. The idea here is that the US military is so advanced, and has so many tanks, gunships, gasoline bombs, and drones, that the federal government is simply assured of victory. As such, a civil war is an unlikely or impossible scenario, given the dramatic imbalance of power between the state and even a numerically large and dissatisfied domestic population.
But this is a dangerous misconception. While the US military is indeed powerful and generously funded, it is an army designed to fight other states. War between states is bound by rules and regulations; it is based on consent. This may seem like an odd claim to make, given that a country cannot simply refuse a declaration of war from an enemy, but it remains true. There is a formal or informal understanding of who is a real fighter and who is not.
In contrast, war in primitive or tribal societies makes no distinction between a civilian and a soldier. There are only enemies; ambushing and killing a 12 year old girl drawing water from the stream is considered normal than killing an adult warrior. This is where the European habit of calling uncivilized peoples “savages” comes from; rather than simply being an expression of racist chauvinism, Europeans were in fact often shocked by the habit of Native Americans and other peoples of not playing by the rules.
But playing by the rules is tough. An insurgency in America has about as many reasons as Native Americans to follow the rules of their enemies; they don’t have to wear flashing strobe lights to be easier for drones to target. And that simple fact means that a counterinsurgency effort in the United States is almost certainly doomed to failure.
In counterinsurgency warfare, whatever makes America’s armed forces formidable, high-tech weapon platforms with immense destructive power, is not only unnecessary but counterproductive. A tank parked outside a mall in Idaho will spend its time shooting at nothing, or run a very high risk of killing innocent American civilians for the serious crime of looking suspicious. The buzz of American weddings, like Afghan weddings, does very little to advance the goals of a counterinsurgency. On the contrary, it only makes those relatives of the dead more likely to fight.
The US armed forces are also at least an order of magnitude too small to do the job effectively. During Operation Banner, the British Army deployed up to 20,000 troops to Northern Ireland to keep a lid on this capricious province. The United States Armed Forces consist of approximately 1.3 million active duty personnel, but these are spread over five branches (Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard), and only a small minority of the military are in fact combat troops.
It is therefore highly unlikely that the armed forces will be able to muster more than 100,000 regulars ready to hold an M4 rifle and patrol the main street of Anytown, Texas. To put that in perspective, Northern Ireland is about 2% the size of Texas.
Then there’s the fact that the biggest political split in America is between rural areas and coastal metropolises, and the armed forces depend on the very areas they would be tasked with overseeing when it comes to recruiting soldiers. . Red America is overrepresented in the military, and that will not change.
As such, the United States not only has too few soldiers, it potentially has unreliable ones, and the more brutality is used against recalcitrant Red States, the more those soldiers will be ordered to fight and to kill their own friends and family – a recipe for serious mutiny and disobedience.
Finally, there is an even bigger elephant in the room. In the case of an American drone pilot accidentally detonating a marriage in Afghanistan, the Afghan relatives of the victims have very little recourse. If an American drone pilot blows up an American marriage, however, that drone pilot and his family live in the United States. Given the likely unreliability of some important parts of the armed forces, the names and addresses of the most hated butchers are unlikely to remain secret for long.
In Northern Ireland, for example, the Provisional IRA not only attacked soldiers; they have made a habit of assassinating officers, commanders and politicians both for revenge and to show their strength. From Lord Mountbatten to a near miss against Margaret Thatcher herself, to a score of lesser-known targets, the IRA illustrates how difficult it is to protect against an enemy who may simply choose not to wear ‘uniform before the visit of his enemies.
Now that said, what is the likelihood that there will be some sort of civil conflict in the near or medium future for the United States?
Unfortunately, the correct answer here may very well be that it is not very unlikely. What is significant about America today is not that it is approaching its 250th anniversary, but rather the clear and advanced signs of illness in the body politic. The ranks of the US military are now sullen and bruised after 20 years of nation-building failure, as its senior officer corps is increasingly removed from the world of its grunts, mirroring that same division cultural, economic and social plague that currently plagues civilian life in the United States.
The legitimacy of its elite has been repeatedly shaken, and confidence in the electoral process itself is now rapidly declining among large segments of the electorate. America is currently a swamp of strange new beliefs, beliefs, soothsayers and itinerant prophets; from Q to vaccine science to various forms of trans-centric pseudo-Gnosticism.
For a history student, this should also be a familiar – and quite disturbing – sign: France in the 1780s had its own scientism and mesmerism, and Russia in the 1910s and 1980s was teeming with new itinerant diviners and preachers. strange religions.
Even more worrying, however, is the growing supply crisis. This crisis would be tolerable if it simply involved a lack of variety in the grocery store. In such a case, the America of the 2020s may well have ushered in a new golden age of Soviet-style political jokes. But it also wreaks havoc on the productive economy itself, denying farmers the spare parts to run their combines and auto manufacturers the metals they need to make cars. The longer the crisis lasts, the more the economy will become shattered, and the more painful the necessary reforms will be, once America’s elites really realize the danger.
If there is a time in history when civil wars are really likely to occur, it is precisely when a delegitimized elite undertakes the necessary reforms after having allowed the underlying problems to fester for decades. This is when states are weakest and vulnerable to the worst forms of internal disasters. Sadly, that may be where America is heading today.