Rumors of Civil War – Would America Survive?

Unherd:

Talk of insurrection, secession, civil conflict and civil war is no longer the chatter of the gullible and the mentally ill. It’s entering the fringes of polite society. Some support this ‘national divorce’; others are opposed to it. Others claim they would actually prefer to declare war on their recalcitrant countrymen rather than let them go their own way unmolested.

Historically speaking, empires on average last for around 250 years, after which they tend to either slowly — or very, very quickly — fall apart due to overreach and internal conflict. Somewhat ominously, the 250th birthday of America is coming up in 2026.

Yet when, towards the end of Trump’s presidency, a radical friend of mine told me that he thought America was headed for civil war, I dismissed the argument out of hand. Why? How? It takes a unique confluence of mistakes and crises for civil war to appear possible, and an even longer list of mistakes, crises and elite screw-ups for them to happen.

But 2021 is a different world. None of this morbid interest in civil conflict is irrational, given the times.

The year 2021 has thus far been a spectacular year for signs of political decline: the US has now seen all the notable “horsemen of the apocalypse” that historically herald strife and revolution appear, one after another.

  • Political division among its elites
  • Increasing loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the population
  • Military defeat abroad
  • A new and very ominous crisis in the real economy, with no end date in sight.

Any one of these crises would be bad enough on their own; taken together, they represent a truly serious threat to the stability of the current order. Still, the question to be answered at the end of the day is quite simple: how likely is civil war, or national divorce, or a ‘troubles scenario’ really?

To answer this question accurately, a few misconceptions about it being impossible have to be dealt with.

One of the most worrisome aspects of contemporary American political discussion is the sense one often gets that many participants are possessed by a thinly-veiled bloodlust. Sometimes, that bloodlust is not even thinly-veiled.

After the unarmed USAF veteran Ashley Babbit was fatally shot through a locked door in the Capitol building, many anonymous (and some less anonymous) commentators intimated that perhaps the problem with police violence in America wasn’t that officers were shooting and killing too many unarmed people — but rather that maybe they just weren’t killing enough of them.

Following a wave of destructive riots that tore through many cities in the United States last year, this turn toward open celebration of equally useless violence when it is visited on the enemy team speaks to a dangerous sort of polarisation.

From this sort of bloodlust flows another very common assertion: that a civil war, if waged on American soil, would be over quickly, and lead to a fairly effortless massacre of any insurrectionists in flyover America. The idea here is that the US military is so advanced, and has so many tanks, gunships, fuel air 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, dissatisfied internal population.

But this is a dangerous misconception. While the US military is indeed powerful and lavishly funded, it is a military designed to fight other states. Warfare between states is bound by rules and regulations; it is based on consent. This might seem a strange assertion to make, given that a country cannot just decline a war declaration from an enemy, but it holds true. There’s a formal or informal understanding of who is an actual combatant and who is not.

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