Summary: First, this is the wrong question. Nobody would win. It would be catastrophic, as is true of all wars. Second, there are no blue or red states, only ever-changing shades of purple.
“Nearly every government that goes to war underestimates its duration, neglects to tally all the costs, and overestimates the political objectives that can be accomplished by the use of brute force.”
– The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs (source)
Last week (in March 2019) congressman Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, created controversy by posting an image on social media that asked whether red states or blue states would win in a second U.S. civil war (the clear implication is that the red states would). Understandably, King received a lot of criticism for this, for contributing to a political ecosphere that is already steeped in heated rhetoric, in which real political violence has been on the increase. King has since deleted the image. However, with anxieties and polarization growing, talk of a possible second civil war in the U.S. is still relatively rare at this point (March 2019). Yet I can’t recall another period in my lifetime where I’ve heard it with such regularity. Even Stanford’s Niall Ferguson has written about this.
Others have opined on King’s glibly pondering civil war as a sitting member of Congress, or that he overlooked the fact that his own state is “blue” in the image, his transphobia, or his timing (the post came just a day after a white supremacist killed 50 people in New Zealand mosques). I’d like to focus on the idea of “winning” a civil war.
First, a step back. The way that we initially frame a question has a big impact on our thinking. As the linguist George Lakoff wrote during the First Gulf War, “metaphors can kill.” To frame war solely in terms of winning and losing (ex. an image of two boxers) does a great disservice to what actually happens during wars. Lakoff continued: “It is important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and in a war, they could afflict tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of real human beings, whether Iraqi, Kuwaiti, or American.” Certainly, the same suffering would apply to a civil war in the U.S.
In a similar vein, the former war correspondent Chris Hedges wrote in his book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” that we should distinguish between “mythic war” and “sensory war.” Mythic war is deceptively seductive, offering people the chance to participate in what they believe is a great noble cause, though people’s justifications may vary (to defeat evil, for freedom, for party, for God, for country, for one’s ethnic group, to avenge past wrongs, etc.). Mythic war’s perennial appeal resides in its apparent opportunity to help people find meaning by contributing to something potentially historic and bigger than themselves, particularly for people who feel forgotten or marginalized. For these reasons, Hedges wrote, war can be an “addictive narcotic.”
By contrast, Hedges wrote, sensory war refers to the on-the-ground experiences, the fear, the atrocities, the “blunders and senseless slaughter by our generals, the execution of prisoners and innocents,” ultimately revealing that – quoting WW1 veteran Harry Patch – war is “organized murder and nothing else.”
Historical Lessons: How Destructive Would a Civil War Be?
Binghamton historian J. David Hacker concluded that the number of deaths attributed to the 1861-65 U.S. Civil War, typically cited as 620,000, was likely an underestimate (Hacker 2011). Using data from the U.S. Census, Hacker concluded there were between 650,000 to 850,000 excess male deaths during the war, settling on the middle figure of 750,000.
According to the 1860 Census, the U.S. population was 31,443,321 people. Therefore, Hacker’s estimates of excess male deaths would be equivalent to losing between 2.0% and 2.7% of the total population at the time. If we apply those same rates to today’s U.S. population of 328 million people, it would result in about 6.6 to 8.9 million deaths, a rather shocking total. To get a sense of such a loss, that would be roughly tantamount to losing the entire population of Indiana or Virginia.
Of course, there is no a priori reason to assume that mortality rates in a second civil war would remain the same. One can easily imagine that things could be less or more lethal today under different scenarios. And each of those deaths would be absolutely unnecessary.
Civilians in War
To add to this, Hacker’s estimates referred only to excess male deaths that occurred primarily as a result of physical trauma or infectious diseases contracted during the war. It didn’t account for deaths of noncombatants. Compared to some wars, civilians in the U.S. Civil War were relatively spared, though atrocities, forced displacement, food shortages, sieges, and destroyed villages and cities certainly occurred, as Hacker acknowledged:
“Although examples abound, the total number of civilian deaths during the Civil War is unknown. Refugees in all wars, especially the very young and very old, are at a heightened risk of death. The vast majority of the war’s civilian deaths occurred in the South. No doubt some of the South’s many refugees, who fled from battles and areas occupied by the Union army, died. Food and supply shortages likely contributed to higher than normal mortality in the South. Many southern families suffered from food shortages during the “hard winter” of 1864–65. “Deaths from Starvation,” according to a group of Alabama residents in a letter to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, “have absolutely occurred.” Slaves who took the opportunity to escape bondage and flocked to Union army camps suffered outbreaks of camp diseases.” (p. 326)
These effects are harder to quantify, but Hacker cited historian James McPherson’s estimate that perhaps 50,000 U.S. civilians died as a result of the Civil War. There are reasons to believe that a full-blown civil war today would be much more punishing for civilians than in the past, which makes it plausible that the number of deaths could surpass the figures calculated above. In most recent conflicts around the world (Yemen, Ukraine, Syria, Bosnia, Afghanistan, DRC, Somalia, Myanmar, etc.), civilians are frequently harmed and often deliberately targeted. In addition, a civil war in the U.S. today could be much more extensive than one fought in the 1860s due to the more destructive weaponry and technology available than a century and a half ago. On the other hand, medicine and public health efforts are also much better than they were (though these too are often targeted in modern wars). And, as seen in the case of the Rwandan genocide, where more than half of those who died were killed via machete, advanced weaponry is not a necessary to kill large numbers of people (Verwimp 2006). So, who knows how destructive another war would be?
Historians Mark Grimsley and Clifford Rogers (2002) argued that views on how civilians have fared in war over the centuries have tended to fall into three broad camps. The first group sees militaries as becoming more enlightened and restrained toward non-combatants. Examples might include the Geneva Conventions and so-called “precision” weapons that aim to spare civilians. There is also the contrary position, which views war as becoming more brutal (i.e., genocides, deliberate firebombing of cities during the Second World War, and indiscriminate cluster bombing in various countries). The third group views the brutality of war as a constant. To this point, they quoted the general William Tecumseh Sherman, who wrote to the city of Atlanta that “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
Grimsley and Rogers concluded that all three views are overly simplistic, and that war’s effects on civilians have not been uniform over time. Instead, each episode of war should be considered as an individual case, the effects of which will depend upon local, idiosyncratic factors. This makes sense, and aligns well with my own anthropological background, which emphasizes context and contingency. However, given the evidence from most modern wars, it is reasonable to suggest that the immediate effects of a civil war on the U.S. population could potentially be beyond decent contemplation.
Patterns of Destruction
Other Costs of War
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University calculated that, so far, the U.S. federal price-tag for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria is $5.9 trillion, including $1 trillion for veterans’ medical and disability services through the year 2056. This was in addition to those wars costing the lives of roughly 480,000 people – including 6,900 U.S. soldiers – due to direct war violence (and many more indirectly), and forcibly displacing 21 million people. This is one example of why war has been called “development in reverse” (Collier et al 2003).
Certainly, not all of that destruction can be attributed to the U.S. alone. The larger point is that people often dramatically underestimate the total costs of war. And those costs are the result of fighting in other countries. How much greater would the damage be for a civil war fought within the U.S. itself? As a point of reference, the Brookings Institute indicated that the property damage from the September 11, 2001 attacks alone cost about $100 billion, with the total economic damage from the attacks totaling perhaps up to $2 trillion. A wider war in the U.S. could easily dwarf that amount.
Furthermore, armed conflicts create additional costs beyond the financial ones, and beyond death and injuries alone. While it is well-known that armed conflicts inevitably increase the risks for maladies such as post-traumatic stress and moral injuries, it is less appreciated that the breakdown of social order during periods of conflict means that survivors consistently experience a suite of stressors (economic, social, ecological, psychological, nutritional) that can cause short- and long-term health to deteriorate. For example, acute malnutrition is common during armed conflict (below), as are low birth weight, growth retardation (smaller stature), and delayed maturation such as menarche.
Finally, the effects do not end once a war has concluded. Consistent with the developmental origins of disease hypothesis (DOHaD), people who were exposed early in life to various conflicts such as the Dutch Hunger Winter, the Siege of Leningrad, the Biafran famine, and the Holodomor in Ukraine have grown up with elevated risks of various diseases compared to their unexposed peers (Hult et al. 2010, Lumey et al. 2015, Painter et al. 2005, Stanner & Yudkin 2001). Richard Steckel and Garrett Senney of Ohio State University (sorry, THE Ohio State University) even suggested that the Civil War could have played a role in the higher rates of cardiovascular disease in the southern United States today, generations after its conclusion.
The Doomsday Clock
Admittedly, this is speculation. I don’t think civil war is inevitable or even likely at this point. But, sadly, it’s not impossible either. In October of last year, Niall Ferguson wrote that “the time on the civil war doomsday clock looks more like 11:08 than 11:58.” Maybe this entire essay was misguided, taking King (and others) too seriously. But I wrote it anyway, in case anyone really is itching for midnight.
I have read other opinions that a second civil war in the U.S. would be brief. Congressman King would likely agree with that assessment, given differences in gun ownership between “red” and “blue” states, perhaps factoring in rural/ urban divisions, as well as who might control centers of food production in the U.S. But predicting the future is never easy. In April 1861, very few Americans “believed the conflict would last longer than a few months.” In the 2003 run-up to the war in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously predicted: “It is unknowable how long that conflict will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” And history shows that as wars go on, Americans regret them the longer they continue. When passions are high, it is fairly easy to start a war. Stopping one is another matter, however.
If one has to go to war, it seems to me that the most prudent, conservative approach would be to hope for the best but expect the worst. As someone once said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” If we’re looking for patterns, then perhaps the most historically predictable thing about war is not who “wins” or loses, but the enormous damage done in terms of loss of life, health, the economy, infrastructure, and human suffering. Cooler heads should heed Churchill’s warning:
“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events….”
In sum, the only way to win a civil war is not to engage in one. Yes, people are angry. They’ve been fed a steady diet of outrage for years, and they’re certain the other side is wrong, likely corrupt, maybe evil. But as Adrienne Rich wrote: “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political.” It is not a scalpel that can easily excise an unwanted segment of a population. It is a sledgehammer, a mad bull that lost its way.
It’s also important to remember that while it is easy to dichotomize states into red and blue, this belies the more complex reality of local variations of purple that fluctuate over time. And dichotomization tends to “crystalize” groups into unchanging factions. Yet history shows that change is inevitable and that enemies can become friends and vice versa.
When wars end, after all the pain, loss, and destruction, the survivors have to live with each other again. So let’s skip all that mess and figure out something else.
Collier P, Elliot L, Hegre H, Hoeffler A, Reynal-Querol M, Sambanis N. 2003. Breaking the Conflict Trap. Civil War and Development Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Link
Grandesso F, Sanderson F, Kruijt J, Koene T, Brown V. 2005. Mortality and malnutrition among populations living in South Darfur, Sudan: results of 3 surveys, September 2004. JAMA. 293(12):1490–94 Link
Grimsley M, Rogers CJ. 2002. Introduction. In Civilians in the Path of War. Grimsley M, Rogers CJ, eds. Pp. ix–xxvi. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Link.
Guerrier G, Zounoun M, Delarosa O, Defourny I, Lacharite M, et al. 2009. Malnutrition and mortality patterns among internally displaced and non-displaced population living in a camp, a village or a town in Eastern Chad. PLoS One. 4(11):e8077 Link
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Before tackling the rest of your post, Patrick, I’d just like to mention how spot on the Watson Institute quote strikes me as. I would only add to it, “…and publicly lies about its motives for going to war.”
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I’m an Iowan. I might feel ashamed of Steve King in other circumstances, but Trump at present shames us all. Anyway, King only represents a low-population area in Iowa, one of the oldest populations in the country at that, old and dying as the young generation leaves for Eastern Iowa or for other states.
The fact of the matter is Iowa is mostly a Blue state since it typically goes to Democratic presidential candidates. Like the rest of the North, Iowa is mostly of English, Scandinavian, and German ancestry. It’s a state that tends toward community-oriented moderation, not radical extremism. King is the outlier.
If a civil war were to happen, Iowa would most likely fall into the same alliance as seen with the first civil war. We are Northerners, culturally and politically.
It’s important to remember that many rural farm states and mining states are both historically Democratic and have high rates of gun ownership. And it is hard to know how the country would line up in a national conflict, as states like California are more significant now than they were in the mid-19th century.
A second civil war would be much more messy and violent than the first. It maybe wouldn’t follow straightforward geographic divides.
Right. I agree. In the image that King shared, Iowa is actually one of the Blue states. I remember people calling him out on this, as if he was oblivious to the overall political leaning of Iowa, or that he didn’t care. And any civil war today would definitely be messier. They’re all messes, which I guess was what I was aiming to convey. People sometimes think of war solely in political terms, or winning/ losing. I think it’s important to think of it in humanitarian terms, and the massive destruction to life, health, and wealth.
When people talk about a 2nd civil war, they often think that the one with the most guns will be victorious! However, they don’t take in consideration that guns can be lifted off of dead bodies and put into play by the opposing party! The same is true about supplies! While the fighting goes on among ourselves, we are also exposed to foreign attack by opportunistic enemies! People also take for granted that the will of the combatants on either side will be weak! There are always extremist on both sides! Another thing that people don’t consider is the death and destruction that will come about from close quarter combat! Are we willing to sacrifice our love ones! Usually the youngest and oldest are the easiest victims of war! The life that you now live would never be the same! Ask the war veterans what it is like to go through conflict in which you are always fearful of losing your life! Or what about losing your family and friends who will be fare game in a war? You can’t play with fire and expect not to get burnt!
Hi Kenneth, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I wrote this post over a year ago. I saw a number of views after it was first published, then it went quiet. Lately, with the pandemic, I’ve seen the number of views increase dramatically. It’s not clear why. Some of those views could be people who are afraid of what might come, some are probably just curious, but I imagine that some are extremists who are angry and are looking to take that anger out on people they dislike. Your points are valid — wars are always messy and the destruction will be widespread, with many innocent lives harmed and/ or ended. In fact, data from most wars suggest that civilians are more likely to be casualties of war than combatants. The image that some people have in their head of war being a great noble effort of good against evil is a caricature. The reality is that it is like releasing a man-made disaster on a population, hoping it will only affect the people on the other side. History suggests otherwise.
Churchill warned us: “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that any one who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
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While I agree with most of your assessment, I have to ask, why would you ask the ques6, but not answer it? In your opinion, based on available data, who would be the victor? I get it….there is no “winner”, but in the basic layman’s terms, who would win?
I wrote this a while ago, for a few reasons. One is that too often people think about war in zero-sum terms (a winner and a loser); instead I wanted people to focus on the destruction of of the war, and how much everyone loses. War is usually non-zero sum, where both participants lose to some degree. As a biological anthropologist who has written about the effects of war on human health, the more important matter to me is what happens to people on the ground, rather than what side wins politically. I could try to game the scenario out with all the variables people mention (per capita gun ownership, geography, food production, loyalties of the military, etc.) to gauge a winner, but it’s not my focus. I also think there are too many variables seen and unseen to know how it could actually play out. Just as people predicted Russia might steamroll Ukraine in a short time, reality played out differently. It’s true that I used the title to entice people to read the essay, but I wanted to make a point. It also felt urgent at the time I wrote it, when civil war rhetoric was rampant, and views on this post spiked as political tensions increased. I just wanted people to reconsider all of the potential destruction, to see things differently. Hope that answers your question.