Summary: This is the wrong question. Nobody would win. It would be catastrophic, as is true of nearly all wars.
“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 congressman Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, created yet another 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, but he is not alone. With anxieties and polarization growing, talk of a possible second civil war in the U.S. is still relatively rare, but 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, the fact 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 around the time of 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 some 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 the marginalized and for those who have struggle to find meaning in their lives. For these reasons, Hedges wrote, war can be an “addictive narcotic.”
By contrast, 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 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, had likely been underestimated (Hacker 2011). Using data from the U.S. Census, Hacker estimated that 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 Census, the U.S. population was 31,443,321 people in 1860. Therefore, Hacker’s estimates of excess male deaths would be equivalent to between 2.0% and 2.7% of the total population at the time. Applying those same rates to today’s U.S. population of 328 million people would result in about 6.6 to 8.9 million deaths, a rather shocking total. That would be tantamount to losing the entire population of Indiana or Virginia. There is no a priori reason to assume that the rates would remain that same. One can easily imagine that things could be less or more lethal today, under different scenarios, every one of them 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:
“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 more difficult 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 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 today (Yemen, Ukraine, Syria, Bosnia, Afghanistan, DRC, Somalia, Myanmar, etc.), civilians are frequently harmed and sometimes deliberately targeted. Similarly, a war in the U.S. today could be more pervasive 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 by someone using a machete, advanced weaponry is not a necessary to kill large numbers of people (Verwimp 2006). So, who knows?
The 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 historical contingency. However, given the evidence from most modern wars, it seems 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. Historically, as wars have progressed over time Americans have come to regret them.
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. Enemies can become friends and vice versa. When wars end, after all the pain and destruction, people have to live with each other again. So let’s skip all that mess and figure out something else.
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