“There never was a good war or a bad peace.” – Ben Franklin
It is a blessing and a curse of being a social animal that we are often aware of what the other social animals around us are thinking. If online activity is any indication of what people are thinking, then things are not great. Every day for the past year, I have found that the most viewed essay on this site, by far, has been something I wrote in 2019 aboutwho would win a second civil war in the United States.
Perhaps I am giving this too much attention. But maybe not. A significant percentage of Americans have been deeply worried and/or angry for a while. In anOctober 2020 poll,61% of people agreed with the statement: “I’m concerned that the U.S. could be on the verge of another Civil War.” Another Yougov poll from the same time found that 56% felt that the country would see “an increase in violence as a result of the election.” A smallerpollfrom December reported that 71% of Trump voters and 40% of Biden voters believed “we are headed into a civil war or significant upheaval.” (Upheaval and civil war were not defined, however).
When I play the scenario out in my head, I think the possibility of another civil war is remote, at least not in the sense of replicating the original one. Although there has been chatter about secession in a few states(Texas, Wyoming), this has little momentum. And while there are certainly regional political differences, they do not fall along neat boundaries akin to northern and southern states. There is no Mason-Dixon line. Rather, the main divide seems to be urban-rural, within states rather than between them.
Yet even within states and within counties, there is plenty of political variation. While many counties voted overwhelmingly for either Biden or Trump in 2020, most were not very lopsided. According toone analysis, fewer than 600 out of roughly 3,000 counties (excluding Alaska, for some reason) voted over 80% for either candidate.
Alternative ways of looking at the 2020 political divide in the US. On the left, the percentage of vote for Biden and Trump by county. On the right, results by population size. Source.
“You plant a demon seed. You raise a flower of fire.” – Paul Hewson
The number of views on my site have dropped off noticeably in the final three weeks of 2020, and I am relieved. Perhaps that doesn’t make much sense at first. Who doesn’t want people to read their stuff? Let me explain.
This year was not a good one – the pandemic raged across the world, and divisions in the U.S. were tense and palpable. I saw this indirectly on this blog. In 2020, the most read essays on this site, by far, pertained to the topic of another civil war in the U.S. These were the five most read posts in 2020, along with the year I wrote them, and the number of views:
So, that’s three posts related to civil war, one about keeping our baser impulses in check, and one about sex and love. Go figure. Two were older essays, and the other three were written in the last two years. And, unlike previous years when some of my essays were shared on social media, this year the vast majority of my visitors arrived on their own via Internet search engines.
This is a small blog with a funny name, and it doesn’t get much traffic. To see a post that I wrote last year skyrocket above the others, it made me notice. In fact, the “Red States versus Blue States” post is already the fifth most read essay on this site, even though it is just a year old and I started this blog in 2010. The graph below shows how it compared in terms of views with other popular posts in their first two years. As you can see, most started with a little flurry of activity, and then trail off. “Red States vs. Blue States” did something different. Few people read it in 2019, and then it took off a year later, mid-2020.
I noticed that the spike in views were tightly linked with current events. From the George Floyd protests in the summer, the North Carolinapolice officercaught on tape saying that he could not wait for another civil war and a chance to kill Black people, thekillingsof Aaron Danielson and Michael Reinoehl in late August, the people shot and killed by Kyle Rittenhouse, Trump’srefusalto commit to a peaceful transfer of power in September, Trump telling militia groups to “stand back and stand by,” the plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, the actual election itself, the pushing of the false narrative that the election was stolen. The site views ebbed and flowed, almost perfectly along with the national news.Continue reading →
I learned a few days ago thatEmile Bruneauhadpassed away. I did not know Dr. Bruneau personally, but I knew of his work in conflict resolution. I previously referred to some of his research in apost on dangerous speech and dehumanization. It is also clear from thetributesto him on social media that in addition to his valuable research, the world has lost a really wonderful human being.
Having lost my ownbrotheras a young adult, premature deaths like Dr. Bruneau’s (orChadwick Boseman’s) resonate with me. They remind me of how fragile our lives are. His wife shared something that Dr. Bruneau wrote that made me a little emotional, both for its bravery and optimism in the face of something as potentially terrifying as one’s impending mortality, and because it reminded me of something that occurred to me too when I contemplated my brother’s death: that a part of us really does live on in the minds of others. He wrote:
“I just had a thought: I learned in physics that our physical mass never actually touches another – the outer electrons of each repel, giving us the illusion of touch. As a neuroscientist, I learned that our brains don’t really see the world, they just interpret it. So losing my body is not really a loss after all! What I am to you is really a reflection of your own mind. I am, and always was, there, in you.”
I’d like to share a few more of his words, to help keep his image reflecting in my mind, and perhaps yours as well. Not just for the sake of sharing, but because he really did have some important things to say.
“But there’s no place in politics for violence — to threaten or carry out violence — and that’s where everybody has to take a stand. Whether it’s your supporters or somebody else’s…Sometimes it’s easy to call out the other side, but you’ve got to call out your own side, too, and I think that’s something where they could definitely pick up the pace.”—Steve Scalise, Republican (Louisiana) and a recovered victim of a politically motivated shooting
Let’s start with the good news. We are not currently in a civil war in the United States.
Over the past few years, pundits and editorialists have wondered whether this country mightbe heading toward a civil war, on the verge of one, or even already in one. Others have written that, yes, we’re currently in a civil war, but only in a non-violent, metaphorical sense (in other words, not a war at all).
In 2017, the Los Angeles Timesreferred to such stories as “bait-and-switch” because they compare political polarization to war and because they juxtapose clashes between white supremacists and left-wing demonstrators as indicative of where the country is overall. Two years ago, Voxreferred to this genre as “clickbait” and “apocalypse punditry.” Steven Greenhutrecently wrote that such talk of civil war is too blithe and over-the-top, and people aren’t giving the topic the seriousness it deserves.
It is true that talk of civil war is often overdone. According to the Uppsala University Department of Peace and Conflict Research(UUDPCR), a war is defined as having “at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year.” By that definition, the U.S. is clearly not in a war. However, we may be in a situation akin to a low-intensity conflict. The UUDPCR defines conflict as “at least 25 but less than 1000 battle-related deaths in one calendar year in one of the conflict’s dyads.” Last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) “Heat Map” of political violence, there were 46 incidents involving extremist murders, terrorist plots or attacks, or extremist shootouts with police. Altogether 54 people were killed in these incidents, which crosses the 25-death threshold. Tragically, 23 of these victims were killed in one horrific incident, the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas by a white supremacist who was intent on killing Hispanic people.
There are usually limits to using rigid definitions for something as complex as conflict and war. First, the cutoffs of 25 deaths and 1,000 deaths are arbitrary. The same number of deaths would be more impactful in a smaller country than in a larger one, so perhaps a rate of death might be more appropriate than a simple tally. Also, according to UUDPCR standards, such attacks in the US may not apply toward “conflict” because most were carried out by lone actors, not by formally or even informally organized groups. In addition, several U.S. incidents in the ADL Heat Map involved individual extremists who were involved in domestic incidents or robberies which may not have beenpolitically motivated. Taking these caveats into account, the U.S. may not meet the criteria for being in a “conflict” either.
Something interesting happened with this one. It was fairly dormant for a year, then in late May 2020 (coinciding with theGeorge Floyd protests) people started to read it again. As far as I can tell, most of these views have been in the US. And most have been organic, with people finding it individually via search engines, not via social media. I don’t know their motivations for searching for something like this. It could be curiosity, maybe fear. Others may be genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of a civil war and a chance to kill people they dislike. Somealready havekilledpeople. Maybe the people in the pro-war group are on to something, so I started thinking of some reasons that another civil war in the US might be worth considering.
(Updated graph. The October 2020 stats are projected)
Wars are notoriously expensive and a great way of dumping any excess cash you have. For example, the first (only?) Civil War in the U.S. cost an estimated $23 billion and $68 billion for the Confederacy and Union, respectively,in 2019 dollars. That may sound like a pretty good way to spend a lot of money very quickly, but the news gets better because modern wars are even costlier. TheWatson Institute for International and Public Affairsat Brown University calculated that the U.S. federal price-tag for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria was close to $6 trillion. Granted, a civil war in the US has the advantage of not having to travel very far, which would reduce transportation costs (you could have a front-row seat from your own home!). Still, modern weaponry would be much costlier than days of yore.
An added bonus is the opportunity costs of war. Eisenhower knewthat money poured into war cannot be spent on frivolous things like education, health, science, food, housing, roads, etc. Who needs those things, anyway?
15. You Have an Affinity for Apocalyptic Scenery
If you like the scenery in sci-fi movies like “The Terminator” or “The Book of Eli,” then you can make that fantasy come to life by starting an actual war. Art and reality really can mirror each other.
14. You Don’t Like Thinking Too Much…
Adrienne Rich once wrote that “War is an absolute failure of imagination, scientific and political.” If there are people you don’t like because their values seem to be all cockeyed, weird, or deviant, it can be hard to think of solutions to bridging those gaps. So maybe it’s better to not try. Just skip all that mental effort at compromise and go straight to the only logical conclusion – some people need to be wiped out. Maybe a lot of people. History shows that people never change anyway, which is why Samurai warriors, Vikings, and the Spanish Inquisition still exist, most people still believe the earth is the center of the universe, and stone tools are all the rage. And, once people are enemies, they stay that way forever. Reconciliation is a fantasy, which is why most Americans started speaking French after the Revolutionary War, just to spite the British.
13. … But You Do Like Taking Chances
If you’ve ever placed a bet on a Super Bowl or World Series, you probably know there are few guarantees in sports. Predicting the future is not easy. And that’s for sports, where the rules of engagement fall within a confined range, with referees to ensure that everyone is playing fair. The rules in war often go out the window, adding an exciting air of unpredictability. Who knows what will happen?!?! As Clausewitz once wrote: “although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.” Betting on unpredictable, low-stake sports is one thing. How much more fascinating it would be to bet on our lives and homes? What an adventure!
12. Environmental Destruction Doesn’t Bother You
We can’t afford to worry about trivial things like the environment during periods of war. Speed is of the essence, and we can’t delay by taking out all chemical and radioactive contamination from weaponry. For example, naval and aerial bombardment of the island of Vieques left marine vegetation high in concentrations of things like lead, copper, nickel, and cobalt (Massol-Deyá et al. 2005). And that wasn’t even during an emergency. That was just target practice.
Sometimes these things can last quite a while. Long after the Battle of Verdun in WW1, the surrounding area (known as Place-à-Gaz) is still contaminated with lead, arsenic, copper, and mercury as a result of massive artillery shelling and later disposal of ordnance (Thouin et al. 2016). Some plant species still have a hard time growing there, a century later. Andin Laos, massive aerial bombardment has left parts of the country contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO), 47 years after they were dropped. Up to 20,000 people have been injured or killed after the war ended, and 1600 km2 of the country still cannot be farmed. But fear not. Laos is a small country. We can farm in Alaska when the war is over.
11. You Think Food is Overrated
“Scorched earth” campaigns in war have existedfor millennia, leading to food insecurity, even famine. Some people got pretty upset when toilet paper and meat were hard to find early in the coronavirus pandemic. That’s nothing. Wait until people run out of chocolate, pasta, and coffee. In the meantime, we can sustain ourselves on rage.
10. You Don’t Mind Murder and Atrocity
The WW1 veteranHarry Patch once said that “war is organised murder, and nothing else.” If your conscience is intact, then you may need to work on that. You could be at risk for some emotional devastation at taking another human being’s life, something known as “moral injuries.” If you’ve somehow convinced yourself that the people you hate are not really fully human, then you may not have much to worry about. But beware. There have been cases of people who at first convinced themselves that their killings were justified. Some of them, like Anwar Congo below, can build up a pretty sturdy mental wall to keep out any thoughts that might contradict the view of themselves as heroic, only to have that entire edifice come crashing down years later when they accidentally dredged up their buried humanity.
9. You Think Civilians Are Fair Game in War
Speaking of murder… Many people think of war primarily as a competitionbetween two military forces. History buffs often discuss the tactics and strategies of past wars, and the decisions made by leaders. Sometimes they’ll talk about the fallen soldiers and officers who were killed and maimed. Deaths of combatants are to be expected in war. After all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, or eventens of millions of eggs. However, statistics show that civilians are not just occasional “collateral damage” in war, due to an accidental misfire. Rather, civilians often comprise the majority of casualties, ranging between 40% in the case of Bosnia to 90% in the case of Cambodia and Rwanda (Roberts 2010).
8. You Like Travelingand Moving Around a Lot
People have a tendency to move around a lot during war, and they get to see many new places. In fact, 1% of the world’s population(about 80 million people)was displaced by the end of 2019. Being displaced is sort of like a vacation only without money, food, freedom, or the ability to really do many things that are traditionally considered “fun.” Instead of seeing beautiful scenery or new cities, people tend to end up in camps. Some of these camps are huge tent cities, with the chance to meet new neighbors living right next to you. It’s kind of like a summer camp, only you can’t really leave when you want. So let that be a fair warning: sometimes these camps are final destinations, your ability to travel after that may be severely curtailed with authorities keeping an eye on you, indefinitely in some cases. But, hey, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. Some lucky Americans will really get to travel by being resettled in other countries (maybe; we haven’t been very open to accepting refugees lately, so it’s not clear how open other nations might be toward us).
7. You’re OK with Trading Mental Health for “Character”
As everyone knows, suffering builds character. For the fortunate people who survive the war, they can expect to have a lot of character-building experiences, and these can last for the rest of their lives. In a review of refugee populations, Bogic et al 2015 found that rates of depression, PTSD, and anxiety were as high as 80 to 88% in some groups, years after resettling in other countries. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” become a little more difficult under conditions of war, but if you’re one of the lucky few people to get there, I bet the payoff would be pretty sweet.
6. You Want Your Children to Be Shorter and Developmentally Delayed
With food shortages, unclean water, increased infection, and psychological stress, kids who grow up under war conditions tend to be malnourished and shorter, sometimes by a huge amount. This is a very consistent pattern, and these effects are usually permanent since you can’t get those years of growth back. That’s fine. Althoughheight seems to be correlated with earning potentialin adulthood, shorter kids (and adults) can save money by living in smaller homes and driving smaller cars. See? It all evens out.
5. Sexual Violence Doesn’t Bother You That Much
If the idea of a civil war sounds exciting to you, the prospect of being avictim of sexual violence may not have crossed your mind. Yet, history shows that this is fairly common across wars once social controls have weakened or as a deliberate method of terrorizing a population. In a review, it was found that victims of sexual violence often experience pregnancy, traumatic genital injuries, fistulae, sexual dysfunction, STDs, anxiety, PTSD, depression, social rejection, and spousal abandonment (Ba and Bhopal, 2017). This may not affect you directly, but maybe the people you hate. I’m sure everyone you know and love will be fine. Only other people are victims.
4. You Think Trust Is for Losers
Pierluigi Conzo and Francesco Salustri found that European who were exposed to World War 2 before age 6 had lower levels of trustin adulthood. In their review of background literature, the authors noted that trust is considered almost like a social “lubricant” in helping a society run more efficiently; it is an important factor in economic development, the quality of institutions, and subjective well-being. Once it is lost, it takes a long time to rebuild trust and survivors can view each other with suspicion for decades.
On the other hand, if people had been less trusting before WW2, they would have been better prepared for the coming chaos. Think about it.
3. We Don’t Need No Education
War-affected children often don’t have access to a lot of basic things that wetake for granted, including school. In 2017,61% of refugee children attended primary school, compared to 92% of children globally. Those numbers dropped to 23% and 84%, respectively, for secondary school. Education is great and all, but no one will really have time for it after the war because the survivors will be too busy doing other important things, like clearing rubble.
2. You’re OK with Chronic Diseases
Wars have a tendency to “get under the skin.” Researchers who study things like the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) idea have found that early adversity in life, including in war, can lead to long-term increased risks for chronic diseases like diabetes, schizophrenia, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity (Clarkin 2019). They can even affect your genes and possibly be passed down to the next generation. Some of these maladies can cut off years of your life, but they tend to be the years that areconsidered expendable anyway.
1. You Like Fairness and Sharing Power
Infighting in civil wars tend to leave countries weakened. How could it not? The good news is that in our compromised state, power abhors a vacuum, giving other countries a turn at being global leaders. I’m sure whichever nations step forward, they will be willing to give up the stage after they’ve had their turn.
Ba I, Bhopal RS. Physical, mental and social consequences in civilians who have experienced war-related sexual violence: a systematic review (1981–2014). Public Health. 2017 Jan 1;142:121-35.
Bogic M, Njoku A, Priebe S. Long-term mental health of war-refugees: a systematic literature review. BMC international health and human rights. 2015 Dec 1;15(1):29.
Clarkin PF. The Embodiment of War: Growth, Development, and Armed Conflict. Annual Review of Anthropology. 2019 Oct 21;48:423-42.
Massol-Deyá A, Pérez D, Pérez E, Berrios M, Diaz E. Trace elements analysis in forage samples from a US Navy bombing range (Vieques, Puerto Rico). Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 2005 2(2):263–66
Roberts A. Lives and Statistics: Are 90% of War Victims Civilians? Surviv. Glob. Polit. Strateg. 2010 52(3):115–36
Thouin H, Le Forestier L, Gautret P, Hube D, Laperche V, et al. Characterization and mobility of arsenic and heavy metals in soils polluted by the destruction of arsenic-containing shells from the Great War. Sci. Total Environ. 2016. 550:658–69
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 congressman Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, created controversy byposting an imageon 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’sNiall Fergusonhas 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 linguistGeorge 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,particularlyfor 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 – quotingWW1 veteranHarry Patch– war is “organized murder and nothing else.”
Historical Lessons: How Destructive Would a Civil War Be?