Why I Keep Thinking about a 2nd Civil War

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 about who 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 an October 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 smaller poll from 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.

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 to one 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.

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In Defense of Refugees

A recent news story suggested that the Trump administration has considered another drastic reduction next year in the maximum number of refugees allowed into the United States (the annual ceiling), perhaps to fewer than 10,000 people. One estimate suggested the administration could set the ceiling at zero refugees.

This is a continuation of a trend. In each of its first three years, the Trump administration has cut the number of refugees allowed into the country, with refugee resettlement numbers at the lowest levels they’ve been in decades. This is all consistent with some of the rhetoric that has come out of the administration, which has demonized not just undocumented immigrants, but also refugees and asylum seekers.

Source: The Migration Policy Institute (Link)

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Weapon$ over Civilians

President Trump’s made some more controversial comments this week, this time in a statement downplaying the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the intelligence community said likely came at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Instead, he emphasized that the United States would maintain its business relationship with Saudi Arabia, including the importance of KSA’s oil supply and their desire to purchase weapons from the United States.

President Trump’s made some more controversial comments this week, this time in a statement downplaying the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the intelligence community said likely came at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Instead, he emphasized that the United States would maintain its business relationship with Saudi Arabia, including the importance of KSA’s oil supply and their desire to purchase weapons from the United States.

I’ve seen a lot of public criticism of these comments, and rightfully so, but they seemed to focus primarily on Trump’s willingness to overlook the ability of a head of state to order a murder of a single person. However, I wanted to focus on a bigger problem, which is the cold calculation of the desire to profit from the sale of weapons and military equipment. He wrote:  

After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!

I’m not that naive. I understand that the sale of military equipment is a business. In this case however, the crass prioritization of profit is happening at the very same time that civilians of Yemen are dying by the droves, to a large extent from weapons sold by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia. An estimated 85,000 Yemeni children may have starved to death as a result of the war (so far), with the wider population on the brink of famine. It is a pattern of war that civilians consistently bear the brunt of it all, dying at a higher rate than combatants.

A 10-year-old Yemeni boy suffering from severe malnutrition. (Photo: Ahmad al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)

It seems to me that the celebration of military contracts worth billions of dollars while the very source of that profit inflicts incalculable suffering on actual lives is extremely callous and obscene. The emphasis on the injustice of letting people get away with Khashoggi’s murder is well-placed. But I think there could be much more emphasis in our public discourse that American companies are profiting by inflicting pain and death on innocent people. It is dirty money.    

Being Wrong

It gives me hope when people can admit they were wrong. There’s something redeeming about admitting that one’s judgment is fallible rather than refusing to admit error for the sake of ego.

As an example, this clip from Errol Morris’ film “The Fog of War” features Robert McNamara discussing the events of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. In it, McNamara revealed that the U.S. likely misread sonar signals that supposedly indicated an increase in Vietnamese aggression. This misinterpretation helped escalate the war, causing irreparable harm to many. The key exchange:

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