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The next civil war won’t be like “Gone With the Wind”

By Tom Baxter

This is the week we’ll celebrate the 242nd year of our glorious union. We will also mark 155 years since that week in 1863 when the Battle of Gettysburg was fought and Vicksburg fell.

The Civil War anniversary is especially timely, because in a Rasmussen poll released last week, 31 percent of Americans said a second civil war is likely in the next five years.

That’s not too surprising, given the general tenor of the political debate in this country right now.

“There’s probably never been a base in the history of politics in this country like my base,” President Trump said in an interview with Maria Bartiromo last weekend. “I hope the other side realizes that they better just take it easy. They better just take it easy.”

Rasmussen tends to lean Republican in its findings, and it’s notable that in other questions, 59 percent of these voters were worried that opponents of President Trump will resort to violence, compared to 53 percent who believe that “those critical of the media’s coverage of President Trump” will commit violence. That weird wording, an obvious attempt to avoid the phrase “Trump supporters,” could account for the difference in the two numbers.

So whether they expect a civil war or not, a large number of Americans worry about the threat of violence from those who oppose their views, whatever they are. That seems like a prime indicator.

By 37-32 percent, Democrats were more likely to believe another civil war is coming than Republicans, while independents, including those paying the least attention, were least likely to believe this at 26 percent. Again, the difference in the numbers isn’t important as the fact that a significant percentage of people on both sides of the party divide, as well as those not taking sides, see a civil war coming.

We should think about what kind of civil war to expect, if one is coming. The Civil War as it was actually fought was not as tidy as the Civil War of national memory. But it was fought — the part we memorialize, anyway — between armies which marched into battle in straight lines, led by officers trained in the traditions of the Napoleonic Wars.

A second civil war would be nothing like that. It wouldn’t be a war between the states — formal secession seems unlikely — but a war within the states, waged over a vast battlefield of target-rich public spaces. It might begin as some crazed approximation of red versus blue, but it would quickly fragment into all manner of score settling. People would end up killing each other over issues and for causes that we haven’t even thought of yet. The various branches of the military and law enforcement would be less likely to wage war on each other than to face a deadly mission, not unlike what they contended with in Iraq after the fall of Saddam.

One of the first things we think of in terms of our civil conflict is social media, but it’s not even certain social media would continue to exist in a time of heightened hostilities. Control of communications would in any case be a major strategic concern for the combatants.

The United Kingdom, which had controlled the economies of the Southern states before the war, remained neutral during the conflict, and other countries followed suit. This would not be the case in a second civil war. The Russians have already shown their ability at fomenting conflict during an election. They are not the only hostile power, regular or irregular, with an interest in demolishing the United States. All these enemies would have an interest in prolonging armed conflict.

To imagine such a civil war, we should ditch “Gone With the Wind” and think about more recent civil wars, like those fought over much of Africa. Wars like those in which children as young as 10 are armed and trained for battle, and people have their limbs hacked off for no reason. We may hold ourselves to be more civilized than that, but civil conflict can quickly wash away the veneer of civilization.

It could take a long time before acts of terrorism begin to be called acts of war. If there is a war, it will be hard to know exactly when it starts and even harder to bring it to an end.

In short, a second civil war could be unimaginably worse than the first one, and that one was pretty bad. There remain a host of institutional barriers to such a breakdown, dedicated public servants committed to maintaining public order and a majority of the people who are confidant it won’t come to that. Let’s hope that’s enough.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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  1. jonsinton July 3, 2018 3:15 pm

    This is some scary crystal ball gazing. I only wish it didn’t ring so true. In a time when facts matter less than opinion, logic is unlikely to prevail. Will brothers take up arms against one another? I doubt that it will be a replay of the American Civil War of the Nineteenth Century. Instead, it will mimic modern guerilla warfare, similar to Iraq, as Tom points out in this provocative thought-starter. Emotions are at a fever pitch on both sides, and that is because there exists no single moral authority to haul extremists back into line. Great piece. It did get me thinking.Report

  2. Corpsvid July 5, 2018 2:32 am

    This is ridiculous.

    1. The majority of this nation on either side of the divide, cannot be bother to walk a mile a day.
    2. Any major police department can surpress even a sizable bunch of armed idiots.
    3. The US military has a resilient and strong chain of command. To have a civil war in the US worth mentioning, you’d have to partition the military. How does either side plan on doing that? The US military is one of the most diverse institutions in the US, probably the last real one outside of the civil service, and isn’t going to split in any major way. So who ever they get turned on, simply gets eradicated.

    Americans aren’t Afghani, aren’t Sudani, aren’t Kurds, or Tamil or even Colombians. They aren’t, on either side, tough enough to sustain an insurgency worth a half a USMC Reserve annual training budget worth of ammo.

    Whatever side goes for weapons first, loses.

    A bigger concern is, perhaps, what is done with the civilian government while the military stands aside, but really, all this talk about civil war is just make believe to stroke the egos of conservative ammosexuals and self important non voting liberals on either side of the equation. The reality is that control over the course of US government will be won based upon whether the right can buy and place enough people to structure the gateways and gatekeepers to power in their favor, or if the left can actually suck it up and organize on a civil-labor rights level not seen since the Mine Wars and Civil Rights Movement.

    But I imagine that’s too boring to write about and sounds way too much like real work.Report

  3. Wyatt Odel July 6, 2018 1:30 am

    I won’t bother to ask if you are making broad, and incorrect assumptions, or projecting, but a majority of people willing to fight on both sides can handle walking a mile a day. Or a few miles.
    It is in human nature to assume that everything will be great, work out, etc. That bad things never happen, that civility and civilization is a mile thick floor under you. However, it is a thin barrier that easily stretches but also easily breaks.

    Just because you have an electronic box to call people “ammosexuals” doesn’t mean you will have that box tomorrow. Or the electricity that provides it.

    As for the toughness of Americans, on either side, this is once again an incorrect assumption, or more likely, projection. Plenty of people are, daily, thrust in to situations that test their ability to survive “abnormal” conditions and plenty of people walk out the other side. Some may live in those situations long term, some only visit. Underestimating the resiliency of people is a weakness you are obviously too happy to show, and a weakness that almost always mirrors the individual’s own shortcomings.

    Will a civil war happen tomorrow? Not very likely. Are we on a fast and hard road to one? Most definitely. To assume otherwise is foolishness and a lack of preparation for what becomes more obvious every day. The country is divided so strongly that many are lit fuses waiting for the chance to explode. What do you think will become of them and that situation? That they will simply fizzle as they perceive things getting worse? That everyone is going to just magically say “enough of this foolishness”? That has never been how humanity has worked.

    As for the military? Their usefulness is debatable and best in such a situation. The country wide destruction of morale of the military using large ordinance against its own citizens is a dangerous game to play. During such a heated event the leadership could easily find that two enemies may work together against an even larger threat. Neutrality would mean nothing once bombs began dropping, or tanks roll out. The military would be fighting against their own, able to understand the “enemy” maybe know the “enemy” personally. More than likely there would be desertions, obviously by those that hold the same views as the opposite side of what was “picked”, even more if the military was a 3rd party enforcer.
    Regardless, even the full might of the military couldn’t bring order in such a large and heavily armed country. If you believe so you have absolutely no understanding of how military operations are carried out, nor the weaknesses of militaries in general.

    I could tear apart your smug undervaluation of people in general, your lack of understanding of even the basics of war, survival, hardship, etc. But in the end if you are wrong you will get to learn all of it very quickly or not see much of anything, it depends on your own personal resiliency and ability to adapt. Maybe you have completely lost those basic traits present in every living species, as you assume everyone else has.
    If I am wrong then, for the first time ever, humanity as a whole rolled over and died. Because all involved hold their values, or perceived values, so importantly that giving up on them is an act of giving up completely at this point.Report


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