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What would a 21st Century American Civil War look like?
I was watching MSNBC yesterday when the face of a woman in the crowd at Donald Trump’s Nuremberg rally in Iowa last Saturday came on the screen. She was cherry-cheeked and well-coifed and bright-eyed and looked to be in her mid-30’s and was wearing a red MAGA hat. The reporter asked her one of those questions that I would answer by telling the reporter to take a long hike off a short pier. It was something along the lines of, “What do you think of the current state of the country?” I know pollsters ask some version of the same question all the time – do you think the country is headed in the right direction or the wrong direction? But for me, at least, such a question is so broad, so unfocused, and so abysmally stupid it’s simply unanswerable. Not for Trump’s happy warrior, however.
“I think we’re going to have a Civil War,” she chirped with an indelible smile plastered on her face. The thought didn’t frighten her in the least. She looked hopeful that it would happen.
She didn’t pause to give the question even a moment’s thought. She had the answer on the tip of her tongue, where it had probably been since she read something like it in a tweet or a screed on some QAnon website. I waited for the reporter to ask a follow up question, like, what do you mean by that? or have you got any more of that mescaline you’re taking on you? But he just moved on through the crowd to shove his microphone in the face of another MAGA devotee hoping for more well-considered words of wisdom from one of the several thousand who turned out to hear Trump bleat and whine and brag and threaten to disassemble the ground of the democracy they were standing on.
Her blithe, even cheerful prediction of a new American Civil War stuck with me, however, and got me to thinking about what such a war would look like. It was obvious that the Civil War she was predicting would be between Trump’s MAGA masses and the rest of us, indeed between herself and the member of the Mainstream Media she had been taught by Trump to think of as “the enemy of the people.” I’ve spent some time over the last five decades covering real, honest-to-God shooting and bombing wars, and I was taught over four years at West Point to think of war in the manner of Von Clausewitz, who famously wrote of war as “the continuation of politics by different means.” So the idea of a Civil War fought essentially between opposing sides in a political struggle over power is not a foreign one to me. I didn’t take the time to Google the subject, but if I were to guess, I’d say there are at least two dozen civil wars underway somewhere on this planet as I write this, the one in Ethiopia that is causing famine and mass suffering among civilians probably chief among them.
It occurred to me when I was in Afghanistan and Iraq and considered the thousands of years of history of those areas of the world that civil war is what some people do for their whole lives: They fight for their religious sect, or their tribe, or their city, or their country, and if they lose, they regroup and fight again. I wrote a column for Salon some years ago called “59 Tomahawks and 5900 years of slaughter: A brief history of Syria,” on the occasion of Trump’s ill-conceived and largely futile strike against a couple of Syrian airfields after Assad was accused of using poison gas against rebels in Idlib. I spent the better part of a day looking back at the history of that part of the world and discovered that the city of Idlib in particular had been at war with other cities in the greater region of Mesopotamia like the city of Ur in what is now Iraq for several thousand years.
One ruler of the Assyrians, King Sennacherib, got run out of Idlib by a bunch of local kings backed up by the Egyptians sometime around 700 BC and took up residence in Nineveh (now Mosul in Iraq) and decided to strike back by going after Jerusalem and Babylon. The Assyrian campaign took years. He destroyed 46 villages and towns along the way, enslaving the local people, took Jerusalem and then turned east and took Babylon, and when the king of Babylon fought back and retook the city, Sennacherib took Babylon again and was pissed enough that he destroyed the systems of canals around the city and turned it into a swamp.
That’s the way civil wars went back in the bad old days, and they’re still at it in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. A couple of days ago, Sunni insurgents from ISIS bombed a Shiite Mosque in Kunduz. That particular civil war between Islamic sects has been going on since an argument began over succession in the Muslim faith after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD.
The last Civil War we had in this country lasted four years, beginning in 1861 and ending 1865. The best estimate of the number of soldiers killed during that war is 750,000.
What would an American Civil War look like today?
The “sides” in the new Civil War will not be conveniently costumed in blue and gray as they were in the 19th Century, which means that the fighting will be between people in civilian clothes, making it difficult to tell who is actually on which side. Unless the MAGA side decides to fly Confederate flags or Trump flags as they did last year in parades of pickup trucks and boats, it will be hard to tell who’s coming at you.
There also won’t be a discernible front line or front lines, making it hard to tell which side is holding what territory. This, along with the absence of uniforms, means that a whole lot of people will be killed by mistake. It’s probably likely that the MAGA side will dress itself in various camo costumes as many of them did when the mob assaulted the Capitol in January, but Trump followers aren’t the only people in this country with camouflage hunting clothing. So if you shoot someone wearing camo assuming he or she is on the MAGA side, you just might be shooting someone on your side. Combatants won’t be wearing “dog tags” marking them as on one side or the other, making the identification of dead bodies difficult. Is this guy one of ours, or one of theirs?
I don’t think anyone in this country is prepared for the destruction and lack of conventional modern amenities that accompanies war. Deliveries of every sort of goods from food to major appliances to clothing to…well, everything will be disrupted. Electricity will be absent or at best intermittent as one side attempts to damage the other by taking out generating plants and power distribution infrastructure. I can still recall riding through northern Iraq in a convoy and seeing long stretches of power transmission lines lying on the ground alongside roads because transmission towers had been bombed. They stayed that way because work crews that attempted to repair them would be sniped at or hit with mortars by insurgents hiding in nearby hills. Power in Mosul, for example, came almost entirely from local generators and hastily-strung wiring that lay from one rooftop to another and crossed streets in rats-nest collections of wires.
Meanwhile, because refrigeration was not reliable, food shopping had to be done daily, and if fighting interrupted deliveries of fresh vegetables or canned foods to markets, there wasn’t any food, sometimes for days, even weeks.
Nobody is ready for the level of destruction that can be wrought by a civil war. Downtown Beirut became a wasteland during fighting there in the late 1970’s. Houses and apartment buildings were collapsed by bombs or artillery shelling. Whole blocks turned into a maze of battered shells of buildings. Where there were once shops and theaters and markets, there was rubble.
How would this happen here, you might ask? A civil war can be relied upon to maintain one thriving market: the sale of weapons and ammunition of all kinds will be rampant. Smuggling from outside the country will bring in all manner of heavy weapons and other materiel. If there is a war, there is one predominate need, and that is for weapons with which to destroy and kill. They will be everywhere. Don’t worry if you don’t have an arsenal in your basement or attic like “preppers” and other survivalist maniacs do. There will be plenty of opportunity to stock up on guns and ammo when the shooting starts.
That’s the way most wars begin: nobody is really prepared, but everybody becomes really good at catching up. When you’re defending a family, or a home, or a town, or a county, or even a state, you’ll find a way to get the guns necessary to do it.
And get ready for mass migration. In the tiny country of Lebanon, with a population of less than 3 million, more than a million left the country altogether, and hundreds of thousands were displaced within the country. Foreign nations may become involved on one side or the other.
Control of the nation’s military will of course become a prime issue, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that one side or the other will quickly prevail and thus be able to avail itself of the military’s enormous stores of weapons, ammunition, vehicles and even air force and navy. In a word, that whole mess will be very complicated. Neither side will dominate when it comes to the military. There will be adherents within all branches on both sides. Military weapons and materiel will quickly enter the black market that will spring up for guns and ammunition and everything else military.
Which means money will play a gigantic role in a new American Civil War. Whoever has money in large quantities will gain the upper hand because money will mean guns, ammunition, food, and the ability to move all of it. Cities will become battlegrounds, but cities will also remain sources of wealth and power. The fighting over cities will be the fiercest of a new Civil War. Thinly populated rural areas with lots of empty land but smaller quantities of money will be less important and probably endure less fighting.
Perhaps the grimmest prospect of all will be the sub-wars that break out within the bigger Civil War. Every prejudice will be indulged. Racist whites will target Black people. Fundamentalist Christians might target “heathens” like Muslims and Jews and non-fundamentalist Christians. Ethnic divisions will exist within the greater sides that face-off.
Slaughter will be commonplace. Death will be everywhere. People with skills particularly necessary during wars, like medical personnel and people who can drive trucks and move large numbers of people, equipment, food and other supplies will be in heavy demand.
Alliances will form and collapse as one side or the other achieves victory or suffers defeat. Nobody likes losing. Friend will become foe and foe will become friend. It will get harder and harder to tell who was on what side when, because there will be no “North” and “South” that you can separate out on a map.
A 21st Century American Civil War would make the struggles we are currently suffering over elections and distribution of wealth and between races and ethnicities seem like the good old days when we all got along. An American Civil War will mean that we don’t merely disagree with one another or dislike each other. It will mean we kill each other.
None of us, and I mean none of us has an inkling about how horrible it would be. But if we are to have a future of any kind whatsoever, we’d better get more of a clue than the woman in the MAGA hat in Iowa who seemed to so casually look forward to a Civil War between her side and the side she was told to hate. Who you hated and why will be hard to remember when death comes to your door.
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