How Civil Wars Start (2022) | Photo by USGS on Unsplash
Photo by USGS on Unsplash

‘How Civil Wars Start’ Interrogates American Exceptionalism

The same forces that tore apart societies from Yugoslavia to Iraq, Columbia, Northern Ireland, and the West Bank are fully present in the US, warns How Civil Wars Start.

How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them
Barbara F. Walter
January 2022

There are several common responses to man-made tragedies, most of them understandable: Panic, disbelief, shock, inchoate fury. One reaction, though, while frequently used, is rarely defensible. That is because when people ask some variation on “Why weren’t we warned?” the answer, almost inevitably, is: You were. We all were. We just either failed to listen, had awareness but did not have the means to act, or we had the means to act but could not be bothered to do anything about it.

How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them by Professor and Council on Foreign Relations member Barbara F. Walter is one of those warnings. We have had many such warnings ever since the shambolic trash television spectacle of the Donald Trump presidency reminded Americans that, yes, history applies here, too. While some hair-raising big-think tomes of the Trump years were about the man himself, others tried to look past his all-consuming media shadow and reckon with the forces that he and his lieutenants empowered. How Civil Wars Start arrives just a year after Trump’s mobs stormed the Capitol and he left office – his main stage – in a fume of self-pity and vituperation. As the right-wing extremism fueled by Trump continues to metastasize, Walter’s book asks what many hoped would not need to be asked again: Can civil war happen in America again, in these times? Walter’s response is, Of course it can. Just look around:

Americans are no longer surprised to see armed men at rallies and paramilitary groups converging at protests. It has become commonplace to see Confederate flags for sale in Pennsylvania convenience stores, or American flags with a thin blue line and insignias of all kinds. We are now beginning to understand that bumper stickers like the circle of stars around the Roman numeral III, the Valknot, and the Celtic Cross are not innocent. Instead, they are symbols of America’s far-right militant groups, which are becoming increasingly visible, vocal, and dangerous.

Walter has been studying civil wars around the world since 1990. According to her, the same forces that tore apart societies from Yugoslavia to Iraq, Columbia, Northern Ireland, and the West Bank are fully present in the United States. This will come as a shock to many Americans, who often inherit an unconscious sense of naïve exceptionalism no matter their political affiliation. Walter notes that Americans believe their home country is too advanced, settled, and democratically resilient to fall into such chaos. She writes with an aching sense of tragedy about people she knew from Sarajevo or Baghdad who thought the same thing – before being targeted.

Americans also tend to believe that no matter how frayed the societal fabric, outright civil war could not occur in these times because the conditions are so different from the America of the 1860s. This appears largely true: No matter how rebellious parts of the country may get, it is hard to imagine organized battalions rising up to storm federal outposts and wage full-out conventional war. Walter concurs. But she essentially dismisses that as a cause for relief since that is not how such conflicts are fought anymore. Referring to the planned kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 by a right-wing militia, Walter notes that “modern civil wars start with vigilantes just like these.”

From Syria to Ukraine, Afghanistan to Yemen, today’s rebels usually exist as a hodgepodge of ad-hoc elements using guerrilla and terror tactics to destabilize, sow chaos, and undermine the central authority. If there is a Second American Civil War (and Walter is careful to say “if”), it will probably look less like Antietam or Gettysburg and more like the Oklahoma City bombing and the bloody sectarian flareups that ripped through Belfast and Baghdad for so many years.

Walter and researchers like her identified several factors that a civil war more likely; many of them appear present in the United States. One is whether a country is moving toward or away from democracy. As anybody watching the curtailment of voting rights, gridlocked Congress, and the terror tactics deployed against government officials who believe in the results of the 2020 presidential election can attest, American democracy is far from fully functioning. Instead, it seems to be what experts call an “anocracy”, a grey zone between autocracy and democracy where the people’s will is frequently thwarted but the government isn’t authoritarian enough to quash an uprising.

Ethnic strife is also a factor in America. For Walter, this is particularly worrying because in many of the cases she has studied, civil wars break out when a large, formerly empowered ethnic group begins to feel that they are losing that power. She does not have to do much to draw the link between an increasingly minority-majority America and the rising percentage of extremist-caused deaths ascribed to far-right or white supremacist groups (over 70 percent since 2008).

Of course, the same might have been said during the surge in white-power groups and secessionist factions in the ’70s and ’80s. They, too, were pushing back against an America they believed was changing in a direction that would disempower them. But Walter’s argument is different than those presented by some of the more heated and apocalyptic anti-Trump warnings. Instead, she believes that the kind of civil war coming for America will not be a sudden break caused by an event like the January 6 insurrection or a contested 2024 presidential election but rather a further slide down the same dark continuum. Most civil wars, she points out, are preceded by years of protest and preparation.

Those neo-Nazi cells of the ’80s became the militia movement of the ’90s. This seeded the broader conspiratorial manias of Alex Jones and then cross-pollinated with social media nihilism. All of it is marinating in an ever-more-concentrated ferment of forever war militarism and gun mania to become the street-fighting and Capitol-storming platoons of today’s white extremist militias. Borrowing the nomenclature of the CIA, which has studied insurgencies for decades, Walter writes that America is now in the “pre-insurgency phase” where extremists gather weapons, recruit members, and craft the organizing narrative of their struggle. All the evidence, she says, points to this disturbing reality: “America’s extremists are becoming more organized, more dangerous, and more determined, and they are not going away.”

Although Walter is very clear about the clear and present danger posed by a right-wing insurgency, she does not engage in the sectarian scaremongering sometimes indulged by the American left. In her conclusion, she proposes a positive rather than punitive approach. Based on research she conducted for the World Bank, she shows that many countries avoided civil wars not by improving their economies but by getting better at governing. “The solution is not to abandon democracy,” she writes, “but to improve it.”

There is a future where How Civil Wars Start could be remembered as eerily prescient. The best that Walter and the rest of us can hope for is that her book helped make its message ultimately irrelevant.