There’s been a fair amount of talk lately about the modern American political climate. I have to agree with the seeming consensus that American politics has become increasingly divisive. Groups of activists are taking to the streets, and the protests are increasingly violent.
From 1861 to 1865, this nation fought a war between the States. Are we heading in that direction again? We may be, but it won’t be like the 1861-1865 war; not even a little bit. Why?
Here’s the catch; any 21st century American civil war won’t resemble the 1861-1865 war at all. And not just for technological reasons.
The 1861-1865 war wasn’t really a civil war. It did not involve two factions fighting for control of one nation, as did the two Roman civil wars of the late Republic, or the English civil war. Our war was a war of secession, where one part of the nation tried to break away and form a new country. The Confederacy did not succeed in creating that new nation, and it’s probably for the best they did not. There would likely have never been an overwhelming American superpower if the U.S. had broken up in the 1860s.
Our war between the states was also a war with clear geographic boundaries, North against South (mostly, the West was a little confused) and mostly fought by established armies in the martial traditions of the time. The tensions of that conflict are still felt today.
Any second conflict will be a true civil war. There will be few geographic boundaries, other than urban v. rural. This will be a conflict that doesn’t involve the military so much as gangs of irregulars; imagine Charlottesville if both sides had come armed and willing to open fire.
Imagine pitched battles on the streets of our major cities, what is left of established authority against rioting mobs. Imagine those mobs engaging in raids into the suburbs when the cities run short of food and water. Imagine a complete breakdown of emergency services in those cities as first responders encounter armed gangs willing to kill them for their vehicles, equipment, and medicines. Imagine hordes of refugees fleeing the cities, into the countryside, under the misapprehension that somehow there is plenty of food to be had in the countryside, but having no skills whatsoever to find or grow said food. Imagine rural residents facing rampant theft and trespassing responding by forming their own armed militias to repel the invaders, and thus escalate the conflict into the countryside.
The situation will likely escalate, atrocity breeding atrocity. Just read some of the rhetoric on Twitter and Facebook – two essentially content-free forums catering in large part to the lowest common denominator – and imagine the fevered rhetoric therein translated to action.
- Impose martial law and restore order by force. Such force would have to be overwhelming, brutal and merciless. Bear in mind that this option is likely to fail, as a significant portion of our military would likely refuse to exercise brutality on their fellow citizens.
- Respond weakly and fecklessly, as when Jefferson Davis pleaded with an angry, starving mob in Richmond in 1864, finally turning out his pockets to toss a few coins into the crown. Such a response would be worse than doing nothing at all.
In either case, the United States as we knew it ends at that point.